The atheists can’t have Einstein

By Daniel Finkelstein, June 20, 2008

Even if he was conflicted about religion, Albert Einstein did not dismiss God

The crowds were enormous. They lined the streets even in the depths of night; they filled the theatres; they cheered and cheered. His US tour was an extraordinary success. A sell-out. A smash.

Which is a little bit surprising, for this was no rock star. They were cheering a shambolic middle-aged man, so absent-minded that he often left home having forgotten to put on his socks. He was given to speaking, if he spoke at all, in German. And even when his remarks were translated, they weren’t comprehensible. Unless you happened to be a fellow theoretical physicist.

By the time he made his first journey to America in 1921, Albert Einstein had become a massive celebrity.

It seems that little has changed in the ensuing 87 years. For last month, a letter written by Einstein on the subject of religion sold for more than £170,000. And his views on the topic were all over the papers.

In his letter to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, Einstein, according to the New York Times, “poured gasoline on the culture wars between science and religion”. Among other things, in a much-quoted remark, he called Judaism “an incarnation of the most childish superstitions”.

For this reason, one of the bidders was the famous atheist Richard Dawkins who, though outbid, was delighted the letter had gone for so much money.

It is easy to dismiss the whole thing. After all, does it matter terribly what Einstein thought about God? Brilliant physicist though he was, the great man wasn’t right even on every question in that scientific field, let alone being regarded as an infallible authority on more general questions. On matters of politics and religion he could be naïve, inconsistent and maddeningly imprecise, just like the rest of us.

I think it does matter. The project of Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists is to try to drive a wedge between those who believe in science and those who believe in God. They want to appropriate Einstein, with all his intellectual authority and celebrity. I think the attempt to drive this wedge and to use Einstein in this way should be resisted.

First things first. Albert Einstein was not an atheist. How do I know this? Because when he was asked, shortly after his 50th birthday, whether he believed in God, he replied: “I am not an atheist.”

Far from arguing that he could not believe in God because he was a man of science, a splendid new book, Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, makes clear that being a man of science was the very reason he believed in God. As Isaacson puts it: “His [religious] beliefs seemed to arise from the sense of awe and transcendent order that he discovered through his scientific work.”

In fact, his belief in the orderliness of the universe was so profound that he found himself at odds with the Jewish belief in free will. And he had many arguments with those trying to build on his own work on quantum mechanics. He felt that the universe could not be based on randomness, as they argued. “God does not play dice,” said Einstein firmly. To which the great physicist Niels Bohr replied: “Einstein! Stop telling God what to do.”

It made the great man furious to be used in support of atheism: “There are people who say there is no God,” he told a friend. “But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.”

As he put it on another occasion: “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.”

Einstein was not, of course, a conventionally religious Jew. Not by a long chalk. He could not accept for a moment the idea of a god who did things for individuals when prayed to. He did not pray himself.

Yet he was very clear about his identity as a Jew. The first tour of America that brought out all those crowds was conducted in the company and at the request of Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann had asked him to come to raise money to help settle Palestine and establish it as a national home for the Jewish people.

As antisemitism rose, so Einstein’s ties to his people became stronger. Towards the end of his life, he wrote that “My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human tie”. So strong, and so well known to his contemporaries, was it, that when Chaim Weizmann (also a distinguished scientist) died, Einstein was formally (but impractically) offered the presidency of the State of Israel by the Israeli government.

The culture of science and religion, hand in hand.

Last updated: 12:57pm, June 20 2008



Mon, 06/30/2008 - 22:27

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Albert Einstein also seemed to have a certain affinity with Buddhism: