Einstein, God, and religion: what he thought and what he believed
“Did Einstein believe in God?”, “Was Einstein religious?”. These are the questions that many pose themselves about the thought of the famous German physicist, Albert Einstein, also known outside the scientific world. His name is synonym for intelligence and genius, and he is one of the men who revolutionised science the most in the world. What was his religious position? Did he believe? Was he an atheist? A positivist? We shall see it in this dossier.
His name, indeed, is often recalled in the heated dialogue between believers and non-believers, each trying to get him on their own side in the name of some alleged advantage over the others. Some define him as an atheist, some a Spinozian pantheist, and others Jewish. We are not keen on these labels, and, by the way, Einstein’s case is one of those impossible to classify, since he did not show a constant, coherent, and univocal thought on the religious question (just like, in fact, most human beings).
In the following in-depth analysis, we have tried to clarify his ethical and religious view by studying and quoting the most reliable and documented biographies. At the international level, the work by Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion. Physics and Theology (Princeton University Press 1999), is essential. Instead, in Italian the synthesis by essayist Francesco Agnoli, titled Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein (Edizioni Studio Domenicano 2015) is very good. The wide biography used by the writer and the authoritativeness of his sources (official biographers – like Walter Isaacson and Abraham Pais –, authentic letters, and reliable quotes) render it an important reference.
1. First phase: the “clerical physics” of Einstein, enemy of the Soviets and of the Nazis (1905-1920)
2. Second phase: Einstein between Spinoza and Dostoevskij (1920-1933)
3. Third phase: rediscovery of the Biblical and Evangelical values (1933-1955)
FIRST PHASE: THE “CLERICAL PHYSICS” OF EINSTEIN, ENEMY OF THE SOVIETS AND OF THE NAZIS (1905-1920)
Curiously, already in the middle of his life, Einstein saw himself involved by others in metaphysical diatribes, certainly also for his interest towards the philosophical field, towards that «mystery that the book of nature contains» (A. Einstein, L. Infeld, L’evoluzione della fisica, Bollati Boringhieri 2014, pp. 13-18). Since the beginning, his thought was openly anti-materialist, and throughout all his life he used theological and metaphysical words, like “God”, “miracle”, etc., which were not at all neutral. According to many biographers, decisive was his marriage to Mileva Marić, belonging to the Serbian-Orthodox religion; probably, also attending a Catholic school and following for some years (even though he afterwards distanced himself from them insufferently) «the rigid Jewish religious precepts in every detail» (W. Isaacson, Einstein. La sua vita, il suo universo, Mondadori 2008, pp. 20-21). Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt indeed wrote: «Einstein talked so often about God, that I suspected that he was a clandestine theologian» (F. Dürrenmatt, I fisici, 1962).
Einstein was interested in everything, also in art: in an interview released in 1930, together with a clear condemnation of modern art, he stated: «The most beautiful ideas of science stem from a deep religious feeling, in the absence of which they would be sterile. I believe also that this kind of religiousness that is perceived during research is the only creative religious experience in our epoch. Quite hardly could today’s art be considered as the expression of a tending towards God» (A. Pais, Einstein è vissuto qui, Bollati Boringhieri 1995, p. 112).
«My religion» – held the famous physicist: «consists in a humble admiration of the unlimited and superior Spirit that reveals itself in the little details we are able to perceive with our fragile and feeble thought. The deep emotional belief in a superior Reasoning Power, as revealed in an incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God» (L. Barnett, The Universe and Einstein, New York 1963, p. 109).
About this superior “Spirit” he will talk in a letter to a child, asking whether scientists pray: «A scientist is unlikely inclined to believe that an event may be influenced by prayer, for example by an aspiration addressed to a supernatural Being. However, we must admit that our present knowledge of these laws is only imperfect and fragmentary, so that, in fact, the belief in the existence of fundamental and omni-comprehensive laws in nature reamins itself a sort faith. But the latter is largely justified by the success of scientific research. Nevertheless, from another point of view, anyone who is seriously committed to scientific research gets persuaded that there is a spirit manifesting itself in the laws of the universe. A spirit very superior to man’s, a spirit before which, with out modest possibilities, we may only feel a sense of humility. In this way, scientific research leads to a religious feeling of a special kind which is very different from the religiousness of someone quite naïve» (H. Dukas and B. Hoffmann, Albert Einstein: the Humane side, Princeton 1989, p. 32).
