The Contributions of Freethinkers: Albert Einstein

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:

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  • terrence

    Hey I’m confused — would this mean Dinesh D’Souza is off his rocker for claiming that only Christianity was responsible for the flowering of science?

  • Alex Weaver

    would this mean Dinesh D’Souza is off his rocker for claiming that only Christianity was responsible for the flowering of science?

    Is the pope reptilian?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Christian apologists like Ray Comfort claim that the great Einstein believed in God, and snidely ask if we atheists consider ourselves smarter than him.

    It’s bad logic anyway, even if Einstein was a Xian. Just because he was right about quite a few things doesn’t mean that he was always right.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Dinesh claimed that conservatives where morally superior because they got morality from a book and not their hearts. That is right- Dinesh claims conservatives don’t have a conscience! It is in “The Enemy at Home”.

    As for flowering of science… the Ionians where the first Europeans to practice science. They were noted for developing explanations that did not involve the Gods.

    India and China also had discoveries and inventions- zero, the wheel, the printing press, pizza, etc. I don’t know if they had formal science.

    As for how advanced the heathen Greeks were… they made this:
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/11/061129-ancient-greece.html

    It is a clockwork computer. It is from about 100 BC and its complexity isn’t matched until the 18th century.

    As for why their science didn’t go so far and widespreed, we have cultural factors. Slavery was a big one- why use steam engines when life is so cheap?

  • Eric

    It was more a rejection of certain people rather than certain theories that held up the German bomb. Losing Szilard and later Meitner didn’t help. But mostly Germany didn’t have the time or a secure location to make a bomb. They knew this and largely gave up working on one.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/cgranade/ Chris Granade

    I’m just wondering where in the heck Ray Comfort got that “quote.” I mean, even when a quote is invented out of whole cloth, there’s normally a paper trail that looks reasonable from a distance. Helps keep the criticism away. That, and I don’t think that Comfort has the brain cells to rub together to come up with that “quote.”

  • Samuel Skinner

    My first post disappeared… this keeps happening to me!

    Any way on Christianity being responsible for science… no. The Greeks get to what we consider science first.

    The reason it doesn’t result in an industrial revolution? Social factors. Mainly slavery, low population densities and a lack of certain critical tech that could set off a boom.

  • Quath

    Einstein was not really an atheist either. When Einstein was 50, he conducted an interview with George Sylvester Viereck. He was asked if he believed in God. He replied:

    I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limied minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the of the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.

    So Einstein makes the same fallacy as many Creationists do when they use the analogy about finding a watch on a beach and saying there must be a designer. Einstein thought the universe looked designed and he wanted to understand it. He did not believe in a personal god, but he seemed to believed in some kind of Creator.

    This is what made him reject Quantum Mechanics because it shoed an non-deterministic universe where events happened by chance. This went against his religious belief that the universe was must appear designed. He wanted to believe in an objective classical reality. So he fought QM and lost the battle (but he did further science a lot in his battles).

    He also went against his earlier philosophy of logical positivism in which you only talk about what can be observed. He used this philosophy to dispel the idea of absolute time since it could not be observed. When he formulated general relativity, he abandoned logical positivism.

    So Einstein was a great scientist, but he is also human. He fell away from an objective look at the universe to determine what it is and tried to discover what he wanted it to be. This is a great lesson for all scientists. The goal is to learn, not assert.

  • David D.G.

    Einstein also cheated continually on both his first wife and his second. He may have achieved great things, but it is hard for me to think of him as a “great man” when there is such a gigantic, gaping hole in his credibility as a good man.

    This has nothing whatsoever to do with Einstein being either a theist or an atheist; it is simply that he does not deserve the universally heroic pedestal on which he has been so uncritically placed.

    ~David D.G.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Slightly off-topic… butI didn’t know W.E.B. DuBois was a freethinker. Do him next! Do him next!

  • Malenfant

    The only reason why this constant celebrating of Einstein could be questioned is that the works of people like Maxwell,Riemann or Hilbert (on which Einstein’s work is based on to a great deal) are almost unknown in the non-scientific public, but surely not his character flaws.
    That’s a pretty self righteous view, David D.G.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Administrative note: If your comments aren’t appearing, it’s probably because my spam filter has incorrectly flagged them. There’s no need to try to repost; I’ll release any false positives from the queue as soon as I can. Feel free to e-mail me if they haven’t shown up after a while.

    David: Of course Einstein has his flaws, as do we all. But the fact remains that he accomplished great things scientifically and stood up for worthy causes morally. If we demand that someone be absolutely perfect before we get around to celebrating them, we’ll be waiting a long time. I think it’s possible for the good a person does to outweigh the bad.

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    Having studied Einstein quite a bit, as well as the general history of 20th Century physics, I find it rather difficult to restrain from nit-picking. I’ll try to keep this brief. :P

    - He didn’t discover the Special and General Theories of Relativity; he formulated them. Small point, but important.

    - He didn’t discover the photoelectric effect; he gave it a theoretical explanation in 1905 that wasn’t fully accepted for long afterwards.

    Quath:

    Einstein fought QM because he refused to admit probability into physical science; not necessarily because of religious motivations. Also, Einstein did not ‘use’ logical positivism to dispel the idea of absolute time. With STR he postulated that the ether was not needed and the elimination of absolute time merely follows from STR.

    He really didn’t advance physics at all in opposing QM.

    Finally, he didn’t abandon logical positivism around the time of general relativity (1915.) He never was a positivist. He claimed in 1905 that energy is quantized and in 1909 that light will become to be seen as both a light and a wave. These are not positions that the prototypical positivist would have held.

    Malen: Einstein made the conceptual advancements needed for the development of the general theory, and Hilbert almost beat him to the punch with the math.

  • Katie

    @Doug

    Most would disagree with the idea that Einstein didn’t contribute to physics by opposing QM. Many of the movers and shakers of QM’s development put a lot of emphasis on proving out the finer points of the theory specifically because determinism stalwart holdouts like Einstein were opposed to the idea.

    It should be noted that Einstein recanted his “God does not play dice” assertion later on, when it became clear that QM really was correct, which is why he spent the end of his life trying to unify QM and GTR.

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    He might have furthered conceptually the understanding of QM (especially with the EPR paper,) but he was always on the wrong side (including the EPR paper.) And he never did accept QM; he fully expected the grand theory to remove the features of QM he couldn’t accept.

  • Quath

    Doug:
    Einstein did not like probability in physical sciences due to a faith position. He was also a positivist until general relativity. Here are a few quotes from him onthese issues:

    His beliefs:
    “Well, a priori, one should expect a chaotic world which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way. There in lies the weakness of positivists and professional atheists.”

    Even showing it is religious:
    “I have no better expression than ‘religious’ for this confidence in the rational nature of reality and in it being accessible, to some degree, to human reason. When this feeling is missing, science degenerates into mindless empiricism.”

    Being and losing positivism:
    “At that time my mode of thinking was much nearer positivism than it was later on. M departure from positivism came only when I worked out the general theory of relativity.”

    Einstein also contributed to physics in many ways with his opposition to QM. Many scientists tried to answer his complains and had to work harder to tidy up the theory. The EPR paradox is one great example which led to Bell’s inequality.

  • cactus

    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.

    Ebon, can you tell more about this point, please?

  • cactus

    Ok. It seems for me, that “potential of his work” must be read as “potential of scientists’ work”.


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