Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Quote of the Day: Albert Einstein on Religion and the Desire for Transcendence

When I was a fairly precocious young man I became thoroughly impressed with the futility of the hopes and strivings that chase most men restlessly through life. Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase, which in those years was much more carefully covered up by hypocrisy and glittering words than is the case today. By the mere existence of his stomach everyone was condemned to participate in that chase. The stomach might well be satisfied by such participation, but not man insofar as he is a thinking and feeling being. As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine.

Thus I came - though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents - to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment-an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections.

It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the "merely personal," from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it. --Albert Einstein, Autobiographical Notes


Ben Avuyah said...

Fantastic !!

Although we are usually overwhelmed by his theorems it pays not to forget he was just as good with his pen !

dbackdad said...

Great quote. I'm a big fan of Einstein. Not just his science, but his social, religious and political views too.

JC Masterpiece said...

It's funny because he also said;

"Before God we are all equally wise - and equally foolish"

"At any rate, I am convinced that He [God] does not play dice"

"I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details."

"God does not care about our mathematical difficulties. He integrates empirically."

My favorite is when Einstein says:
"My religion consists of a humble admiration of the unlimitable superior who reveals Himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God"

And a warning he gives is:
"We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality"

and don't forget:
"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind"

Orthoprax said...


Thus the difference between a personal theism and a cosmological awesome respect for Existence.

Anonymous said...

amen, amen, AMEN!!

All hail the prophet einstein!

(I heard he walked on water, did you?)

seriously, I don't understand a damn bit of science but einstein's writings on philosophy and ethics have been among the most inspiring I've read. thanks for bringing this to light, especially after the absurdities i've been reading all night, i.e. the gaza-hurricane link.

JC Masterpiece said...


"I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details."

this doesn't sound like a mere "cosmological awesome respect for Existence"

JA's quote sounds like Einsteins reasons for becoming a scientist and not a pastor/preacher rather than a statement that God does not exist and did not create the universe.

Jewish Atheist said...

JC, Einstein did not believe in a personal God, but he believed in God as a metaphor of sorts. Here's something else 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 have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

- Albert Einstein, In Religion

Orthoprax said...


"this doesn't sound like a mere "cosmological awesome respect for Existence""

You're right. Taking quotes out of context often gives uneducated readers an improper understanding of what the quotee meant when he first said it.

Do some reading on Einstein's philosophy and you'll see exactly what he meant when he used the word "God."

DNA said...

I haven't read any of Einstein's phiosophy and don't know what he meant, but I do know that there is a huge spectrum of possibilities in between "personal god" and "respect for existence" (whatever that means).

Orthoprax said...


Einstein believed there was reason for things, but was not dogmatic about what that thing is or could be.

He called himself a "religious unbeliever." He rarely extended a faith of God, but his religious feelings were extensions of his wonder for which we held for the universe. His studies were worship and the universe his church. He was in awe of what was and expressed that awe religiously.

Einstein himself was often intentionally obscure about his own beliefs about God, likely because he wasn't willing to make a stand of fact for which he could not know. He knew the universe existed, he knew somehow humanity could comprehend it to some degree, but he had no idea how or why or what. That was behind his drive for science and behind his feelings of religious awe.

Eric said...

correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Eisenberg/quantum mechanics/Schrodinger kinda disprove the whole "doesn't play dice with the universe" thing?
- Quantum physics - the dreams stuff is made of.

JC Masterpiece said...

From my understanding of Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Theory, they are still too vague and have way too many contridictory theories to have a definite answer for that kind of question.

Orthoprax said...


In some parts of the universe, yes.