Already in 1917, at around 40 years old, Einstein presupposed a spatially finite and measurable Universe, so as to be line with medieval thinkers (Copernicus and Kepler). In addition, contrary to what the name of his most famous theory may falsely suggest, the one of relativity, Einstein always affirmed the absolutes, and his physics is the first enemy to a relativistic view. One of his most important biographers, Walter Isaacson, indeed wrote: «At the basis of all his theories and also of relativity, there was a research of invariants, certainties, absolutes. Underlying the laws of the universe, according to Einstein, there was a harmonious reality, and the aim of science was to discover it» (W. Isaacson, Einstein. La sua vita, il suo universo, Mondadori 2008, p. 9). In fact, the physicisy wrote: «Science may be created only by who is completely called to freedom and understanding. his emotional source, however, stems from the religious sphere. Even faith in the possibility that the rules valid for the world of existence are rational, that is understandable for reason, belongs to it. I cannot conceive a genuine scientist lacking this deep faith» (A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p.29).
Again: «I do not have an adjective better than “religious” to define the trust in the rational nature of reality and in its accessibility, somehow, by human reason. When this perception is missing, science degenerates into a blind empiricism» (Letter to Maurice Solovine, quoted in W. Isaacson, Einstein. La sua vita, il suo universo, Mondadori 2008, p. 447). The comprehensibility and intelligibility of the cosmos are, for Einstein, a sign of an immensely superior spirit. «We might say» – he adds: «that “the eternal mystery of the universe is its comprehensibility. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle».
For this reason, the Communist and Nazi ideologists – who considered science as their ally against religion, by also imposing school courses of scientific atheism – harshly condemned Einstein’s scientific thought, by accusing him of doing a physics which was “Biblical”, “Hebrew”, “Jewish” physics (so the Nazis), clerical “non-materialist”, “bourgeois”, “idealist”, and “spiritualist” (so the Communists). The concept of absolute values, spatial finiteness of the Universe and of matter, harmony of the cosmos… for them, these meant somehow leaving the door open to the existence of God.
Einstein himself did not hide it: «Fanatical atheists are creatures who – in their anger against traditional religion, seen as opium of the people – are not able to hear the music of the spheres» (W. Isaacson, Einstein. La sua vita, il suo universo, Mondadori 2008, p. 376).
Julian Huxley noticed that the Soviet condemnation – countersigned by the Academy of Sciences – included Einstein’s theory of relativity, defined as «a cancer… the main ideological enemy to materialist astronomy» (J. Huxley, La genetica sovietica e la scienza, Longanesi 1952, pp. 179, 198). Philosopher Grigory A. Gurev, denounced: «Is the Universe finite or infinite? Clericals, we know, willingly get behind the idea of finiteness, of the limitedness of the universe. But there is not one single astronomic fact speaking in favour of this conception of theirs… because recognising the finiteness always has a metaphysical, anti-dialectical character and never leads to scientific knowledge, but only to the clericals’ fantasies. It is not, therefore, surprising that the theists and their secular auxiliaries are enchanted by Einstein’s ideas and by his cosmogony re-elaborated according to the creationist taste… in contradiction with the dialectical-materialist spirit of true science» (quoted in A. Vucinich, Einstein and Soviet Ideology, Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 47).
In answer to that, in 1933, Einstein declared in an interview: «I am an enemy to Bolshevism nothing more or less than I am to Fascism. I am against all dictatorships» (A. Pais, Einstein è vissuto qui, Bollati Boringhieri 1995, p. 182).
SECOND PHASE: EINSTEIN BETWEEN SPINOZA AND DOSTOEVSKIJ (1920-1933)
The German famous physicist’s thought, as already said, was characterised by a genuine scientific curiosity towards the mystery of the cosmos and its incredible comprehensibility.
He himself wrote: «It is certain that at the basis of every somewhat delicate scientific work there is the belief, analogous to religious sentiment, that the world is based on reason and can be understood. This belief, related to the deep feeling of the existence of a superior mind that manifests itself in the world of experience, constitutes for me the idea of God; in common language we may call it pantheism (Spinoza)» (A. Einstein, Come io vedo il mondo, Newton 1984, p. 35).
