What Was Einstein’s Religion?: Deist? Pantheist? Humanist? Atheist?
The answer is: It’s complicated. Albert Einstein said so many varied things about God that every theist and non-theist group can claim him for their own.
The Jews claim him. The Christians claim him. The atheists claim him. The agnostics claim him. The pantheists claim him. The deists claim him. The humanists claim him. They each have a basis for their claim.
The problem with Einstein and God is that he said a lot of things about God and religion.
Let’s begin with a few brief biographical facts about Albert Einstein and then return to the question of his religious beliefs.
Albert Einstein was the renowned physicist and mathematician who formulated the “Law of Relativity” and developed the famous equation “energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared,” or E = mc2. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, not for his theory of relativity, but for his explanation of the photoelectric effect.
The man who the world considers to be one of the great geniuses in all of history was “slow” as a child. His parents worried because he was late in learning to talk. As a youngster, he was never a good student, partly because he rebelled against rote-learning. However, he proved to have a strong aptitude for mathematics and physics. He received his PhD in science from the University of Zurich in 1905. Around the same time, he published several ground-breaking papers including his first paper on relativity.
Einstein was born in Germany in 1879. He happened to be in the United States in 1933 when Hitler came into power. Since he was Jewish by birth, and he wisely decided not to return to Germany. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940. He died in 1955.
Albert Einstein was born to a Jewish family and always identified as a Jew. However, he was a cultural Jew, not a religious Jew. Like many Jewish people, Einstein rejected the tenets of the faith of Judaism, but identified with the Jewish people as his “tribe.”
His parents were not religious, but as all Jewish boys do, he received religious instruction in preparation for his bar mitzvah at age 13. He became observant for a time, but by age12 he was questioning the truth of many biblical stories, and his religiosity faded. He never did his bar mitzvah.
He quite strongly rejected the faith of Judaism throughout his adult life. A year before his death, in 1954, Einstein wrote a private letter to his friend Eric Gutkind. This letter has come to be known as the “God Letter.” (In 2012, the letter sold for a little over $3 million on e-Bay.)
“For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.”
Albert Einstein was not an Israeli citizen but in 1952, the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, asked Einstein if he would be willing to serve as the second president of the new nation. It would have been a largely ceremonial position since it is the Prime Minister who actually governs, and Einstein was promised full freedom to pursue his scientific interests. Einstein turned it down, but affirmed that he felt a strong bond with the Jewish people.
“I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel [to serve as President], and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it. All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions. For these reasons alone I should be unsuited to fulfill the duties of that high office, even if advancing age was not making increasing inroads on my strength. I am the more distressed over these circumstances because my relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world.”
Einstein attended a Catholic school from the ages of 5 to 8, so he most likely was exposed to Christian theology at this young impressionable age.
“As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”
“No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”
Nonetheless, he rejected the Christian idea of a personal god–a god who is involved with the lives of people, who hears and answers prayers, performs miracles, etc.
“I cannot then believe in this concept of an anthropomorphic God who has the powers of interfering with these natural laws.”
“I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking, but by immutable laws.”
“Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being.”
However much he was impressed with the gospels’ telling of the story of Jesus, Einstein did not believe in the Christian concepts of soul or an afterlife.
“Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seems to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.”
He also rejected religion as an institution. He sounds quite angry when he speaks of indoctrination. In this, he may be typical of people who as children believe what they are taught, but who come to feel betrayed when they learn that what they were taught is not true. Einstein talked of his time of youthful belief as a time of “religious paradise.” Learning that his paradise was false left him understandably bitter.
“About God, I cannot accept any concept based on the authority of the Church… As long as I can remember, I have resented mass indoctrination.”
“It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of … an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings.”
Einstein did not believe in an anthropomorphic personal god, but did not reject the concept of god entirely. He believed that a “spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.” I suspect that his belief in “spirit” was a remnant of his early religiosity and an attempt to keep a toehold in the “paradise” he experienced as a child.
“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”
Spinoza’s god was a deist god, a “God of Nature,” a “Prime Mover,” who set the universe in motion, but then no longer concerned Himself with it. Einstein often speaks of a “cosmic religion”—he describes himself as religious because he is in awe of the universe and the spirit that he perceives to have created it and is imbued in it.
