Einstein Was Not an Atheist OR Agnostic ~ Max Jammer

The following comes from the best biographical look at Einstein and religion:

[p. 90>] When the Northwestern Regional Conference of the American Association of Theological Schools convened at the Theological Seminary in Princeton in May 1939, one of the few nontheologians invited to address the meeting was Einstein. The mimeographed transcripts of his lecture car­ried the title “The Goal.” 34 Einstein began his talk by recall­ing that in the last century it was widely held that scientific knowledge and religious belief conflict with each other and that the prevailing trend “among advanced minds” was to replace belief with knowledge. The function of education was therefore confined to the development of rational thinking and knowing. Although “the aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capable… knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations.” Scientific thinking alone, Einstein con­tinued, cannot lead us to the ultimate and fundamental purpose of our existence.

To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the indi­vidual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the au­thority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be [p. 91>] stated and justified merely by reason, one can only an­swer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful tradi­tions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly. The highest principles for our aspirations and judgments are given to us in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition. It is a very high goal, which, with our weak powers, we can reach only very inadequately, but which gives us a sure foundation to our aspirations and valuations.

Compared with his 1930 essay, this talk had a much more reserved tone and its ideas were acceptable even to orthodox theologians. It should be noted, however, that the topic of Einstein’s 1930 essay differs distinctly from that of his 1939 talk; while the former dealt mainly with the origin and nature of religious beliefs, the latter deals almost ex­clusively with questions related to the purpose and goal of our life, a subject on which agreement is more easily attain­able than on the nature of religion. In fact, Einstein’s 1939 talk was sympathetically received by almost all partici­pants of the conference.

This was probably one of the reasons that Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, a prominent religious leader, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and member of the organizing committee of the “Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion,” scheduled to convene on Sep-[p. 92>] tember 9-11, 1940, at the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, thought it appropriate to invite Ein­stein to address this conference as well. Einstein agreed to write an essay, “Science and Religion,” to be read at this conference.35 Neither he nor Finkelstein anticipated the se­rious controversies and harsh acrimonies that this essay would evoke.

Einstein agreed, not only out of respect for a distin­guished leader of liberal Judaism but also because of his well-known magnanimity to respond to all requests he thought to be ingenuous. Thus, in 1936 when Phyllis Wright, a sixth-grade student in the Sunday school of the Riverside Church in New York, asked whether scientists pray and, if they do, what they pray for, he gave a reply that can serve as an introduction to his essay for the 1940 conference.

“Scientific research is based on the assumption that all events, including the actions of mankind, are deter­mined by the laws of nature. Therefore, a research sci­entist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, that is, by a wish ad­dressed to a supernatural Being. However, we have to admit that our actual knowledge of these laws is only an incomplete piece of work (unvollkommenes Stuck-werk), so that ultimately the belief in the existence of fundamental all-embracing laws also rests on a sort of faith. All the same, this faith has been largely justified [p. 93>] by the success of science. On the other hand, however, everyone who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. The pursuit of sci­ence leads therefore to a religious feeling of a special kind, which differs essentially from the religiosity of more naive people. With friendly greetings, your Al­bert Einstein.”36

EINSTEIN’S CONTRIBUTION to the 1940 conference was pre­sented to an audience of over five hundred participants. The article begins with the question of what, precisely, we understand by science and by religion. Science, says Ein­stein, can easily be defined as “the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualiza­tion”; but to define religion is a much more difficult task. We can reach this definition by inquiring first what charac­terizes the aspirations of a religious person. “A person who is religiously enlightened,” says Einstein, “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.” What is im­portant, according to Einstein, is “the force of this super-personal content…. regardless of whether any attempt is made to unite this content with a divine Being.” From these presuppositions, Einstein then derived the definition [p. 94>] of religion as “the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and completely conscious of these values and goals and constantly to strengthen and extend their effect.”