He talks about a “superior mind”, about “God”, but also about “Spinoza”. It was the first half of the 30s, and on his bedside table there was the Ethics by Baruch Spinoza, where there is no room for the Judeo-Christian personal God, the Father Who revealed a moral law to the world. He defines himself as “religious”, by explaining its meaning in 1934: «The impression of the mysterious, albeit mixed with fear, created, amongst other things, religion. Knowing that something impenetrable exists, knowing the manifestations of the deepest intellect and of most luminous beauty, which are accessible to our reason only in its most primitive forms, this knowledge and this feeling, then, true devotion consists in them. In this sense, and only in this sense, am I amidst the most religious men. I cannot imagine a God awarding and punishing the object of his creation, A God who above-all exercises his will in the same way as we exercise ours. It suffices for me to feel the mystery of the eternity of life, to have the awareness and intuition concerning what it is, to fight actively to grasp a particle (even a very little one), of the intelligence that manifests itself in nature. It is not without reason that a contemporary author said that in our epoch, devoted in general to materialism, scientists are the only profoundly religious men» (A. Einstein, Come io vedo il mondo, Newton 1984, pp. 22, 30).
Nevertheless, there are big contradictions between Einstein and Spinoza, as recognised by theologian Thomas F. Torrance, amidst the main researchers of the religious thought of the German physicist: «Although there was much in Spinoza’s philosophy that Einstein could not accept, what attracted him was the Spinozian rejection of Cartesian dualism, just like of other forms of dualism, as well as his unitary conception of the universe with its inherent rational harmony». However, «it is problematic to refer too simplistically to Einstein’s appeal to the God of Spinoza. Like Spinoza, Einstein was right to reject a strict division of nature into mind and body, subject and object, but what can we say about the Spinozian rigidly logical and causalistic conception of God and the universe?». And, indeed, here are some differences: «The philosophy of Spinoza was, in its own way, a Jewish form of the old idea of Latin stoicism, Deus sive natura, as it contemplated only one self-consacrated substance, God or nature, which Spinoza identified with the universe itself, conceived as an infinite and necessary whole, which could be understood only in a logico-causal framework. For him, God was absolutely not something that transcended the universe. On the contrary, Einstein’s formulation of the principle according to which “God does not let everybody know his things” implies a deeper sense of marvelous intelligibility (Verständlichkeit) of the universe and of its being incomprehensibly and transcendently grounded in God. The scientisti s pushed to research by marvel and by the fear experienced in the face of the mysterious comprehensibility of the universe, which always remains something ultimately unfathomable. In its deepest essence, it remains something inaccessible to man. This is the reason why, for Einstein, science without religion is lame».
Another great of incompatibility between Einstein’s God and Spinoza’s is – always according to Torrance – the intention of the German physicist of «introducing again the question about the why in the intimate structures of the physical and natural sciences». This «was practically the same as a clear rejection of the dualistic rationalism of the Enlightenment between the how and the why – which must be ascribed the harmful fractures later occurred in the Western culture –, but referred in the mean time to the notion of God as the ultimate foundation of the whole rational order and as reason transcending all the laws of nature. What surprising light is, therefore, communicated by what Einstein really meant by the term “God”. It is only by starting from the notion of God that we may understand the why, that is the ultimate and fundamental purpose of the created universe».
It must be also highlighted that, since some years, Einstein had become passionate about Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevskij and his most religious novel: The Karamazov Brothers. This work was centred on the necessity of the existence of a merciful but law-making God, not to make moral life pointless and absurd. In 1919, the physicist wrote to a colleague of his’ that this book was the «most marvelous that I have ever had in my hands», whilst in 1930 he stated that Dostoevskij was a «great religious writer», capable of presenting a framework «of the mystery of spiritual existence… clearly and without comment» (A. Vucinich, Einstein and Soviet Ideology, Stanford University Press 2001, p. 181).
