It Doesn’t Take an Einstein

The problem with using scientists’ words to support religious beliefs.

Albert Einstein

Science traffics in the great unknowns, admitting that it has far more to learn than it has to teach. That hasn’t stopped some from attempting to enlist it in the defense of religion. The pope puts out an encyclical trying to split the difference between evolution and the Book of Genesis. Intelligent design makes a mockery of both the method of induction and metaphysics. And scientists who use deistic language to describe the infinite mysteries of the cosmos are made out to be water-carriers for ancient dogmas—perhaps none more so than Albert Einstein. He’s been a genius well worth stealing. The nimbus-domed father of relativity was, throughout most of the 20th century, held up as the most impressive example of a rationalist who left the door open a crack for the divine presence.

Yet a recently unearthed letter should cool any further desire to conscript him as a believer. In 1954, a year before his death, Einstein wrote a letter to Jewish philosopher Eric Gutkind that was sold at auction for $404,000. It’s easy to see why Richard Dawkins was a losing high-level bidder for this extraordinary document:

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. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilized interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything “chosen” about them.

When the letter was made public, many of the faithful reacted with casuistry or anger. Dan Porter, a Christian blogger, dismissed it and quoted Einstein’s more religion-friendly gobbets, which Porter suggests should be added to man’s corpus of “substantive thinking.” Einstein was “no more an authority on religion than Pope Benedict XVI is on quantum physics,” added Catholic writer Elizabeth Scalia, who then felt obliged to compare the nonquantum physicist’s worldview to a tautological parable about monotheism favored by one Joseph Ratzinger.

The temptation to lure Einstein posthumously into the theistic fold is understandable, if only due to his charm and humanity. He was that rare species of genius who didn’t espouse sinister or crackpot theories or go mad, as did logician Kurt Gödel, walking partner at the Institute of Advanced Studies and a likeminded proponent of a prioricity. Avuncular, playful, cuddly … Einstein could be all things to all people, though he never wanted to be. He was a socialist who enjoyed bourgeois creature comforts, a wit who courted celebrity but preferred his hermitage and frequently lost his way home, an internationalist who became an early and fervent Zionist, a pacifist who urged the invention of the atom bomb and then regretted doing so. Still, on matters of ideology, war, and peace, he could express himself plainly.

Einstein underwent a brief elective immersion in Judaism as a boy, but his parents were secular; his father thought the Abrahamic rituals “ancient superstitions.” Einstein later told New York Rabbi Herbert Goldstein that he believed in “Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.” (In the 17th century, philosopher Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from Judaism on suspicion of atheism—allegations that Rebecca Goldstein argues in Betraying Spinoza were, in fact, correct.) When a rumor was circulated in 1945 that a Jesuit priest had converted him, Einstein thundered back: “I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.”

But from the viewpoint of a layman, Einstein frequently denied being an atheist, though he seemed more at odds with the “militant” style of godlessness than with its core substance. It’s impossible to imagine him volunteering even to moderate a Hitchens-Dawkins-Dennett colloquium on secularism. He wrote to a Navy ensign, “I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth.”

In his best-selling biography Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson writes, “[W]e should do him the honor of taking him at his word when he insists, repeatedly, that these oft-used phrases were not merely a semantic way of disguising that he was actually an atheist.” It’s a generous assessment, but one that encompasses the physicist’s more milquetoast pronouncements on the matter and conveniently ignores what Isaacson elsewhere concedes was Einstein’s maddening tendency to be purposefully gnomic or oblique. Another biographer, Ronald W. Clark, observed that when Einstein talked about religion, “he tended to adopt the belief of Alice’s Red Queen that ‘words mean what you want them to mean.’ ” (Clark quotes the line incorrectly and attributes it to the wrong character; the line “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean. …” is uttered by Humpty Dumpty. *) That comes closer to the mark and is best evidenced in the famous quotation, “I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.” Only a literal mind would see here a prime mover at a celestial craps table.

Einstein is not the only cosmic dragoman whose figurative comments about the great “out yonder” have been taken at face value. In the last paragraph of A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking uses the phrase “knowing the mind of God” as a metonym for the Theory of Everything, which Christian physicist Karl Giberson interprets as either a cheeky way of marketing a science book or a sign of Hawking’s “theological naivete.”

Elsewhere, sincere celebrations of faith by scientists have led to troubling category problems. Stephen Jay Gould came up with the term “nonoverlapping magisteria” to compartmentalize science as the exclusive domain of facts and religion as the exclusive domain of values. Except that values must be rooted in facts if they are not to be simply invented willy-nilly by religion. And, as an analytic philosopher of my acquaintance points out, if Gould’s rule rang true, then it would entail that, as a scientist, he had no authority to advance that value-laden dichotomy in the first place.

More recently, geneticist Francis Collins, a former atheist, claimed that he came to Christ after hiking one day and spotting a waterfall frozen in three streams. Even if you accept that a triune phenomenon in nature is proof of the holy trinity, it surely isn’t the kind of interpretive leap Collins’ colleagues at the Human Genome Project would make in the lab. Nor does competence in biology necessarily translate into competence in metaphysics (just as Ben Stein’s talents as a game-show host have not translated well into documentary filmmaking).

Most believers have long given up trying to legitimize the supernatural in microscopes or cyclotrons. That scientists like Einstein resorted to a numinous vocabulary is not the “gotcha” some wishful thinkers would like it to be. Faith has had impressive minds on its side in the past, but it will have to work without the assumption that the greatest of the 20th century was one of them.

Correction, June 18, 2008: This piece contains a quotation from Einstein biographer Ronald W. Clark that attributes lines from Through the Looking Glass to the Red Queen instead of Humpty Dumpty. Clark also misquoted the line. The incorrect quotation remains in the piece, but a parenthetical explains Clark’s errors. (Return  to the sentence.)