At home in Berlin in April 1929, Albert Einstein received an urgent telegram from Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein of New York: “Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid 50 words.” Boston Archbishop William Henry Cardinal O’Connell had derided Einstein’s famous relativity theories as “befogged speculation” conjuring “the ghastly apparition of Atheism.” An alarmed Goldstein sought to douse these rhetorical flames with reassurance from the great man himself.
“I believe in Spinoza’s God,” Einstein wired back, “Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” The rabbi might have saved himself a little money; in the end, Einstein’s reply in the original German used only 25 words.
Einstein often saved ink by referring this way—a sort of philisophical shorthand—to Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza, the 17th-century philosopher and scientist excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Sephardic Jewish community for his beliefs. Einstein had read Spinoza with friends in college and later visited his home on a gray-cobbled street in the Dutch village of Rijnsburg (now Katwijk) outside Leiden. A frequent producer of doggerel, he once wrote several stanzas in Spinoza’s honor, beginning in German, Wie lieben ich…
How much do I love that noble man?
More than I could tell with words.
I fear though he’ll remain alone
With a holy halo of his own.
Spinoza did in fact “remain alone” for most of his life. Raised in an Amsterdam enclave of Marranos—Jews converted under the inquisitions of Spain and Portugal who had returned to Hebrew tradition in the Netherlands—Spinoza was considered a stellar pupil by his rabbis. When he began questioning the idea of a biblical God, however, they expelled him from the sect. Rather than convert to Christianity, he defied convention by living without organized religion. He never married and supported his life of scientific and philosophical inquiry through solitary work in a “high-tech” industry of his day, lens grinding.
Einstein, like Spinoza, never sought comfort from a traditional God or felt the need for moral instruction from religion. “[T]here is nothing divine about morality,” he wrote in 1934. “It is a purely human affair.” Yet neither man could imagine a universe completely empty of a higher power or of yearnings beyond humans’ base and angst-ridden selves.
“Einstein shared the view with Spinoza that whatever we know of the laws of nature is so beautiful and elegant, so mathematically elegant—the way in which explanations get bigger and grander, sweeping in more reality—it fills us with awe and makes us feel our own puniness,” says Rebecca Goldstein, a philosopher and novelist at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the author of Betraying Spinoza. “When our scientific understanding has reached the most fundamental level,” they both believed, “the laws will explain themselves.” That conviction helped fuel Einstein’s drive, to the end of his life, for the unified field theory—a “theory of everything” that would reveal God’s hand in the world.
While Spinoza was forced to live out his days shunned by fellow Jews, Einstein lived in a more fortunate time. Indeed, in his 50s, after 20 years as one of the most famous men alive, Einstein found himself increasingly called upon to explain his personal beliefs. Not surprisingly, he was emboldened to put forth his own theory of religion.
“Something which is very typical of Einstein, as he said he had no respect for authority, is that he wants to discover things for himself,” reflects Hanoch Gutfreund, physics professor emeritus and former president of Hebrew University. In religion as in science, “he stood up against accepted ideas and theories and models and—just like that—invents his own religion.”
Einstein offered the most comprehensive public explanation of his spiritual universe in a 1930 essay for The New York Times Magazine titled “Religion and Science.” In it Einstein outlined his unique “Cosmic Religion” and traced its development through three stages of human consciousness. The earliest, a “religion of fear,” rested on primitive peoples’ “fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death,” according to Max Jammer, author of Einstein and Religion. Such animist forces were appeasable, Jammer summarized, only by “supplications and sacrifices, the earliest forms of prayers and rituals.”
The Old and New Testaments exemplify Einstein’s second religious phase, based on a moral and ethical concept of God. An anthropomorphic deity mediated through priests, he is a God who, Jammer wrote, “rewards and punishes, who comforts in distress and preserves the souls of the dead.”
Einstein flirted briefly with this second-stage religion as a pre-adolescent but then went on to personify what he considered the third and ultimate level of religious experience: the quest for understanding God through the natural world he had created, without resort to dogma or belief in “a God conceived in man’s image.” He called this “cosmic religious feeling” and found its antecedents in Biblical prophets and the teachings of other religions—Buddhism in particular. Cosmic religious feeling also appealed to Einstein’s anti-authoritarian nature, in that it rejects the priestly caste necessary to religion’s second stage. And, in keeping with Einstein’s ideal of personal ethics, it imposes moral responsibility on its adherents, rather than on priests or a deity.
The third stage, he believed, obviates the need for church authority. “Hence, it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints,” he wrote.
There were those among Einstein’s contemporaries who would have included him in this group—as heretic rather than saint. His article inspired intense reactions; Dr. Fulton J. Sheen, the well-known priest and professor at Catholic University of America, derided it as the “sheerest kind of stupidity and nonsense” and The New York Times ran fervid counter-arguments to Einstein’s over the following days.
But the paper also noted a sermon delivered in Chicago’s Free Synagogue, whose rabbi acknowledged that Einstein, in refusing to see the universe as a “riddle” with a mechanistic solution, had expressed an “awe and reverence” that is essentially religious. His views were seconded from another liberal corner when Rabbi Nathan Krass of New York’s Jewish Institute of Religion asserted, “The religion of Albert Einstein will not be approved by certain sectarians but it must and will be approved by the Jews.”
The Orthodox echoed their conservative Christian counterparts in rejecting Einstein’s radical view of God. Yet even devout Jews who deplored his theology couldn’t ignore Einstein or stem their pride in this self-described “deeply religious non-believer.”In this respect, Einstein had improved on Spinoza’s example.
Of course, he enjoyed opportunities Spinoza never had to explain to his contemporaries the dichotomy he saw between devotion and traditional belief, typified in his 1936 reply to a New York Sunday school student who wrote asking if scientists pray. Einstein first gently batted aside the matter of prayer: “Because Nature is ruled by laws,” he wrote, “a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by…a wish addressed to a supernatural Being.” Nevertheless, because those laws are only partly manifest to mankind, “the belief in the existence of basic all-embracing laws in Nature also rests on a sort of faith…largely justified so far by the success of scientific research.”
Humans who would understand these laws, he once wrote, “are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is.”
The quest for science, which Einstein viewed as a form of devotion, was to try to work out this cosmic Dewey Decimal System. If and when such a unified understanding of the world is achieved, perhaps Einstein—and Spinoza—will be regarded as prophets, earning the “holy halos” of Einstein’s poem.
—Mandy Katz and Nadine Epstein