Was Einstein a Theist?

“God” is not an explanation. It is a placeholder for those lacking the courage, or the intellectual honesty to say, “I don’t know”. ~ Anonymous

In my title I do not ask if Einstein was an atheist but rather whether he was a theist. I believe the distinction is significant. For it gets to the core of the question, “When does lack of belief become a belief?” or “When does lack of identity, itself, become an identity?”

All of us are not many things. I don’t believe in reincarnation or astrology and I suspect a good many in the room share this lack of belief. Though I doubt any of us who feel this way consider this part of our identity and we certainly don’t use labels identifying ourselves as not holding these beliefs. If the matter of belief in, say, astrology comes up, I can simply state that this is not a belief I hold. I do not consider the evidence to support such a belief convincing and I don’t consider my lack of belief to be a belief or an identity deserving a special title.

The same goes with belief in a god or gods. Those who believe in such things are rightly called theists. Though theists may find it convenient to use a special label for me which identifies to them my difference from them – that label being, atheist – I am not obliged to hang this moniker around my neck. For I am my own frame of reference and find it most accurate to simply clarify, when the matter of god belief is discussed, that it is they who warrant a title: that is, that they are theists. Since I don’t share their beliefs, I am not. I do not consider the evidence to support such a belief convincing and, again, don’t consider my lack of belief to be a belief or an identity deserving a special title.

Too often, those lacking belief are asked to justify why they are this thing, that is, why do you hold the belief of lack of belief? It is like challenging someone to defend why they do not believe in reincarnation, or to defend why they do not believe in astrology, or to defend why they do not believe in ghosts. Lest you think these are silly comparisons, note that in one poll, reported by the Associated Press, 20% of Americans believe in reincarnation, 31% astrology, and 34% ghosts. Can you imagine identifying yourself with a special title that highlights your lack of belief in ghosts and repeatedly having to defend this lack of belief? I posit that the same holds for lack of belief in a god. It seems to me, any conversation about such things – reincarnation, ghosts, astrology, or god belief – should be focused on the one who holds the belief. Use of a special word for lack of belief inappropriately shifts the focus to the wrong person in the conversation.

Also, though linguistically, “being” an a-theist (atheist) should be the same thing as not being a theist, this clearly is not always the case. Indeed, even the renowned Unitarian Humanist John H. Dietrich made this very claim: that is, that because he considered himself open minded about the possibility of there being a god he was not an atheist. Though because he saw no evidence for a god, he was not a theist. Dietrich falls victim to the mental contortion of equating denial of existence with proof of non-existence, what he felt was the definition of atheist.

No one can prove a negative. I do not believe in ghosts or a tooth fairy but I cannot prove they do not exist. Those who believe in a tooth fairy could rightly be called toothfairyists and that those who do not, atoothfairyists. For some odd reason, all too many have contorted their understanding of the term atheist as one who not only does not believe in a god or gods but actually can prove lack of existence.

Also, I take issue with any suggestion that not being a theist is a state of being just like I would take issue with any implication that, say, not believing in ghosts is a state of being. Not believing in ghosts is not something you are and we don’t say, “I AM a non-ghost believer” for it elevates lack of belief to a state of being. Rather, we say, “I do not believe in ghosts”. Well, I too do not believe in gods and prefer not to elevate this fact to a state of being by using a word that does just that.

Over millennia, humans have conjured up hundreds – actually, thousands of deities/gods. One who believes in any god is a theist. More specifically, if just one god, a monotheist and, of course, if more than one, a polytheist. Though we in the Western world are most familiar with monotheism, recall that a substantial portion of humanity, including more than one billion Hindus in India alone, believe in multiple gods and therefore are polytheists. Monotheists are indeed atheist – if you will – to all but their one chosen god and even the question, Do you believe in god?, exposes a monotheistic bias of the questioner (otherwise they would ask, Do you believe in a god or gods?). Monotheists who ask this question, just like me, don’t consider what they don’t believe as part of their identity. Being atheist to all other gods, they too cannot prove non-existence of gods in which they do not believe.

Einstein, like Dietrich, was not willing to self-identify as an atheist. As we shall see, though, his description of his beliefs would not necessarily qualify him as a theist. Again, the problem lies in the lack of a universally accepted definition of the word atheist. Though the dictionary offers a precise definition, in usage it clearly means different things to different people.

So let’s look a little closer at the word atheist.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word atheist was coined in the 1570’s but is based on the Greek word atheos, meaning “without god” or “denying the gods”. Therefore, the word seems to have originated in ancient Greece, a polytheistic society vastly predating most current monotheistic religions, including Christianity, and indeed the time now remembered for the collection of stories now referred to as Greek mythology. Notable gods of the time, the time from which the word atheist comes, include: Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Athena and Atlas. All told, there were 12 major gods yet literally hundreds of lesser deities. Therefore, the word atheist comes from a time of now out of favor polytheistic beliefs. To the ancient Greeks, though, belief in these gods was their theology. It is only those who don’t share this belief who take the liberty to demote this collection of beliefs and stories from theology, to mythology. Indeed, as best I can tell, the only difference between theology and mythology is whether or not one believes the respective god stories to be true. Since I have yet to find the evidence for a god or gods convincing enough to believe such things exist, to me all stories about any god is mythology.

