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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Einstein's Religious Theses - January-February-March 2001

Einstein's Religious Theses
Comparing the famous physicist's concepts of God and soul to Hindu

By Mark Hawthorne, California
Hinduism Today
January-February-March 2001

Many people, mostly theologians, have accused Einstein of being an
atheist; such a scientist, say his detractors, could hardly be
religious. Einstein's view of religion did not include a personal
God, which in the first half of the twentieth century was tantamount
to saying he was atheistic. But no atheist spent so much time, and
put so much thought, into celebrating God. And perhaps no physicist
ever considered so deeply the link between science and religion. When
asked how he accounted for being both a scientist and a man known for
religious musings, Einstein replied: "Well, I do not think that it is
necessarily the case that science and religion are natural opposites.
In fact, I think that there is a very close connection between the
two. Further, I think that science without religion is lame and,
conversely, that religion without science is blind. Both are
important and should work hand-in-hand. It seems to me that whoever
doesn't wonder about the truth in religion and in science might as
well be dead."

Then there are the theological issues raised by Einstein's scientific
discoveries. For example, Hindu philosophers have frequently
suggested that Einstein's famed equation, E=mc2 (that mass and energy
are different manifestations of the same thing), is remarkably
parallel to certain concepts in Hindu philosophy. Other aspects of
his work, such as the mutability of time, have intriguing parallels
in the philosophies of India. At the request of Hinduism Today who
gave me the assignment despite my lack of philosophical credentials I
ventured into the fascinating world of Albert Einstein's religious
beliefs and the theological consequences of his scientific

Born to Jewish parents in Germany in 1879, Albert Einstein's first
education was at a strict Catholic school in Munich, where order and
discipline were instilled in the students. The experience left him
with a lifelong disdain of regimentation and a distrust of authority
figures. Apparently to balance the Catholicism Albert was learning in
primary school, his parents hired a distant relative to tutor him in
the fundamentals of Judaism. These studies sparked a spiritual
interest in young Albert, who began preparing for his bar mitzvah,
the religious rite Jewish boys undergo when turning 13. He eagerly
read the scriptures of his faith and even gave up eating pork. While
other boys were dreaming of becoming soldiers and going to war,
Einstein abhorred the thought of being in the military. "When I grow
up, I don't want to be one of those poor people, " he told his
parents. He would remain a devout pacifist throughout his life. He
spent a lot of time deep in thought, and he credited his trait of
profoundly wondering about things with helping him in his scientific
endeavors. Einstein even believed his childlike curiosity, allowing
him to think without boundaries, set the stage for his discovery of
the relativity theory as an adult.

Einstein maintained a deep interest in his Jewish studies until a
family friend lent him several books on natural science. Suddenly, he
viewed the world through an empirical lens. He wrote in his
autobiography: "Through the reading of popular scientific books, I
soon reached the conviction that a lot in the Bible stories could not
be true. The result was downright fanatical freethinking, combined
with the impression that young people were being lied to by the
state: it was a shattering discovery." Einstein turned his back on
organized religion and refused to take his bar mitzvah; he was,
therefore, not a proper member of the Jewish community something that
might have later become an issue had he taken up Israel's 1952 offer
to be the country's second president.

The young Einstein soon focused his attention on geometry, finding in
Euclid's axiomatic-deductive method a clarity and certainty that he
had not found in the Torah and Talmud of his Jewish instructions.
From higher mathematics it was only a short and logical step to the
world of philosophical thought. With an analytical mind and a passion
for deep thinking, he was equal to the task of absorbing Immanuel
Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, a complex work addressing issues of
human existence.

The influence of Spinoza
Einstein most admired the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher
Baruch Spinoza, whose writings he had discovered in his twenties. In
Spinoza he found a kindred spirit. Both were solitary, pensive Jews
who were eventually alienated by their religious heritage. Einstein
was especially impressed by Spinoza's major work, Ethics, in which
the philosopher uses Euclidean geometry to prove the validity of
ethical ideas. Spinoza argued that "God, or substance, consisting of
infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite
essentiality, necessarily exists." According to Spinoza, infinite
substance is indivisible. "God is One, hence, in the nature of
things, only one substance is given, " Spinoza wrote in Ethics.
Philosophically, his position that whatever exists is a part of a
single substance is called, in Western philosophy, "monism." A
similar concept exists within many forms of Hindu philosophy.

