Einstein and God
By Rev. Robert Barron
It was revealed a few weeks ago that, toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein wrote a letter in which he dismissed belief in God as superstitious and characterized the stories in the Bible as childish. During a time when atheists have emerged rather aggressively in the popular culture, it was, to say the least, discouraging to hear that the most brilliant scientist of the twentieth century seemed to be antipathetic to religion. It appeared as though Einstein would have agreed with the Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harrises and Richard Dawkins of the world in holding that religious belief belongs to the childhood of the human race.
It just so happens that the revelation of this letter coincided with my reading of Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Einstein, a book that presents a far more complex picture of the great scientist’s attitude toward religion than his late career musing would suggest. In 1930, Einstein composed a kind of creed entitled “What I Believe,” at the conclusion of which he wrote: “To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense…I am a devoutly religious man.” In response to a young girl who had asked him whether he believed in God, he wrote: “everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a Spirit vastly superior to that of man.” And during a talk at Union Theological Seminary on the relationship between religion and science, Einstein declared: “the situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
These reflections of Einstein—and he made many more like them throughout his career—bring the German physicist close to the position of a rather influential German theologian. In his 1968 book Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, offered this simple but penetrating argument for God’s existence: the universal intelligibility of nature, which is the presupposition of all science, can only be explained through recourse to an infinite and creative mind which has thought the world into being. No scientist, Ratzinger said, could even begin to work unless and until he assumed that the aspect of nature he was investigating was knowable, intelligible, marked by form. But this fundamentally mystical assumption rests upon the conviction that whatever he comes to know through his scientific work is simply an act of re-thinking or re-cognizing what a far greater mind has already conceived. Ratzinger’s elegant proof demonstrates that, at bottom, religion and science ought never to be enemies, since both involve an intuition of God’s existence and intelligence. In fact, many have argued that it is no accident that the modern physical sciences emerged precisely out of the universities of the Christian west, where the idea of creation through the divine word was clearly taught. Unhappily, in far too many tellings of the history of ideas, modernity is seen as emerging out of, and in stark opposition to, repressive, obscurantist, and superstitious Christianity. (How many authors, up to the present day, rehearse the struggles of Galileo to make just this point). As a result, Christianity—especially in its Catholic expression—is often presented as a kind of foil to science, when in fact there is a deep congruity between the disciplines that search for objective truth and the religion that says, “in the beginning was the Word.”
What sense, then, can we make of Einstein’s recently discovered letter? Given the many other things he said about belief, perhaps it’s best to say that he was reacting against primitive and superstitious forms of religion, just as St. Paul was when he said that we must put away childish things when we’ve come of age spiritually. And what of his dismissal of the Bible? Here I think we have to make a distinction. A person can be a genius in one field of endeavor and remain naïve, even inept, in another. Few would dispute that Einstein was the greatest theoretical physicist of the last century, but this is no guarantee that he had even an adequate appreciation for Sacred Scripture. The “infantile” stories of the Bible have been the object of sophisticated interpretation for two and half millenia. Masters such as Origen, Philo, Chrysostom, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Henry Newman have uncovered the complexity and multivalence of the Bible’s symbolism and have delighted in showing the literary artistry that lies below its sometimes deceptively simple surface.
So I think we can say in conclusion that religious people can, to a large extent, claim Einstein as an ally, though in regard to Scripture interpretation, we can find far better guides than he.
Published in Catholic New World.