Encounter Heading: Skeptic's Guide

10.1



Einstein's Religion

Why Have the Greatest Scientists Believed in God?



Einstein's God




Einstein has been cited or co-opted by atheists, deists, pantheists, and agnostics as an advocate of their particular religious and nonreligious views. Indeed, he has called himself an agnostic and he has sometimes almost spoken as though the universe itself, or the "structure of the universe," were God. But we never find a clear statement for pantheism and he did clearly say, "I am not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist." In the same passage he went on to describe how we are like a small child in a large library who can dimly perceive an order in the arrangement of the books and that there must be some meaning in the words of the books themselves. Likewise in nature we glimpse "the mysterious force that moves the constellations."

He clearly did not like the idea of a God who is concerned with human affairs, one who makes moral demands of us or judges or rewards us, or even interacts with the universe itself. He explicitly rejected what he called a "personal God," a God who in any way relates to humans. He said that he believed in "a superior mind," and "an infinitely superior spirit," revealed in nature. But a mind, an intelligence, a reasoning being, is what is usually considered a person. So Einstein did believe in a personal God despite his protests. But assuming his definitions, we can use his terms. Einstein rejected a "personal God," meaning one who interacts with humans and the universe, but he accepted an intelligent source and designer of the cosmos, one from whom our intelligible universe came, thus a deistic God.

By calling himself an agnostic, he was referring to the "personal God" he rejected. Notice that he did not call himself an atheist concerning a personal God. He said he could not clearly disprove the existence of such a being.

He also greatly disliked being portrayed as an advocate for atheism saying that he was amazed that "there are yet people who say there is no God." He seems to have been as repulsed by atheism as he was by a "personal" God. Atheists seized upon his deism to claim that he was at least an atheist for all practical purposes. If God cannot be known, evidenced, or have any part or contact with us humans, how is that essentially different from there being no God at all? But for Einstein it was not as though there was no contact whatsoever since the awareness of the existence of this Mind via the cosmos was the most sublime mystical emotion, the "true religious sentiment."

More importantly, if we are aware that there is a God, the hardest step is past and the next step to a "personal God," as Einstein would say, is relatively easy. Whether God is a personal God who has contact with humans, who commands us to love and care for each other, who answers prayer and can speak to us, or whether God has left our physical universe long ago, or perhaps merely hides in the background watching, is far easier to determine. Because if there is such a superintelligent being, whichever path this being might wish to take is entirely up to him or her or it. Or, as Einstein might think, there may be no choice involved: it all might be determined by God's very nature. But in either case, does it seem likely God would create us with no concern about us? The one creation most difficult to form, intelligent material beings, could only come to be in a universe of such highly specified complexity as one like our own. God created us never to be even interested in what might become of us? Our intelligence may be very different from God's, but it's at least an intelligence categorically different from all else but God. Whether this God created other intelligent creatures in our universe or not does not matter. The point is that we should think this God would be concerned about or at least interested in all such creatures.

What of our moral intuition, our awareness of right and wrong, good and evil? If there is a creator, one very much different and greater than ourselves, might it be that this God is the source of the value and worth we assume exists in every person? If so, then our moral awareness of the value of persons would not be an illusion. If we are nothing more than complicated machines, produced through the chance processes of our long evolutionary history but without God's input of worth, then our awareness of right and wrong is an illusion. And if we posses this value, wouldn't this God value us as creatures whose worth comes from God?

What of our very consciousness? Consciousness does not exist in inanimate matter and it is impossible to imagine how any arrangement of such matter, no matter how complex, might produce it. It is commonly assumed that matter, in the proper arrangement, will somehow produce consciousness. But wouldn't it be just as reasonable to believe in magic? We know that consciousness exists, we experience it directly. How could it come to be? We could only posses it if it came from a source that has always possessed it. Again, in this we (all conscious beings) are like God as nothing else in the universe is. Does it seem likely God would have no interest in relating to us?

So there are several of these variously more intuitive reasons to think that our creator would not be one who would just create us and leave us. But even without such reasons, there is just no good reason to think deism more likely than theism. Einstein did not like the idea of a God involved in human affairs, but he had no good argument against it. Deism may be a kind of practical atheism, but once it is accepted, it's a very short step to a very personalistic theism. Because even without the more intuitive evidence mentioned above, one must consider the very specific evidence that God has acted in history and does seek relationship with humans: like the evidence of religious experience, or the historical evidence for the resurrection and fulfilled prophecy.

