Did Einstein believe in God? Was Einstein religious? Many wonder what Albert Einstein’s religious views were, with some declaring him an atheist and others associating him with Spinoza’s pantheism. In this dossier, we provide a comprehensive overview of Einstein’s religiosity, including his quotes on God, science, and religion.
Discussing the religious beliefs of Albert Einstein is not an easy task.
His originality and contradictory statements on this subject make the endeavor even more complex.
Einstein’s fame extends far beyond the scientific world; his name is synonymous with intelligence and genius and he is considered one of the greatest revolutionaries in our understanding of the natural world.
But what was his actual religious stance? Was he a believer? An atheist? A positivist? A pantheist or a Spinozist?
In the fervent debate between believers and non-believers, each side seeks to associate him with their own camp to gain some kind of “advantage” over the other. However, we are not interested in putting any “labels”, and Einstein himself did not express a consistent and unequivocal thought on the religious question.
In this dossier, we shed light on his ethical and religious views, citing the most reliable biographies. Among these, the work of Max Jammer1M. Jammer, Einstein and Religion. Physics and Theology, Princeton University Press 1999, Abraham Pais, and the authenticated letters of Einstein are indispensable. In the Italian language, the work of Francesco Agnoli2F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, Edizioni Studio Domenicano 2015 is well-documented.
Interestingly, even during his lifetime, Einstein was involved in metaphysical debates, probably due to his strong interest in philosophy and the “mystery that the book of nature contains”3cited in L. Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, Bollati Boringhieri 2014, pp. 13-18.
From the very beginning, his thinking appeared openly anti-materialistic, and he frequently used theological and metaphysical words that were by no means neutral, such as “creation,” “God,” “miracle,” and so on.
According to many biographers, such as Walter Isaacson, his exposure to these ideas was influenced by his marriage to Mileva Marić, who was of Serbian Orthodox faith, his attendance at a Catholic school, and his adherence, albeit with growing dissatisfaction, to the «rigid Jewish religious precepts in every detail»4W. Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon & Schuster 2007, pp. 20-21.
The Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt even commented: «Einstein spoke of God so often that I began to suspect he was a secret theologian»5F. Dürrenmatt, The Physicists, 1962.
p style=”text-align: justify;”>In this first phase of his scientific career, Einstein expressed the following famous reflection:
«My religion consists of a humble admiration of the infinite superior Spirit who reveals Himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. The deeply emotional conviction of a Supreme Reason that reveals itself in the incomprehensible universe constitutes my idea of God».6quoted in L. Barnett, The Universe and Einstein, New York 1963, p. 109.
In a private letter, when asked by a child if scientists pray, Einstein spoke further about this “higher Spirit”:
«A scientist hardly inclines to the belief that an event could be influenced by prayer, for example, by an appeal to a supernatural being. However, we must admit that our present knowledge of these laws is only imperfect and fragmentary, so the belief in the existence of fundamental and comprehensive laws in nature remains itself a kind of faith. But this faith has been justified to a great extent by the success of scientific research. Moreover, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that there is a spirit manifest in the laws of the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way, the pursuit of science leads to a special religious feeling of a different kind from the religiosity of someone more naive»7quoted in H. Dukas, B. Hoffmann, Albert Einstein: the Humane side, Princeton 1989, p. 32.
As early as 1917, at around 40 years old, Einstein presupposed a finite, measurable universe, aligning himself with medieval thinkers (Copernicus and Kepler). Furthermore, contrary to what the name of his most famous theory, relativity, might falsely suggest, the renowned physicist always affirmed absolutes, and his physics was the first enemy of a relativistic view.
One of his foremost biographers, Walter Isaacson, remarked on this: «At the base of all his theories, including relativity, was a search for invariants, certainties, absolutes. According to Einstein, there lay beneath the laws of the universe a harmonious reality, and the purpose of science was to discover it»8W. Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon & Schuster 2007, p. 9.
Einstein himself wrote: «Science can only be created by those who are entirely devoted to freedom and understanding. This emotional source, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith»9A. Einstein, Albert Einstein, the Human Side, Princeton University Press 1979, p. 29.
In a private letter from the same period, Einstein reaffirmed this idea: «I have no better term than ‘religious’ for defining the trust in the rationality of reality and in its accessibility, to some extent, to human reason. When this perception is lacking, science degenerates into blind empiricism»10quoted in W. Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon & Schuster 2007, p. 447.
The comprehensibility and intelligibility of the cosmos are, for him, the sign of an immensely higher spirit. «One could say», he added, «that ‘the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.’ The fact that it is comprehensible is indeed a miracle»11quoted in A. Negri, Philosophical and Scientific Thought of the 20th Century, Marzorati Publishers 1991, vol. IV, pp. 778-779.
