THEOLOGY AND THE EINSTEIN EFFECT

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 is that the cost in so doing is 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 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, 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)

and

“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)

and again:

“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.”

Then again:

“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.

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8 Responses to THEOLOGY AND THE EINSTEIN EFFECT

  1. Andrew G says:

    I do love how Einstein has been used by both ‘camps’ (the theistic and the atheistic) and yet how rarely they seem to face up to the consequences of Einstein’s ideas.

    Like your science vs religion post, this is a great example of how much can be lost if we simplify a message or over-polarize an issue. Well done, Bill.

    I think many religious people are coming to question the practice of prayer, at least in terms of influencing a deity for personal gain. It can be a hard thing to justify morally or comprehend in the present age.

    And in some ways, we do seem more conscious of a morality which is “discernible in our actions.” Psychology and therapeutic role-playing have made us much more conscious of how our behaviour affects others, and maybe even how behaviour defines us. It’s getting hard to balance the equation belief=morality in light of how public our lives have become.

    • Bill Peddie says:

      Thanks for the positive feedback. The Einstein article is one I would like to see more feedback on because I have the feeling that it suggests soem more creative ways for looking at what religion is for.
      Cheers Bill

  2. Cherel says:

    Wow. I am truly amazed. Methodists have come a long way since Wesley– and apparently in the wrong direction if they don’t believe God responds to prayer. I don’t share your lack of faith.

    God has miraculously intervened in my life on numerous occasions through the years. Most recently, in 2009. Before I knew what was wrong with me, I felt that I was dying and I was fearful and prayed for help. Then I picked up a Bible Lesson I had taught about Gideon and read it. When my eyes fell on “Peace be with you, do not fear, you will not die” (Judges 6:23) I knew the Lord was speaking to me and I knew I would not die.

    I ended up in the hospital with kidney failure and every blood test showed my kidneys were getting worse. When they dropped to 11% function, the doctor insisted I should go on dialysis. I knew I wouldn’t die but didn’t know if I should go on dialysis or not, so I asked him if a delay would do me great harm. He said, “No. You’ll just keep getting sicker and you’ll be back in a week to go on dialysis.”

    At that, I said I wanted to go home and he dismissed me from the hospital. That week my kidneys took a turn for the better and over a period of months I recovered. Even with a kidney biopsy they never determined what caused the failure and sure couldn’t figure out what turned it around.

    My nephrologist said if he ever writes his book he’ll put my case in it because he considered it a miracle. Praise be to my personal God and healer, Jesus Christ!

    • peddiebill says:

      I can go one better. I didnt even have the unpleasant symptoms of kidney disease – and I didnt even have to pray that it wouldnt happen. In your terms was that God rewarding my faith?

  3. Cherel says:

    God has been merciful to you. You should be thankful.

    • peddiebill says:

      I am certainly thankful that I have got this far without serious problems – but it seems to me that if I am thankful to Gods mercy, that if something was to go wrong eg getting cancer as is quite likely when I get older then I have to blame God for withdrawing “His” mercy. Because I dont happen to think the latter is appropriate, then to be consistent I shouldnt call good health God’s mercy either.
      I remember once a rather poor philosopher announcing
      “I accept the Universe!” To which one of his listeners replied: “Gad, he’d better!” I am sufficiently ignorant to do little more that regard nature with awe and wonder, and enjoy what I can with very little understanding.

  4. Cherel says:

    So, you are saying you are a Deist and your life’s purpose (based on the articles on your site) is to undermine the faith of those who accept the Bible as God’s Word.

    Based on the fact that you are involved with the Methodist Church, I surmise that at some point you had more faith than you do now but you have allowed your exposure to agnostics and atheists through your educational experience to undermine your faith.

    Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say, “He traps the wise in the snare of their own cleverness.”
    1 Cor 3:18-19

    The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say,
    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”
    So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

    But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.

    Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.

    God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.” 1 Cor 1:18-30

    You can believe God’s Word or the foolishness of the world. The choice is yours.

    • peddiebill says:

      I certainly dont see it that way. I would have thought rather that I believe a faith has to be intellectually honest – and here is the tricky bit – and applied to real life situations-not held up as a list of things to be declaimed pharisee style. There is plenty of Chruch history that shows what happens when people get more hung up on what people say in their list of things to believe than they care about being kind. It is a pity more dont read what James has to say about true religion – which just for the record is where I stand. For instance I believe in peacemaking, therefore I like to encourage tolerance. That is why I write articles pointing out that there is good in other faiths and that there are flaws in the way we apply our faith, which I point out as a means of getting people to be a bit more cautious about being judgemental. I guess if I am honest, that the sorts of things you have just written about me are precisely the sorts of things I am trying to discourage. That is why I was on the Peace Foundation Council for 10 years and supported a course to teach peaceful resolution of disputes in schools. It is true I want people to question their faith…. but not to turn them into atheists. Rather it is to bring people to the point where they are starting to do their thinking for themselves, so that as they discover their faith they can build on firm foundations, not build on things which are not true. Thinking is always painful and I have noticed that some resent the process. Yes I admit my faith has changed – and I like to think grown. So you think you have the one true faith. Why I have even posted an article on that!

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