Atheists and believers fight over God--and Einstein

"I trace the lines that flow from God."

On Thursday, according to an AP story brought to my attention by my friend and researcher whose code name is Flounder, an authenticated letter written by Albert Einstein to the philosopher Eric Gutkind in January 1954 will be sold by Bloomsbury Auctions in London. In the letter, Einstein writes about his religious beliefs. Since his death in 1955, theists, atheists and many in between have engaged in an intellectual tug of war attempting to yank Albert over to their side of the God debate. There is real passion in their efforts to use Einstein as their champion, their expert witness, their proof that really smart people can also be really religious.

The Einstein-as-theist folks have brought forward quotes, some authentic, some invented and some with a murky provenance at best. The problem with authenticating most of the quotes attributed to Einstein is that definitively proving he said it is much more difficult than proving that he didn't. The most famous Einstein-the-believer quote is, "God does not play dice with the universe." If you don't like gambling metaphors there is the musical, "Could such a great symphony as the universe have no conductor?" My favorite possible Einstein quote is from a possible letter he might have written to Gandhi (if it is real, it was probably written to Rabindranath Tagore, whom Einstein met). In response to the simple question from Gandhi/Tagore, "What do you do?" Einstein's is said to have responded, "I trace the lines that flow from God." He is said to have remarked about atheists that, "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 book "The World as I See It," Einstein wrote: "A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms--it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."

The Einstein-was-not-really-religious crowd generally do not claim that he was an actual atheist, but rather a deist, to wit: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not a God who concerns Himself with the fate and doings of mankind." However, the auction of his letter to Gutkind has given them new ammo. In the letter he wrote, "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."

There are also some pointed remarks about his Jewishness, "For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions." There is, however, a compensation, "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."

The point of spiritual importance to me about all this is the revealing belief that intelligence is the best proof for God. The implicit assumption animating the Einstein debate is that if the smartest person of the last hundred years believed in God, who are we to doubt God. I think this assumption is profoundly misguided.

What Einstein believed is that laws, not caprice, govern the universe. This is the fundamental and scientifically shared belief of all religions. This is as far as science can confirm God. There are, however, other ways to get from the God confirmed by both science and faith to the God of love, compassion, justice and hope. The experts in this second step to God are not really smart people but really good people. These people are not experts in physics but experts in compassion—people like Gandhi and Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and John Paul II. From them, and from thousands more whose names are not in Wikipedia, we can learn of the power and reality of a kind of human goodness that expands our moral horizons, just like Einstein expanded our notions of the unifying laws of the universe. Immanuel Kant referred to this two-step proof for God in his "Critique of Practical Reason": ''Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them, the starry heaven above and the moral law within.''

For the starry heaven proof I am happy to go to Einstein. For the moral law within, I go to Father Peter Le Jacq, M.D., a Maryknoll priest who runs the Bugando hospital in Mmanza, Tanzania. Peter is a genius of the human heart. He told me that one day that during the Rwandan genocide, a refugee woman walked up the hill to the hospital. She wore a dirty sun dress and a large hat and was walking awkwardly in just one shoe. When he reached her she collapsed in his arms. In time she told him how she had been raped and how her husband and children had been hacked to death before her eyes. In time he softly asked her if her torments had made her lose her faith. She replied, "Oh, no father! You see, there is God in me, and there is God in you, and if there is God in you, there is hope in you."

I do not know her name, nor does Peter, but she is the equal to Albert Einstein in matters religious. No, she is superior to Einstein. She is my proof that God exists, not just out there, but also within each of our broken and needy hearts.

"If there is God in you, there is hope in you."

Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum—that which was to have been demonstrated).

Join the Discussion