Einstein was one of the most famous physicists of the twentieth century. He developed a personal theology that was lengthy and complex, and drew considerable attention and controversy in both theological readers and the general public.
Einstein’s adult spirituality rejected many of the main assumptions of conventional religion. He considered many beliefs that were contrary to a scientific understanding of the world to be foolish. He focussed instead on what he believed to be a shared essence of religious sentiment which accompanied the highest levels of moral, intellectual, and creative action. He believed that truly noble human accomplishments formed open borders with the divine. He believed in a supreme being which created the universe, and that knowledge of the supreme being was partially revealed through science. He also believed in an ecstatic, mystical experience which was shared between religions in which identity shifted from the individual personality to a greater cosmic identity. Einstein referred to this as “cosmic religious feeling.”
The early religious ideas of Einstein
Einstein’s religion was always innovative. In childhood he formed his own view of religion by taking the shared elements of the Judaism and Christianity to which he was exposed, and creating a synthetic religion. At this stage Einstein appeared happy to ignore the conflicts between the two religions, focussing on the elements that concurred. He also appeared to accept the miraculous claims of the Bible. Einstein later described this as a “paradise of belief.”
By the age of twelve he had concluded that the miraculous claims of the Bible were not scientifically possible, and he continued to hold this scientific view of religion throughout his life. At this point he broke his connection with conventional religion by refusing to become bar mitzvahed, a necessary rite of passage for becoming a full member of the Jewish community.
In later life he rationalised his move away from religion as a kind of seduction by the excitement and adventure of the uncertainties and possibilities of what lay beyond the comfy world of his childhood – an exciting new world that was not provided by religious orthodoxy.
Another aspect of his spirituality emerged when, as a teenager, in a realisation somewhat like the realisation of Siddartha Gautama the founder of Buddhism, he became acutely aware of the futility of the common goals and ambitions which occupied most adults around him, and instead began to derive his sense of life meaning from the greater questions, the greater vision, and the greater solutions, that were pondered by religious hermits, prophets, and theologians:
“when I was a fairly precocious young man the nothingness of the hopes and strivings which chase most men restlessly through life came to my consciousness with considerable vitality. Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase, which in those years was much more carefully covered up by hypocrisy and glittering words than is the case today.”
In adulthood Einstein began to articulate a spirituality based upon three main characteristics. First, his spirituality was pantheistic: he believed that God was the universe, and hence that God was everything. Second, he believed that everything in the universe was governed by unchanging laws that were revealed through science, and that these unchanging laws meant that everything was predetermined and hence there was no room for free will. Third, he strongly denied all notions of an anthropomorphic God throughout his adult life and therefore denied the existence of a God that was capable of forming personal relationships with us.
Einstein wrote throughout his career of the ideas of the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a brilliant and enigmatic figure, who Gilles Deleuze referred to as “the prince” of all philosophers. Spinoza was reminiscent of the Eastern sages, contributing to science and producing some of the great and most original philosophical treatises, while refusing offers of money and a Heidelberg professorship, to live the modest life of a glass grinder.
Einstein made no secret of Spinoza’s influence. It was from Spinoza that Einstein took his lead in his belief that the universe was a living, intelligent being, and that the laws of nature were its thoughts.
Science was a central aspect of Einstein’s spirituality, and his ideas on the relationship between science and God form the basis for some of the best known Einstein quotes:
“I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know God’s thoughts. The rest are details.” (A Talk With Einstein, The Listener, 1955)
“Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with modest powers must feel humble.” (Letter to Phyllis Wright, 1936)
The universe was rational and engaged in thought, in this sense it could be considered alive. The universe did not think thoughts like we do: it thought thoughts that were already mathematically perfect; in fact, the thoughts of the universe were the laws of nature. The logic of these laws, and the mathematics which expressed this logic, could therefore be considered to be the thoughts of God. Hence science was a quest to discover the mind of God and religious discovery was the discovery of the rational laws of the universe.
The thoughts the universe had were not like the thoughts of humans and the mind of the universe was not like a human mind. God was not a personal God, and certainly not a God with any human characteristics. This was the central way in which Einstein’s thought broke away from conventional Judaism and Christianity.
Nonetheless, human beings could respond to this impersonal God with intense feelings, akin to the devotion experienced by individuals towards God in conventional religious settings. In engaging with the mystery of the universe, particularly through the urge to discover more about the universe, the individual was discovering more about God. This was an entirely rational form of spirituality. The very rationality of the universe itself was a source of religious awe and devotion.
