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Albert Einstein and religious beliefs

Dr Patrick Woolley considers,

‘Albert Einstein’s Religiosity’

Patrick Woolley (pictured standing outside Einstein’s erstwhile office in Berlin) is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford.  He has written an article about the religiosity of Albert Einstein, the theoretical physicist who is often described as the father of modern physics.



Download the full article here (including footnotes and references for all the quotations)

Here we give an overview of the article

In his article Dr Patrick Woolley introduces Albert Einstein as someone who had strong Jewish influences throughout his early childhood and whose Jewish identity became more and more important to him as he grew older.

In a letter written during the year of his death in 1955, Einstein writes to a friend thanking him for having ‘helped me become aware of my Jewish soul’.

Examples are given in the article of how Einstein, over the years, thought, spoke and wrote about religious matters and the relationship of what he called ‘cosmic religion’ to organised religions. Dr Woolley explains how Einstein also discussed the limits of science and rationality with respect to the establishment of values and the role of religion in culture and he comments, these and many other writings, as well as various letters from his archive, paint a rich and complex picture of ‘Einstein’s God’.


Einstein’s God

quote open“That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.quote close











(Written by Einstein in a letter.)


Dr Woolley goes on to say:

… despite this long-term and highly public effort to express his own religiosity and his views on religion in general, there is a widespread misconception that Einstein was antagonistic to religious thought as a whole. This is not the case. It is true that Einstein does criticize aspects of religious thought as it is commonly interpreted or portrayed, arguing that ‘superstitious’ tendencies often obscure what is most valuable in religious teachings. However, he also praises many aspects of religious traditions, holds that institutionalized religions are meant to provide the moral grounding of a culture, and points to ‘religious geniuses’ within these traditions who epitomize the highest form of religious understanding, his own ‘cosmic religion’.


What about atheism?

Einstein has wrongly been characterized as an atheist—both by atheists who attempt to conscript him for their cause, as well as by religious leaders who consider his liberal views to be too removed from their orthodox teachings. But such claims do not take into account what Einstein actually says, for he clearly did not subscribe to atheism. In an explicit stance against atheism Einstein says,

“In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.”

At another time, Einstein says that he is not an atheist because,

the insufficiency of the human mind to understand deeply the harmony of the Universe is not in the atheistic mentality.”


Is there a mis-match here?

Dr Woolley sees a mismatch between the public’s perception of Einstein and Einstein’s own thoughts and beliefs and considers why this is the case:

Einstein’s views—both his approach to science and the way in which he expresses his religiosity—do not follow the path usually taken in science and religion dialogue today. This is largely due to the fact that Einstein’s highly technical epistemology (the theory of knowledge by which we come to justify claims about the world) does not easily lend itself to supporting either supernaturalistic religious ideas or the blunt scientific materialism which often stands opposed to them. Einstein’s epistemology simply does not fit into this dichotomous framework.


Dr Woolley puts these points into the wider context of Einstein’s life and thought with two sections:

The importance of epistemological contexts:

(Einstein) considers all thought in terms of ‘categories’ or ‘schemes of thought’. Even the distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ marks only a distinction between schemes…

(The) subtle scheme which underpins, as Einstein puts, the ‘programmatically fixed sphere of thought [in which] we are thinking physically’, underlies all which, in Einstein’s view, is to be considered ‘scientific’.  It demarcates a distinction between scientific and other forms of knowledge.

We find that, whereas scientific knowledge is achieved by scrutinizing relations within that ‘fixed sphere’, religious thought for Einstein begins when one recognizes a limit within the sphere. Consciousness of this limit forms the foundation of Einstein’s ‘cosmic religion’.

We see the significance of this limit most directly in Einstein’s ‘religious credo’. Here, he claims that beyond all the conceptual structures by which we know the world, one can become aware of a profound mystery to existence.

…One does not become aware of this ‘mystery’ by rejecting scientific knowledge, but by embracing it—embracing its foundations, its scope, and ultimately its self-revealed logical limits.

The awareness of this mystery, this limit to knowledge, is what engenders Einstein’s profoundly felt religiosity. For instance, when asked if he believes in God, Einstein responds:

“I am not an atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds . . . The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe.”

The importance of historical contexts:

Dr Woolley suggests that to fully appreciate Einstein’s religious writings on the interwoven themes of ‘mystery’, ‘reason in nature’, ‘religious feeling’, necessitates going into considerable philosophical depth and looking back at the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophical movements in which Einstein’s views developed.

He introduces some of the historical contexts by looking briefly at the work of three Einstein scholars, Gerald Holton, Max Jammer, and Don Howard and suggests that:

After ‘mystery’ a concern for ethics is the most prominent aspect of Einstein’s religious writings … (and that) Einstein’s religious views while still being influence by traditional religious systems do not lend themselves easily to questions stemming from a supernaturalist metaphysics … (Appreciating this means) we will not make the error of hastily assuming that, because the focus is not supernaturalist metaphysics, Einstein’s ‘cosmic religion’ is merely romanticized scientism.


To summarise

In summary, questions related to supernaturalist metaphysics, however that may be defined, are not those best suited to bring to interpretations of Einstein’s religiosity. Such questions undermine the way in which Einstein frames his statements on religion. They tend to overlook the subtleties involved in his epistemology of science and ignore the (historical and ethical context) in which his religious thinking developed.

Einstein emphasizes that religion, not science, is where a culture finds the source and expression for what should be, rather than what is.











Albert Einstein in later years




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