Some things aren’t relative: Einstein was an atheist


Michael Weiss argues in Slate that “the temptation to lure Einstein posthumously into the theistic fold is understandable” – but off the mark:

Einstein underwent a brief elective immersion in Judaism as a boy, but his parents were secular; his father thought the Abrahamic rituals “ancient superstitions.” Einstein later told New York Rabbi Herbert Goldstein that he believed in “Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.” (In the 17th century, philosopher Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from Judaism on suspicion of atheism—allegations that Rebecca Goldstein argues in Betraying Spinoza were, in fact, correct.) When a rumor was circulated in 1945 that a Jesuit priest had converted him, Einstein thundered back: “I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.”

[F]rom the viewpoint of a layman, Einstein frequently denied being an atheist, though he seemed more at odds with the “militant” style of godlessness than with its core substance. It’s impossible to imagine him volunteering even to moderate a Hitchens-Dawkins-Dennett colloquium on secularism. He wrote to a Navy ensign, “I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth.”

In his best-selling biography Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson writes, “[W]e should do him the honor of taking him at his word when he insists, repeatedly, that these oft-used phrases were not merely a semantic way of disguising that he was actually an atheist.” It’s a generous assessment, but one that encompasses the physicist’s more milquetoast pronouncements on the matter and conveniently ignores what Isaacson elsewhere concedes was Einstein’s maddening tendency to be purposefully gnomic or oblique. Another biographer, Ronald W. Clark, observed that when Einstein talked about religion, “he tended to adopt the belief of Alice’s Red Queen that ‘words mean what you want them to mean.’ ” That comes closer to the mark and is best evidenced in the famous quotation, “I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.” Only a literal mind would see here a prime mover at a celestial craps table. …

Most believers have long given up trying to legitimize the supernatural in microscopes or cyclotrons. That scientists like Einstein resorted to a numinous vocabulary is not the “gotcha” some wishful thinkers would like it to be. Faith has had impressive minds on its side in the past, but it will have to work without the assumption that the greatest of the 20th century was one of them.

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