Einstein wrote eloquently on the way in which the individual experiences God. His experiences appear to have been of a similar kind to those of religious mystics who breach the gap between their ordinary selfhood and a greater, eternal, and unified connection with the universe. A deeper level of experiencing and identity is reached. Identity moves beyond the individual self and submerges in something greater. In his 1934 book “The World as I See it” Einstein described the experience as:
“A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude”
Earlier in the book he wrote:
“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science.”
Like many who wrote in the first half of the twentieth century, Einstein was critical of “mysticism.” Which is puzzling as his writing seems to assume as its core the epitome of what mysticism now usually means in theology: a felt or direct experience of something greater than the individual, which inspires religiously themed language. In the early twentieth century the term mysticism had become synonymous with a burgeoning popular interest in mediumship and the occult, which was full of fakery and, many at the time felt, tended to attract the less intelligent. Einstein vehemently denied any connection with occult beliefs.
Einstein’s own cosmological work allowed for belief in both a creative God and an eternal God. The equations governing the principles of general relativity allowed for no solutions in which the universe was static. This meant that the universe had to be expanding, and consequently had to have a beginning. Einstein himself had initially tried to avoid this expansion, and therefore to avoid a beginning, possibly because it aligned with the Judaic view of a creator God to which he was opposed. Having admitted that the cosmological constant was a mistake, Einstein was forced to admit that the universe must have a beginning, and that the theory aligned with the Judaic Christian view of creation from nothing.
This happened in 1931. As we shall see, from approximately this time, Einstein’s attitude towards certain traditional religious concepts began to soften. He began to speak of a creative God, though he also maintained the pantheistic view of the universe which was derived from Spinoza. His view now strongly resembled the Judaic-Christian creator God, who was both transcendent (beyond) the universe and hence capable of creating it, and was immanent or ever-present within the universe that was created, though Einstein continued to maintain, in certain much quoted remarks, that God did not know people personally, and that prayer was therefore useless.
Cosmic dance and immortality
Einstein did not believe in the on-going existence of the individual soul after death. Instead he expressed the belief that we are one with the universe, and hence are one with the eternity of the universe, and from time to time we can experience this oneness. This attitude is reminiscent of some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism. In these religions, there is no continuation of the individual self with which we identify in this life. Instead the actions and experiences of a particular life have an ongoing effect on the lives of future individuals: “karmic seeds” are passed onwards and find fruition in new ways.
There is no evidence that Einstein himself believed in any form of reincarnation, but there is an overarching fatalism to Einstein’s philosophy which is certainly in-keeping with certain systems of thought in Eastern mysticism:
“…everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all danced to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player.” (M. K. Wisehart, interview June 1930)
The universe is a living, intelligent, whole dancing to the beat of a transcendental rhythm. For Einstein, this rhythm is defined by the laws of science.
Einstein specifically rejected the possibility of the survival of the individual beyond physical death, "I do not believe in immortality of the individual," but appeared to leave room for a different kind of immortality in the eternity of the universe, and the sense of oneness with the eternity of the universe.
In 1930 he had said that the individual feels "the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves in nature... and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole." He also wrote of the timelessness of the divine mind, “The human mind is unable to conceive of the four dimensions, so how can it conceive of a God, before whom a thousand years and a thousand dimensions are as one?” He continued to express this view to the end of his life. In a letter to the family of his friend Michele Besso, following Besso’s death, he wrote:
“Now he has departed a little ahead of me from this quaint world. This means nothing. For us faithful physicists the separation between past, present and future has only the meaning of an illusion, though a persistent one.”
The statement is consistent with a view of immortality based around timelessness rather than on-going time, which is in-keeping with the writings of mystical theologians from all world religions.
Determinism and the denial of free will
Determinism characterised Einstein’s physics and was equally dominant in his theology. This lead to two results. Firstly, Einstein denied free will. If human actions are determined by electrical reactions in the brain, he reasoned, then humans cannot be held responsible for their actions. He expounded this theory at length in his earlier religious writings, one of the most famous examples being a 1930 article he wrote for the New York times, which drew much criticism from orthodox theology.
Ironically, belief in a lack of free will appears to have been one of the greatest sources of conflict for him. Earlier in his life he expressed this conflicting in a carefree manner, remarking that he believed that murderers were not to blame for their crimes, but he still would prefer not to “take tea” with them.
