January 9, 2009

Einstein on Religion

Einstein's reputation as an eccentric mathematical genius can sometimes overshadow his accomplishments as a writer and philosopher: throughout his life, he published more than 300 books and papers, and while most revolved around his groundbreaking theories in physics, many express his ideas about religion, politics, and ethics.

Of particular interest to me are his essays on religion. I've often found it difficult to express my affinity for the notion of science as religion; that is, believing in a universal force as a divine principle. In a piece titled "The Religious Spirit of Science," Einstein is much more articulate:

'[The scientist's] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reaction.'

He continues in "Science and Religion":

'But mere thinking cannot give us a sense of the ultimate and fundamental ends. ... To put it boldly, [science] is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualization. But when asking myself what religion is I cannot think of the answer so easily. ... This qualification has to do with the concept of God. During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man's own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine the phenomenal world. ... In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, to give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. ... The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.'

I imagine a realignment of faith like this: replace the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient God who governs mankind's thoughts and actions with an omnipotent, omniscient and mathematically definable religious paradigm that still allows for free will but imparts no judgment, acknowledges no guilt, and affects everyone equally, regardless of nationality. Best of all, its missionaries would have to be exceptional minds, people who care deeply about reaching that elusive fundamental understanding and who are qualified to explore it. Quantum physics still presents a "leap of faith" in the sense that none of it is evident, or even intuitive; our innate yearning for the belief in something bigger than life is still satisfied, and in a more complete way. Scientific explanation doesn't just replace the need for religious parable, it provides the ultimate fodder for inward exploration: not "why are we here?" but "how did we become?"

Both essays are excerpted from Einstein's Ideas and Opinions. I also recommend his The World As I See It and the biographies Einstein: The Life and Times by Ronald W. Clark and Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson.

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