Do Scientists Pray? Einstein Had a Response

Unlike the forwards you receive from your gullible older relatives, it turns out Albert Einstein did have something to say about religion, at least regarding prayer. In response to a young girl’s letter to him in which she asked, “Do scientists pray?” Einstein said this:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

But also, 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. 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 other words, scientists ought to be applying the ideas of logic and reason to religion, just like they do everything else. Trying to mix science and religion means you’re doing both of them wrong.

(via Letters of Note — Thanks to Amanda for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • David Hull

    “Trying to mix science and religion means you’re doing both of them wrong”

    Check out this blog post, “Few Scientists See Science In Conflict with Religion”

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2012/05/few-scientists-see-science-in-conflict-with-religion/

    It is a worthwhile read, and food for thought…

    • Aimee

      I have noticed that many people compartmentalize with regard to science and religion.  I don’t know if this particular study proves that there is no conflict or that there is little conflict between religion and science, but it does provide a base form which to work.   I think the conflict between science and religion comes from the more outspoken and therefore more visible sides of the science v religion debate.  I think for the most part many people, scientists included, stay away from the debate, if only to gain some peace within their own world view. 

      One thing is clear, science has been the thorn in the side of religion for the past several centuries.  Religion comes up with a “why” things are the way they are and science disproves it.  That in itself causes the conflict, but for individual scientists it can be a wholly different thing altogether.   We all have a very unique view of our world and how we navigate it with or without religion is a personal experience and scientists being human are no different.

      It still is pretty clear that they are two very different disciplines and it would be unwise to allow a kind of religiosity or even spirituality into the work of science. Science does require that you should try very hard not to allow your “feelings” to influence your results.  This is a problem, because scientists are human and they do have feelings and convictions that can influence outcomes (as pointed out in the article, i.e. the Stephen J Gould reference), this is why science has the peer review and the requirement of repeating the experiment in order to verify results.  

      Thanks for posting it was great food for thought.  :)

    • jdm8

      I guess it depends on what the headline means about conflict, based on the stats used.  Maybe few scientists see science always in conflict (15%).  70% see science and religion sometimes in conflict.  So there’s 85% that think there is at least some conflict.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1665441460 Billy Bey

    whatever there is….it most certainly much more interesting and weirder than anything imagined by the worlds religions…enjoy the trip and try not to hurt anyone.

  • Ndonnan

    “Scientists are INCLINED to belive”,….as long as they remain open to learning.Plus “everyone in the persuit of science becomes CONVINCED that some spirit is manifest”, seems to me therfore,why not pray to the said spirit?You dont have to be Einstin to know that!

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      Boy, you really missed what Einstein was saying here. You are exactly the sort of person Einstein meant when he applied his final adjective.

    • Coyotenose

       Produce an argument why anything whatsoever merits prayer.

    • Drakk

       “…a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer”That’s why right there, lrn2read.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I know a lot of scientists, and most of them are atheists. Many have a sense of wonder about the elegance of the Universe, and feel something that might be called spiritual- the same thing Einstein, pretty clearly an atheist himself- describes here and elsewhere.

    Most don’t apply much thought at all to religion; unless they have strong feelings that religion causes harm, it typically just doesn’t figure in their thinking or views at all. Kind of like the way leprechauns figure in most peoples lives.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Einstein said a lot of stupid things about religion, and used vocabulary in confusing ways. This appears to be another example:

    But also, 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.

    I don’t think “spirit” is the best word to use there, since it will incline many readers towards the supernatural. And who the fuck appointed Einstein as the Grand Spokesperson for all of science any way?

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      I wouldn’t characterize Einstein’s philosophical musings as “stupid”. Nevertheless, he was no philosopher, and many of his arguments were rather lacking in substance. I don’t see him speaking for “science”, but for himself. He was an intelligent man, and as such is worth listening to. But to place too much value on his words, outside of some narrow areas of science and mathematics, is to risk falling victim to the fallacy of  appeal to authority.

    • Michael

      I wonder if this is translated from German. It’s very hard to faithfully translate German musings on spirits, souls, ghosts etc. I once tried to ask a German about a poltergeist and accidentally asked if she had a soul. Oops.

    • Henryahoy

      Jesus, he was answering a little girl not speaking at a conference.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=750428174 Paddy Reddin
  • Luther Weeks

    Even if Einstein was religious, or Lincoln were proved to be, and even if it turns out that Christopher Hitchens was a secret Mormon. There is not one scrap of evidence that there is a good or spirits.

    • Luther Weeks

       “god or spirits” (Human error, not divine intervention)

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I have very little patience for Einstein worship, or Billy Graham worship, or Angelina Jolie worship, or Michael Jordan worship, or hero worship of any kind. 

    Einstein said enough ambiguous, vague, and apparently contradictory things about gods and religion to give every side of the issue something to cut and paste in support of their opinion.  What the hell difference does it make what a physicist thinks about such things?  Why should anyone assume a stance of generalized deference to him on all subjects because he understood how much energy is inside matter better than most people do?  Why should we do that with anyone? Do we write letters to Rick Warren asking how he thinks Relativity and Quantum Mechanics can be reconciled?  Should we ask the contestants on Dancing With the Stars what’s the best solution to the Greek banking crisis?

    But in the science vs. religion controversy, asking the experts their opinion on their area of expertise is not symmetrical.

    Asking Stephen Hawking about string theory is a valid inquiry, but asking Joel Osteen, or the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or Brother Jed their opinions about gods is just as invalid an inquiry as asking Einstein, or Tiger Woods, or Harrison Ford, or the lady with all the cats two doors down their opinions on gods. Hawking at least has demonstrable evidence for his opinions on physics, but for opinions on gods, everybody has nothing but empty assertions, wishful thinking, and poetic, or just foggy, ambiguous rhetoric.

  • Open

    Scientists ecspecially famous ones, like Einstein, are sometimes thought to know it all when really a great deal of a scientist’s work involves study. It can take a life time to truley understand or find an answer to one thing and many die before they do. Alot of people are not aware of that and I’m not sure you are either. I get the feeling that because Einstein said this about prayer we should, just like that, believe him. Why? He was human. And though he had very deep thoughts and beliefs that doesn’t make his views on prayer set in stone.


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