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Blog

Was Einstein an atheist?

nogod.jpg

By James Dacey

I’m still finding my feet here at Physics World so it seemed wise to try and sneak a fairly inconspicuous first post on the blog. So here’s a little story involving two rarely-discussed, uncontroversial topics: British public transport and the religious views of some bloke named Einstein.

If you’ve been in a major city in England, Scotland or Wales this week, you may have noticed a slogan with a difference on the side a bus. “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” has been printed onto 800 buses in the UK’s first ever atheist advertisement campaign.

Campaign organisers – whose financial backers include Richard Dawkins – say the campaign is, “a response to a series of evangelical Christian adverts running on buses in June 2008, which featured the URL of a website saying all non-Christians were going to hell.”

TouchĂ©. It’s a free country. What’s this got to do with physicists anyway?

Well, the campaign enters its second phase on Monday which – according to the press release – will involve quotes from “famous atheists” hitting the London underground. Included is Einstein’s quote:

“I do not believe in a personal God and have never denied this but have expressed it clearly”

Now, yes we are living in post-modern times where readers can negotiate their own meanings from Albert’s words, but to label the man as atheist still seems very peculiar; especially given that he declared himself, during an interview in 1929, “I am not an atheist”.

This is not the first time a religious or atheist camp has tried to pigeonhole Einstein; surely any serious critic would agree that Einstein’s religious beliefs are far more subtle than this. Clearly, Einstein took serious issues with organized religion but there is still a very strong sense of religiosity throughout his letters. In common with atheist dogma, he held a conviction for rational thought, but he also realised the silliness of tackling religious questions with a scientific ontology: namely, trying to fathom whether there IS; ISN’T; or ‘PROBABLY’ isn’t a God.

For Einstein there was no need for rational thought and religious sentiment to be in conflict.

Indeed, his famous quote “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” seems to perfectly capture his dualistic approach to scientific inquiry.

Anyway, I’ll spare you a clumsy unravelling of more Einstein quotes but if you’re interested there’s a more serious look at this topic here

Personally, I’d like to believe that – a now very old Albert – would have supported the freedoms of both religious and atheist groups. That said, he wouldn’t have wasted his time and money in bankrolling a poster campaign for either group; besides, he’d be far too busy blowing his cash on new fiddles and having fun.

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15 comments

  1. Alex

    In all honesty I don’t see why Einstein’s religious convictions, or lack thereof (whichever the case may have been) should matter so much to anybody. Atheism seems like a pretty personal choice regardless of whether or not one sees it as rational, so why should Einstein’s decision about it have any particular bearing on mine? On our list of famous religious people we have Newton and Euler to name a few. Becoming an atheist just because somebody famous was is the same as voting for a politician just because a celebrity endorsed them.

  2. larry

    re: Why people care about Einstein’s religious views. Many people try to use the argument from authority: “Einstein did/didn’t believe in [insert deity of choice]. He’s very smart, so you should believe the same way.” You are correct that it should not matter. Sadly, to many people it does.

  3. Emanuel

    I like the quote ‘There’s probably no God,’ because it is exactly what healthy types of atheism are all about. “There’s no real evidence of God, therefore I cannot justify believing in him.” Atheism is nothing more, nor less, than this – it has nothing innately to do with morality, and if anything atheists lack the justification for or forgiveness of their actions that religion can bring. It is also not about believing or not believing in anything other than God, even such examples as evolution or the soul. The only reason why a healthy amount of skepticism needs justification at all in this case is because religion is so popular.
    As a side note, I disagree with the use of ‘atheist dogma’. Atheists are an extremely varied group of people, and the only thing we agree on is that there is no reason to believe in a God. Certainly this makes us atheists, but the word dogma suggests a larger set of principles or tenets, which we do not necessarily share. Call it the atheist position, or the dogma of these particular atheists if you must. (not that I disagree with them particularly)

  4. Dear Alex,
    I think the same: “Becoming an atheist just because somebody famous was is the same as voting for a politician just because a celebrity endorsed them.”
    But it’s not the same for everybody: humans have strong imitative behavior (there are a lot of social-economical articles about this), it’s not a secret.
    Catholic Church always tries to “negotiate their own meanings from” famous scientists words. It is an old trick, but it works nicely also today. And this trick has been adopted in every advertisement campaign (against smoke, against racial discrimination, against atheist thought, against religious thought, … and pro-something).
    About Albert Einstein, for example, in Italy the principal television channel produced a fiction about Einstein in which he was used to the opposite propaganda (in Italy, the government television is strictly linked to Vatican political and economical power).
    But – I repeat – I think the same about v.i.p.

  5. Dave Gee

    James,
    A good blog posting.
    There is too much selective quoting in the media today. People trying to persuade others to accept their views by means of half-truths, often based on a few phrases extracted from a long interview by means of leading questions.
    In the realms of science this attitude leads to very poor science, as the intent becomes to conceal the data that doesn’t fit the person’s theory, rather than to investigate it.
    Regards,
    Dave Gee CPhys MInstP
    P.S. To declare my hand – I would have funded the evangelical Christian adverts.

