“Einstein proves my point!”

Steven here…
In my debates with theists, I tend to have to bring up the flaws in religious epistemology. It’s an incredibly flawed method of finding out what’s real, especially when compared to that of science. The problem with bringing up the superiority of science, is that inevitably you will hear the argument that Albert Einstein was a believer. And they don’t just have urban legends to back up their point, they have quotes too!

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

“Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not.”

Of course, Einstein quotes don’t just work for the religious, all sorts of people can use Einstein.

There is something for the pantheists:

“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

Something for the accommodationists:

“You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”

And even something for your run-of-the-mill atheists

“I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.”

Einstein’s views on quantum mechanics notwithstanding, it seems that with regards to God his opinion was in a superposition. Either that or his views evolved as he got older. Certainly toward the end of his life he didn’t have many nice things to say about religion. This topic has been getting a bit more play in recent weeks since the auction of a letter from Einstein in which he expresses some very clearly anti-religious sentiment.

Everyone’s time is wasted when this argument comes up because what Einstein believed has no bearing on what is true. But you still have to take the time to correct the misconception. And then after that, explain why it’s totally irrelevant.

I do understand that the appeal to Einstein is incredibly tempting. After all, “Einstein was super-smart, so if he agrees with me then I must be right!” But lots of smart people throughout history have been demonstrably wrong. Thomas Jefferson keeping slaves, Linus Pauling and vitamin overdosing, and Bill Nye’s promotion of magic water are all great examples. For all their amazing contributions, these people are just humans with all the same weaknesses and cognitive biases as everyone else. We should praise people when they crack a tough problem, but by treating them like they can never be wrong we do a disservice to ourselves and to them.

From the ever-brilliant Cat and Girl: http://catandgirl.com/?p=1257

I write a lot of jokes. Some of them are in this book.
I also host the podcast of the Skepchick events team, Some Assembly Required, and cohost the WWJTD Podcast.
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  • Rilian

    The link about bill nye is not working for me :.c
    I tried asking google too but the page won’t load :C

  • Steve

    Einstein also considered the cosmological constant lamda to be the greatest mistake of his life. He needed it describe a static universe before its expansion was shown by Hubble. But with the discovery of the universe’s accelerating expansion it has been revived and is included in the standard model of cosmology (Lamda CDM) now

    • Steve

      To clarify: despite that revival, Einstein was wrong then, which is what I was getting at. It’s tempting to see him as an authority on everything, but there are things he was very much wrong about

  • smrnda

    At times like this I tend to recourse to the Emerson non-quotation of “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” If you’re trying to make a point, quoting someone only works if the person you are quoting is stating evidence that supports your claim.

  • http://iamdanmarshall.com Dan Marshall

    Love it, Steven! I’ve heard similar arguments used… “Well, Newton believed in god, and you heathens LOVE Newton. Checkmate, atheists!” Absolute hogwash. Brilliant people often make mistakes, and idiots have the capacity to be correct. More importantly, the opinions of long dead men, no matter their greatness, has no bearing on actual fact. It’s all about trying to shut down the argument by appealing to an intellectually unassailable authority. Who among us thinks himself or herself smarter than someone like Einstein? I know I don’t. That doesn’t mean that his word is, uh, gospel though!

    I wrote an article along similar lines not too long ago, after seeing a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson that set off my spidey sense: http://iamdanmarshall.com/2012/09/28/some-people-are-very-gullible-thomas-jefferson/

    It just goes to show that Abe Lincoln was right when he famously said, “You can’t trust everything you read on the internet.”

    • Baal

      Whoa! Abe was really on.

      • http://iamdanmarshall.com Dan Marshall

        I know, right? Prescient AND looked good in a top hat. Truly a magnificent leader.

  • ctcss

    OK, I’ll bite. Why should I care whether Einstein cared about religion or God? How does his opinion inform me of my reasons for believing and practicing my faith? Shouldn’t I have my own reasons for believing? Shouldn’t I make my faith my own rather than someone else’s?

    I do hope that it is reasonably obvious that anyone who is truly serious about their religious practice has probably thought about it quite a bit. A thoughtful, dedicated, and sincere approach to religious faith and practice is far too involving and life-path-altering to approach in any shallow or superficial way. It’s a bit like marriage. One really shouldn’t consider going there unless one has rather solid reasons for proceeding on such a demanding course of action.

    Just my thoughts.

  • dschiff

    I have to disagree.

    From reading Einstein, I would strongly argue that Einstein comes down on the atheist side, and that he went through pains to express this, only to be misunderstood in the most abrupt ways.

    The religious quotes can be poetic (they in fact, are). The accomodationist quote simply has to do with his definition of atheism as gnostic (even evangelical) atheism vs. today’s usage of atheism (non-theism, agnostic atheism, atheistic pantheism wherein Einstein would soundly fit). In his time, socially and professionally, associating himself with such a group would not be plausible.

    The part where Einstein was a determinist, materialist, and naturalist cannot be distorted by the religious. Not only did he not believe in the intervention of a god – he didn’t even believe in free will for humans.

    Let me give an example of how Einstein is distorted.
    Take the quote “science without religion is blind”. Literally, quoters of this must read the next sentence:
    “Though I have asserted above that in truth a legitimate conflict between religion and science cannot exist, I must nevertheless qualify this assertion once again on an essential point, with reference to the actual content of historical religions. This qualification has to do with the concept of God.”

    He must qualify this *yet again*. And he goes on to dismiss the idea of God as anthropocentric and primitive. So I would suggest that using Einstein to support his actual (agnostic atheism/non-theism, atheistic panthesm) position is actually reasonable – it’s not as ambiguous as one might think from reading a few quotes.

    • invivoMark

      Atheistic pantheism is a contradiction in terms. Given that, I’m not sure what your point is supposed to be.

    • http://csdphumor.com geekysteven

      dschiff, I agree that there is more reason to think of Einstein as an atheist or something very close to it. However, the main point of the article was that it’s an argument from authority fallacy to cite him at all to prove or disprove theism.

  • Anonymous

    great man never die , the leave on young one’s to be like them.