Albert Einstein on God and religion

Albert Einstein on God and religion

Einstein developed a personal theology that was lengthy and complex, and drew considerable attention – largely critical – from both theological readers and the general public. His views would change significantly over time, and he was prone to making contradictory statements, particularly in personal letters (which he probably did not think would make the public domain). Particularly in these letters, he would appear an anti-Christian pantheist one moment, a liberal Christian moralist in another, and an agnostic in the next. At times he was highly critical of European Christianity, but by midlife he had arrived at the idea of a creative God that resembled the Judeo-Christian creator, and spoke in glowing terms about the ethics of the church in relation to its resistance to the Nazi regime, though his concept of God still remained rather impersonal compared to that of most Christians or Jews.

The shifting nature of his religious ideas coupled with his tendency to contradict himself has made his religious views hard to characterise and easy to draw the wrong conclusions from, especially when viewing only one line, one letter, one lecture, or one published document. It is possible to trace a lose progression from conventional Judaism in childhood, to Spinozan pantheism in young adulthood, to the emergence of a creator God and reconciliation with aspects of the Judaeo-Christian religion in later adulthood, though at any one point you can find statements that contradict his general conclusions for a particular time period.

In his earlier work, which peaked with his 1930 article on religion in the New York Times, he focussed on what he thought was a shared essence of religious sentiment which accompanied the highest levels of moral, intellectual, and creative action. He believed that truly noble human accomplishments could open borders with the divine. He believed in a supreme being 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.”

Einstein was rather chastised across the religious communities for these views, which were considered somewhat unsophisticated by religious scholars across Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who tended to view them as something of a reversion from the God of monotheism to the historically earlier and more simplistic notion of the God of pantheism.

Later in life (and perhaps feeling the sting of the earlier criticism) Einstein showed signs of warming to traditional aspects of religion such as revelation and the value of anthropomorphic and personal conceptions of God. He stated that these views were preferable to no religious outlook at all. He also appeared embarrassed by his earlier views on determinism and fatalism following the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. He praised Christianity for its uniquely strong resistance to the Nazis. Following correspondence with Tillich he now seemed more ready to view the personal God of the stories of the Bible as a useful preparatory stage from which an understanding of God as the Absolute could emerge. Though Einstein continued to say contradictory things about the merits and demerits of organised religion, particularly in personal letters to friends and colleagues, to the end of his life.

His swing back towards the Judaeo-Christian creator also coincided with his realisation that the cosmological constant was a mistake and that the universe must be expanding and therefore must have a beginning. This led to the Friedmann-Einstein model of the universe, which provides the basis of today’s “big bang” models. Science now favoured a creative God, and a beginning from nothing, rather than the static, eternal universe of Spinoza’s philosophy.

Einstein quotations can be found to connect him, at various times, to anything from deism to Spinozan pantheism to Buddhism to transpersonalism to liberal Christianity to agnosticism. Throughout his life however, Einstein remained vehemently opposed to atheism and admonished those who tried to claim his views were a form of atheism, even describing atheists as “slaves” due to the limitations of their worldview. A rejection of atheism is perhaps the most accurate and consistent we can be in expressing Einstein’s religious views. (Though such was the colour and variety of his pronouncements that even contemporary atheists have sometimes quoted him in support of their views.)

Early views

There are many myths about Einstein’s life. One of them was that he was a poor student and even that he failed mathematics at school. In fact he was usually top of his class, especially in mathematics. He had already progressed beyond school level mathematics by the age of twelve. It is true that he was a late talker, who didn’t speak any words at all until past the age of two, prompting fears he would never speak. But he quickly caught up his speech in later childhood, though he maintained an element of echolalia throughout his life. It is also true that he got some negative school reports, but these referred to his attitude rather than his academic performance.

