Friday, June 27, 2014


As with a lot of people, growing up I considered Albert Einstein one of my intellectual heroes.  So I found an article by John Marsh regarding Einstein’s beliefs about religion thought-provoking on a number of grounds.  Marsh’s basic thesis is that, contrary to what noted atheist Richard Dawkins has written, Einstein was a deeply religious theist.  Hmm . . . I have read at least three biographies of Einstein, and all of them take the position that he was essentially atheistic.  Here are my thoughts on the Marsh article.

Einstein was one of the world's great physicists.  Philosopher, not so much.  Because of his reputation for brilliance, he was looked to for support on all sorts of other matters, including religious belief, but his philosophical beliefs were, like most or ours, personal.  And, although he made comments about God and religious belief on occasion, I’m not sure he considered himself a brilliant thinker along those lines.  

I think it can also be said that, like most people who think deeply about these matters, Einstein’s beliefs didn’t necessarily fall easily into specific category.  It might help to summarize some general definitions.  

A theist is one who believes in a supernatural intelligence that is responsible, not just for the creation of the universe, but for a continued interest and influence over the affairs of that universe.

A deist is one who believes in a supernatural intelligence that is responsible for the creation of the universe but that no longer intervenes in the operation of that universe.

A pantheist is one who doesn’t believe in a supernatural intelligence at all but who may use the word God to refer to his or her awe of the fact that the universe exists and that it is governed by orderly laws.  

An agnostic is one who believes there is insufficient evidence to establish whether or not God exists.  Alternatively, an agnostic believes that it is impossible (perhaps on a theoretical or logical basis) to determine whether or not God exists.  This goes to the question of what we know or can know.

An atheist is one who simply does not believe that God exists.  He or she has come to the conclusion that God does not exist in the same sense that none of the other mythical deities, such as Zeus or Neptune or Thor or Vishnu, actually exist.  This goes to the question of personal belief.

Under these definitions one might be an agnostic, an atheist, and a pantheist, all at the same time.

I think one of the confusions with respect to Einstein’s beliefs relates to his use of the term “religion.”  Einstein stated, “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever.”  One might consider this to be an oxymoron if one used the common meanings of the words “religious” and “nonbeliever.”  But Einstein’s notion of religion clearly differs from the traditional definition.  He explained, “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness.  In this sense I am religious.”  I think it is fair to say that Einstein was equating religion with the awe we all experience in beholding the universe.

Based on that quote, I would have to assign Einstein to the category of pantheism.  However, Einstein did not like to be called a pantheist, I think because it was easy to confuse pantheism with the notion that there is some sort of supernatural force or entity that permeates everything.  (The term means “God in everything.”)  As Carl Sagan once put it, “It does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.”  I think all of the Einstein quotes in the Marsh article are consistent with that categorization.

But there are other statements in the Marsh article that I also found distressing.  Marsh states that, “Einstein was – like Newton before him – deeply religious and a firm believer in a transcendent God.”  I believe that statement is misleading on two points.   First, by his own words Einstein stated that he was a “nonbeliever.”  Perhaps he was limiting that term in reference to a personal (theistic) God, but I would argue that he felt the same way about a deistic one.  I think it is a serious mischaracterization to state that Einstein believed in a “transcendent God.”  Second, it is clear that Newton remained a firm believer in a personal God and that is certainly not the case with respect to Einstein.  So, again, it is misleading—and perhaps even disingenuous—to lump Newton and Einstein together as if their beliefs about God were similar.

Perhaps more distressing are Marsh’s comments about faith.  In his article he states:

Richard Dawkins describes faith as evil: “I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate. Faith, being belief that isn't based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion.” However some of Einstein’s theories were not demonstrated scientifically until years after publication. Yet Einstein had faith in them. Nor were all Newton’s theories established at the time. Newton, Darwin and Einstein all had faith in their theories, before they were shown to be true. We all have many intuitive beliefs that we are justified in holding, even if we cannot demonstrate their validity, such as belief in the past, belief in rationality and belief that we are not dreaming. It is impossible to live life without faith. Indeed Einstein – like many other scientists – believed that science is based on a faith in the rationality of the universe. In his own words, “Ultimately the belief in the existence of fundamental all-embracing laws rests on a sort of faith.” Therefore to describe faith as being as evil as smallpox is frankly absurd.

This is really a confusion over the meaning of the term “faith” as Dawkins was using it in his book, The God Delusion.  In its most basic sense faith means belief in something in the absence of evidence.  But the key term here is “evidence.”  There is evidence based on authority: “I believe the Bible is the word of God because my parents/teachers/church leaders tell me so.”  There is evidence based on personal experience: “I believe God exists because he speaks to my heart.”  And there is evidence based on objective observation and rational thought: “I believe that the planets, including the earth, revolve around the sun in elliptical orbits because that view is most consistent with astronomical observations.”  Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and virtually all other scientists base their beliefs on objective evidence.  The key difference here is that scientific beliefs are always tentative and subject to revision as additional experiments and objective observations require.  In that sense it is better to refer to scientific “beliefs” not as based on faith but rather simply representing our best currently available description of the world and how it works, with the caveat that such a description is always subject to further refinement, modification, or change as additional evidence is obtained.  Beliefs based on authority or personal (internal) experience are not subject to revision based on the acquisition of additional objective evidence.  And that is the kind of faith to which Dawkins was referring.  Again, it is grossly misleading to lump the two together and demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the principles of scientific thought and research.

© 2014 John M. Phillips


  1. Yes I could be all three- atheist, agnostic and pantheistic. Great response to Marshs article. You should send it to him.

    1. Thanks. Me too. I am guessing that this is not Einstein responding anonymously to my essay.