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Einstein and the Equation of Faith

The greatest scientific mind of the 20th century pronounced religion "childish." Was Einstein truly an atheist? Or were his complex thoughts on faith a logical continuation of his work in physics?

by
Elizabeth Scalia

Bio

May 15, 2008 - 12:56 am

In 1954 Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the philosopher Eric Gutkind in which he is reported to have written lines unfriendly both to the Jews and the whole notion of faith.

The letter, which goes on auction this week has received a fair amount of coverage with headlines blaring the sensational news that Einstein thought the bible, “childish”, religion “a superstition” and that he saw nothing special about the Jews.

Einstein’s numerous and easily found pronouncements on the issues of God, faith and religion have revealed him to be the sort of peculiar hybrid not uncommon in scientific fields. No atheist, Einstein nevertheless characterized the notion of a personal and interactive God as a prideful one. The discoveries wrought through his curious mind reminded him, always, of all he did not know, and he wrote of the “superior spirit” and the “harmony” that connected and ran through everything with a genuine sense of wonder that could be described as a rather humble agnosticism.

“In the 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 makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” (The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 2000)

“My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality.” (The Human Side, Princeton University Press)

What makes the Gutkind letter so headline-grabbing sensational is the usefulness of its content. In this era of the “new atheism” where Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others proselytize their doctrine of faithlessness with the fervor of Elmer Gantry in his roiling tents, the opportunity to bring an undisputed genius into the fray and use the hammer of his intellectual credibility against “childish” believers is, for some, irresistible. If Einstein will not help them in their argument against the existence of a Creator Being, or God, he can – through the cache of his name and this letter – give a vague validation to the adolescent schoolyard tactic of mocking and belittling those with whom one differs. It is a tactic that requires all the thoughtfulness and study of a bumpersticker: “Einstein says you people are childish! Einstein! You gonna argue with Einstein?”

In truth, while Einstein had his own distinctive reverence, he was no more an authority on religion than Pope Benedict XVI is on quantum physics. But prominence and undisputed genius in any field has the spill-over effect of lending credence and authority to voices so publicly acclaimed, even when they speak outside of their expertise. Writing out of scope, Einstein makes a personal observation based on his own feelings:

“…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.”

Here the Father of Relativity, speaking from his agnostic/humanist perspective quite unwittingly sets himself up to be exploited (54 years after the fact) as “the Credible Jew” who – enlightened by doubt – reveals the ordinary-ness of the Jewish people. In an age where attention to headline crawls and soundbites have become substitutes for thoughtful reading or exposition, that line will see a lot of airplay and repetition as it is grabbed by the ascendant anti-Semitic and anti-Israel factions currently holding sway over the intellects and imaginations of too many.

It is not surprising that Einstein, looking at Jews merely as other created creatures walking about in this awesome creation, would see nothing special about them. It could be argued that Einstein saw everything as “special” through the lens of unknowing in which he peered; when everything is “special,” subtle distinctions can be hard to spot. Disinterested in the myths and “primitive” stories of faith, and unwilling to consider the notion of a personal God who loves a people and “sets his tent amongst” his creation, Einstein could not be expected to grasp the connecting threads that run parallel through the history of the Jews and the history of the world, any more than a devout rabbi, disinterested in anything beyond the Torah, could connect time to space and render it an equation.

There is a story that Pope Benedict and the journalist Peter Seewald recount in the book, God and the World, which is essentially a three day conversation between the unbeliever Seewald, and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It goes like this: A mother brought her son to the rabbi, and the rabbi said to the boy; “I will give you a guilder if you can tell me where God lives.” The boy thought for only a moment and then said, “And I will give you two guilders if you can tell me where he doesn’t live.”

Everything Albert Einstein ever had to say about God and Creation can be rather precisely summed up in that story, and it is, in fact, a story of faith – humble, unknowing-yet-knowing faith. Einstein, the scientist in awe of the “supreme spirit” who created “harmony” and “the music of the spheres” would likely have concurred with it.

Because Einstein appreciated mystery, though, and the undercurrent of perfect connectedness which echoes throughout creation, one wonders if he might not have come to appreciate the “specialness” of the Jews, had he only considered the unprecedented nature of their survival throughout history. The Jewish people, suffering exile, suppression, slaughter, Diaspora are still here; their religion has not disappeared. It suggests an almost scientifically pleasing “survival of the fittest.” Touching on that, Ratzinger says to Seewald:

“It seems to me quite obvious [that the development of the world has a mysterious connection with the Jewish people]. The way that this tiny people, who no longer have any country, no longer any independent existence but lead their life scattered throughout the world…keep their own religion, keep their own identity; they are still Israel…The great powers of that period have all disappeared. Ancient Egypt and Babylon and Assyria no longer exist. Israel remains, and shows us something of the steadfastness of God, something indeed of his mystery.”

Einstein might have liked that.

“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.” (Clarck, The life and Times of Einstein. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1971)

His letter to Gutkind will undoubtedly be used by some as a heavy stone, meant to pound away at this consciousness of faith and a Chosen people, until it goes silent. But Einstein’s personal musings, had he subjected them to the further scrutiny of the very connectedness he loved, may well have led him, surprisingly, to the rest of the equation.

Elizabeth Scalia is a freelance writer and columnist for InsideCatholic.com and blogs at www.theanchoressonline.com.

Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer to First Things Magazine and the blogger known as The Anchoress.
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