Spinoza believed in a form of pantheism, from the Greek pan and
theos, meaning "everything is God." Adherence to monism specifically,
his belief in pantheism has parallels with the tenets of several
Hindu systems of thought, including Advaita Vedanta. The common
scientific view is that there is nothing but the physical universe
that we can see and measure with our instruments. What separates
Spinoza, and later Einstein, from this is two-fold. One, that "what
exists" likely extends far beyond our human ability to perceive and
analyze it, and two, that "what exists" is divine, Godly and not
inert matter.

Some place Spinoza's philosophy under the heading of modified
pantheism, in which God is believed to be the reality behind nature.
In this way his philosophy differs from Sankara's Advaita Vedanta, in
which Brahman alone is reality and all else is illusion. In his
Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, William Reese calls Advaita
Vedanta "Acosmic Pantheism," the belief that God is in and beyond the
manifest world, which does not enjoy true existence.

But Spinoza's view is similar to the view of Saiva Siddhanta and
several others systems that the universe is the body and mind of God,
while at the same time God transcends the universe. It's a difficult
task to compare these Western and Eastern philosophies, not only
because they use different terminology, but because the Western
philosophies are generally reasoned out, while the Eastern
philosophies rely more upon meditative experience and insight. One
also has to keep in mind that from the 17th century onward, in Europe
and America, Western religion was under full-scale attack from the
emerging philosophy and discoveries of science. The relationship
between science and religion in the West remains largely hostile. Not
so in the East.

Spinoza's views on religion therefore provided something of a way
around the hostilities, and they validated ideas that were already
germinating in Einstein's mind. "I am fascinated by Spinoza's
pantheism," he said, "but admire even more his contribution to modern
thought, because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul
and body as one, and not two separate things." Einstein viewed the
human being as a single unit, and scoffed at the idea of a soul which
transcended death.

"I am not an atheist."
Einstein's ideas on spirituality enjoyed some influence due to his
revolutionary work in physics. Some theologians felt threatened by
his scientific theories, and Einstein was frequently asked to
contribute articles about religion, perhaps in part to demonstrate he
was not an atheist attempting to disprove the existence of God or to
demonstrate he was, since both sides interpreted Einstein's ideas to
suit their own agenda. These articles, interviews and essays are some
of the best evidence we have of Einstein's philosophy.

One, titled "Science and Religion," presented at the 1940 Conference
on Science, Philosophy and Religion in New York, became the center of
controversy. "A person who is religiously enlightened," he wrote,
"appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability,
liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is
preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and aspirations to which he
clings because of their superpersonal value." He then went on to
define religion as "the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly
and completely conscious of these values and goals and constantly to
strengthen and extend their effect."

Einstein concluded his paper with a statement about the conflict
between science and religion, which he believed has its root in the
concept of a personal God. Theologians attending the conference were
in an uproar, misinterpreting Einstein's statement as a denial of
God. He was asked straight out if he believed in God, and he replied:
"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." One faction took this to mean Einstein
was a believer in God as they understood God. An opposing camp said
Einstein's believing in Spinoza's nonpersonal God was the same as
believing in no God at all.

In an attempt to define why and in what way he was "religious,"
Einstein said, "Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets
of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible
concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and
inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can
comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact,

One person asked Einstein to define God. He replied in this fashion:
"I'm not an atheist, and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist.
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 arrangement 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. We see the universe
marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly
understand these laws. Our limited mind grasps the mysterious force
that moves the constellations."

Einstein was blunt in his rejection of the central tenets of Western
religion. "I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his
creatures," he said, "or has a will of the kind that we experience in
ourselves. Neither can I, nor would I want to, conceive of an
individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from
fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the
mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse
of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the
devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the
Reason that manifests itself in nature."

An unusual aspect of Einstein's beliefs, again following Spinoza, was
in "determinism," the position that every event or occurrence is
determined, that is, could not have happened other than it did. For
Spinoza, the feeling of being free is simply the state of ignorance
concerning the cause. Einstein's belief in determinism was in part
behind his lack of acceptance of quantum mechanics, which held one
could not deduce the future state of the universe from the present
one. He famously said, "God does not play dice with the universe."
However, despite his best efforts, he could not disprove quantum

The "cosmic religion"
Einstein summarized his philosophy in what he termed the "cosmic
religion," which is characterized by a feeling of awe and an
experience of the mysterious that he declared to be the source of his
religiosity. In this experience, God does not punish or reward.
Although his cosmic religion does not include a personal God (i.e.,
Ishvara), which he believed was devised due to fear of the
unexplained, Einstein believed, "The religious geniuses of all ages
have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which
knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can
be no church whose central teachings are based on it." At this point,
for Einstein, religion and science meet, for the cosmic religious
experience "is the strongest and noblest driving force behind
scientific research."