It is also for this reason that Nazi and Communist ideologists strongly condemned Einstein’s scientific thought, accusing him of practicing “Biblical,” “Jewish,” or “Hebrew” physics (in the case of the Nazis), and “clerical,” “non-materialistic,” “bourgeois,” “idealist,” and “spiritualist” physics (in the case of the Communists). The concepts of absolute values, the finite spatial nature of the universe and matter, and the harmony of the cosmos, in their view, somehow left the door open to the existence of God.
Einstein himself did not hide his deep aversion to atheist materialism:
«Fanatical atheists» he stated, «are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains when they have already thrown off religion, which alone can make them free and joyful. They are creatures who—in their resentment against the traditional religious ‘opium of the people’—cannot hear the music of the spheres».12quoted in W. Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon & Schuster 2007, p. 376.
It is interesting to note that even Julian Huxley, a famous Darwinian biologist, observed the Soviet condemnation of Western science, which included Einstein’s theory of relativity. Huxley emphasized that Einstein’s relativity was labeled as «a tumor, the main ideological enemy of materialist astronomy»13quoted in J. Huxley, La genetica sovietica e la scienza, Longanesi 1952, p. 179, 198.
One example of the Soviet aversion to Einstein’s “creationist” science was provided by the philosopher Grigory A. Gurev:
«Is the universe finite or infinite?” he asked. “The clericals, of course, gladly support the idea of finiteness, the limitedness of the universe. But there is not a single astronomical fact that speaks in favor of their conception, as the recognition of finiteness always has a metaphysical, antithetical character and never leads to scientific knowledge, but to the fantasies of the clericals. It is not surprising, therefore, that the theists and their secular allies are captivated by Einstein’s ideas and his cosmogony, reworked according to the creationist taste in contradiction to the dialectical-materialistic spirit of true science»14quoted in A. Vucinich, Einstein and Soviet Ideology, Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 47.
In response, in an interview from 1933, Albert Einstein stated: «I am an opponent of Bolshevism no more and no less than I am of fascism. I am against all dictatorships»15quoted in A. Pais, Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 211.
During this phase of his life, Einstein was interested in various subjects, including art. In an interview in 1930, alongside a strong condemnation of modern art, which he considered decadent, he stated: «The most beautiful ideas of science arise from a deep religious feeling, without which science would be barren and futile. I also believe that this type of religiosity that one experiences in research is the only creative religious experience of our time. Modern art could hardly be considered as an expression of a striving for God»16quoted in A. Pais, Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 134.
Einstein’s private diaries, written between 1922 and 1933, chronicle his experiences in Asia and the Middle East. In these diaries, the young physicist made racist generalizations that shocked the world. For example, he described the Chinese as «industrious, filthy, obtuse» and complained that «these Chinese are supplanting all other races».
When he arrived in Port Said, Egypt, he spoke of the «Levantines of every shade, as if spewed from hell» who come aboard their ship to sell their goods. He described the inhabitants of Sri Lanka as «living in great filth and strong stench, doing very little and needing very little»17A. Einstein, The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine, and Spain, 1922–1923, Princeton University Press, 2018. In 1946, Einstein described racism as “a disease of white people.”
The thinking of the famous German physicist, as mentioned earlier, was always characterized by a genuine scientific curiosity towards the mystery of the cosmos and its incredible comprehensibility. This perspective was particularly evident during what we can call the “second phase” of his scientific career.
Here is an example of Einstein’s thinking during this historical phase:
«It is certain that at the foundation of every somewhat delicate scientific work lies a conviction, similar to religious sentiment, that the world is based on reason and can be understood. This conviction, tied to the profound sense of the existence of a higher mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, constitutes for me the idea of God; in everyday language, it can be called pantheism (Spinoza)»18A. Einstein, The World As I See It, Citadel Press 1993, p. 36.
Einstein frequently refers to a “higher mind,” to “God,” and also to “Spinoza.” During the first half of the 1930s, the book “Ethics” by Baruch Spinoza was on his bedside table, although there is no room in it for the concept of a personal God in the Jewish-Christian sense, that is, a Father who has revealed a moral law to the world.
Einstein defined his conception of “religiosity” in the following way in 1934: «The impression of the mysterious, even when mixed with fear, has, among other things, given rise to religion. To know that there is something impenetrable, to apprehend the manifestations of the deepest intellect and the brightest beauty, which are accessible to our reason only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge and this feeling constitute the truly religious attitude. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a deeply religious man»19A. Einstein, The World As I See It, Citadel Press 1993, pp. 21-22.
