Albert Einstein was a deeply religious man. But, like Baruch Spinoza before him, he understood religion in a very idiosyncratic way. A Jew by birth, he very early abandoned traditional religious views.
On April 24, 1929, Einstein, who by then was the most famous scientist ever, received a simple cablegram from Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue, New York: “Do you believe in God?” Einstein replied: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”
Einstein’s major utterances on the subject of religion came in the form of two essays with mirror-image titles --”Religion and Science,” written for the New York Times on the occasion of his second visit to the United States in 1931, and “Science and Religion,” written eight years later. In the first of these Einstein outlines three states of religious development --the religion of fear that moved primitive peoples, the subsequent moral religion whose driving force is social feeling, and finally, the “cosmic religious sense...which recognizes neither dogmas nor God made in man’s image.”
People tend to equate “religion” with their particular system of belief. In his second essay Einstein was far more ecumenical. To him religion stems from the legitimate need to find a goal for our human aspirations. The purely rational --or scientific-- conception of existence cannot provide an ethics to guide human endeavor; it cannot give us a sense of the ultimate and fundamental ends.
"To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions..."
At a loss to describe succintly what religion is, Einstein is content to ask what characterizes a religious person.
"A person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has...liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations to which he clings because of their super-personal value. It seems to me that what is important is the force of this super-personal content and the depth of the conviction concerning its overpowering meaningfulness, regardless of whether any attempt is made to unite this content with a divine Being."
Einstein describes as religious the scientist’s trust in the rational nature of reality. But one must not confuse the religious with the supernatural. “The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events,” he writes, “the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature.”
The awe that deep scientific understanding brings is very close to a religious epiphany and stems from the same underlying psychological foundation.
"Whoever has undergone the intense experience of [scientific understanding] is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind towards the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence... . This attitude...appears to me to be religious in the highest sense of the word."
I wrote this entry in response to an e-mail from my good friend Dimitri Maekawa, who is experiencing an Einsteinian epiphany in Victoria, British Columbia. May he find solace in communion with such a one as uncle Albert.