ⓘ Religious and philosophical views of Albert Einstein


ⓘ Religious and philosophical views of Albert Einstein

Albert Einsteins religious views have been widely studied and often misunderstood. Einstein stated that he believed in the pantheistic God of Baruch Spinoza. He did not believe in a personal God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings, a view which he described as naïve. He clarified however that, "I am not an atheist", preferring to call himself an agnostic, or a "religious nonbeliever." Einstein also stated he did not believe in life after death, adding "one life is enough for me." He was closely involved in his lifetime with several humanist groups.


1. Religious beliefs

Einstein used many labels to describe his religious views, including "agnostic", "religious nonbeliever" and a "pantheistic" believer in "Spinozas God". Einstein believed the problem of God was the "most difficult in the world" - a question that could not be answered "simply with yes or no." He conceded that, "the problem involved is too vast for our limited minds."


1.1. Religious beliefs Early childhood

Einstein was raised by secular Jewish parents, and attended a local Catholic public elementary school in Munich. In his Autobiographical Notes, Einstein wrote that he had gradually lost his faith early in childhood:

. I came - though the child of entirely irreligious Jewish parents - 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, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment - an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections.

It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the merely personal, from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.


1.2. Religious beliefs Personal God

Einstein expressed his skepticism regarding the existence of an anthropomorphic God, such as the God of Abrahamic religions, often describing this view as "naïve" and "childlike". In a 1947 letter he stated, "It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously." In a letter to Beatrice Frohlich on 17 December 1952, Einstein stated, "The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve."

Prompted by his colleague L. E. J. Brouwer, Einstein read the philosopher Eric Gutkinds book Choose Life, a discussion of the relationship between Jewish revelation and the modern world. On January 3, 1954, Einstein sent the following reply to Gutkind: "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions." In 2018 his letter to Gutkind was sold for $2.9 million.

On 22 March 1954 Einstein received a letter from Joseph Dispentiere, an Italian immigrant who had worked as an experimental machinist in New Jersey. Dispentiere had declared himself an atheist and was disappointed by a news report which had cast Einstein as conventionally religious. Einstein replied on 24 March 1954:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

In his book Ideas and Opinions 1954 Einstein stated, "In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests." In December 1922 Einstein said the following on the idea of a saviour, "Denominational traditions I can only consider historically and psychologically; they have no other significance for me.


1.3. Religious beliefs Pantheism and Spinozas God

Einstein had explored the idea that humans could not understand the nature of God. In an interview published in George Sylvester Vierecks book Glimpses of the Great 1930, Einstein responded to a question about whether or not he defined himself as a pantheist. He explained:

Your question is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinozas Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.

Einstein stated, "My views are near those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem - the most important of all human problems."

On 24 April 1929, Einstein cabled Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein in German: "I believe in Spinozas God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind." He expanded on this in answers he gave to the Japanese magazine Kaizō in 1923:

Scientific research can reduce superstition by encouraging people to think and view things in terms of cause and effect. Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. As long as I can remember, I have resented mass indoctrination. I do not believe in the fear of life, in the fear of death, in blind faith. I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him, I would be a liar. I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. My God created laws that take care of that. His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking but by immutable laws." William Miller of Life Magazine who was present at this meeting described Einstein as looking like a "living saint" and speaking with "angelic indifference."


2. Philosophical beliefs

Einstein believed that when trying to understand nature one should engage in both philosophical enquiry and enquiry through the natural sciences.

From a young age he had an interest in philosophy. Einstein said about himself: "As a young man I preferred books whose content concerned a whole world view and, in particular, philosophical ones. Schopenhauer, David Hume, Mach, to some extent Kant, Plato, Aristotle."


2.1. Philosophical beliefs Relationship between science and philosophy

Einstein believed that epistemology and science "are dependent upon each other. Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is - insofar as it is thinkable at all - primitive and muddled."


2.2. Philosophical beliefs Humanism and moral philosophy

Einstein was a secular humanist and a supporter of the Ethical Culture movement. He served on the advisory board of the First Humanist Society of New York. For the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, he stated that the idea of Ethical Culture embodied his personal conception of what is most valuable and enduring in religious idealism. He observed, "Without ethical culture there is no salvation for humanity." He was an honorary associate of the British humanist organization the Rationalist Press Association and its journal was among the items present on his desk at his death.