Despite being born to atheist parents who were dismissive or even disdainful of religion, a young Einstein voluntarily took up Judaism and alone in his household observed every detail of the Jewish responsibilities and prohibitions, even composing his own hymns to sing on his way home from school. In later childhood he formed his own view of religion by taking the shared elements of the Judaism and Christianity and creating a synthetic belief system.

At the age of twelve he had decided that the miraculous claims of the Jewish Torah were not scientifically possible and broke his connection with Judaism. In later life he was to reconnect with Judaism and Christianity in various ways, and stated that Christianity provided “our highest principles and aspirations,” though he never became a formal member of either religion.

As a young man Einstein 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 larger questions 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.”

We might recall the experiences of Siddhartha Gautama the founder of Buddhism, or Solomon the paragon of wisdom from the Old Testament, who were said to have similar moments of disillusionment with conventional pursuits and ideals prior to the emergence of personal wisdom!

Above: The Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza was influential on Einstein’s conception of God in early adulthood, though from around the age of fifty elements of traditional Judaism and Christianity gradually found greater favour with Einstein and he added them back in to his theology.

Living universe

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 best known 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 formed the basis for some of the best-known Einstein quotes. The universe was rational and engaged in thought. The universe did not think thoughts in the same way that we do: the universe 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 human characteristics. 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.

At this stage, Einstein’s conception of the universe remained static, the universe had no beginning, and so there was no role for God as a creator. This was to change dramatically during the decade of the 1930s.

Creation from nothing

Einstein’s initial cosmological work permitted for belief in both a creative God and an eternal God. The equations governing the principles of general relativity did not allow for 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 an expanding universe, and therefore to avoid a beginning, possibly because it aligned with the Judaic view of a creator God to which he was, at the time, opposed. Having admitted that the cosmological constant was a mistake, Einstein was forced to admit that the universe must have a beginning. General relativity then aligned with the Judaeo-Christian view of “creation ex nihilo” (creation from nothing).

“The revelation that the universe had a beginning was a blow from which atheism has arguably never recovered”

This happened in 1931. From approximately this time onwards, Einstein’s attitude towards certain traditional religious concepts began to soften. He began to speak more of a creative God, and less of the pantheistic view of the universe which was derived from Spinoza:

“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)

“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)

Above: A Friedmann-Einstein universe. The revelation that the universe had a beginning was a blow from which atheism has arguably never recovered. It was also a contributing factor to Einstein’s shift from Spinozan pantheism to a creator God more commensurate with traditional Judaism and Christianity.

His view now strongly resembled the Judaeo-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. Einstein continued to maintain a rather impersonal view of the creator God, believing that the notion of a God that could interfere with human affairs was incompatible with determinism. (This appears to no longer be the case, as determinism has been replaced by probabilities of quantum fluctuations, providing another twist in the implications of science for theology, a line that was taken up by Einstein’s contemporaries including Heisenberg and Eddington.)

Einstein once stated that relativity meant nothing for theology because science and theology were not related. Nonetheless, his abandonment of the cosmological constant and adoption of expanding universe models coincided with the beginning of his softening towards traditional religion and with his God taking on more of the characteristic of a creator God.


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. 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”

To what extent Einstein’s experiences were really comparable to the great mystics is open to considerable debate, but he certain seems to have at least a little insight into what the mystics have described. 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 also critical of “mysticism” at times. This 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. But in the early twentieth century the term mysticism had become synonymous with mediumship and the occult and Einstein vehemently denied any connection with occult beliefs. There was some inconsistency in how he used the term.


Einstein expressed the belief that we are one with the universe, and hence one with the eternity of the universe. In some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism 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 being, dancing to rhythm of the laws of science. Einstein 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 around the world.

Determinism and Christian morals

Determinism characterised Einstein’s physics and was equally important in his theology. This led Einstein to a great deal of frustration in physics as he rejected the non-deterministic implications of the quantum theory which stemmed from Werner Heisenberg. Despite his success Einstein spent the majority of his life frustrated by physics, trying and failing to create a deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics. Determinism also led to a similar conflict in his moral and religious thinking, and eventually led him back towards the moral principles of Judaism and Christianity.

