Trying to claim Einstein, or indeed anyone else, as being on the side of god is an argument from authority and therefore has no real bearing on the question of whether god exists or not. Nonetheless it is extremely aggravating to see such an eminent scientist being co-opted by evangelical proselytisers in an attempt to lend credibility to their beliefs. Einstein is a favourite because he is an iconic figure and his image and words convey the authority of science to the ‘layman’ in a way few others do.
This post is an attempt to put this to bed once and for all, though it’s naive to think it will do so. Also to provide a reference in case this comes up again – which it will.
Argument from Authority
Everything past this section is actually unnecessary, but I’ll be carrying on anyway regardless. The argument from authority is a known fallacy which, simply put, is the following:
“Just because someone important says something, doesn’t mean that it’s true.”
Just because George Bush tells you there’s WMDs in Iraq doesn’t mean there are. Just because Newton believed in ritual magic and alchemy doesn’t mean they are valid. Just because your mum tells you eating your crusts will make your hair curly doesn’t make it true.
Even if Einstein had been a raging evangelist who believed in a literal, biblical god – alongside his scientific accomplishments – that wouldn’t make it true any more than his scientific accomplishments would lend credibility to him claiming that the Moon was made of green cheese.
What did Einstein Really Believe?
Einstein had a very subtle and nuanced view of the universe which makes it hard to read. In no sense, however, was he a fan of religion. He did not believe in any sort of god that the typical theist quoting him would consider a god. He variously called himself an agnostic, a religious non-believer, a pantheist and a Spinozan.
He explicitly stated on several occasions that he did not believe in a personal god, an intercessory god, a god that punishes and rewards, the immortality of the human soul or that morality was the concern of any deity. That doesn’t leave much room, if any, for most people’s concept of a god.
As an agnostic you could say he didn’t know whether there was a god or not and/or that he believed this was unknowable. Virtually all atheists are also agnostics (these are not mutually exclusive) and many people use ‘agnostic’ when they mean weak or agnostic atheist, or just to avoid upsetting people over much. Much like Neil Degrasse Tyson today, Einstein seems to have had more of a live-and-let-live policy which – while I don’t agree – I can respect as coming from a good place. He was wary of being identified with the ‘crusading atheists’ of his time, much as some today, while not believing, are wary of joining with Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Krauss.
On the face of it, ‘religious non-believer’ seems like a contradiction in terms. However, there are several religions or near-religions that can be considered atheistic. Some versions of Buddhism are atheistic as are some Eastern traditions. Modern Satanism is not actually the worship of Satan but a ‘libertarianism for the soul’ and a piss-take on much the same lines as Discordianism and The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Einstein was fond, unfortunately, of using religious terminology and allegory in explaining things and by religion he meant ‘awe, wonder and reverence’.
Pantheism is the view that the universe and god are one. This can be interpreted two ways, that everything is god or that what people call god is simply the universe itself. The second interpretation would seem to fit with other comments Einstein made elsewhere.
Spinozism is a pantheist view (or panentheist if you prefer), that ‘god’ – or what people call god – is an underlying ‘something’ to the universe that interpenetrates and includes it. The quintessential ‘somethingness’ of reality if you will. Keep in mind, Spinoza’s view lead to him being considered an atheist and excommunicated. As a die hard determinist from a Jewish cultural background it’s little wonder that Spinoza would appeal to Einstein.
Einstein’s view then is absolutely not that there is a god, but that the universe is a wonderful and majestic thing that some people mistake for god. His view is, perhaps, best summed up in this quote:
“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
So Why do the Religious Quote Him so Much?
Einstein had an unfortunate habit, that many other scientists have had down the years, even Hawking, for using god and religion as a metaphor. This allows him to be quote-mined by creationists and evangelicals who want to claim him as one of theirs. Some of these, and his meanings, include:
“God is subtle but he is not malicious.” (Reality is hard to fathom, but not deliberately hidden).
“God does not care about our mathematical difficulties. He integrates empirically.” (The universe is what it is. If the maths doesn’t add up, it’s the maths that’s wrong, not the universe).
“God doesn’t play dice with the world.” (As a determinist he thought everything followed one after another. He was wrong as Chaos Theory and Quantum Mechanics have later shown. This is just an expression of his determinism).
It doesn’t matter whether Einstein believed in god or not. It lends no support to the idea one way or the other.
He was not religious in a sense any of the big three Abrahamic Religions would recognise. Rather his opinion might be best expressed as a sense of awe, reverence and wonder for the natural universe
He should not be co-opted by theists to support their point of view as he quite explicitly stated he didn’t believe in the god they are pushing. While to all intents and purposes he was an atheist he preferred not to be associated with ‘crusading atheists’ so we should not abuse what he said and thought either – not that I’ve ever seen an atheist be other than truthful about it.