Dostoevskij and Spinoza, therefore. Is it not the umpteenth contradiction? Essayist Francesco Agnoli explained: «We must take into account that the thought of Spinoza, complicated and often willingly ambiguous, is known by Einstein only marginally: on several occasions, he is asked to write comments or prefaces to the republished works by the Jewish philosopher, and Einstein always declines, declaring his own inadequacy; secondly, we must avoid considering the great scientist an always coherent systematic philosopher, with a static vision of existence throughout the years (Spinoza will be praised and in the mean time contradicted, implicitly or explicitly, more times). The religious question permeats Einstein’s whole life, and the answer is not always identical, nor is it always clear and precisely defined» (F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015, pp. 39, 40). Furthermore, it has been ascertained that Einstein’s scientific thought is the opposite of Spinoza’s creed, as once again chiarisce by theologian Thomas F. Torrance: «Einstein pointed out that it is impossible “to conclude that the ‘beginning of the expansion’ [of the universe] has to correspond to a singularity in the mathematical sense. It must only be reminded that the equations cannot be extended to these regions. This consideration, however, does not change the fact that the ‘origin of the world’ really constitutes a beginning” (A. Einstein, Il significato della Relatività, Roma 1997, p. 120). This beginning, almost a creatio ex nihilo, was obviously an idea excluded by Spinoza’s notion “Deus sive Natura”, like a self-creating, infinite, eternal substance, which is corresponded to by a conception of the universe as something non-contingent, completely necessary in its identification with God».
A «believer in transcendence», as defines him his friend and colleague Freeman Dyson, his successor at the Institute for Advanced Study di Princeton (F. Dyson, Lo scienziato come ribelle, Longanesi 2009, p. 30). Atheist scientist Christof Koch defines him as “deist”: «It is, to say the least, amazing that galaxies, cars, billiard balls, and subatomic particles behave in a regular way that may be described by mathematics, and that therefore may be predicted. Indeed, some physicists – the most famous of whom was Albert Einstein – believed in such a creator (a sort of Divine Architect) precisely in virtue of this “miraculous” state of things. It is difficult to imagine so a complex universe, not to be able understand it. But the God of the deist has created a universe that is not only hospitable to life: it is also so predictable that its regularity may be understood by the human mind» (C. Koch, Una coscienza, Le Scienze 2014, p. 209).
It is towards the end of this second phase that an unprecedented reflection on Christianity and on the figure of Christ appeared. In a 1929 interview, indeed, Einstein criticised Jewish-German writer Emil Ludwig, author of a denigratory biography of Jesus Christ, in which his divinity and resurrection are denied. The interviewer, George S. Viereck, posed Einstein the following question: «To what extent are you influenced by Christianity?». The answer: «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». Viereck asks: «Have you read Emil Ludwig’s book on Jesus?». The answer: «Emil Ludwig’s Jesus is shallow. Jesus is too colossal for the pen of phrasemongers, however artful. No man can dispose of Christianity with a bon mot». «You accept the historical existence of Jesus?» – asks again the journalist. «Unquestionably!» – replies Einstein: «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» (G. Viereck, What Life means to Einstein, in The Saturday Evening Post, 26/10/1929; quoted again in W. Isaacson, Einstein. La sua vita, il suo universo, Mondadori 2008, p. 373).
THIRD PHASE: REDISCOVERY OF THE BIBLICAL AND EVANGELICAL VALUES (1933-1955)
Few experts of Einstein have talked about his reevaluation of the Judeo-Christian values in the most mature phase of his lfe. Philosopher of science Paolo Musso, Professor at the University of Insubria in Varese, described «the progressive move of the focus of Einsteinian spirituality to the great historical religions and in particular to the Judeo-Christian tradition». This went so far as to «suggest to him, at certain moments, even the need for some sort of revelation in order to found moral and religious values». However, this is accompanied by the «original tendency to pantheism» (P. Musso, La scienza e l’idea di ragione. Scienza, filosofia e religione da Galileo ai buchi neri e oltre, Mimesis 2001, p. 471, 472).
The philosophical change by the famous physicist was caused by the rise of Communism and anti-Jewish and anti-Christian Nazism («The hardest blow mankind has suffered was the advent of Christianity» – affirmed Adolf Hitler on 11/07/1941, in Conversazioni a tavola di Hitler, Goriziana 2010, p. 45). Einstein became gradually persuaded that the Biblical idea of God and of man gave birth to an anthropology that must be rediscovered, because «the weakening of the thought and of the moral sense», cause «of the decline of the methods of our time», was related to the weakening of the «religious sentiment of people in modern times» (A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 22).
Einstein matured the idea that the equality of all men and the doctrine of a universal moral law needed a foundation and understood, better than many others, that Nazism was a moral war to the Evangelical message and a threat to humankind as it had preferred Machiavelli to Moses: «Who can doubt that Moses was a better guide for humankind than Machiavelli?» (A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 16). As reported by Francesco Agnoli, «it is not easy to understand to what extent these beliefs and these analyses became or not a personal faith» in Einstein, «but certainly they are there and are expressed always more frequently in the course of the years, together with the touching reference to “our Hebrew ancestors, the prophets, and the old Christian sages”» (F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015, p. 74).
