In 1999, Time magazine named Albert Einstein its “Person of the Century”. The choice was understandable: In a global society increasingly underpinned by science and technology, perhaps no one person has had a greater individual impact on humanity’s understanding of the cosmos. Among his many scientific contributions, he discovered the special and general theories of relativity, proved light’s quantized nature by means of the photoelectric effect, and offered important support to atomic theory with his study of Brownian motion. Later in his career, he led the effort to construct a grand unified theory of physics, an endeavor that is ongoing to this day.
Aside from his scientific contributions, Einstein’s political and humanitarian work was no less important. He was a diplomat and peacemaker who warned of the dangers of Nazism, lobbied against the nuclear arms race, participated in civil rights causes, and promoted the goal of peace and disarmament worldwide. Later in life, he was offered the presidency of the state of Israel but turned it down, claiming that he was not qualified for the post.
He was also, in every practical sense, an atheist. This is still a controversial claim in some people’s eyes. Christian apologists like Ray Comfort claim that the great Einstein believed in God, and snidely ask if we atheists consider ourselves smarter than him. Here’s our answer to that, Ray:
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. (source)
On another occasion, he also wrote:
…the word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.
Despite occasional metaphorical remarks (such as the famous “God does not play dice with the universe” saying that’s confused many wishful-thinking believers), Einstein himself made it clear that his beliefs followed those of Spinoza’s: not belief in God as a supernatural or conscious entity, but rather “God” construed as the sum total of all there is, a poetic name for a purely natural phenomenon.
These views were not secret: Einstein often expressed them in public. Like many famous freethinkers, he was reviled by his apologist contemporaries as being anti-religious and atheistic, only for apologists of later generations to grab at his mantle and claim he was on their side all along. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes a Christian pastor who was one of many to write to Einstein in outrage after he made similar freethinking remarks on another occasion:
Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, “Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from, or stop trying to break down the faith of a people who gave you a welcome when you were forced to flee your native land.”
and even more shocking, from a Catholic lawyer:
We deeply regret that you made your statement… in which you ridicule the idea of a personal God. In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated as to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement.
For the record, Einstein was not expelled from Germany. Though he was born there, he renounced his citizenship and left of his own volition when the Nazis began their political ascent, correctly sensing the gathering mood of the country. Later, the Nazis would denounce relativity as fanciful, useless “Jewish science” (as opposed to solid, practical “Aryan science”) and publish a pamphlet titled “100 Scientists Against Einstein”. Ironically, the Nazis’ rejection of Einstein’s theories on ideological grounds was probably a major reason why they never developed an atomic bomb. Einstein’s ignorant critics had more reason than they knew to be grateful for his coming to America – whether he was a crazy, insensitive atheist or not.
Recognizing the potential of his work, Einstein was one of the signers of a letter to President Roosevelt urging research into nuclear fission, which ultimately led to the Manhattan Project. Later in life, however, he came to regret this and became a champion of nuclear disarmament, working with his fellow humanist Bertrand Russell. During the Cold War, he spoke out against paranoia and blacklisting, openly advising targets of Joseph McCarthy to refuse to cooperate with his investigations. He also fought for civil rights issues, including joining a national campaign to end lynching and appearing as a character witness for W.E.B. DuBois when the famous black activist (and fellow freethinker) was accused of being a Communist spy.
In both his scientific genius and his political conscience, Albert Einstein stands without peer. The next time an apologist asserts that lack of religious belief either impedes scientific inquiry or devalues human conscience, this great freethinker can stand as a refutation of either argument.
Other posts in this series: