Einstein: The Man and The Genius

Was Albert Einstein an Atheist?

From Carl Sagan to Stephen Hawking to Neil deGrasse Tyson, people turn to great minds of science to help them understand the universe. It's understandable, then, that people would be curious about their views on religion.

Hawking has come out definitively on the matter ("I'm an atheist," he said in 2014), but Sagan and Tyson famously veer agnostic. ("Why not simply wait until there is compelling evidence?" Sagan once asked, and Tyson has said that "the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other.") What about Albert Einstein? Despite his most famous quote about religion, his views on God were — unsurprisingly — incredibly complex.

"Such Harmony in the Cosmos"

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Judge by that quote alone, and you'll probably conclude that Einstein was a believer. In fact, he was full of quotes like this: "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 support of such views," he once said, along with "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 his thoughts. The rest are details."

And yet, for every faith-filled statement he made, you can find another that makes him out to be a nonbeliever. In his "Autobiographical Notes," which he wrote at the age of 67, he recalled his childhood. When Albert was a boy, his parents hosted an orthodox Jewish medical student. The man taught Einstein about the principles of Judaism and gave him his first science book.

"Though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents," Einstein wrote, "I came to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic [orgy of] freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience [...] an attitude that has never again left me."

If the letter he wrote at the end of his life to an author of a book on Judaism was any indication, that attitude never did leave him. "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me," he wrote in January of 1954, just a year before his death.

God as Metaphor

So how do you square Einstein's seemingly opposed takes on religion? Well, to begin with, you read these quotes in context. That infamous "science without religion" quote comes from an article he wrote for a symposium on science, philosophy, and religion in 1941.

In that article, he lays out his views pretty clearly. Science and religion aren't at odds, he says, because they deal with different things: science "can only ascertain what is, but not what should be," while religion "deals only with evaluations of human thought and action." Still, science and religion depend on each other. The scientific method helps religion reach its goals, while "science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding." That, Einstein says, has its roots in religion.

Experts clarify that when Einstein referred to God in his own writings, he used the concept more as a metaphor than as a statement of faith. "When Einstein spoke of God, he merely meant that the universe is under the sway of absolute, pervasive, and permanent laws," wrote physicist Hans C. Ohanian.

When Einstein said things like "When I assess a theory, I ask myself, if I was God, would I have arranged the universe in this way?" he wasn't actually suggesting that the universe was built by an omnipotent being; he was instead trying to integrate scientific theories into his understanding of how the universe works already. You could call him a deist, or maybe an agnostic like Sagan. But he was neither a true believer nor an avowed atheist.

But that's not to say he wasn't spiritual in his approach. He closed his symposium essay this way: "The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge." To Einstein, the only path to what he considered God was through a deep understanding of the universe.

To read the touching correspondence between Albert Einstein and a grieving rabbi, check out Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul. It's free with a 30-day trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Ashley Hamer November 29, 2017