Einstein did give one argument against what he called a personal God that is sometimes repeated today. Omnipotence requires every thought, feeling, aspiration, every facet of a person's being to be completely God's work and responsibility and completely determined by God, Einstein claimed. God would thus be responsible for all evil and we would not. But why must such a definition of omnipotence be assumed? Why can God not choose to allow one aspect of the universe to be outside of omnipotent control? If people are free, they are responsible and God cannot be blamed for their choices.

Stephen Hawking has also been quoted as having said he believes in a God who, like Einstein's God, once establishing the laws of nature and physics, does not enter or act in the world. (Hawking has more recently come to believe, quite unreasonably I think, that there is no need for God for creation.) Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, and Paul Dirac could be added to the list of the most prominent modern scientists who believed in a "personal" theistic God or a deistic God. Likewise in philosophy, large numbers of Christians, and particularly Evangelical Christians, have come to make up the top philosophers of our time. Certainly one of the most eminent atheistic philosopher of the twentieth century, Antony Flew, has documented his own conversion to deism. He notes the significant influence of the newer scientific evidence such as the evidence for an absolute beginning of the universe and the precise fine-tuning of the laws and constants of nature that allow for a universe that will allow for chemical life.

Atheists like Richard Dawkins makes much of the very high percentage of the "most distinguished scientists" who are atheists and agnostics. Only seven percent of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) believe in a personal God. The prestigious Royal Society, the British counterpart to the NAS, shows similar statistics. But one wonders why Dawkins thinks the NAS or the Royal Society are made up of better or more intelligent scientists, or even that they are more "distinguished" than other scientists. One must be nominated to the NAS by already existing members. This determines the better or more intelligent scientists?

A better reading of the beliefs of contemporary scientists can be found in the Leuba surveys. In 1916 forty percent of surveyed scientists responded as believing in a personal God. Forty percent did not believe and twenty percent were unsure. James Leuba predicted the number of theists would decrease with time as education improved. In 1997 the number of "personal God" believers was still forty percent. Those who disbelieved increased only five percent from the unsure category. Notably, to believe in a personal God in this survey one was asked if one believes in a God who might be expected to answer prayer. Einstein and Hawking would be classed among the unbelievers had they been included. So this survey actually measures only the number of fairly traditional theists against atheists, agnostics, deists, pantheists, and theists who might doubt the extent of God's current involvement in human affairs. Some could even believe in the God of the Bible who had worked miracles like the parting of the Red Sea and the resurrection of Jesus and still be categorized as an unbeliever. Some may think God doesn't answer prayer now though he did in the past. Large numbers of even Evangelical Christians today are almost practical deists. Some have developed quite sophisticated theologies explaining why they think God does not heal or work miracles today or speak to us other than through the Bible. At any rate, we see that the number of scientists who are theists is much larger than the Leuba surveys suggest. The NAS and Royal Society surveys had similar deficiencies.

Dawkins points out studies showing a general tendency of intelligence and/or education level being proportionate to lack of religious views. Obviously intelligence is generally proportionate to education. More intelligent people tend to seek greater education. Also, our measures of intelligence are generally measures of education. One with more education is considered more intelligent because intelligence tests measure learning or accumulation of information.

Dawkins and other atheists assume these studies simply show that as you know more, you're less apt to believe in God or accept similar religious beliefs. But this interpretation does not take into account the social and psychological factors that influence disbelief. Paul Vitz noted that as he entered graduate studies in psychology, many of the professors and scholars he came to esteem lacked or opposed religious belief. Vitz gave up the beliefs he had grown up with because of this influence, not because of intellectual reasons. One of his more recent studies,
Faith of the Fatherless (Spence Pub., 2000), looks at similar social factors that influence people toward disbelief. For more on this and other social and psychological factors, see my previous article, "Why I Am Not a Christian." So even if the NAS and Royal Society studies show that the best and most intelligent scientists are more likely to disbelieve in God, and even if intelligence/education is proportionate to disbelief, we still have no good reason to think that such correlations reflect any good reason for disbelief. Powerful social forces are too obviously at work manipulating beliefs. Scientists and other intellectuals who disbelieve in God do not know something we don't, nor should their beliefs be accepted because of their intelligence or authority alone. More importantly, people like Einstein, Hawking, and Flew throw a wrench in the machinery of the atheist's logic. If all the brightest and best scientists and thinkers are atheists, why haven't the very top of their ranks been atheists?

