Einstein’s Antipathy Toward Atheism (and Traditional Theism)

I recently spoke to the Humanist Community in Silicon Valley, a group that meets on Sundays in Palo Alto. My theme was “Bridging the God Gap: How to Find Common Ground with Theistic Friends and Family Members.” Part of my presentation involved communication between atheists and unorthodox theists – deists, naturalistic theists, and those who believe in an impersonal god. Many (though not all) of these individuals are “functionally atheistic.” They do not expect deity to help them in any specific ways.

Even when their beliefs about the nature of reality are quite similar, there may be considerable tension between non-believers and orthodox theists. I think of Albert Einstein, for example. Einstein said some very negative things about atheists, and yet his own beliefs about the universe were similar to the world-view of scientifically oriented atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

Einstein used personal-god language to metaphorically speak of the universe and/or its laws. Sometimes he sounds like he might be speaking literally, as when he said, “That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible Universe, forms my idea of God.” But his statements rejecting a literal personal deity are numerous and emphatic. At one point he wrote, “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly” (cited by Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, p. 271). Those who quote Einstein to support traditional religion are way off base.

Here’s a glaring example: In The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren used Einstein’s famous statement that “God doesn’t play dice” to support the idea that God carefully plans each of our lives (p. 22). This is as blatant a distortion of Einstein’s intent as if an anti-gambling group had used this quote to show that Albert wanted to ban crap games.

Since Einstein sharply criticizes personal theism, one might think he would affirm atheism, but sometimes he condemns this lifestance. In Jesus Was a Liberal, Scotty McLennan quotes him as saying, “In view of such harmony in the cosmos, which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for support of such views” (p. 51).

I like to imagine Albert and Richard Dawkins having a beer together and sorting out their differences. Surely they could have looked beyond labels such as theist and atheist, realizing that what they had in common was much more important than that which divided them.

Roger Christan Schriner

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4 thoughts on “Einstein’s Antipathy Toward Atheism (and Traditional Theism)

    • Dear Jake,

      Thanks for this link to a fascinating exchange of letters with Einstein. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I did not find any affirmation of atheism by Einstein. Raner was wise to ask Albert to clarify his statement that to a priest he would be an atheist, but in asking if Einstein was atheistic Raner defined atheism as disbelief in the existence of a God or Supreme Being. Many naturalistic theists and non-personal theists would be uncomfortable affirming this sort of deity, and Einstein clearly interpreted Raner’s definition as referring to “a personal God.” Even so he did not respond by calling himself an atheist, but only said “You may call me an agnostic …” He then concluded with atheist-bashing remarks.

      The main point I was trying to make in my recent post is that unorthodox theists often have a lot in common with unbelievers, and are blinded to that fact by the “atheist” label. I don’t mean to oversimplify Einstein’s religious beliefs, but it seems possible that he drew an unnecessarily sharp line between himself and those who explicitly identify as atheists.

      Roger Christan Schriner

      • Dear Roger,

        I saw the somewhat redacted letter from Mr. Raner in its original form in which Einstein called himself an atheist without qualification but cannot find it on the Internet. You have only my word to this version of the letter, but if memory serves the Einstein quotation is correct. I do recall that Mr. Raner typed his letter on the letterhead of his ship at the time, that it mentioned a fellow ensign, and that Einstein’s reply was also typewritten. We may wish for the historical documents, but alas they are missing.

        Note that http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/einstein.htm at “It seems to me . . .” effectively precludes agnosticism or deism.

        Jake

  1. Dear Jake,
    The letter you describe sounds important. Too bad it is not available. I would not be terribly surprised if Einstein at some point said something along the lines of, “If the choice is between believing in a personal god and being an atheist, I am an atheist.” But he did not see those as the only choices.
    A similar point: When he says “It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously,” that does indeed preclude agnosticism about a personal god, but it does not preclude agnosticism about various impersonal deities or about whether various concepts of naturalistic theism are correct. Importantly, some impersonal or naturalistic god-concepts are functionally atheistic.
    I agree that Einstein was probably not a deist.
    Roger Christan Schriner

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