Albert Einstein On The Spirituality That Comes From Scientific Inquiry

"I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity."

Although Albert Einstein is best known for his scientific achievements, his personal writings also reveal a good deal of wonder about the possibility of a higher power.

Einstein was born on March 14, 1879 to a secular Jewish family in Germany. Although he experienced a short burst of religiosity when he was 12 -- composing songs in praise of God and keeping kosher -- for much of his life, Einstein tried his best to avoid religious labels.

Like a growing number of Americans today, Einstein didn't fit neatly into any organized religion. He felt an attachment to his Jewish heritage and culture, but he believed the idea of a personal God who was involved in human affairs was "childlike."

At the same time, Einstein separated himself from "fanatical atheists" who he believed could not "hear the music of the spheres."

"I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist," he wrote in a letter from the 1940s. "I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being."

Based on his writings, Einstein's views on religion seem to have been influenced by Benedict de Spinoza, an Enlightenment-era thinker who rejected the idea that the Bible was a divine document. Instead, Spinoza believed in a God of "harmony and beauty."

“I believe in Spinoza’s God,” Einstein wrote to a New York rabbi in 1929, “Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

Albert Einstein in his study at Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, United States, 1940.
Albert Einstein in his study at Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, United States, 1940.
UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images

Like Spinoza, Einstein didn't believe that prayer had any influence on the course of events in a person's life.

In 1936, a young girl in New York named Phyllis sent Einstein a letter asking him whether scientists prayed. In the letter, posted by Brain Pickings from a larger volume of Einstein's letters answering children's' questions, he replied that since scientists believe that everything in the world must fall under the laws of nature, they don't believe that a wish can be granted by a supernatural force.

However, he admitted that science itself bears evidence that there is some spirit in the world that shows itself through the laws of nature.

"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," Einstein wrote. "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."

In an essay broadcast as part of the "This I Believe" series in the 1950s, Einstein gave a succinct and beautiful explanation of his views on the possibility of this higher power:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the Mysterious — the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty. I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with the awareness of — and glimpse into — the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. This is the basics of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Einstein's essay was written for NPR. It was originally broadcast as part of the "This I Believe" CBS radio series in the 1950s.

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