Was Einstein a freethinker?

Was Einstein a freethinker? September 26, 2017

Albert Einstein has been one of my Humanist heroes since my adolescence. However an American biography by Walter Isaacson – Genius: Einstein – His Life and Universe –  gives us an opportunity  to re-examine this icon. This recently re-released book was the basis of a recent TV series.
Einstein certainly didn’t believe in a personal god who intervenes in our daily lives. However he regarded himself more as a pantheist and an admirer of Spinoza in particular. This issue is examined in a particular chapter in Isaacson’s book on Einstein’s God.

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

It was  Einstein’s call to wonder at the universe and all it has to offer that first caught my imagination in my youth.

In this way the pursuit of science led to a religious feeling of a special sort.

I hope I can revive this wonder in myself whenever Trump, Brexit and global warming leaves me depressed.
At one moment in the TV version Einstein talked about God creating the universe, but I interpret this as him talking in a very loose kind of way.
Despite being a scientific genius and a leading citizen of our planet Einstein was a flawed human being and a very flawed father in particular. Our enemies always stress these flaws and Isaacson certainly does not spare us. However Einstein was incredibly young (in his early twenties) when he was thinking out his Theory of  Relativity whilst at the same time becoming a father to two  boys by his Serbian first wife Mileva Maric.

The situation was dire. She was a liberated woman before her time, a fellow  physicist  longing to be his partner in research rather than looking after a baby in a foreign country (Switzerland) without any support. When Einstein’s bossy mother came to give support this only made the situation worse.
Actor Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein in the TV adaptation of the book. (Photo: Dusan Matincek/National Geographic)
The relationship was unhappy and doomed. When Einstein was finally recognised by the scientific  community in Germany and moved to Berlin  she remained in Switzerland with the two boys who grew up hating their father. He supported them financially, but they felt he had neglected them emotionally. Eduard became a schizophrenic in adolescence and had to be kept in an institution for the rest of his life. However schizophrenia  has a genetic cause and cannot objectively be blamed on Einstein.
The end of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth century were riveting times for science in  Germany. Max Planck  was evolving his ideas whilst the chemist Haber disgraced himself by inventing the poisonous gas which Germany used in the first World War. These were some of Einstein’s colleagues and peers. This makes for an interesting read.
However for those of us who are not experts in theoretical physics the quarrel between Planck’s quantum mechanics and Einstein’s relativity (with its complex formulae) may pass us by. One can always skip these sections.
As his adult life spanned  both World Wars Einstein lived in momentous times. He was  a pacifist by conviction, but this did not go down well in Germany  during  the first World War. Then came the terror of  the Nazis. Eventually Einstein and his second wife  escaped to the US where a special research unit was established for  him at Princeton University.
For the last 20 years of his life he became the Citizen of the World and icon that  we all know and some of us love. Despite being a pacifist he advised President Roosevelt on developing the atomic bomb.
To answer my own question. No Einstein would probably not have classified himself as a freethinker in the sense in which it is used in this movement. He probably would not have supported all the positions taken in the Freethinker. However he puts absolute priority on the need for all of us to think independently of established ideas. This is how he overthrew Newtonian physics.
He remains a towering figure in our broader movement and this biography makes for fascinating reading. I recommend it to our readers.
Genius: Einstein – His Life and Universe by Walter Isaaacson. 551 pp. £9.99 paperback. Published by Simon and Schuster. (The link in the intro is for the Kindle version.)

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  • Rob Andrews

    The idea of a cold universe with only atoms and forces is depressing to many people. So like a lot of people I know, he developed a kind of wishy-washy spiritualism.
    I went through that phase when I was younger. Not that I’m putting it down with the term wishy-washy; I also have to believe in something. My ‘savior’ is science and technology.
    I don’t think it will surpass our human interaction though.

  • Peter Sykes

    This seems clear to me:
    “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.” – Albert Einstein
    “If this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?” – Albert Einstein
    “The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair…” – Albert Einstein
    “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.” – Albert Einstein
    “A man`s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.” – Albert Einstein
    “The idea of personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive.” – Albert Einstein
    “A man who is convinced of the truth of his religion is indeed never tolerant, and he is unable to be tolerant. At the least, he is to feel pity for the adherent of another religion but usually it does not stop there. The faithful adherent of a religion will try first of all to convince those that believe in another religion and usually he goes on to hatred if he is not successful. However, hatred leads to persecution when the might of the majority is behind it.” – Albert Einstein