“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”
“To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense…I am a devoutly religious man.”
“We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many 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 arrangements of the books, but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.”
Einstein sounds a lot like a pantheist when he talks about “spirit.” Pantheism is the belief that the entire natural universe is identical with divinity– everything composes, and is composed of, an all-encompassing, immanent God. Pantheism differs from deism in that it does not posit God as a distinct entity, but believes God to be present in everything. It is a mystical view of the spirit of life.
He denied being a pantheist, but when he talks of the mystery of the universe, he sounds very much likes a pantheist. He speaks of “the grandeur of reason incarnate.”
“The most beautiful and most profound religious emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. And this mysticality is the power of all true science. If there is any such concept as a God, it is a subtle spirit, not an image of a man that so many have fixed in their minds.”
Humanism is a philosophy that dismisses the divine or supernatural and instead focuses on human interactions. Humanists seek solely rational ways of solving human problems and posit that humans can devise values for living a good and fulfilling life.
The Ethical Culture society is a non-theistic religion that professes humanistic ideals and works to integrate these ideals into daily life.
Albert Einstein was a supporter of humanism and the Ethical Culture Society. He served on the advisory board of the First Humanist Society of New York, and he was an honorary associate of the British Humanist Association.
For the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, he stated that the idea of Ethical Culture embodied his personal conception of what is most valuable and enduring in religion.
“Humanity requires such a belief to survive… without ‘ethical culture’ there is no salvation for humanity.”
“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”
Einstein denied being an atheist, although he sometimes called himself an agnostic. He definitely rejected the God of the Bible.
“I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist.”
“My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”
“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.”
Was he an atheist? It depends on how you define atheist. I define atheist as someone who does not have a belief in the God or the holy books of the major religions of the world. By my definition, Albert Einstein was an atheist because he too rejected the God of the Bible.
“The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”
He may have denied being an atheist, while accepting the label agnostic, because he had negative stereotypes of atheists.
“You may call me an agnostic, but 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 another statement, he berates atheists as people “who cannot hear the music of the spheres.”
When he denies the existence of a personal god and equates God with “the music of the spheres,” he is speaking like an atheist. However, he rejects the label because he dislikes “professional atheists” (what we now call “militant atheists”). He apparently did not understand that many atheists are not bitter people rebelling against childhood indoctrination and that they are just as readily moved by “the music of the spheres” as he himself was. If he had known this, he might have been as willing to call himself an atheist as he was willing to call himself an agnostic.
Einstein used the words “God” and “religion” to mean different things at different times. His definitions of these words often do not match the meanings of these words as they are commonly used. We must look to the context to determine how to interpret his words.
There are two quotes which are often cited as proof that Einstein believed in God, but which are actually metaphors that stem from his deism and humanism.
“God does not play dice with the universe.”
“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
In the first metaphor, Einstein was referring to the emerging field of study known as quantum physics–he was saying that the laws of the universe are not random. In the second metaphor, he was talking about his belief that religion must be based on science and that a religion of humanistic ethics must inform science.
Einstein turned his brilliantly analytic mind to the concept of religion and created his own religion. He rejected the idea of the “God of Abraham,” but found some parts of the Bible to be inspirational. His religion was mainly a mixture of deism, pantheism, and humanism.
I consider deism to be a form of agnosticism. [I don’t believe in the God of the major religions, but someone/something had to have created the universe so I will call that God. It is just another way of saying “I don’t know.”] And agnosticism is just another form of atheism. [I don’t believe in the God of the major religions, but instead of saying that I will say I don’t know if it is true or not.] It’s a cop out because if you thought it was true, you would be a believer, but you are not a believer, so you must be an atheist. And that is how I equate deism with atheism. And that is how I conclude that Einstein, despite what he said, was an atheist.
Einstein clearly had a keen interest in religion. He wrote about and spoke about it extensively. (The quotes in this article are taken from his public writings, his personal letters, his interviews with journalists, and his speeches.) I think he formed his religious views after much consideration. I believe that, as he himself says, his religious views were consistent throughout his adult life.