Partly influenced by Spinoza, Einstein denied the possibility of a God like the Jewish-Christian one during these years: «I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, a God who, from his own free will and out of love for the objects of his creation, withholds his gifts unless they behave according to his will. I can, however, conceive of a God who does not interfere with the course of the universe I describe above, a God who has created everything but is not concerned with the fate and actions of the individual beings»20A. Einstein, The World As I See It, Citadel Press 1993, p. 26.
Einstein’s thought and that of Spinoza, however, are not assimilable. On the contrary, there are significant contradictions between the two.
As noted by theologian Thomas F. Torrance, one of the leading scholars of the religious thought of the German physicist: «While there was much in Spinoza’s philosophy that Einstein could not accept, what attracted him was Spinoza’s rejection of Cartesian dualism, as well as other forms of dualism, and his unitary conception of the universe with its inherent rational harmony». However, «there are problems in referring too simplistically to Einstein’s appeal to the God of Spinoza. Like Spinoza, Einstein was right in rejecting a narrow bifurcation of nature between mind and body, subject and object, but what can we say about Spinoza’s rigidly logical and causalistic conception of God and the universe?»
And, in fact, Torrance continued, here are some important differences between Einstein and Spinoza: «Spinoza’s philosophy was, in its own way, a Jewish form of the old idea of Latin stoicism of ‘Deus sive natura,’ in that it contemplated a single and self-consecrated substance, God or Nature, which Spinoza identified with the universe itself, conceived as an infinite and necessary whole, which could only be understood within a logical-causal framework. For him, God was by no means something transcendent to the universe. On the contrary, Einstein’s formulation of the principle that ‘God does not play dice’ implies a deeper sense of the marvelous intelligibility (Verständlichkeit) of the universe and its incomprehensible and transcendent foundation in God. The scientist is propelled in his search by the wonder and awe experienced in the face of the mysterious comprehensibility of the universe, which ultimately remains something elusive. In its deepest essence, it remains something inaccessible to man. This is why, for Einstein, science without religion is lame».
Another major point of incompatibility between Einstein’s “God” and that of Spinoza is, according to theologian Torrance, the intention of the German physicist to «reintroduce the question of why into the intimate structures of the physical and natural sciences» which «effectively amounted to a clear rejection of the dualistic rationalism of the Enlightenment, with its separation of the how and the why, which has led to the damaging fractures that have occurred in Western culture. Instead, it pointed toward the notion of God as the ultimate foundation of all rational order and the transcendent reason behind all the laws of nature. What a surprising light is shed, then, by what Einstein truly meant by the term ‘God.’ It is only from the notion of God that we can comprehend the why, that is, the ultimate and fundamental purpose of the created universe».
As confirmation of what Thomas F. Torrance stated, it was during these years that Einstein wrote a phrase that became historic: «God does not play dice!»21A. Einstein, Letter to Max Born 1926, in I. Born, The Born-Einstein Letters, Walker and Company, New York 1971.
It was Einstein’s response to the quantum physicist Max Born in 1926, aiming to reject the theory of quantum mechanics. The German physicist found the excessive role given to randomness repugnant: «Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one.’ I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice»22A. Einstein, Letter to Max Born 1926, in I. Born, The Born-Einstein Letters, Walker and Company, New York 1971.
In a subsequent letter to Born in 1944, Einstein stated once again: «Our scientific perspectives are diametrically opposed. You believe that God plays dice with the universe, and I believe that everything obeys a law within a world of objective reality that I try to grasp speculatively with all my might. I firmly believe, but hope that someone will discover a more realistic way than I have been able to find. Even the great initial success of quantum theory fails to convince me that randomness is at the foundation of everything»23A. Einstein, Letter to Max Born 1926, in I. Born, The Born-Einstein Letters, Walker and Company, New York 1971.
Einstein added on another occasion: «If forced, I can even imagine a world in which God does not impose strict physical laws: chaos, in other words. But the idea that there are statistical laws that compel God to throw dice at every opportunity, I find very unpleasant»24cited in A.P. French, Einstein: A Centenary Volume, Harvard University Press 1979, p. 6.
As previously mentioned, Albert Einstein’s thinking was by no means linear and consistent.
In addition to Spinoza, it is worth noting that the renowned physicist also developed an interest in the Russian novelist Dostoevsky and his most religious novel, The Brothers Karamazov. This work revolves around the necessity of the existence of a merciful yet legislative God to prevent moral life from being rendered useless and absurd.
In 1919, he wrote to a colleague that the novel was the «most wonderful» he had ever held in his hands, while in 1930 he stated that Dostoevsky is a «great religious writer» capable of presenting a picture «of the mystery of spiritual existence clearly and without commentary»25cited in A. Vucinich, Einstein and Soviet Ideology, Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 181.