In 1935, in a commemoration of Moses Maimonides, Jewish thinker who in the Middle Ages had claimed the compatibility between rationality and Biblical teachings, and whom Spinoza, in the modern epoch, would choose as his main ideal adversary, Einstein wrote: «Once the barbarian teutons had destroyed the ancient European culture, a new and more refined one (the medieval one, editor’s note) slowly started to stem from two sources which had managed somehow not to be completely buried by the general devastation: the Hebrew Bible and Greek art and philosophy. The union of these two sources so different from one another marks the beginning of our cultural epoch, and all what informs the true values of the life of our day derived, directly or indirectly, from that union. Our fight to preserve these treasures against today’s forces of darkness and of barbarity will inevitably win… We Jews should be and remain the bearers and defenders of the spiritual values» (A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 227).
In front of the Jewish Accademy of Sciences, in 1936, while quoting the Biblical episode of the idolatric dance around the golden calf, Einstein stated: «We must cling to that spiritual attitude towards life» by refraining from «that total adhesion to material and egoistic goals which threatens Judaism today» (A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 30). On April 1938, around the age of 60, the German physicist wrote: «Being Jewish means first of all accepting and following the practice of those foundations of humanity proposed in the Bible, foundations without which no healthy and happy community can exist» (A. Pais, Einstein è vissuto qui, Bollati Boringhieri 1995, p. 243). After one year, on the 19th of May 1939, he admonished that: «a return to a nation in the political sense of the term would mean our community distancing from the spiritualisation we owe to the genius of our prophets» (A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 223).
Always in that year, he observed: «The highest principles on which our aspirations and our judgments are based come from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. In all this there is no room for the divinisation of a nation, of a class, and even less of an individual. Are we not all children of the same Father, as the religious language says? Indeed, not even the divinisation of humankind, as an abstract totality, would fall within the spirit of this ideal. Only to the individual is a soul given. And the high destinity of the individual is to serve rather than dominate or impose himself in any way» (A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 26).
In those years, therefore, Einstein’s references to Biblical and Evangelical references multiplied in his public speeches. On the 22nd of March 1939, in concomitance with the outbreak of WW2, the father of relativity declared: «In the past we were persecuted despite being the people of the Book; today, instead, we are persecuted exactly because we are the people of the Bible. The goal is not only to exterminate us, but to destroy, beside us, also that spirit, expressed in the Bible and in Christianity, which made the advent of civilisation possible in Northern and Central Europe. If this objective is achieved, Europe will become a wasteland. Because the life of human society cannot last long if based on brutal force, on violence, on terror, and on hatred» (A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 26). It is thus evident that «the mature Einstein openly, albeit implicitly, criticised social Darwinism, the idea according to which man’s moral life is reduced, like in beasts, to obeying our instinct of survival and to participating in the fight for the survival of the fittest; he completely denies all the determinism typical of the evolutionism of a materialist and pantheistic kind and affirms freedom, against the “cruel fate”, against the idea of a man directed by his genes and by his biology, by materialist determinism, and by all the modern re-proposals of the Ancients’ Fate and Necessity» (F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015, p. 119).
For the famous physicist, it was a moment to question his views. Already in 1933, he would indeed change his mind on pacifism, from which he would distance himself: in the face of the advancing army of evil (Nazism), one should not stay still; instead, there may be room for a “just” war, the defensive one, and, if necessary, an offensive one, against who wants to enslave humankind. Thus, he committed to avoid that the invention of the atomic bomb could generate a world catastrophe, but, as already said, without being involved «in the movements declaring themselves as pacifists, but acting, in fact, under the Soviet umbrella and hiding other purposes behind the word “peace”» (F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015, p. 100).
In a letter dated 1945, Einstein defined the constants of nature as «genuine numbers that God must have arbitrarily chosen, so to speak, when He deigned to create this world» (I. e G. Bogdanov, I cacciatori di numeri, Piemme 2012, p. 40). However, we always deal with a non-personal God, as it would be all his life long. As he wrote to his friend Guy Raner, in 1949: «I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. 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. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being».