These definitions enabled Einstein to repeat what he had already said in his essay, “The Goal,” namely, that because science ascertains only what is, but not what should be, no conflict between the two can exist. Only intervention on the part of religion into the realm of science—if, for exam­ple, a religious community insists on the absolute truthful­ness of all statements in the Bible—can give rise to conflict, as has been the case in the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo or Darwin. Even though the realms of religion and science are distinctly marked off from each other, strong reciprocal relations exist between the two. Though religion determines the goal, science, in its broad­est sense, shows the means for attaining this goal. How­ever, “science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion…. I cannot conceive of a gen­uine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Had this statement been the final conclusion, the article probably would have been acclaimed by all the partici­pants. But Einstein qualified his statements about the com­patibility of religion and science “with reference to the ac­tual content of historical religions.” “This qualification,” he continued, “has to do with the concept of God.” He then mentioned, though more briefly than in his 1930 essay, his theory of the three stages in the evolution of religion and the concept of God and declared that “the main source of [p. 95>] the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God.” Al­though he conceded that the doctrine of a personal God could never be refuted, because such a doctrine could al­ways take refuge where science has not yet been able to gain a foothold, he called such a procedure 

not only unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. 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. In this sense I believe that the priest must be­come a teacher if he wishes to do justice to his lofty educational mission.

Some background is necessary to assess correctly the re­action that this article—in particular, its denial of a per­sonal God—evoked among the theologians attending the conference and the wider public. Einstein did not antici­pate that the denial of a personal God would be misin­terpreted as the denial of God. That such a misinterpre­tation was not uncommon can be gathered from a 1945 encyclopedia of religion that defined the term “atheism” as “the denial that there exists a being corresponding to some particular definition of god; frequently, but unfortunately, [p. 96>] used to denote the denial of God as personal.”37 That Ein­stein was neither an atheist nor an agnostic—certainly not in the usual sense of the term coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley—follows not only from Einstein’s above-mentioned statements concerning his cosmic religion but also from statements made by all those with whom he had intimate discussions about his religious conviction. Thus, for example, his close friend Max Born once remarked, “he [Einstein] had no belief in the Church, but did not think that religious faith was a sign of stupidity, nor unbelief a sign of intelligence.”38 David Ben-Gurion—who visited Einstein in Princeton a year before inviting him to become President of Israel—recalled that, when discussing reli­gion, “even he [Einstein], with his great formula about en­ergy and mass, agreed that there must be something be­hind the energy.”39 With respect to religion, Ben-Gurion and Einstein had much in common. Like Einstein, Ben-Gurion was an ardent admirer of Spinoza. He also de­clared his belief “that there must be a being, intangible, indefinable, even unimaginable, but something infinitely superior to all we know and are capable of conceiving,”40 a belief not much different from Einstein’s belief in the im­personal God of his cosmic religion.

At a charity dinner in New York, Einstein explicitly disso­ciated himself from atheism when he spoke with the Ger­man anti-Nazi diplomat and author Hubertus zu Lowen-[p. 97>]stein: “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.”41


[34] A. Einstein, “The Goal,” lecture delivered 19 May 1939, Ideas and Opinions, pp. 41-44; Out of My Later Years, pp. 25-28.

[35] A. Einstein, “Science and Religion,” Transactions of the First Confer­ence on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Demo­cratic Way of Life (New York, 1941); Ideas and Opinions, pp. 44-49; Out of My Later Years, pp. 28-33; Nature 146 (1940): 605-607.

[36] Einstein to P. Wright, 24 January 1936. Einstein Archive, reel 52-337.

[37] V. Ferm, ed., An Encyclopedia of Religion (Philosophical Library, New York, 1945), p. 44.

[38] Born—Einstein Letters p. 203.

[39] M. Pearlman, Ben Gurion Looks Back (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1965), p. 217.

[40] Ibid., p. 216.

[41] Prinz Hubertus zu Lowenstein, Towards the Further Shore (Victor Gollancz, London, 1968), p. 156.

Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 90-97.