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Einstein’s pantheism

August 9, 2009
Dear Mr. Einstein, meet my friend Mr. Comb.

Dear Mr. Einstein, meet my friend Mr. Comb.

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

This may be the most famous quote from Einstein,for many reasons. Proponents of “non-overlapping magisteria” love it; others use it to try to “disarm” atheists and atheism, showing through some kind of appeal to authority (with Antony Flew perhaps not far behind) that you can be smart, critical, and theistic too.

And of course, no one is saying you can’t. But one thing that seems to go unnoticed is that all the words around this quote — for it’s part of an essay which is part of a collection of essays — raise a rather surprising conclusion for Mr. Einstein.

Namely, the people who often want to use this quotation fail to realize that Einstein had rather interesting ideas about religion and science, and actually wrote to distance his ideas about religiosity and deity away from popular conceptions. So his deity, at first glance, doesn’t support of the belief in personal as many people want to believe. Looking further, Einstein’s very idea of religion seems rather tame.

You can read the collection of four essays Einstein wrote here concerning science and religion here.

In the first, Einstein describes how he believes the traditional religions arose and popularized and what their failings are:

With primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions – fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death. Since at this stage of existence understanding of causal connections is usually poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings depend. Thus one tries to secure the favor of these beings by carrying out actions and offering sacrifices which, according to the tradition handed down from generation to generation, propitiate them or make them well disposed toward a mortal. In this sense I am speaking of a religion of fear.
…The social impulses are another source of the crystallization of religion. Fathers and mothers and the leaders of larger human communities are mortal and fallible. The desire for guidance, love, and support prompts men to form the social or moral conception of God. This is the God of Providence, who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes; the God who, according to the limits of the believer’s outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even or life itself; the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead. This is the social or moral conception of God.

Reading on, you’ll find that Einstein believes these are two natural, yet underdeveloped forms of religion. Einstein’s highly prized third form of religion, which he heralds as that which “religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by,” does not feature such anthropomorphic deities who protect or comfort, but simply a sense for the cosmic — and his point is that the cosmic provides “the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”

In the second essay on the page, Einstein presents a clear version of non-overlapping magisteria and the is-ought problem. As he writes, “…it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.” He pays deference to the aspirations that Judeo-Christian tradition have given us, but he also notes that these goals can be taken out of religious form and put into human terms. Albert Einstein, after all, was a supporter of Ethical Culture and humanism.

The third essay (a second part to the second essay) on the page contains our golden quote, but it also comes with caveats — what qualities define “religious” according to Einstein:

…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 superpersonal value…

Einstein notes that religion cannot deal with “facts and relationships between facts” (where have I heard this?), but that nevertheless, science and religion depend on each other. For how can a scientist research without an “aspiration toward truth and understanding”? And how can religion attain its goals without knowing “what means will contribute” to that attainment?

But still, Einstein takes aim at the idea of a personal God, noting that it is the “main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science.” He suggests that nowadays the idea of a personal god merely takes solace in gaps of knowledge, but where he makes his theistic claim (and breaks away from what atheists might argue) is in saying that through the discovery of generally valid rules (which acculturates to accept that there is order even if we don’t know the rules yet — for example, with complex systems like weather), humanity can be “moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence.”

And this is reverence and this rationality is what he finds to be religious and worthy of religion.

So, at best, we come to a few conclusions (which have been seen in a few “famous” cases). Einstein’s religion and deity is that of pantheism — it is closely aligned, if not exactly aligned to the natural univerese. So, Einstein’s essays effectively sums to the idea, “The natural, rational universe is god…and of course based on the evidence, I believe in the natural, rational universe.” (In this case, if we could agree that pantheism is what theism should recognize, I would imagine that most of all the current nonbelievers would instantly be theist by virtue that nearly everyone will believe in the natural, rational universe.)

The second conclusion possible, which was seen by Antony Flew (ok, so I admit I haven’t read a lot from him), is that this sense of awe and wonder for the rationality within the universe, if it is not the universe itself (pantheism), is some entity that set forth these rules (deism).

In either case, there is a way to go before reaching a personal deity.


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  1. I’ve always been confused why theists and atheists are so quick to attempt to align themselves with Einstein, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln and others like them. The truth, as you demonstrated, is that they all seem to have common beliefs in the transcendental nature of the Cosmos and rejection of organized religion.

    Still, the theists point to quotes that allude to the mention of God/god and conclude that they must have Judeo Christian theologies. They don’t bother to further explore those texts and others that show a more complex view God and the Universe.

    Mormons in particular are guilty of this. The Book of Mormon says that the Founding Fathers were inspired by God. Mormons also believe that the Founding Fathers appeared to the prophet and asked to be baptized in the Temple. These form a bias that they must have been Mormons if Mormonism was around. The Fact is that Jefferson and Franklin (probably Adams and Washington too) were such skeptics that they would have rejected Mormonism outright.

    To be fair I’ve also see some Atheist perform this ultra simplification and conclude that deep down they were essentially atheist. I think it’s unwise to make such assumptions.

    Anyway, good post.

  2. Even though I don’t necessarily believe in a christian god, for me, there is something truly transcendental when I read Carl Sagan and realize that everything in this world, this solar system, came from a single star. And that star came from the same source of everything else in the universe. When studying the physical nature of the world, or even when listening to the radio about hereditary genes (as I was the other day), I honestly feel “connected” to everyone, and everything. It’s a strange feeling, and I’m sure some would just discount it as irrational. But, sometimes I feel like my mind is opening up to everything, and everything is a part of it when I learn about the nature of DNA or the cosmos. I feel like I nick the tip of an iceberg of scientific transcendence, and this makes me want to know more about what I’m hearing or reading. It’s almost “religious” experience.

    I love the quote by Einstein which reads,

    “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

  3. FireTag permalink

    Interesting, Andrew. I knew I was a pantheist before I knew Einstein was.

    However, be careful about one point. “Personal” objects (e.g., you and me) are observable elements of this natural universe along with “impersonal” objects. Until we know the function, relationship, and relative importance of those two components at the largest scales of existence (which so far appear to be a multiverse), we don’t really know whether calling nature personal or impersonal is a better first approximation.

    You might look at quantum-computing guru David Deutsch’s book “Fabric of Reality” in this regard.

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