Dostoevsky and Spinoza, therefore. How could they coexist in Einstein’s mind?
The italian essayist Francesco Agnoli provided an answer: «It must be borne in mind that Einstein only marginally knew Spinoza’s thought, which is complex and sometimes deliberately ambiguous. On several occasions, he was asked to write comments or prefaces to the reissued works of the Jewish philosopher, and Einstein always refused, declaring his inadequacy. Secondly, one must avoid considering the great scientist as a systematic philosopher, always coherent, with a static view of existence over the years (Spinoza will be praised and, at the same time, contradicted implicitly or explicitly, several times). The religious question runs through Einstein’s entire life, and the answer is not always the same, nor is it always clear and precisely delineated»26F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015, pp. 39, 40.
Furthermore, it is established that Einstein’s scientific thinking is opposed to Spinoza’s belief. Despite erroneously rejecting the hypothesis of the Big Bang, the physicist stated: «It cannot be concluded that the beginning of the expansion [of the universe, nda] must correspond to a mathematical singularity. It must only be remembered that the equations cannot be extended to these regions. However, this consideration does not alter the fact that the origin of the world truly constitutes a beginning»27A. Einstein, The Meaning of Relativity, Rome 1997, p. 120.
In contrast to Einstein, Spinoza completely excluded the idea of a beginning of the world (a creatio ex nihilo) with the notion of “Deus sive Natura”, which corresponds to a conception of the universe as something non-contingent, fully necessary in its identification with God.
Einstein was indeed described as a «believer in transcendence» by his friend and colleague Freeman Dyson, his successor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton28F. Dyson, The Scientist as Rebel, Longanesi 2009, p. 30.
The atheist scientist Christof Koch, on the other hand, defines him as a “deist”: «That galaxies, automobiles, billiard balls, and subatomic particles behave in a regular manner describable by mathematics, and therefore predictable, is nothing short of astounding», writes Koch. «In fact, some physicists – the most famous of whom was Albert Einstein – believed in such a creator (a kind of Divine Architect) precisely because of this “miraculous” state of affairs. It is not difficult to imagine a universe so complex as to be incomprehensible. But the deist God has created a universe that is not only hospitable to life: it is also so predictable that its regularity can be grasped by the human mind»29C. Koch, Consciousness, Scientific American 2014, p. 209.
Towards the end of this phase of his life, between Spinoza and Dostoevsky, an unexpected reflection on Christianity and the figure of Christ emerged.
In an interview in 1929, Einstein criticized the German-Jewish writer Emil Ludwig, author of a derogatory biography of Jesus Christ in which his divinity and resurrection are denied. The interviewer, George S. Viereck, asked Einstein: «To what extent are you influenced by Christianity?». His response: «As a child, I received an education on both the Talmud and the Bible. I am a Jew, but I am fascinated by the luminous figure of the Nazarene». Perhaps a bit surprised, Viereck asked him again: «Have you read Emil Ludwig’s book on Jesus?». Einstein’s reply: «Ludwig’s book is superficial. Jesus is a figure too imposing for the pen of a phrasemaker, no matter how capable. No man can dispose of Christianity with a bon mot». The journalist further asked: «Do you accept the historical Jesus?». Einstein responded, «Without the slightest doubt! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth can ever be filled with such life»30quoted in G. Viereck, What Life means to Einstein, in The Saturday Evening Post, 26/10/1929 31quoted in W. Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon & Schuster 2007, p. 373.
Few scholars of Albert Einstein have discussed his reassessment of Judeo-Christian values in the later stage of his life, making it a relatively unknown aspect for many.
Philosopher of science Paolo Musso, a professor at the University of Insubria in Varese, observed that what characterized this phase of the physicist’s life was the «progressive shift of the center of Einstein’s spirituality towards the major historical religions, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition», which even led him to suggest, at times, the necessity of some form of revelation to establish moral and religious values. However, this coexisted with his «original pantheistic tendency»32P. Musso, La scienza e l’idea di ragione. Scienza, filosofia e religione da Galileo ai buchi neri e oltre, Mimesis 2001, pp. 471, 472.
The philosophical change of the renowned physicist was provoked by the rise of communism and Nazism, which were anti-Semitic and anti-Christian. («The hardest blow that mankind has ever received is the advent of Christianity»33cited in M. Bormann, Conversazioni a tavola di Hitler, Goriziana 2010, p. 45, declared Adolf Hitler on 11/07/1941).
Einstein gradually became convinced that the biblical idea of God and humanity had laid the foundation for an anthropology that needed to be rediscovered, as the «weakening of moral thought and sentiment» in our time, which is the cause of the «barbarization of political methods», is connected to the weakening of the «religious sentiment of people in modern times»34A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 22.
