I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.” —Albert Einstein1
I have of late immensely enjoyed reading Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of Albert Einstein (Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon & Schuster, 2008). Focusing upon Einstein’s personality rather than simply upon his theories, Isaacson opens a fascinating window into the personal life of this complicated yet humble genius—a man who loved music, but hated wearing socks; who considered himself a pacifist, yet urged Franklin Roosevelt to build an atomic bomb. More than this, however, Isaacson devotes much of his book to an examination of the renowned physicist’s religious views.
Einstein’s belief in God has long been noted in the popular media—and quotations such as his famous “God does not play dice with the universe” are still glibly referred to by those wishing to hold him up as the example of a great scientist who was also a person of faith. Less often mentioned is the fact that Einstein’s belief in God tended far more toward deism than theism. As he once explained to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”2
Still, for a scientist to express any sort of belief in a Power behind the visible … Well, that is remarkable. A determinist who did not believe in free will, Einstein viewed the universe as “marvellously arranged and obeying certain laws”—but he remained convinced that its workings were, ultimately, beyond human comprehension. In this incomprehensibility, he appears to have grounded himself, and was able to write:
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything 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, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.3
Perhaps what Einstein describes here is “religiousness,” but it carries no trace of the kind of direct experience of God—of an encounter with a personal God—that forms the basis of faith for so many of the rest of us. Einstein’s God stood aloof from humankind—and, indeed, from his entire Creation. Having set the clock in motion, so to speak, the Creator departed the scene—perhaps to watch from a distance (or perhaps not). Einstein could see the Maker’s hand at work in nature—but he had no expectation of ever being able to clasp it.
How perplexing that such a great mind—which was capable of apprehending the wonder of the universe—should remain closed to the possibility of a relationship with the Divinity behind it all.
I cannot help but feel a twinge of sadness for Einstein. And along with that ache, I find myself pondering once again the question I raised in an earlier post (“Richard Dawkins and the God Helmet,” May 28, 2017): What if some people are simply incapable of direct communication with the Divine?
In that post, I recounted the visit of evolutionary biologist (and militant atheist) Richard Dawkins to Laurentian University in Sudbury, where he tried on Michael Persinger’s “God Helmet”—a device which purportedly can mimic a religious experience by stimulating the temporal lobes of the human brain. After a 40-minute session with the God Helmet, Dawkins reported experiencing … nothing at all. He expressed his disappointment, saying he had truly hoped to gain some insight into what others call a “mystical encounter.”
Michael Persinger, though, had a ready explanation: Dr. Dawkins’s temporal-lobe sensitivity is “much, much lower” than that of the average person. In other words, Richard Dawkins’s brain wasn’t sensitive enough to respond to the God Helmet! In this one aspect, at least, the famed British atheist was something less than … bright.
On the other hand, if the poor man has what amounts to a physical disability which prevents him from easily connecting to the spiritual circuit … no wonder he’s an atheist!
My point, of course, was simply this: if there is a physical region of the brain which can be “tricked” into perceiving something other-worldly by the influence of precisely-situated electromagnetic coils, might not this same region normally function as the sensory organ for genuine experiences of God?
As I said in that previous post, it’s true that visual hallucinations can be induced by psychedelic drugs—but that doesn’t mean all visual perceptions are hallucinatory. Obviously, most of them are not. I shouldn’t doubt your existence just because I can see you!
Okay. Back to that other famous scientist who apparently never had a convincing encounter with the divine Person some of the rest of us know. What if—just like Richard Dawkins—Albert Einstein had “much, much lower” than normal temporal-lobe sensitivity? What if—ironically—he, too, had less-than-optimal mental equipment for the task of spiritual perception?
If that’s the case, then we should marvel at the depth of spiritual awareness that Einstein did have! Not only was he able to “hear the music of the spheres,” but he caught an echo of that music in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. “I am a Jew,” he said, “but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.” When an interviewer asked him if he accepted the historical existence of Jesus, Einstein quickly replied: “Unquestionably! 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.”4
“No myth is filled with such life.” How many so-called Christian theologians fail to perceive what the author of relativity theory beheld with such clarity? And what greater wonders might he have uncovered for us, had his vision been sharper still?
And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that [God] is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”5
1 Einstein during an interview with George S. Viereck, quoted in Isaacson, p. 386.
2 Reported in the New York Times (“Einstein Believes in Spinoza’s God”), April 25, 1929; noted in Isaacson, p. 388-389.
3 From Einstein’s 1930 credo, What I Believe. Quoted in Isaacson, p. 387.
4 Isaacson, p. 386.
5 Mark 12:32-34, The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.
Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008) http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Einstein/Walter-Isaacson/9780743264747