In a famous letter dated 1952 to a friend, Einstein expressed his total distance from the atheist view on existence, although he also specified in the mean time of knowing this “God”, so as to remain, therefore, distant from the Christian view, too: «Dear Solovine […]. You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world (to the extent that we are authorized to speak of such a comprehensibility) as a miracle or as an eternal mystery. Well, a priori one should expect a chaotic world which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way. One could (yes one should) expect the world to be subjected to law only to the extent that we order it through our intelligence. Ordering of this kind would be like the alphabetical ordering of the words of a language. By contrast, the kind of order created by Newton’s theory of gravitation, for instance, is wholly different. Even if the axioms of the theory are proposed by man, the success of such a project presupposes a high degree of ordering of the objective world, and this could not be expected a priori. That is the “miracle” which is being constantly reinforced as our knowledge expands. There lies the weakness of positivists and professional atheists who are elated because they feel that they have not only successfully rid the world of gods but “bared the miracles”. Oddly enough, we must be satisfied to acknowledge the “miracle” without there being any legitimate way for us to approach it. I am forced to add that just to keep you from thinking that – weakened by age – I have fallen pray to the parsons» (A. Einstein, Opere scelte, a cura di E. Bellone, Bollati Boringhieri 1988, pp. 740-741). Concept recalled in another reflection: «I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations» (D. Brian, Einstein a life, 1996, p. 127; M. Jammer, Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology, Princeton University press 1999, p. 48).
Since some time, Einstein loved going to Italy and visiting in the zone of Fiesole (Tuscany) the Convent of Saint Francis, where he deepens the friendship with some Franciscans, like the porter friar Clementino and Father Odorico Caramelli, musician. Especially with the latter, the physicist kept an epistolary relationship also in the last years of his life. The friendship between and the Fiesole’s Franciscans involved other relatives of the scientist, above-all Margot Einstein, his favourite step-daughter, who would stand next to him until the end of his days. Margot was a sculptor, and in 1955, year of the death of his step-father Albert, sent a statue of the Virgin (picture on the right), sculpted by her, to the Convent of Fiesole. She enclosed Albert’s greetings to Father Caramelli: «I wish you all the best for 1955».
On the 18th of October 1960, Father Caramelli remembered so his friendship with Einstein during an interview with journalist Alberto Maria Fortuna: «Einstein? I knew him here, many years ago. Candid. Like a child. Very humble, of a natural and spontaneous humility. And even though he was not Catholic, he gladly went to church, because he liked staying with God, in Whom he believed. He often came to Saint Francis. Initially, he heard me play; then he decided to bring a violin and, strumming as he was able to, he let himself be accompanied by me with the organ. At night, he went down to the convent’s wood and, sitting on the low wall of the Etruscan cistern, he played under the moon. Once, after I had accompanied him in a Sonata by Bach, he was so moved, that he threw his arms around me, almost in tears» (Due frati francescani da ricordare. Padre Caramelli, Fra Clementino, Fiesole 1972, pp. 43-44).
Five years before his death, Einstein wrote something unprecedented: he referred to God as “Him”, so as to give him a precise physiognomy and to contradict both Spinoza’s view and his own constant rejection of an anthropomorphic God. In a letter dated 15th of April 1950, addressed to his old Italian friend Michele Besso, the famous physicist dealt with several topics, including the religious one. And Einstein wrote so: «There is one thing that I have learned in the course of a long life: It is devilishly difficult to get closer to ‘Him’ if one does not want to remain on the surface».
We have tried to divide Einstein’s life into three phases, by trying to display the often contradictory path of his philosophical and religious thought. From the young antimaterialist physicist, to the voice recalling the necessity to rediscover the the Evangelical values in the face of atheist dictatorships. Without ever becoming Christian. From the clear cut refusal of a personal God, to defining himself “agnostic” but also “believer”, passing through Spinoza and Dostoevskij. A short time before his death, we have seen that he went so far as to write about a personal God, a “Him”.