With regard to punishment by God, Einstein stated, "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own - a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms." "A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a mans actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in Gods eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A mans ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death. It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees."

On the importance of ethics he wrote, "The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education. The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action." "I do not believe that a man should be restrained in his daily actions by being afraid of punishment after death or that he should do things only because in this way he will be rewarded after he dies. This does not make sense. The proper guidance during the life of a man should be the weight that he puts upon ethics and the amount of consideration that he has for others." "I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation. I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science. 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. Morality is of the highest importance - but for us, not for God."


2.3. Philosophical beliefs Teleology

In a conversation with Ugo Onufri in 1955, with regards to natures purpose he said, "I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic." In a 1947 letter he stated, "I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere."


2.4. Philosophical beliefs Naïve realism

Einstein believed naïve realism was "relatively simple" to disprove. He agreed with Bertrand Russell that humans observe the effects objects have on them and not the actual objects themselves.


2.5. Philosophical beliefs Positivism

Einstein declared that he was no positivist, and maintained that we use with a certain right concepts to which there is no access from the materials of sensory experience.


2.6. Philosophical beliefs Transcendental Idealism

Einstein considered that Kant’s "denial of the objectivity of space can. hardly be taken seriously". He also believed that "if Kant had known what is known to us today of the natural order, I am certain that he would have fundamentally revised his philosophical conclusions. Kant built his structure upon the foundations of the world outlook of Kepler and Newton. Now that the foundation has been undermined, the structure no longer stands."


2.7. Philosophical beliefs David Hume

Einstein was an admirer of the philosophy of David Hume; in 1944 he said "If one reads Hume’s books, one is amazed that many and sometimes even highly esteemed philosophers after him have been able to write so much obscure stuff and even find grateful readers for it. Hume has permanently influenced the development of the best philosophers who came after him."


2.8. Philosophical beliefs Immanuel Kant

Some sources maintain that Einstein read the three Critiques at the age of 16 and studied Kant as a teenager. However Philip Stamp states that this is contradicted by some of his own claims. In 1949, Einstein said that he "did not grow up in the Kantian tradition, but came to understand the truly valuable which is to be found in his doctrine, alongside of errors which today are quite obvious, only quite late."

In one of Einsteins letters in 1918 to Max Born, Einstein said that he was starting to discover this "truly valuable" in Kant: "I am reading Kants Prolegomena here, among other things, and I am beginning to comprehend the enormous suggestive power that emanated from the fellow, and still does. Once you concede to him merely the existence of synthetic a priori judgements, you are trapped. Anyway it is nice to read him, even if it is not as good as his predecessor Humes work. Hume also had a far sounder instinct."

Einstein explained the significance of Kants philosophy as follows:

Hume saw that concepts which we must regard as essential, such as, for example, causal connection, cannot be gained from material given to us by the senses. This insight led him to a sceptical attitude as concerns knowledge of any kind. Man has an intense desire for assured knowledge. That is why Humes clear message seems crushing: the sensory raw material, the only source of our knowledge, through habit may lead us to belief and expectation but not to the knowledge and still less to the understanding of lawful relations. Then Kant took the stage with an idea which, though certainly untenable in the form in which he put it, signified a step towards the solution of Humes dilemma: if we have definitely assured knowledge, it must be grounded in reason itself.


2.9. Philosophical beliefs Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauers views on the independence of spatially separated systems influenced Einstein, who called him a genius. In their view it was a necessary assumption that the mere difference in location suffices to make two systems different, with the two states having their own real physical state, independent of the state of the other.

In Einsteins Berlin study three figures hung on the wall: Faraday, Maxwell and Schopenhauer. Einstein described, concerning the personal importance of Schopenhauer for him, Schopenhauers words as "a continual consolation in the face of life’s hardships, my own and others’, and an unfailing wellspring of tolerance." Although Schopenhauers works are known for their pessimism, Konrad Wachsmann remembered, "He often sat with one of the well-worn Schopenhauer volumes, and as he sat there, he seemed so pleased, as if he were engaged with a serene and cheerful work."


2.10. Philosophical beliefs Ernst Mach

Einstein liked Ernst Machs scientific work, though not his philosophical work. He said "Mach was as good a scholar of mechanics as he was a deplorable philosopher".