Einstein’s god

Einstein’s name keeps being ‘used in vain’ when it comes to religion. Despite his rejection of a personal god he is often quoted as believing in one. However his ‘religious’ views are far more interesting and actually worth investigating. Particularly for those who feel ‘atheism’ has, in itself, insufficient spiritual content.

I have found Max Jammer’s book Einstein and Religion quite informative on this. Also Richard Dawkins in the first chapter of The God Delusion discusses Einstein’s ‘religious’ views and basically agrees with them.

Ruth N. Geller, in the Humanist Network News of Oct. 22 reviews a new book on this subject by Todd Macalister. Her article,  Einstein’s God: A New Book Explores the Scientist’s Spirituality follows:

Science and spirituality may seem on the surface to be strange bedfellows. Yet, Albert Einstein, the 20th century’s most famous scientist, had a profound reverence for what he called the unknowable “spirit” that set the cosmos in motion and caused all things to be as they are.

“I am a deeply religious non-believer,” Einstein wrote in a letter to his friend and colleague Hans Muehsam, in 1954. “If  something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

However, his philosophy firmly excluded a belief in the supernatural or a Creator-God.

Todd Macalister’s new book Einstein’s God: A Way of Being Spiritual Without the Supernatural, (Apocryphile Press, Berkeley; 2008) explores the scientist’s views on spirituality as expressed through his lectures and personal papers.

“Einstein had a naturalistic understanding of who we are and how the world works,” Macalister told the Humanist Network News. “He saw the world as wholly based on natural laws.”

Einstein felt that the attempt to understand the mysteries of the universe expressed a type of reverence. And he felt that the goal and method of science—”striving after rational knowledge—could be a Way of spiritual practice and seeking,” writes Macalister. This corresponds to the views of several Eastern religions which see the pursuit of knowledge as a path to enlightenment.

Einstein’s religion combined a spiritual sense with a world-view grounded in science, writes Macalister.

Macalister told HNN that he wrote the book for people who aren’t comfortable with the traditional religious approaches, and are not easily classifiable in terms of their belief systems. In other words, people that have “no place to check the box on census surveys” when it comes to their religious beliefs. He also wrote it because he was “mad at the Religious Right’s rhetoric.” This way can be a way of responding to their misunderstanding of atheists,” said Macalister.

In a letter written in 1952, Einstein appeared to criticize atheism, “Mere unbelief in a personal god is no belief at all.”

Macalister looks askance at what he calls the negative default position sometimes ascribed to atheism. He believes that it is preferable to have a more positive position, one that says “This is something to believe in.”

“It’s worthwhile to recognize that somebody can be spiritual without accepting the traditional, and it’s legitimate,” said Macalister.

Macalister became interested in the origin of spiritual feelings through his career in medical education, where he sometimes wrote about “medicine and the mind.”

Macalister, 55, was brought up in the Congregational (Protestant) church, but stopped attending services in his teens. As he grew into adulthood, he looked at Eastern philosophy, humanism and other beliefs for something with which he could connect. He felt that humanism “didn’t touch on the magical.”

When he came across Einstein’s perspective, the scientist’s emotional connection to nature and the universe resonated with him. It had the sense awe and wonder that Macalister was yearning for, but without a “god-figure” as the ultimate mover and shaker.

“It’s a very similar reaction to those who are religious…” said Macalister. “But in traditional religion, the feeling comes from without–from a ‘God person’. As a non-believer, I don’t believe in that ‘guy in the sky’, but I still have that emotion based in the brain.”

Todd Macalister lives in a suburb of Boston. He is working on his second book, Modern Prophets, which will include a chapter on Einstein and several other humanist-scientists.

Ruth N. Geller is the editor of Humanist Network News, the weekly e-zine of the Institute for Humanist Studies.

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2 responses to “Einstein’s god

  1. [off-topic]

    With elections on, this site gathers together the various party’s science policies: http://nzas.rsnz.org/elections/2008/

    Maybe political issues are a no-no here, if so banish this post into the (non-existent!) ether.


  2. David Fierstien

    In your opinion, Ken, what exactly is the phenomenon we call Human Consciousness?


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