In response to a question about whether or not modern science can
offer spiritual insights where organized religion has failed,
Einstein said, "Speaking of the spirit that informs modern scientific
investigations, I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations
in the realm of science spring from deep religious feeling, and that
without such feeling they would not be fruitful. I also believe that
this kind of religiousness, which makes itself felt today in
scientific investigations is the only creative religious activity of
our time." Einstein said that science cannot teach men the importance
of ethics and morality, for the simple reason that science deals with
what is, and ethics with what should be.

Meeting Tagore
Among the most famous Einstein dialogues took place in 1930, when
Rabindranath Tagore visited him in Germany. Einstein reserved the
highest admiration for Tagore, as well as Mahatma Gandhi, and they,
in turn, regarded him with esteem. They were united in their concern
for the poor and the state of the human condition. Tagore and
Einstein shared a love of music and the belief that religion is not
found in rituals and tradition. But the poet and the physicist
disagreed on at least one point. When Einstein said he agreed with
Tagore's concept that beauty is inseparable from man, but that he did
not agree that the same held true for truth, Tagore asked, "Why not?
Truth is realized through man." After a long pause, Einstein replied
simply, "I cannot prove that my conception is right, but that is my
religion." Tagore finally declared, "If there be some truth which has
no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever
remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings." To this
Einstein replied, "Then I am more religious than you are!"

Relativity in the light of Vedanta
In Einstein's theory of relativity, E=mc2, he postulates that mass is
equivalent to energy. Both space and time, deduced Einstein, are no
longer absolutes. Consider his theory in light of the Vedanta system
of Hindu philosophy. All matter throughout the universe is the
outcome of one primal matter called akash. Moreover, all force,
whether gravitational or electromagnetic, is the outcome of one
cosmic energy called prana. Prana acting on akasha is creating or
projecting the universe. Einstein had thus proven mathematically what
Vedantists had known for years. Some theologians have taken the
theory of relativity one step further, speculating that Einstein's
mass-energy equivalence also accounts for energy and matter as true
functions of each other. A God of pure energy could thus become an
avatar a doctrine held by some Hindus, Tibetan Buddhists and

Relativity may also be explored in terms of the system of 36 tattvas,
or categories of existence, common to several systems of Hindu
philosophy. These begin with shuddha maya, pure spiritual energy, the
first evolutes, emanations or creations out of God. The first five
tattvas are forms of consciousness, while the next seven are forms of
spiritual-magnetic energy, including time (number 7, kala tattva).
The final 24 consist of magnetic-gross energy, and include the mental
faculties, organs of perception and action and finally the elements
ether, air, fire, water and earth. The system of tattvas also regards
matter as a form of energy. The major difference is that Einstein did
not appear to speak in terms of consciousness as Hindus do, and his
religious concepts seemed for the most part to deal with physical
reality and not these higher realms of knowing or the subtle worlds
spoken of in the Vedas.

The search for a unified field theory
In 1933, Einstein renounced his German citizenship and accepted a
position in the United States at the new Institute for Advanced Study
in Princeton, New Jersey. He spent the rest of his life as an
American citizen in Princeton with his wife, Elsa. They lived in a
simple house, and most mornings he walked a mile or so to the
Institute to work on his unified field theory. He was attempting to
link all known phenomena to explain the nature and behavior of all
matter and energy in existence, work that caused some excitement
among nonscientists then and now. Paramahansa Yogananada praised the
physicist in his 1946 autobiography. "Reducing the cosmical structure
to variations on a single law," Yogananada wrote, "Einstein has
reached across the ages to the rishis who proclaimed a sole fabric of
creation: a protean maya."

More recently, Eknath Easwaran wrote in his commentary on the
Bhagavad Gita that Einstein's quest is a theme found in Hinduism:
"One of the most fervent hopes of Einstein was to find an overriding
law of nature in which all laws of matter and energy would be
unified. This is the driving question in some of the ancient Hindu
scriptures, too. Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.3 asks, 'What is That by
knowing which all other things may be known?'"

Einstein's search for proof of a unified field eluded him his entire
life, although his perception of existence seemed as clear to him as
it was to the rishis. He wrote, "A human being is a part of the
whole, called by us 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He
experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated
from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This
delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal
desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task
must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of
compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in
its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the
striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation
and a foundation for inner security."

For more information on Albert Einstein, log on to the new Einstein
web site, additional references are
"Einstein and Religion " by Max Jammer and "Dictionary of Philosophy
and Religion" by William Reese.

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