At any rate, Charles Murray’s
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2012) indicates that Dawkins’ assumption that the more intelligent and educated people tend to reject religious belief more than less educated/intelligent is simply mistaken. Murray looks at white America but his conclusions probably also apply to all of America as well as similar western societies. Also, he does not survey merely very small populations like the membership in the NAS. He found that educational and occupational level, which generally correlate with intelligence, are over all higher among religious people. These various studies and statistics surely indicated that social factors more than evidence and rational factors determine the general demographic proportion of theists and non-thiests. This is not to say that people may not individually come to new conclusions by their own investigation or even that God (if there is a God) may not draw earnest seekers and lead them to belief.

At the core of Einstein and Hawking's religion is an awareness of the existence of the source and creator of the cosmos or its laws. Whether they could justify their disbelief in a "personal God" is a different matter. God's involvement or lack of involvement in the world of humans is an issue to which evidence and argument apply; on the other hand, awareness of God's existence is either there or it isn't. Our awareness of God's existence does not carry with it a necessary awareness of God's involvement in the world; or if it does, this aspect of God's nature is more easily repressed. That is, the intuitive awareness of God's existence and nature can, in our minds, more easily be shorn of almost all but God's sheer existence. Einstein and Hawking exemplify St. Paul's claim that through the creation everyone is aware that God is there. People may repress this knowledge and eventually come to believe they never were aware of God's existence, but that does not negate that initial awareness (Romans 1).

Kevin Harris and William Lane Craig had the following related conversation:

Harris: [It] seems to me, just anecdotally, just from my own observation, most people have to talk themselves out of it, Bill. We all have a tendency to gravitate toward the God of the universe, but then encounter some kind of an influence that turns us around.

Craig: There are actually sociological studies that support that, Kevin, that there is a kind of innate tendency to believe in God, but then has to be suppressed or one has to be disabused of. So there is support for what you're suggesting. And I think that the scriptures indicate that through the Holy Spirit, God seeks to draw persons to a knowledge of himself. . . . And so given that work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the unbeliever, I think that ultimately no one really fails to come to Christ through intellectual doubts or arguments. Ultimately, the reason a person refuses to come is because he willingly ignores or suppresses the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart which is drawing him to God. (Reasonable Faith Podcast, "Religious Experience," 14Feb09, 17' ff.)




Dennis Jensen, April 2009 (Updated August 2010, December 2013)


Notes

Sample Einstein Quotations.

"The sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly; this is religiousness." "The World as I See It,"
Forum and Century, 1930, in Living Philosophies (NY: Simon & Schuster), 31.

"A superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience. . . forms my conception of God."
Fowler Journal of Religion and Science 14 (79) 267-8.

"My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend about the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God."
Albert Einstein Archives, Einstein to M. Schager, 5 Aug 1927, 48, 380.

"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings."
The Expanded Quotable Einstein (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 204.

"My position concerning God is that of an agnostic."
Expanded, 216.

"In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views." Ronald W. Clark,
Einstein, The Life and Times, 425.

"[My] religious feeling . . . is more a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe. . . There is in this neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only a sheer being." Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, eds.,
Albert Einstein, The Human Side (Princeton University Press, 1981), 69-70.

"I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations." Max Jammer,
Einstein and Religion (Princeton University Press, 1999), 48.


Hawking's deism and later agnosticism.

"The Driver of Mister Hawking"
Jerusalem, 22 Dec 2006, 28. From a conversation between Hawking and his special needs vehicle driver, Saul Pasternak, an Orthodox Jew. Cited in There is a God, Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese (NY: Harper, 2007), xxiii.

Hawking has more recently come to believe that there is no need for a creator and the universe came to be spontaneously although here there is some ambiguity which militates against a definite claim of something coming from nothing. See
The Grand Design, S. Hawking and L. Mlodinow (NY: Bantam, 2010), 180. Any belief that the universe can of its own come to be from nothing is certainly far less reasonable than the idea of a timeless mind originating time and material existence.


Heisenberg, Planck, Schrodinger, and Dirac's religious views.
There is a God, 103-7.


Surveys of scientists. For the NAS survey see E. J. Larson and L. Witham, "Leading scientists still reject God,"
Nature 394, 1998, 313. The repetition of the Leuba surveys are reported by Larson and Witham, "Scientists are still keeping the faith," Nature 386, 1997, 435-6.




ArrowLogo

Introducing Encounter / Hot Issues / Content