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Einstein on Religion


Einstein, the greatest physicist of the 20th century, was a many-sided original mind. He was a philosophic scientist. He lived and reflected deeply on the spirit of the scientist in his investigation and the nature of the universe science presents to us. It was his view that pursuit of science is intensively religious in its feeling of humility, its kinship with Nature, its reverence and love for its harmony.

The study of Nature evokes feeling of humility in a scientist towards Nature and towards knowledge and this is religious feeling.

On 17 July 1953, a woman, who was a licensed Baptist pastor, sent Einstein in Princeton an interesting letter. Quoting several passages from the scriptures, she specifically asked Einstein's opinion concerning the notion of Supreme Being in the universe. It is not known whether a reply was sent, but the letter is in the Einstein Archives (Estate of A. Einstein, Princeton, New Jersey) and on it, in Einstein's own handwriting, is the following comment: "What I see in nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill any thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism." Newton expresses the same feeling of humility when he says about himself that he as a scientist, is like a child collecting pebbles on the seashore of knowledge. A true scientist knows how little he knows and how vast is his ignorance. His book of knowledge is ever incomplete.

The scientist feels reverence and love in his study of the harmony in Nature.

The goal of science is not only to discover rules which furnish the correct correlation and prediction of empirical facts, but it also seeks to reduce the connection discovered to the smallest possible number of mutually independent conceptual elements. It is precisely this striving after the logically systematic unification of the manifold that stimulates profound reverence for the rationality manifested in the mechanism of the universe around us. The "humble attitude of mind towards the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence" is what Einstein attributed to be the "religious feeling in the highest sense of the term.”

Einstein had observed: "The longing to behold harmony is the source of the inexhaustible patience and perseverance with which Planck has devoted himself to science ... The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or the lover."

The scientist has the religious feeling of kinship with Nature. He is free from the petty feeling of personal survival or immortality.

When Einstein was asked during a serious illness whether he was at all afraid of death, he said: "I feel such a sense of solidarity with all living things that it does not matter to me where the individual begins and ends." And he added: "there is nothing in the world which I could not dispense with at a moment’s notice." Such utter fearlessness of death and total detachment, liberation from the self, and such complete dedication in ceaseless pursuit of truth, constitute the foundation of what can be termed as the deepest spiritual convictions.

In 1955, a few months before his death, Einstein received from a woman in Vienna, a letter imploring him to tell her what was his final opinion concerning immortality of human soul and existence of super- human authority in the universe. Here is the English translation of the German draft of the reply written by Einstein: "I have never imputed to nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. The mystical trend of our time, which is manifested in the rampant growth of the so-called theosophy and spiritualism, is for me no more than a symptom of weakness, confusion and a convenient vehicle for exploitation -- it is far more important to make our present life on Earth better than to worry about rewards or punishment after death."

It is indeed difficult to find among the profound scientific minds anyone without a religious feeling of his own. But there are nuances of this feeling which differ from scientist to scientist. Einstein's religious attitude was essentially in the form of a rapturous and reverential amazement at the harmony of natural laws.

In pre-scientific times it was not possible by means of thought alone to attain results that all mankind could have accepted as certain and necessary. Still less was there a conviction that all that happens in nature is subject to inexorable laws. The fragmentary character of a natural law, as perceived by the primitive observer, was such as to foster a belief in ghosts and spirits. It stands to the everlasting credit of science that it has managed to overcome man's insecurity before himself and before nature.

In creating elementary mathematics, the Greeks, for the first time devised a system of thought whose conclusions had no subjective clement. The scientists of the Renaissance then hit upon the combination of systematic experiment with mathematical analysis. This union made possible incredible precision in the formulation of natural laws and impressive certainly in checking them by experience. As Einstein put it: "The general public may not be able to follow the details of scientific research but it can register at least one important gain: the confidence that human thought is dependable and natural law universal."

Einstein identifies religion with cosmic feeling towards harmony of the Universe. He therefore rejects traditional view of religion as faith in personal God as constituting the principle of harmony of the Universe. As for personal God Einstein pointed out: "There are decisive weaknesses attached to this idea of personal God, which have painfully felt since the beginning of history. It undefined source of fear and hope which genesis of irrational superstitions and in the past placed such vast power in the hands of the priests and so ruthlessly exploited by them. Unfortunately the doctrine of a personal God interfering natural events can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot."

"The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that path to genuine religiosity does not lie through fear of personal God or blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge. After religious teachers give up the doctrine of a personal God and accomplish the necessary refining process they will surely recognize with joy that true religion can be ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge."

The ethics that this religious spirit of science of humility, reverence and love for the harmony Nature, and kinship with Nature inspires is thus expressed by Einstein: "A person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best ability, liberated himself from the fetters of selfish desires and is pre-occupied with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations to which he clings because of their super-personal value. What is important is the force of this super-personal content and depth of the conviction, regardless of whether any attempt is made to unite this content with a divine being, for otherwise it would not be possible to count Buddha and Spinoza as religious personalities."

Einstein holds that traditional religion should give up the idea of personal God and cease to engage itself in conflict in a field which is of science The conflict between science and religion “occurs whenever the religious stock of ideas contains dogmatically fixed statements on subjects which belong to the domain of science. Thus it is of vital importance for the preservation of true religion that such conflicts be avoided when they arise from subjects which, in fact, are not really essential for the pursuance of the religious aims."

Religion should attend to the moral problem. At present "the actual spectacle more resembles a battlefield than an orchestra. Everywhere, in economics as well as in political life, the guiding principal is one of ruthless striving for success at the expense of one's fellow men. This competitive spirit prevails even in schools and, destroying all feelings human fraternity and co-operation, conceives of achievement not as derived from the love for productive and thoughtful work, but as springing from personal ambition and fear of rejection."

Einstein was deeply convinced that it should be privilege of human genius, impersonated by inspired individuals, "to advance ethical axioms
which are so comprehensive and so well founded that men will accept them as grounded in the vast mass of their individual emotional experiences." He argues: "Whoever is concerned with this problems, a crucial one in the study of religion as such, is advised to read the description of the Pueblo Indians in Ruth Benedict's book, Patterns of Culture. Under the hardest living conditions, this tribe has apparently accomplished the difficult task of delivering its people from the scourge of competitive spirit and of fostering in it a temperate, co-operative conduct of life, free of external pressure and without any curtailment of happiness."

To illustrate his notion of the cosmic religious person, Einstein was fond of citing the following example: During the First World War, someone tried to convince a famous Dutch scientist that this war might eventually prove to be the right step in the history of mankind. The scientist had replied: "I cannot now disprove the accuracy of your assertion, but I do know that I should not care to live in such world." Einstein remarked: "This is what I call divinity-let us think, feel and act like this man, uphold the dignity of man by refusing to accept faithful compromises even if they are legitimized in the name of God and religion.

Einstein on Religion - SGR