The great German scientist matured the belief that equality among men and the doctrine of a universal moral law required a foundation, and he understood, better than many others, that National Socialism was a moral war against the evangelical message and a threat to humanity as it had chosen Machiavelli over Moses: «Who can doubt that Moses was a better guide for humanity than Machiavelli?»35A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 16, Einstein wondered.
As Francesco Agnoli writes, it is not easy to understand whether these convictions and analyses become a personal faith in him, «but they certainly exist, and they are increasingly expressed over the years, along with the heartfelt reference to ‘our Jewish ancestors, the prophets, and the old Christian sages’»36F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015, p. 74.
In 1935, in a commemoration of the medieval rabbi Moses Maimonides, who argued in favor of the agreement between rationality and biblical teachings (and whom Spinoza elected as his main ideal adversary), Albert Einstein wrote:
«Once the Teutonic barbarians had destroyed the ancient culture of Europe, a new and more refined culture (the medieval one, ed.) began to slowly flow from two sources that somehow managed not to be completely buried in the general devastation: the Hebrew Bible and Greek philosophy and art. The union of these two sources, so different from each other, marks the beginning of our cultural epoch, and from that union, directly or indirectly, everything that informs the true values of life in our time has sprung. Our struggle to preserve these treasures against the current forces of darkness and barbarism can only be called victorious. We Jews should be and remain bearers and defenders of spiritual values»37A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 227.
In 1936, in front of the Jewish Academy of Sciences, citing the biblical episode of the idolatrous dance around the golden calf, Albert Einstein stated: «We must hold firm to that spiritual attitude towards life», escaping from «that total adherence to material and selfish goals that nowadays threatens Judaism»38A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 30.
Once again, in April 1938, at around 60 years old, the German physicist wrote: «To be Jewish means, above all, accepting and practicing those foundations of humanity proposed in the Bible, foundations without which no healthy and happy community of humans can exist»39cited in A. Pais, Einstein è vissuto qui, Bollati Boringhieri 1995, p. 243.
A year later, on May 19, 1939, he warned: «A return to a nation in the political sense would mean moving our community away from the spiritualization for which we are indebted to the genius of our prophets»40A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 223.
Also in 1939, when invited to the Princeton Theological Seminary, Einstein once again expressed his affinity with biblical-evangelical thought, contrasting it with National Socialist ideology:
«The highest principles on which our aspirations and judgments are based come from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. There is no room in all this for the deification of a nation, a class, and least of all an individual. Are we not all children of the same Father, as it is said in religious language? In fact, even the deification of humanity as an abstract whole would not fit into the spirit of this ideal. Only the individual is given a soul. And the lofty destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule or impose oneself in any other way»41A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 26.
On this occasion, Einstein also reflected on the relationship between science and faith, stating: «The weak point of this view that there is an insurmountable contrast between knowledge and faith (the latter seen as superstition and as such to be fought against), lies in the fact that objective knowledge provides us with powerful tools for the achievement of certain goals, but the ultimate purpose of human existence and the desire to attain it must arise from another source. Clarifying these purposes and these fundamental values, and anchoring them closely to the emotional life of the individual, seems to me to be the most important function that religion must perform in the social life of man»42A. Einstein, Pensieri degli anni difficili, Bollati Boringhieri 1965, p. 108-111.
The italian philosopher Roberto Timossi sees in this phase of Einstein’s life a «greater caution and balance in his judgments» about God and religion, «the clear sign of a rethinking, in some ways self-critical, that led him to consider more carefully both the limits of science and the historical importance of confessional religious sentiment, especially in the face of the tragic advent of Nazism in Europe». However, the paternalistic conception of God continues to be an insurmountable problem for Einstein, as it is decidedly too contrasting with the principle of causality in the natural sciences. He, in fact, «pursues a rational idea of the divine»43R. Timossi, Dio e la scienza moderna, Mondadori 1999, p. 193.
In 1941, at the Symposium on Science, Philosophy and Religion in New York, after uttering the famous phrase «Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind», he continued by saying: «As much as I have argued that there cannot be a true conflict between religion and science», it must be clarified that «neither the law of human will nor the law of divine will exist as an independent cause of natural events»44A. Einstein, Pensieri degli anni difficili, Bollati Boringhieri 1965, p. 130-139.
During these years, there were multiple references to the Bible and evangelical teachings in Einstein’s public speeches.
On March 22, 1939, coinciding with the outbreak of World War II, the father of relativity stated: «In the past, we were persecuted despite being the people of the Bible; today, instead, we are persecuted precisely because we are the people of the Book. The goal is not only to exterminate us, but also to destroy that spirit, expressed in the Bible and in Christianity, which made the advent of civilization possible in Central and Northern Europe. If this goal is achieved, Europe will become a desolate land. For the life of human society cannot last long if it is based on brute force, violence, terror, and hatred»45A. Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004, p. 26.