The first result of determinism was that Einstein denied free will. If human actions were determined by electrical reactions in the brain, he reasoned, then humans could not 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 freewill appears to have been one of the greatest sources of conflict for him. Earlier in his life he expressed this conflict 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, which jarred with 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. Events in Nazi Germany also caused him to give up his pacifist views.

He praised the church for its resilience to Nazism:

“Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”

Elsewhere he wrote:

“The highest principles for our aspirations and judgments are given to us in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition. It is a very high goal which, with our weak powers, we can reach only very inadequately, but which gives us sure foundations to our aspirations and values.”

“If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions, one if left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity”

(Yet elsewhere the Jewish Prophets and the Psalmists are praised as being early realisers of cosmic religious feeling! And this is typical of the contradictions we find in Einstein’s writing.)

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.

Revelation and the personal God

As Einstein shifted from a static universe and a static God to an expanding universe and a creator God across the early 1930s, his view of morals shifted away from philosophical determinism and began to embrace traditional religious moral principles.

Einstein’s 1930 article in the New York Times created much controversy. He eventually wound back the views expressed in it to a large extent. In the article he expressed ideas on the naivety of belief in a personal God, and on the lack of human free will that a deterministic universe necessitated. Praise for Spinoza’s views on God was copious. Three stages of religious belief were set out which were strongly influenced by the psychoanalytic accounts of religion that were 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 gods. It was common in indigenous religions, as well as in Hinduism, and in many schools of Buddhism. The second stage involved the establishment of fixed rules and fixed moral values. This was the stage of the anthropomorphic god of Judaism, Islam, and Old Testament Christianity. The God of this stage 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 for which they had generally been shunned or persecuted. In this stage a direct connection was achieved with the impersonal, intelligent, being whose thoughts allowed the universe to operate.

There was a large reaction, including an outpouring of criticism from thinkers across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The criticism was wide-ranging, but some of the most cogent critics accused him of attempting to regress religion back towards pantheism from theologically more advanced positions, and of elevating mysticism itself above the traditions themselves which had produced it and of which it was merely one part. A smaller number of rabbis, imams, and priests expressed support for his views. How much influence this criticism had we cannot be sure, but from this point forward Einstein’s critical views of traditional religion weakened.

Above: Einstein’s thoughts on religion were harshly criticised by religious thinkers across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where they were generally viewed as an unsophisticated throwback from monotheism to ancient pantheism. Perhaps taking on board the criticism, he offered more conciliatory views in later life.

In a later lecture given in 1939 at Princeton Theological Seminary Einstein took a more even tone. He now 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 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.”

By this time 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 a symbol for the Absolute, and the Absolute is the God of philosophy which is shown to be a necessary condition for the universe to exist.

By this stage Einstein was also increasingly likely to acknowledge that religions were only in conflict with science when stories intended as symbolic were taken literally. He continued to deny that the anthropomorphic gods were a reality, though he was more open to anthropomorphic characterisation of God as a useful symbol. He continued to emphasise the importance of cosmic religious feeling.


Einstein consistently and vehemently denied being an atheist. 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 he ever dismissed any aspect of religion:

"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."

Rejection of atheism was probably the only thing that remained consistent in Einstein’s religious views across his adult life, as his views transformed from deterministic Spinozan deism to a creator God more commensurate with traditional Judaism and Christianity, and his moral views shifted from deterministic rejection of ethical responsibility to praise for the Christian resistance to fascism in Germany. Even in later life, his views may have lacked important common ground with the average practicing Jew or Christian, as he often insisted on the impersonal nature of the creator. In so far as the Judaeo-Christian God is the First Cause of the Universe whose hand governs its laws, Einstein was in full agreement. In so far as the Judaeo-Christian God was the loving father of man, bestower of blessings, and answerer of prayers, Einstein was never fully convinced.