Albert Einstein (1879)
It was on this date, March 14, 1879, that Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany. He studied mathematics and calculus, beginning around 1891, but failed an examination that would have allowed him to study electrical engineering in Zurich. Einstein renounced German citizenship in 1896 and became a citizen of Switzerland in 1901. After studying in Switzerland, he became a teacher of mathematics and physics.
Einstein took a job at the patent office as a technical expert third class. He finally earned a doctorate from the University of Zurich in 1905 and it was in a paper published that year that Einstein proposed what is today called the special theory of relativity. Later in 1905 Einstein showed how mass and energy were equivalent. One week before his death, in Trenton, New Jersey, on 18 April 1955, Einstein signed a letter to Bertrand Russell in which he agreed that his name should go on a manifesto urging all nations to give up nuclear weapons.
Although accused of being an atheist by none other than William Henry Cardinal O'Connell, archbishop of Boston, Einstein avoided the word, saying instead, in a letter to an admirer, on 24 March 1954, "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."
On science and prayer, in 1936 Einstein wrote, "Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being."
He went on, "...every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive."
Now here we enter some controversy: A quote, purportedly from Einstein, in praise of the Christian churches opposing the Nazis during World War II, has made the rounds among Christian partisans since its original (unsourced) publication in Time Magazine (23 December 1940). The quote reads…
Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom; but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks… Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.
Penn State professor William C. Waterhouse debunks the quote in an article published just after the centennial of Einstein’s special theory of relativity (eSkeptic, 2006): saying the date of the quote cannot be fixed; by pointing to the un-Einsteinian language of the quote, but especially the logical inconsistency of saying both “I never had any special interest in the Church” and yet later saying he “once despised” the Church; and by noting that Einstein failed to say anything about the treatment of his fellow Jews.
Since the quote was published in a national magazine well before the death of the man who supposedly said it, and he never denied it, say religious partisans, it therefore must be true, right? Well, says Waterhouse, not so fast: in a 1947 letter, Einstein explained that early in the Hitler years he had casually mentioned to some journalist that hardly any German intellectuals except a few churchmen were supporting individual rights and intellectual freedom. And a letter discovered in 2007 has Einstein saying, “It’s true that I made a statement which corresponds approximately [with the text quoted]. I made this statement during the first years of the Nazi regime– much earlier than 1940– and my expressions were a little more moderate.”*
What Waterhouse does not point out, but must be made clear, is that Einstein does not praise religion per se, but an intellectual tradition that defends free speech and the free expression of the truth. So, in answer to Cardinal O’Connell’s charge, Dr. Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
* William C. Waterhouse, from an eSkeptic article entitled “Did Einstein Praise the Church?” You can read it here.
Originally published March 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a reminder that, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times, we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world. Last Sunday, June 24, but in 1842, journalist and social critic […]