According to essayist Francesco Agnoli, it is evident that «mature Einstein openly criticizes, albeit implicitly, social Darwinism, the idea that the moral life of man is resolved, as in animals, in obeying the instinct of survival and participating in the struggle for the survival of the fittest; he completely renounces the determinism typical of materialistic and pantheistic evolutionism and affirms freedom against the “cruel fate,” against the idea of man as the product of his genes and biology, of the unconscious, of materialistic determinism, and of all the modern reiterations of ancient Fate and Necessity»46F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015, p. 119.
The renowned physicist also questioned some of his other views. Already after 1933, he changed his stance on pacifism and openly distanced himself from it: in the face of the advancing army of evil (Nazism), one could not remain idle; it was necessary to make room for a “just” war, one of defense, and if necessary, even of aggression against those who wanted to enslave humanity.
He thus worked to avert the risk that the invention of the atomic bomb could lead to a global catastrophe, but without allowing himself to «get involved in movements that declare themselves pacifist but, in truth, act under the Soviet umbrella and hide other purposes behind the word “peace”»47F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015, p. 100.
In a letter from 1945, Albert Einstein even referred to the constants of nature as «genuine numbers that God had to arbitrarily choose, so to speak, when he deigned to create this world»48quoted in I. Bogdanov, Grichka Bogdanov, I cacciatori di numeri, Piemme 2012, p. 40.
It is important to clarify that, as in this case, it always involved a non-personal God, whose idea Einstein rejected throughout his life (along with the atheistic view).
In a letter to his friend Guy Raner in 1949, he wrote: «I have repeatedly said that in my opinion, the idea of a personal God is childish. You can call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist, whose fervor is largely due to a painful act of liberation from the chains of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and our own being»49quoted in G.H. Raner, Einstein on His Personal Religious Views, in Freethought Today, Vol. 21, No. 9, November 2004.
In 1952, three years later, in a famous letter to his friend Solovine, Einstein once again expressed his complete distance from an atheistic view of existence while also clarifying the impossibility of knowing such a “god,” thereby remaining distant from the Christian view:
«Dear Solovine […]. You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of nature (to the extent that we are authorized to speak of comprehensibility) as a miracle or eternal mystery. Well, what we should expect, a priori, is a chaotic world completely inaccessible to thought. We could (and indeed should) expect the world to be governed by laws only to the extent that we intervene with our organizing intelligence: it would be an order similar to that of the alphabet in a dictionary, whereas the type of order created, for example, by Newton’s theory of gravitation has a completely different character. Even if the axioms of the theory are imposed by man, the success of such a construction presupposes a high degree of order in the objective world, something that, a priori, we are not at all authorized to expect. This is the “miracle” that is further strengthened with the development of our knowledge. Here lies the weak point of positivists and professional atheists, who are only happy because they are conscious of having successfully stripped the world not only of God but also of miracles. The curious fact is that we must be content with recognizing “the miracle” without there being a legitimate way to go beyond it. I say this so that you do not think that I – worn down by age – am now an easy prey for priests»50A. Einstein, Opere scelte, edited by E. Bellone, Bollati Boringhieri 1988, pp. 740-741.
He reiterated the same concept in another reflection (where he definitively rejected Spinoza as well): «I am not an atheist and I do not 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 different 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 a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations»51quoted in D. Brian, Einstein: A Life, 1996, p. 127 52Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology, Princeton University Press 1999, p. 48.
In 1954, in another private letter, the renowned physicist ironically referred to himself as «a deeply religious nonbeliever […]. In a certain sense, is this a new kind of religion?»53A. Einstein, Letter to an admirer, Einstein Archives 57-061, 22/03/1954.
Especially during this period, as noted by the philosopher Roberto Timossi, «we believe we are not mistaken in interpreting Einstein’s words as a clear admission of the awareness that the meaning of human existence and the entire universe appears mysterious, and that it is precisely from such a mystery that human religious values can arise. In fact, not experiencing religious sentiments for him is a sign of extreme poverty of soul and a source of unhappiness»54R. Timossi, Dio e la scienza moderna, Mondadori 1999, p. 186.
In the later part of his life, Albert Einstein often visited Italy, staying in the area of Fiesole (Tuscany) at the convent of San Francesco, where he deepened his friendship with some Franciscan friars, including the porter friar Clementino and Father Odorico Caramelli, a musician. With the latter, in particular, the physicist maintained a correspondence even in the last years of his life.