  6. Tom

    A wonderful book I read on Einstein, by Walter Isaacson can be a little enlightening.
    First off, a person is never static in their beliefs. We evolve, so it is a misnomer to peg a person on their beliefs during one period of time in their lives.
    Einstein was also a non-conformist. As such, he delighted in making statements that would irk people. They were not misrepresentations of his beliefs, rather were stated in ways to get reactions. He denied it, but really did enjoy the limelight of celebrity.
    As one who lived in celebrity most of his life, he was asked, and sidestepped pretty well, the questions about his belief in a diety.
    Personally, while his belief system does not impact mine, I suspect he did have beliefs that contradicted both today’s atheist, and today’s organized religion person.

  7. Brad

    I think there is a third option. Perhaps he should be considered agnostic.
    In science, we typically presume something to be false until “proven” otherwise, while in mathematics (and logic, more generally), a conjecture remains a conjecture until proven or disproven.
    I agree that science should likely not be used to investigate religion; there are obviously many who disagree. It seems that the use of reason, however, is valid, apparently putting the debate more near a mathematical or simply logical conjecture. In that case, believing in either the existence or non-existence of a god, personal or otherwise, would be exactly that–a belief taken on faith … analogous to believing that any integer is divisible by three if the sum of its digits is divisible by three, which as far as I know is still a conjecture …
    Einstein clearly acknowledged the possibility of the existence of a (personal?) god. I take the same position, and I consider myself an agnostic. Having said that, maybe, deep down, I just want to pull him over to my side of the debate (?).

  8. I am unable to understand this post. But well some points are useful for me.

  9. It is from my view safer if both sides have equal power of propagation of religion/ideology and thougths. And I would personally prefer if there is greater mental diversity in our world, so I will just seem to think different, like anyone can, and not to be just weird outsider to many people…
    Both sides have their own set of ‘mental viruses’ to spread to our minds and they want them to infect more and more people.

  10. Irving Ceron

    Einstein’s views are very disputed, and for an Atheistic campaign to quote him is ironic. Einstein really had no religious beliefs, and he didn’t believe in a personal God, but he did believe in a God and he wasn’t even fond of Atheism. Einstein cherished Christian/Jewish morality, mainly because he was an ethnic Jew. Einstein was in fact antagonistic towards Atheism and he quoted:
    ‘I am not an Atheist, I don’t think I can call myself a Pantheist’ -Albert Einstein
    It really wouldn’t matter if Einstein was a staunch Atheist, it wouldn’t mean a thing for anti-theists like Dawkins, and it would be no more than an appeal to authority. If authority is the point here, Christians can just claim Newton. Newton was the most influential scientist of all time, and his work practically founded all of modern Physics. Newton was deemed more influential by a 87%-13% against Einstein in the scientific community. Einstein without fact was very religious about his non-personal God and in no way acceded to the statements of Dawkins or any other anti-theistic Atheist.

  11. I think there is a third option.
    In science, we typically presume something to be false until “proven” otherwise, while in mathematics (and logic, more generally), a conjecture remains a conjecture until proven or disproven.

  12. It is from my view safer if both sides have equal power of propagation of religion/ideology and thougths. And I would personally prefer if there is greater mental diversity in our world, so I will just seem to think different, like anyone can, and not to be just weird outsider to many people…
    Both sides have their own set of ‘mental viruses’ to spread to our minds and they want them to infect more and more people.

  13. In all honesty I don’t see why Einstein’s religious convictions, or lack thereof (whichever the case may have been) should matter so much to anybody. Atheism seems like a pretty personal choice regardless of whether or not one sees it as rational, so why should Einstein’s decision about it have any particular bearing on mine? On our list of famous religious people we have Newton and Euler to name a few. Becoming an atheist just because somebody famous was is the same as voting for a politician just because a celebrity endorsed them.

  14. I think there is a third option. Perhaps he should be considered agnostic.
    In science, we typically presume something to be false until “proven” otherwise, while in mathematics (and logic, more generally), a conjecture remains a conjecture until proven or disproven.
    I agree that science should likely not be used to investigate religion; there are obviously many who disagree. It seems that the use of reason, however, is valid, apparently putting the debate more near a mathematical or simply logical conjecture. In that case, believing in either the existence or non-existence of a god, personal or otherwise, would be exactly that–a belief taken on faith … analogous to believing that any integer is divisible by three if the sum of its digits is divisible by three, which as far as I know is still a conjecture …
    Einstein clearly acknowledged the possibility of the existence of a (personal?) god. I take the same position, and I consider myself an agnostic. Having said that, maybe, deep down, I just want to pull him over to my side of the debate (?).

  15. It is from my view safer if both sides have equal power of propagation of religion/ideology and thougths. And I would personally prefer if there is greater mental diversity in our world, so I will just seem to think different, like anyone can, and not to be just weird outsider to many people…
    Both sides have their own set of ‘mental viruses’ to spread to our minds and they want them to infect more and more people.

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