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Einstein As a Believer

H. Huseyin Erdem

2005-07-01 00:00:00

“My feeling is insofar religious as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as ‘laws of nature.’ It is this consciousness and humility I miss in the Freethinker mentality.”

American Physical Society devoted the year 2005 to Albert Einstein in honor of his discovery of the relativity theory in 1905. Many activities and essays are being prepared to recognize his major contributions to science. One aspect of Einstein that strikes us is his religious conviction; this is something that has been almost overlooked to date. Although the founding fathers of modern physics, like M. Planck, N. Bohr, W. Heisenberg, and P.A.M. Dirac, were all scientists who were devout believers at the same time, Einstein’s religiosity stood apart from them. The Swiss novelist Friedrich Durrenmatt realized this strong religious bent that Einstein had, once saying, “Einstein used to speak so often of God that I tend to believe he was a theologian in disguise.”(1)

Albert Einstein was born in 1879 in Ulm, Germany into a Jewish family. Although his family were not practicing Jews in the traditional sense, they never renounced their Jewish heritage. At the age of six, Albert was sent to a Catholic public school and received a religious education there. Around this time, his parents hired a distant relative to teach Albert the principles of Judaism. Although his name is not known, according to Einstein’s sister, Maja, he was the person who awakened the young Einstein to religious feelings. Einstein said, “He was so fervent in his religious feelings that, on his own, he observed religious prescriptions in every detail. For example, he ate no pork. This he did for reasons of conscience, not because his family had set such an example. He remained true to his self-chosen way of life for years.”(2) In contrast, according to A. Moszkowski, who published the first biography of Einstein in 1920, the beauty and splendors of nature opened the gate of “religious paradise,” as Einstein once called. He pointed out that yet another factor played an important role in Albert’s religious feelings, and that was music. Ever since he had taken violin lessons at the age of six, Einstein had found music intimately related with religious sentiments. “Music, Nature, and God became intermingled in him in a complex of feeling, a moral unity, the trace of which never vanished, although later religious factors became extended to a general ethical outlook on the world,”(3) says Moszkowski. However, according to Einstein’s autobiography, written in 1949, his religiosity was neither from love or music, but it was rooted in much deeper thoughts: “When I was a fairly precocious man, the nothingness of the hopes and strivings which chase most men restlessly through life came to my consciousness with considerable vitality. Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that pursuit, which in those years was more carefully covered up by hypocrisy and glittering words than is the case today. By the mere existence of his stomach, everyone was condemned to participate in that pursuit. Moreover, it was possible to satisfy the stomach by such participation, but not man, insofar as he is a thinking and feeling being. As the first way out, there was religion, which is implanted into every child, by way of the traditional education machine. Thus, I came-despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents-to a deep religiosity.”(4)

The most impressive difference between Einstein and the other great scientists of his age was that he expressed his religious position clearly and loudly. At a charity dinner in New York, Einstein explicitly dissociated himself from atheism when he spoke with the German Anti-Nazi diplomat Hubertus zu Lowenstein: “In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me in support of such views.”(5) In a reply to a letter by Beatrice F. from San Francisco, who thought that he was a freethinker and had asked what his religious position really was, he refused to be classified even as a freethinker: “My feeling is insofar religious as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as ‘laws of nature.’ It is this consciousness and humility I miss in the Freethinker mentality.”(6) On the other hand, he also differentiated his position from that of mysticism several times. In 1955, he wrote, “What I see in nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of ‘humility.’ This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”(7)

Between 1931 and 1941, Einstein wrote quite a number of essays and gave lectures on the relationship between religion and science. He never accepted that there was a conflict between religion and science. On the contrary, he regarded science and religion as complementary to each other, or rather as being mutually dependant. In a lecture at Princeton in 1939, titled as “The Goal,” he emphasized that science ascertains only what is, but not what should be; no conflict between the two exists. “Though religion determines the goal, science in its broadest sense, shows the means for attaining this goal. However, science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion . . . I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”(8)

According to Einstein, religion was also a necessity for a society to be healthy. In an interview by the Irish writer James Murphy, answering the question whether scientific theories can establish ideas for life, Einstein declared that “our moral judgments, our sense of beauty, and religious instincts are tributary forms in helping the reasoning faculty toward its highest achievements. You are right in speaking of the moral foundations of science; but you cannot turn it around and speak of the scientific foundations of morality. For science cannot teach men to be moral and every attempt to reduce ethics to scientific formulae must fail.” The concluding statement of this interview was that “modern science does supply the mind with an object for contemplative exaltation. Mankind must exalt itself. Sursum corda (Latin for “lift up your hearts”) is always its cry. Every cultural striving, whether it be religious or scientific, touches the core of the inner psyche and aims at freedom from the Ego, not the individual Ego alone, but also the mass Ego of humanity.”(9)

It can be asserted that Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and in a broader sense his other great achievements, were religiously motivated to some extent. For example, Corneluis Lanchos, who had been working with Einstein for sometime, claimed that certain specific physical ideas in the theory of relativity were influenced by religious considerations.(10) From this perspective, all his scientific contributions can be regarded as derivatives of his search for the truth. This view of looking at the religious and scientific knowledge in Einstein shows a parallelism with that of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, the great Islamic scholar of the twentieth century, who declared, “The light of conscience is religious sciences. The light of the mind is modern sciences. Reconciliation of both manifests the truth.”(11) Albert Einstein, perceived as one of the greatest scientist of all times by some scholars, is a very good example of the reconciliation of these two sources in searching for the truth, the existence and oneness of God.


  1. F. Durrenmatt, Albert Einstein, Diogenes Verlag, Zurich, 1979, p.12.
  2. Maja Winteler-Einstein, The collected papers of Albert Einstein, V 1, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ, pp xv-xxvii.
  3. A. Moszkowski, Einstein, Methuen, London, 1921, p. 221.
  4. A. Einstein, Auotobiographical notes, in Albert Einstein Philosopher-Scientist, p.3.
  5. Prinz Hubertus zu Lovenstein, Towards the further shore, Victor Gollancz, London, 1968, p. 156.
  6. Einstein to BF, 17 December 1952, Einstein Achieve, reel 59-797.
  7. H. Dukas and B. Hoffman, Albert Einstein-The Human Side, Princeton Univ. Press, Prioncteon, NJ, 1979, p. 132.
  8. A. Einstein, “The Goal”, lecture delivered 19 May 1939, Ideas and Opinions, pp 41-42; Out of My later Years, pp. 25-28.
  9. A. Einstein , Science and God, Forum and Century 83, 1930, 373-379.
  10. C. Lanchos, Judaism and Science, Leeds Univ. Press, Leeds, 1970.
  11. Nursi, Said (Bediuzzaman), Munazarat, in: Risale-i Nur Kulliyati, 2 vols., Nesil Basim-Yayin, Istanbul: 1996.
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