Einstein’s friendship with the Franciscan friars of Fiesole involved other family members of the scientist, especially Margot Einstein, his beloved stepdaughter, who stood by his side until the end of his days. Margot was a sculptor, and in 1955, the year of Albert’s death, she sent a statue of the Madonna (photo on the right) sculpted by her to the convent of Fiesole. Enclosed were Albert’s greetings to Father Caramelli: “Best wishes for 1955”.
On October 18, 1960, Father Caramelli recalled his friendship with Einstein during an interview with journalist Alberto Maria Fortuna: «Einstein? I met him here many years ago. Innocent. Like a child. Extremely humble, with a natural and spontaneous humility. And even though he wasn’t a Catholic, he enjoyed going to church because he liked being with God, in whom he believed. He came to San Francesco often. First, he would listen to me play, then he decided to bring a violin and, strumming as he knew how, he would have me accompany him on the organ. At night, he would go down to the woods of the convent and, sitting on the wall of the Etruscan cistern, he would play to the moon. Once, after I had accompanied him in a Sonata by Bach, he was so moved that he threw his arms around my neck, almost in tears»55interview with A.M. Fortuna, Due frati francescani da ricordare. Padre Caramelli, Fra Clementino, Fiesole 1972, pp. 43-44.
Five years before his death, the eminent physicist wrote something unprecedented: he referred to God as “Him”, giving Him a specific form and contradicting both Spinoza’s pantheism and his constant rejection of an anthropomorphic God.
In a letter dated April 15, 1950, addressed to his old Italian friend Michele Besso, a Jewish convert to Christianity, Einstein addressed various topics, including religion. He wrote: «There is one thing I have learned throughout my long life: it is devilishly difficult to approach “Him” if one does not want to remain on the surface».
The auction house Nate D. Sanders Auctions, owner of the letter, wrote in a statement: «Much has been written about Einstein’s thoughts on religion and God. Einstein is generally considered an agnostic. This letter offers a unique personal glimpse into Einstein’s relationship with the divine».
We have attempted to divide the life of Albert Einstein into three phases, tracing the path of his philosophical and religious thoughts.
Einstein was a young physicist who opposed materialism until he emphasized the need to revive evangelical values in the face of atheistic dictatorships. It must be reiterated that he never became a Christian. From a strong rejection of a personal God to calling himself “agnostic” but also “believer,” including his engagement with Spinoza, Dostoevsky, and his friendship with the Franciscan friars in Fiesole (FI). As we have seen, shortly before his death, he seemed to hint at a personal God, a “Him” (“lhm”).
In general, as the italian essayist Francesco Agnoli concluded, «the great physicist mostly professed, not always clearly, faith not in a personal God, but in a sort of supra-personal God, in an ordering Intelligence of the cosmos, moving ambiguously, in an unresolved, undefined manner, between the God of Spinoza, deism, and the biblical God»56F. Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015, p. 213.
The non-linearity of Einstein’s thinking is confirmed by theologian Thomas F. Torrance from the University of Edinburgh: «What did Einstein mean when he referred to God as “cosmic intelligence” and “magnificence of reason incarnate in existence”, or, using an expression from the Talmud, “the Old man”? He was not always consistent, so it is not easy to grasp precisely what he meant. But it seems clear that he conceived of God as the ultimate spiritual foundation of all rational order that transcends what the scientist deals with through natural laws. However, unlike the Judeo-Christian religion, he did not think of it in a “personal” or “anthropomorphic” way, that is, as a God in the image of man, but rather “supra-personally” (ausserpersönlichen), freed from the chains of the “solely personal” (Nur-Persönlichen) to which the desires of people would bind it for their own satisfaction».
According to philosopher Roberto Timossi, after thoroughly analyzing Einstein’s religious thought, his divine idea corresponds to an «impersonal God, a kind of rational Necessity that would have ordered the world according to intelligible principles, an absolute Rationality or higher Intelligence, perhaps a mathematical Mind, from which everything would descend and which would be intrinsic to nature itself. However, our opinion is that the fundamental ambiguity lies in the scientist’s own thinking, who has shown to possess concepts as clear in physics as they are disorganized in philosophy and theology».
Regarding the alleged pantheism of Einstein, Timossi wrote: «It remains an open question in the contemporary debate, as there are many who have categorically denied it». For example, theologian Alexandre Ganoczy rhetorically asked: «When did Einstein explicitly support the principle ‘Deus sive natura’? When did he deify the natural world?».57A. Ganoczy, Teologia della natura, Queriniana 1997, p. 83.
