Was Albert Einstein Religious? Does it matter?
Was Albert Einstein Religious? Does it matter?
I speak with religious folks on a fairly regular basis about the conflict between religion and science and they will often point to the fact that nearly all prominent scientists throughout history have been religious and since Albert Einstein is such a well-known scientist who existed JUST long enough ago to be mythic, they will often reach specifically for Albert Einstein as an example. Many religious folks claim Einstein was religious and they are assisted in this false claim because of many quotes directly from Einstein which appear to prove them right. The above quote is a very common one. (I saw it going by on Facebook the other day, but it wasn't being put forth as a vindication of religion as I described above, it was more used as a simple positive affirmation.)
Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind. -Albert Einstein
Before I get into the content of the quote, I want to make it very clear:
If you see a quote from Albert Einstein on the Internet, your first response should be to disbelieve until you can verify.
I started a site called QuoteFail.com because I kept running into images shared around on Tumblr and Facebook containing fake quotes attributed to real people. I wanted to start collecting these potentially fake quotes and become "Snopes for Quotes." I quickly ran into Einstein quote after Einstein quote that are just made up out of thin air. He's got a powerful, mythic name and people accept what "he" says without much thought.
The good news? This quote is REAL. This quote is from a symposium on Science, Philosophy and Religion in 1941.
The quote seems pretty straight forward in his support for religion... but if you see the quote in context, you'll realize that he's using the word "religion" in a completely different manner as anyone reading the quote would expect. Two paragraphs earlier, Einstein actually gives a pre-emptive definition of "religion" so that the listener/reader would understand what exactly he's referring to.
when asking myself what religion is I cannot think of the answer so easily. And even after finding an answer which may satisfy me at this particular moment, I still remain convinced that I can never under any circumstances bring together, even to a slight extent, the thoughts of all those who have given this question serious consideration.
At first, then, instead of asking what religion is I should prefer to ask what characterizes the aspirations of a person who gives me the impression of being religious: a person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations to which he clings because of their superpersonalvalue. ... In this sense religion is the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and completely conscious of these [superpersonal] values and goals and constantly to strengthen and extend their effect.
Einstein essentially describes "religious" as shunning selfish endeavours and instead aspiring to improve the world for the greater good. With this pre-emptive definition in mind, the quote snippet would more clearly express Einstein's intentions if it were rephrased thusly:
Science without [the desire to improve our world] is lame. [The desire to improve our world] without science is blind.
Ok, so Einstein wasn't endorsing religion as we know it, he was endorsing the definition of "religion" he had prefaced the statement with. What did he think of religion according to the standard definition? Directly after the above quote, he continues and talks about the "actual content of historical religions." He explains that when humankind was young and childish, we created fantasy gods in our own image and gave ourselves a special place in the sight of these fantasy gods that we ourselves invented, as shown by the fact that we also assumed these divine beings would listen to and alter the universe in response to our prayers.
During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man's own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favor by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods.
What else did Einstein have to say on the topic of organized religion? In 1954, Einstein received a gift copy of a book called Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt from a man named Eric Gutkind. Einstein responded to Gutkind, thanking him for the gift and giving a short response to the content at hand which included the following, rather blistering, section:
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. ... For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.
It is clear that Einstein was not religious and did not believe in a personal God which is preached by Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. If you're interested, you can read more about Einstein's religious views.
Does it matter?
Nope. It doesn't matter if Einstein was a practicing Jew or a Christian or a Muslim or an Atheist. Neither what Einstein had to teach us nor the legacy he left for us, when he turned the physics world upside-down, has anything to do with his religious beliefs. The experimental validation of his scientific theories and his religous beliefs are unrelated topics and do not lend support to one another. Many religious folks want to show he was religious, even though he wasn't, because they feel it will lend credence to their position. They feel, "See? Einstein was the smartest dude around and he was religous!" It is false to assign any kind of authority to his religious views simply because he made groundbreaking leaps forward in science.