But the conflict became much starker when the realities of the Nazi regime in Germany were uncovered, and he began to speak strongly on the importance of moral responsibility, in contrast to his intellectual position on determinism. “The Germans as an entire people are responsible for these mass murders and must be punished as a people if there is justice in the world.” (We can recall that Einstein was himself of German nationality.) He appears to have found the deterministic view of behaviour and responsibility unsatisfactory when forced to confront its most vivid extremes. The conflict between determinism and the keen need which he felt personally to fight for justice in relation to social issues remained an unresolved tension in his religious thinking. It was still unreconciled at the end of his life.
Later concessions to revelation and to the personal God
Einstein’s 1930 article in the New York times created much controversy. In this he expressed his views on the naivety of belief in a personal God, and on the lack of human free will that a deterministic universe necessitated. Religion still played a positive moral role, as it provided the moral guidance that could never be derived from science. But the source of this moral guidance was human, not divine. Praise for Spinoza’s views on God was copious.
The article set out three stages of religious belief, which were strongly influenced by the psychoanalytic accounts of religion that were becoming popular in academic circles at the time. The first stage was common in early religions. It involved superstition and taboo, and the supplication of animal or part-animal part-human images of god. It was common in indigenous religions, as well as in Hinduism, and in many version of Buddhism. The second stage involved the establishment of fixed rules and fixed moral values. This was the stage of anthropomorphic god of conventional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. God would punish or reward in order to see these moral values upheld. The third stage was the stage of cosmic religious experience, which he believed that mystics from all cultures had often attained but which they had generally been shunned, or persecuted, for discussing. In this stage a direct connection was achieved with the impersonal, intelligent, being whose thoughts allowed the universe to operate.
There was a huge reaction, including an outpouring of criticism from clergy and thinkers across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A smaller number of Rabbi and priests expressed support for his views.
In a later lecture given in 1939 lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary Einstein took a more even tone. He appeared to be more open to the assumptions of conventional theology than he had been in 1930. This time he left open both the explanation for why religion exists, suggesting as reasons both “revelation” (which he left undefined) and the strength of personality of various individuals who left an imprint on history so strong that it still guides the values of society to this day:
“And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly.”
At this moment at least, the possibility of traditional revelation appears to have been left open.
His views towards conventional religion appeared to relax somewhat in other ways in later years as well. In a 1948 address he appeared to adopt the theologian Paul Tillich’s view, which Tillich himself had impressed upon Einstein in correspondence, that the personal God is merely a symbol for the Absolute, and the Absolute is the God of philosophy that is shown to be a necessary condition for the universe to exist.
Einstein was also increasingly likely to acknowledge that religions were only in conflict with science when the symbolic stories were taken literally. He continued to deny that the personal God was a reality, though he was more open to its role as a useful symbol. He continued to stress that cosmic religious feeling was genuine religion.
Views on Christianity and on atheism
Einstein lived in an age when it was commonly believed in certain intellectual circles that Christianity lacked any historical basis. Although Einstein did not make this mistake himself, many respected intellectuals at the time (though never those who had actually studied history itself) believed that no historical figure ever existed who corresponded to the Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospel stories. Bertrand Russell, who was the closest figure that the United Kingdom had to a public intellectual at the time, openly stated that this was his own view. Einstein did not believe in a personal God, and there is no evidence he believed in an incarnational God.
Because of this, atheists have often tried to claim that Einstein as one of their own. But Einstein vehemently denied that he was an atheist. His lack of belief in a personal God was not a denial of any God. He said of atheists “what really makes me angry is when they quote me in support of their views.” In fact atheists are dismissed more harshly than conventional religious believers:
"The fanatical atheists... are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional 'opium of the people'—cannot hear the music of the spheres."
Although he did not believe in a God who personally responded to requests and prayers, he indicated that he would never seek to combat this type of belief because "such a belief seems to me preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook." Presumably this is because it was closer to the truth.
Einstein was a man who forged a view of the world based around evidence in all area of life and produced a synthesis, which he expressed in his informal writing and in spoken interviews. The view was a combination of what he knew was evidenced in physics and in what was made directly available to conscious experience. These two aspects have always made up great philosophical work, and the world’s great thinkers, in all ages, have always been spiritual thinkers.