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The God Squad: Did Einstein believe in God?

Q: Among all the questions you receive about the conflict between science and religion, you seem to take the accomodationist route, insisting there is no conflict, and misquoting Albert Einstein in a way that makes him seem religious. How can you a) ignore direct conflicts between science and religion (age of the universe, first life on earth, etc.) and b) consistently distort Einstein’s pantheism and disbelief in a personal god? – N

A: I’m quite fond of quoting Einstein to make the points that one can be smart and be religious, and be a scientist and be religious. I usually choose the famous Einstein quote supposedly written in response to a letter from Gandhi that contained the query, “Dear Einstein: What do you do?” Einstein supposedly replied, “Dear Gandhi: I trace the lines that flow from God.”

I’ve also quoted Einstein’s supposed comment on the need for a Creator God in the universe: “How could so great a symphony as the universe have no conductor?” Or my absolute favorite possible-Einstein quote” “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

I love these comments, but I try to be an honest and honorable thinker, so I also usually add that I haven’t been able to totally confirm the accuracy of these famous Einstein quotes.

Recently, a letter Einstein wrote a year before his death to philosopher Eric Gutkind was auctioned off in England that casts a shadow, as does your probing question, over my enthusiastic but possibly misguided attempts to make Einstein a proof text for a universe created and sustained by God. In that letter, he wrote:

“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.” The letter proves that Einstein was not conventionally religious, but it doesn’t prove he was an atheist. In fact, Einstein was angered by assertions that he was an atheist. He said, “In view of such harmony in the cosmos, which I, with my limited human 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.”

In a 1940 essay on Science and Religion in the journal Nature, Einstein wrote: “Conflicts between science and religion have all sprung from fatal errors. Even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, there are strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies … science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind … a legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist.”

Following Einstein, Stephen Jay Gould, the late paleontologist, philosopher and evolutionary biologist, in a 1997 essay, called the domains of science and religion Non-Overlapping Magesteria (NOMA). Each has its own domain of human thought and problems only arise when the natural boundaries of each discipline are breached – when science tries to refute religion or when religion tries to refute science.

There are many ways to the truth, just like there are many ways up a mountain. I think Gould was less religious than Einstein, although Einstein was certainly not conventionally religious.

The religious ideas I’ve taken from Einstein (and similarly Spinoza) into my own faith are first and foremost the religious idea of awe. From Psalm 19’s powerful spiritual insight – that “The Heavens declare the glory of God” – to Einstein’s idea of cosmic harmony, there is the foundational belief (and it is a belief, not a fact) that where there is order, there must be an Orderer.

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