The Italian theologian Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, has written a valid synthesis of Einstein’s theological position:
«We are convinced that Einstein, of Jewish origin and culture, had an experience that we could reasonably call “religious sense”, as a sense of dependence on the Absolute and perception of the foundations of being, although he was not able to thematize it coherently, even when he believed he could. Several factors played an important role in preventing a mature synthesis of his notion of God. First, there was the idea that the Jewish-Christian religious tradition, of which he appreciated the social role and human value, held an anthropomorphic view of God that he rightly considered incompatible with the logos he glimpsed hidden in the folds of the comprehensibility of the world. Secondly, in our opinion, Einstein showed excessive dependence on a positivist interpretation of the development of religion, from which he never managed to completely emancipate himself. This interpretation coexisted in him with a Kantian view of the idea of religion as the rational goal of a spiritually mature humanity».
Even the world’s most famous former atheist, philosopher Anthony Flew, recognized a similarity between his conversion to deism and Einstein’s view: «The integrated complexity of the physical world led Einstein to believe that there must be a divine Intelligence behind it».
Similarly, physicist Angelo Tartaglia, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Turin, wrote: «Among scientists, the idea of a non-personal supreme entity finds some following. First and foremost, we can take the example of Albert Einstein»58A. Tartaglia, La luna e il dito. Viaggio di un fisico tra scienza e fede, Lindau 2009, p. 156.
The most authoritative biographer of Einstein, Walter Isaacson, definitively denied that the famous physicist was ever an atheist:
«Throughout his life, he rejected the accusation of being an atheist. Unlike Freud, Russell, or G.B. Shaw, Einstein never felt the need to denigrate those who believe in God; rather, he tended to attack atheists […]. In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of skeptics, who seemed devoid of humility and a sense of wonder, than of believers»59W. Isaacson, Einstein. La sua vita, il suo universo, Mondadori 2008, p. 376.
His vision of God was in coherence, not so much with a religious path of faith, but with what the study of the Universe suggested to him: «Looking at the harmony of the cosmos that I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are still people who say that God does not exist. But what really angers me is that they claim I support such a point of view»60cited in U. di Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Towards the Further Shore: An Autobiography, Victor Gollancz 1968, p. 156.
According to another reliable biographer, Alexander Moszkowski, author of a book of conversations with Einstein, «music, nature, and God blended in him into a complex of feelings, into a moral unity that never faded away»61cited in W. Isaacson, Einstein. La sua vita, il suo universo, Mondadori 2008, p. 20.
«Classifying the German scientist as a pantheist or a deist may be convenient for the hasty philosopher», wrote the Italian theologian Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, «but it would not account for the deepest aspirations that animated him. And the theologian would miss a good opportunity to reflect on what image of God is accessible to a subject engaged in scientific research but lacks the adequate resources to relate it to the true content of Revelation».
Regarding his apparent skepticism towards a God like the Judeo-Christian one, «a closer relationship between science and theology would have allowed Einstein to clarify the groundlessness of his fears regarding the anthropomorphism of the Christian God and to better understand the authenticity of the moral life born from this religious tradition», Tanzella-Nitti continued.
«The letters from the last years of his life often return to the theme of God, mentioning Him in passing and with an almost confiding tone — the great old man, the one who knows the secrets of the world, etc», concluded Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti. «We believe they do so beyond mere rhetorical expedience, probably expressing nostalgia but also the need to refer to the Absolute as Someone and not just as impersonal rationality».
Francesco Agnoli, Filosofia, religione e politica in Albert Einstein, ESD 2015.
Walter Isaacson, Einstein. La sua vita, il suo universo, Mondadori 2008.
Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion. Physics and Theology, Princeton University Press 1999.
Albert Einstein, Pensieri, idee, opinioni, Newton 2004.
Albert Einstein, Come io vedo il mondo, Newton 1984.
Abraham Pais, Einstein è vissuto qui, Bollati Boringhieri 1995.
Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, Einstein su scienza e religione: una guida alla lettura, DISF 2005.
Paolo Musso, La scienza e l’idea di ragione. Scienza, filosofia e religione da Galileo ai buchi neri e oltre, Mimesis 2001.
Thomas Torrance, Einstein, Albert (1879-1955), DISF 2002.
Can faith exist independently of science? Does science deny God?
Why do some scientists find confirmation of their faith in God through science, while others confirm their atheism through it?
The reason lies in the fact that God is not a scientific concept, and science cannot prove or disprove metaphysical and theological propositions (and vice versa).
There are no scientific proofs for the existence of God, just as there is no scientific atheism. Rather, certain aspects that emerge from the study of the physical reality can confirm or challenge pre-existing existential positions. However, although increasingly rare, there are still extreme positions that see religious faith in conflict with scientific inquiry.
Through the following dossiers, constantly updated, we delve into the theme of this alleged conflict: