Although science has continued its transforming role over the most recent centuries, the realisation that its findings must inevitably impact on theological understandings like the nature of God, has been very slow and uncertain in the dawning. For example it has become clear to many familiar with the major developments in science as well as a number of those seeking for way to reconcile the findings of science with those of religion, that religious concepts like the nature of sin, traditional beliefs about human behaviour like homosexuality and even the place of humankind in creation must all undergo a radical reexamination in the light of scientific discovery.
The catch to re-examination is that the likely consequence is the call for the relaxation of the proprietary hold on traditional creedal beliefs ossified by years of passive acceptance. Perhaps then it is not surprising that as the reluctant conclusions began to surface, in many places the natural reaction has been one of retrenchment. Indeed, if anything, the hints of impending cataclysm for traditional belief has driven many in the Church back to a conservative position of declared immobility of the “here we stand” variety. Richard Holloway points to this version of fundamentalist thinking as defiant immobilism or as Helaire Bellock’s delightful phrase puts it “a desperate holding onto nurse for fear of finding something worse.”
Initially at least, maintaining the traditional orthodoxy was excusable. When the fossil and geological record was in its infancy, the standard argument for a young earth and a Genesis supported human centred life record at the time was a plausible alternative to what has since become an overwhelmingly supported story of gradual and complex evolution.
Before the various improvements in microbiology it may have been possible to retain a theory that disease had a demonstrable demon related theological cause. It also used to be accepted that acts of God were plausible before techtonics, astrophysics and meteorology gave us firmly established and highly believable alternatives based on clear physical evidence. But now the various branches of science have taken us well beyond those conservative positions.
Perhaps what now most needs clear theological reexamination is a revisiting of the consequences that science can only progress if the scientists first make the assumption the wonders of nature may well be mysterious and awe inspiring but nevertheless are based on firm foundations of natural principles. Putting it bluntly, there is no evidence that prayer can even shift a single atom, let alone suspend natural laws or change the weather. No matter how impressively we may have our theological actors dress for the occasion, and despite the fluent and high sounding requests for divine intervention, what I call the Harry Potter school of prayer has become progressively less reasonable in the light of what is now relatively common knowledge.
Which brings us to Albert Einstein. That Einstein was a most significant contributer to 20th century physics is not in question. Yet, that he made his contributions because he had had prior belief in a progressively knowable universe which operated according to fixed natural principles, needs to be stressed if only because much of traditional theology appears to rest on a divine force which can alter the rules at will … and often at the behest of human supplicants.
Thus Einstein in replying to child’s question about whether or not scientists ever prayed:
“Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of Nature, and therefore this holds for the action of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a Supernatural Being.”
(Albert Einstein, 1936, The Human Side.)
The assumption that Einstein himself was an atheist couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is the same as that of the religious fanatics and it springs from the same source . . . They are creatures who can’t hear the music of the spheres”.(The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 2000 p. 214)
However since he saw the mysterious principles on which the Universe is based as being outside our control to change particularly through a God with whom we might wish to have a personal relationship, he opts for a God who embodies nature rather than one outside nature altogether.
“The idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I am unable to take seriously”. (Albert Einstein, Letter to Hoffman and Dukas, 1946)
“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
(Albert Einstein, responding to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein who had sent a cablegram to Einstein querously asking “Do you believe in God?” Quoted from Victor J. Stenger, Has Science Found God? 2001, chapter 3.)
He also made it very clear that he placed the concept of a personal God in historical context of an earlier and more primitive set of beliefs. For the reader there is one caution in a number of the subsequent quotes. Einstein’s fondness for the frequent use of the word “man” in place of what we now call humankind will no doubt irritate modern feminists, but if we remember that he was writing in an earlier age and that in many other respects he remains well ahead of much of contemporary thinking we may be a little more forgiving. So with that in mind let us reflect on his picture of the setting for a personal God.
“During the youthful period of mankind’s spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man’s own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favour by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfillment of their wishes.
Nobody, certainly, will deny that the idea of the existence of an omnipotent, just, and omni beneficent personal God is able to accord man solace, help, and guidance; also, by virtue of its simplicity it is accessible to the most undeveloped mind. But, on the other hand, there are decisive weaknesses attached to this idea in itself, which have been painfully felt since the beginning of history”. (Albert Einstein, 1941)
His corollary then follows:
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, 1954)
“A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”
Clearly Einstein himself did not see this as liberating him from the need for moral behaviour. If anything it freed him from the need for a model of morality dependent on a personal judge.
Albert Einstein was both wise and, apart from a weakness for women, apparently moral, despite being one who lived in difficult times. His involvement with Germany during the turbulent times of the first world war found him protesting against the use of science in the service of warfare. He was for example singularly unimpressed by Fritz Haber developing what Haber termed a higher form of killing eg gas warfare. He was likewise revolted by the use of nationalism in providing the excuse for dubious moral decisions in pre-second world war Germany.
Einstein was not unique in his identification of the gulf between theory and practice.
“When considering the actual living conditions of present day civilised humanity from the standpoint of even the most elementary religious commands, one is bound to experience a feeling of deep and painful disappointment at what one sees. For while religion prescribes brotherly love in the relations among the individuals and groups, the actual spectacle more resembles a battlefield than an orchestra. Everywhere, in economic as well as in political life, the guiding principle is one of ruthless striving for success at the expense of one’s fellow men. This competitive spirit prevails even in the school and, destroying all feelings of human fraternity and cooperation, conceives of achievement not as derived from the love for productive and thoughtful work, but as springing from personal ambition and fear of rejection.
There are pessimists who hold that such a state of affairs is necessarily inherent in human nature; it is those who propound such views that are the enemies of true religion, for they imply thereby that the religious teachings are utopian ideals and are unsuited to afford guidance in human affairs.” (Albert Einstein, 1948)
Yet morality for him went far beyond a simple response to the needs of nearby friends and neighbours. As he writes on humanity and true religiousness;
“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive. (Albert Einstein, 1954)
“A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”
“I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature. (Albert Einstein, The World as I See It)
(Albert Einstein, “Religion and Science”, New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930)
This brings us to the difficult bit. If we agree with Einstein in his reasoning about opting for a non-personal God and accept his propositions such as that God would be unlikely to be judgmental on the creatures whose characteristics are part of creation, or for that matter a God unlikely to be suseptible to pleas to suspend what appear to be fixed natural principles in response to prayers of petition, then to be consistent perhaps we should also accept the general tenor of his theology. This should include not just an acceptance of a morality based on broad principles, but also a morality which is then discernible in our actions. If on the other hand we feel a need to hold to religious tradition, perhaps for social, cultural and historic reasons, we should at least be honest with ourselves about our reasons for the choice.