In general, as comments essayist Francesco Agnoli, «the great physicist will mostly profess, in a not always clear way, his faith not in a personal God, but in a sort of superpersonal God, in an ordering intelligence of the cosmos, by ambiguously moving between the God of Spinoza, deism, and the Biblical God, in a non-resolved, non-definite way» (F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015, p. 213). The non-linearity of Einstein’s thought has been confirmed by famous theologian Thomas F. Torrance, from the University of di Edinburgh: «What was the meaning Einstein intended when he referred to God as “cosmic intelligence” and “grandeur of reason incarnate in existence” or, taking an expression from the Talmud, as “the Old Man”? He was not always consistent, and therefore it is not easy to grasp precisely what he meant. It seems clear to me that he conceived God as the ultimate spiritual foundation of all the rational order which transcends all what the scientist has to do with through the natural laws, but, unlike the Judeo-Christian religion, he did not think of him as “personal” or “anthropomorphic”, that is as a God in the image of man, but in a “superpersonal” (ausserpersönlichen) way, freed from the chains of the “only personal” (Nur-Persönlichen), to which he would be bound by the desire of people to satisfy their own needs».
Theologian Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti writes about this: «We are convinced that Einstein, of Jewish origin and culture, experienced what we might reasonably call “religious sense”, as a sense of belonging to the Absolute and the perception of the foundations of the being, although he was not able to thematise it in a coherent way, even when he thought he could. Some factors played an important role in preventing a mature synthesis of his notion of God. The first was the idea the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, of which he appreciated the social role and human value, was the bearer of an anthropomorphic vision of God which he (rightly) deemed incompatible with that logos he glimpsed as hidden into the folds of the comprehensibility of the world. Secondly, Einstein showed, in our opinion, an excessive dependence on a positivist interpretation of religion development, of which he never managed to emancipate himself completely. This interpretation consisted in a Kantian vision of the idea of religion, as the rational goal of a spiritually mature humankind». The most famous atheist in the world, philosopher Anthony Flew (then converted to deism) complained about “professional atheists”, like Richard Dawkins, as a result of their insincerity: «The integrated complexity of the world of physics has led him [Einstein] to believe that there must be a Divine Intelligence behind it». Physicist Angelo Tartaglia, Professor at the Polytechnic University of Turin, wrote: «Amongst scientists, the idea of a non-personal supreme entity has some success. Take, first of all, the example of Albert Einstein» (A. Tartaglia, La luna e il dito. Viaggio di un fisico tra scienza e fede, Lindau 2009, p. 156).
His most authoritative biographer, Walter Isaacson, confirmed in his turn: «For all his life he rejected the accusation of being atheist. Unlike Freud, Russell or G.B. Shaw, Einstein never felt the need to denigrate those who believe in God; on the contrary, he tended to attack atheists […]. Indeed, Einstein tended to be more critical of sceptics, who seemed devoid of humility and sense of marvel, rather than of believers» (W. Isaacson, Einstein. La sua vita, il suo universo, Mondadori 2008, p. 376). His view on God was coherent not with his religious path, but with what the Universe had always suggested to him: «Observing this harmony of the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognise, there still are people who say God does not exist. But what really makes me angry is that they claim I support this point of view» (quoted by Prinz Hubertus zu Löwenstein, Towards the Further Shore: An Autobiography, Victor Gollancz 1968, p. 156).
According to Alexander Moszkowski, author of a biography based on conversations with Einstein, «music, nature, and God mingled in him in an ensemble of feelings, in a moral unity, whose print never disappeared» (W. Isaacson, Einstein. La sua vita, il suo universo, Mondadori 2008, p. 20). For sure, the synthesis by theologian Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti is the most convincing one: «Classifying the German scientist as pantheist or deist may possibly turn out to be too easy for the hasty philosopher, but would not give reason for the deepest aspirations that animated him. And the theologian would lose a good opportunity to reflect on what image of God is accessible to a subject who deals with scientific research but does not possess the adequate resources to put it in relation to the true content of Revelation. A closer relationship between these two worlds, for example, would have allowed Einstein to clarify the groundlessness of his fears about the anthropomorphism of the Christian God and to understand better the authenticity of the moral life born out of this religious tradition. The letters of the last years of his life frequently go back to the God issue, by mentioning him, en passant, and almost confidentially – the old man, the one who knows the secrets of the world, etc. We maintain that he did so going beyond the mere rhetorical device, probably by manifesting a nostalgia, but also the need, to refer to the Absolute as Someone and not only as an impersonal rationality. “There is one thing that I have learned in the course of a long life” – he would write to Michele Besso on the 15th of April 1950: “It is devilishly difficult to get closer to ‘Him’ if one does not want to remain on the surface”»