Einstein was sent a letter by a school girl about prayer. His answer was honest and captured the magic of reality.
January 19, 1936
My dear Dr. Einstein,
We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men to try and have our own question answered.
We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?
We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.
Einstein replied promptly:
January 24, 1936
I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:
Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.
However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.
But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
With cordial greetings,
your A. Einstein
Einstein was no theist as his reply above shows. He made clear:
“My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.” [Source]
He rejected calling himself an atheist, considering that lacked humility and appreciation of the sheer beauty that radiated from the cosmos. He was opposed to vocal atheism for seeming to reject that emotional awed response, as he was against the espousing of a personal God. Perhaps he would say seeing the new atheist debate that the
“struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope” and cultivate the “Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself.” [ibid]
The “God Letter” shows he rejected the God of the Bible as to do with the infancy of our species and trying to represent his position as deist where he said:
“I’m not an atheist, and I don’t 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 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 the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.” [Source]
Misses that he saw in his time the human race as still quite childlike in appreciating how the universe is. Which I suspect is why he wrote so quickly back to the little girl. Einstein knew we needed to move beyond a religiosity that was theistic, pantheist and yes deist too. His concern with atheism was that it rejected the wonder of everything for harsh calculations, and cold realities. By lacking such spirit we would lack warmth as human beings.
I would hope he would see in the current debate that it was religion, and not a lack of appreciation for the sublime nature of the universe, which was the target for atheists. Our understanding of the natural world through science, and using our knowledge of the world to better how we all live, is something humanity can get together on. A humanism that transcends faith and non faith with improving and valuing.
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog