THE RELIGION OF EINSTEIN
October 10, 1954
First Unitarian Church
John B. Isom, Minister
"The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most elementary forms - this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life, and that of his fellow-creatures, as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life." Albert Einstein.
A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most primitive forms - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.
"The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future to him is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair. A scientist's religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.
"What an extraordinary situation is that for us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose we know not, though we sometimes think we feel it. But from the point of view of daily life, without going deeper, we exist for our fellow man - in the first place for those on whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends, and next for all those unknown to us personally with whose destinies we are bound up by the tie of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. I am strongly drawn to the simple life and am often oppressed by the feeling that I am engrossing an unnecessary amount of the labor of my fellow men…. The life of the individual has meaning only in so far as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. Life is sacred - that is to say, it is the supreme value, to which all other values are subordinate." Albert Einstein
EINSTEIN AND SCHWEITZER -
Early in life Einstein became absorbed in this question: "How can all the complicated and immeasurable activities observed in nature be reduced to simple mathematical formulae?" It is interesting to note that while Einstein was preoccupied with the task of thinking out a basic and comprehensive theory by which all occurrences in nature could be understood and explained, another young German student, whose first name was also Albert, was preoccupied with the task of thinking out a basic and comprehensive theory by which the ethical impulses of human beings could be understood and explained. It is highly interesting to me to discover that Einstein and Schweitzer, as I understand them, have come to about the same conclusion concerning religion and morality. There is a kind of dualism in the thinking of both men that they do not pretend to reconcile, yet they live with the conviction that what may be known objectively and what is sensed subjectively are somehow parts of the same whole. Both men share and are emotionally and ethically guided by the same conviction - that life, as such, is the supreme value, the sacred reality to be dealt with.
THE TASK AND NATURE OF RELIGION -
In trying to digest Einstein's religious thinking I ran into some difficulties. I am not sure I have access to all the important things he has written on the subject. The use he makes of such terms as "God" and "religion" is not always clear to me. I hope that my appraisal of his religion will not be too far wrong.
In defining the place of religion in human life he said, "the purpose of science is to develop, without prejudice, a knowledge of the facts and the laws of nature. The even more important task of religion, on the other hand, is to develop the conscience, the ideals and the aspirations of mankind." This statement and a few others, standing apart from the rest of his comments on religion, give the impression that, in his thinking, religion and science have nothing in common. However, the religion that I see reflected in his writings and activities is the result of the infusion of his scientific search for truth and his emotional search for ideals, motives and goals - as much so as a child is an infusion of the physical characteristics of his parents.
As I understand his religion, as it is revealed in his own writings, there are three things about it that must not be overlooked if we are to come near to grasping its significance for us and for our generation. First, his religion has nothing in common with any kind of belief in a personal God. Second, at the heart of his religion there is what he calls "cosmic religious feeling." Third, the ethical motivation of his religion is determined by a "feeling of sympathy" or "reverence for life."
NO PERSONAL GOD -
The use that Einstein has made of the term "God", as a figure of speech, has given the impression to some that he holds to some kind of belief in a supernatural being. This is a false conclusion. He has spoken very plainly on this subject. In discussing science and religion he observed "the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in the concept of a personal God." He then goes on to tell why such a concept of God is impossible for the scientists. "The more," he said, "a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of the human nor the rule of the divine will exist as an independent cause of natural events."
Einstein admits that the concept of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted by science. "For," he said, "this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot." However, he goes on to say, to stoop to such behavior is unworthy of the representative of religion, and for them to do so would be fatal to the cause of religion and do great harm to human progress. He then concludes by saying, "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 the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task. After religious teachers accomplish the refining process indicated they will surely recognize with joy that true religion has been ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge."
COSMIC RELIGIOUS FEELING -
So it is perfectly clear that Einstein's religion is void of any kind of belief in a personal God. But that does not mean that his religion leaves him without any emotional attachment to the universe. By what he calls "cosmic religious feeling" he maintains a "profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence;" keeps aglow an abiding "faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason." It is mystical feeling, a feeling of reverence, toward the laws of the universe.
Einstein admits it is a feeling "difficult to explain to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it." It is a kind of religious feeling that "knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image." It gives rise "to no definite notion of a God and no theology." It is Einstein's contention that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this cosmic religious feeling and keep it alive in everyone who is capable of it. He believes that it is the kind of religious feeling that possessed the great religious personalities of all ages. It seems consistent with Einstein's thinking to say that the quality of the influence of this cosmic religious feeling in the life of an individual is determined by the quality of his awareness of the wonders of the universe and his reverence and awe for the incomprehensible reason, beauty and harmony back of the dependable laws of nature.
SPIRITUALIZATION OF LIFE -
In varying degrees I believe that most of us have experienced this profound feeling that Einstein calls cosmic religious feeling. It may have been while looking at a beautiful sunset, or on hearing a great piece of music, or while gazing out into the spaces between the stars at night or when standing still on the shore of the sea. Ella Brooks Wilson, a cherished friend of the Isoms, describes this feeling in a poem that was published in the September 1950 issue of "Woman's Home Companion." The tile of the poem is ALONE ON A BEACH.
On highland I measure
Myself by a tree,
But there's nothing
To measure me here by the sea,
Save width of the water
And height of the sky -
What awe-filling vastness
To measure myself by!
There's practically nothing
To note where I stand.
The I that was me
Is a dot on the sand.
Einstein tries to give us some idea of the influence that "cosmic religious feeling" has in his own life by saying, "The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole…by way of the understanding (which underpins cosmic religious feeling) he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths is inaccessible to man."
Such an attitude appears to Einstein "to be religious in the highest sense of the word." And to the extent that science cultivates and increases the influence of such a religious feeling it "not only purifies the religious impulse but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life."
SOURCE OF MORALITY -
So much for the nature and appraisal of the cosmic religious feeling that is the pith of Einstein's religion. From what source does his religion get its ethical motivation? By selecting certain statements and attempting to understand them out of context it is possible to conclude that Einstein seeks to disassociate ethics or morality altogether from religion. Take, for example these statements, "He (who is influenced by cosmic religious feeling) has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion…. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair… A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary." His use of the term "religious" in this context, and saying that he has no use for social or moral religion seem to say that he is not interested in morality and that his religion is divorced from ethics. A careful reading of these same remarks in their context will reveal that such is not what he means to say.
What he means by "social and moral religion" is the kind of ethics that are motivated by a "moral conception of God" - a belief in "the God of Providence who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes, the God who, according to the width of the believer's outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even life as such, the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing, who preserves the souls of the dead. That is the social or moral conception of God." In saying that no religious basis is necessary for morality he means that belief in such a concept of God is not necessary; that ethics and morality are independent of a belief in any kind of superhuman moral will or force in the universe.
In the light of his great knowledge and understanding of the nature and laws of the universe, and in loyalty to his deep respect, awe and reverence for the profound reason and intelligence that he sees hinted at in the harmony of natural law, Albert Einstein is humbly confessing that as far as he can know and understand there is no thoughtful or willful being or force beyond man that is concerned with or interested in human values; that he has no reason whatsoever to justify a belief that there is any source of morality greater that the "feeling of sympathy" or "reverence for life" that is manifested in human beings. Therefore, there is no superhuman or divine source of morality. "It is a purely human affair." Thus it is clear that the source of the ethical motivation of Einstein's religion is nowhere else than in our human capacity to show sympathy or reverence for life.
A SHOCK TO SOME -
I can see how Einstein's religious ideas may shock and disturb the mental poise of those who still find moral guidance through beliefs in some kind of supernatural source or morality. To those I am sure Einstein would say they ought not take his words for more than they are - just the reflection of the honest opinions and convictions of one mortal being, who, like all men, knows only in part, and is forced to give meaning and purpose to his life without the benefit of infallible knowledge. Give up no belief until they find a better one to take its place.
A WELCOME LIGHT TO OTHERS -
For those to whom traditional religious beliefs have lost their meaning, and can no longer confront them with that which is profound and sacred in the world, nor provide them with an authoritative source of morality, for such ones Einstein's religion should be as welcome and as useful as the appearing of a lighted candle in a dark room. To them his religion offers a way of thinking that can provide them with the feeling of being at home in the strange and fantastic universe that science has revealed. It can imbue them with a faith in the rationality of nature that will keep alive their sense of wonder and a thirst of truth, while at the same time free them from all the hangover fears of the unknown that were exploited by so much of the religious thinking of the past. While humbling them with a greater awareness of the profound mystery and beauty of truth and life, it can lead them on in every direction in search for more knowledge and understanding of all things.
FEELING OF SYMPATHY -
In pointing to the feeling of sympathy in their own hearts as the highest source of morality, Einstein's religion places those who can be inspired by it under an inward moral authority that can keep them conscious of the personal and super-personal values to which they may devote themselves and so find a sense of moral direction and judgment that gives meaning and purpose to their lives. It can enable them to know without rational proof, without fear of punishment in hell, or without any hope of heavenly rewards, that their lives have meaning and worth, in so far as what they do makes life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful."
It is a religion that gives one affinity with the totality of things, through the sense of harmony made manifest in nature - a religion that enables one to find in humanity itself those forces "which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful"
CLOSING WORDS: " 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, or the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge." Albert Einstein
All quotations in this paper, not otherwise identified, were taken from:
Albert Einstein - "Out of My Later Years
Albert Einstein - "The World As I See It"
Phillip Frank - "Einstein, His Life and Times"
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