So use of the word atheist is problematic. Perhaps this is why Einstein (and Dietrich) rejected the term as a label for himself. Indeed Einstein denigrated atheists. In a letter he wrote,“What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos”. “The fanatical atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after a hard struggle. They are creatures who, in their grudge against traditional religion, as the opium of the masses, cannot hear the music of the spheres”. “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 the attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being”.

Note that here Einstein uses 122 words to respond to a yes/no question; that being, “Do you believe in God?” No doubt this is because, without clarification this question is not reasonable or straightforward. For whoever asks the question, “Do you believe in God?” must clarify just what they mean when they refer to God. Only then can one share whether or not one believes in such a thing. I have been surprised to read that Einstein never seems to have sought such a clarification when asked this question … and asked it often he was. But an unqualified yes/no question begets a complicated response.

Also note that in rejecting the label atheist, Einstein effectively defines atheist as one who not only lacks god belief but actually is an aggressively zealous anti-theist who is unable to feel humbled by the unknown. From my experience, most folks who are not theists are not ardent or zealous crusaders for the cause of lack of god belief. On the contrary, as a group, a religious minority if you will, they tend to be mostly silent in the public sphere.

Einstein’s comment is but one example of how the label atheist can be confusing for, again, it means different things to different people. There is no confusion with the label theist. Though theism comes in many flavors, belief in any god makes one a theist.

Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling 2007 biography of Einstein, elegantly writes of how in the early 20th century there was much interest in Einstein’s thoughts on god belief, or lack thereof. Perhaps it seemed clear when Einstein said, “When judging a theory, I ask myself whether, if I were God, would I have arranged the world in such a way.” Though, like the question, Do you believe in God? this statement leaves unclarified just what he meant when making reference to god.

Einstein’s parents were secular Jews who showed no interest in religion. When Einstein was six they sent him to a neighborhood school which, as it happened, was Catholic. Indeed, in his class of 70 students he was the only Jew. Years later his teachers recalled that he was a good student upon whom they would rely to assist classmates in their studies, presumably including religious studies. However, within a few years Einstein developed what Isaacson refers to as a “passionate zeal” for Judaism. This led young Einstein to observe Jewish religious strictures and teachings – all within a household that did not share this interest.

However, due to the influence of a medical student his family hosted for weekly dinners, Einstein eventually abandoned interest in religion for his newfound passions: math and science. In the process he rejected religious dogma and interest in Jewish rituals. Looking back as an adult he said, ”Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively frantic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth are intentionally being deceived … through lies: it was a crushing impression.
What Einstein discovered through his scientific work generated a sense of awe about the order of the world. It seems that he interpreted this sense of awe as his religion and that this sense of awe was incompatible with atheism as he interpreted this title.

Theologians, though, often struggled to understand Einstein’s comments about god and religion. For example, in response to a formal public query from a prominent religious leader, that being: “Do you believe in God?”, he replied, “I believe in [a god] who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a god who concerns himself in the fate and the doings of mankind.”

Yet, while a dinner guest in Berlin in 1929 Einstein made another potentially confusing comment when he defended religious beliefs by saying, “When one tries to penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature [one finds] that behind all the discernible laws and connections there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force, beyond anything that we can comprehend, is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religions.”

So here Einstein, while claiming to be religious, fails to even mention a deity, clarifying that for him religion is veneration for that which is as yet unknown – hardly what most folks mean when they speak of religion and certainly not a god with circumscribed characteristics, wants, actions, and deeds as most major religions do with their respective deities.

In a 1954 letter, one year before his death, Einstein wrote, “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness,[and] the Bible a collection of honorable but still purely primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me.”

That year he also said, “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”.

And, in response to a 6th grade girl’s query, “Do scientists pray?” He said: “…everything that takes place is determined by the laws of nature”, and therefore, “a scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural being”.

Also, when asked if he believes in immortality – yet another Yes/No question regarding a matter central to Judeo-Christian theology, he responds with an unequivocal, “No. And one life is enough for me.”

Einstein clearly had a deep abiding respect for the unknown and bristled at the tendency of the religious to claim knowledge about the unknown – to claim knowledge where none exists. I too hold a sense of deep reverence and awe for the world in which we live, and I respect and honor that which is as yet unknown. I respect the mysterious and that which is unknown too much than to sully it by making stuff up – specifically, to make up what are peddled as facts by theists, the most brazen of which is the claimed existence of their god or gods.

To complicate matters, there is within the community of all thoughtful persons, including the traditionally religious, a valid role for making some stuff up, that is, to determine one’s subjective values and code of ethics or simply, one’s philosophy for living. Unfortunately, the traditionally religious tend to allow their subjective values to be poisoned by made-up stuff, including made up deities who they typically claim as the source of said values. However, fanciful claims that inspire good works and an honorable philosophy for living do not achieve legitimacy simply because the deeds are good and the philosophy honorable. Good deeds are good deeds and honorable lives are just that, honorable, regardless of claimed inspiration.

As a matter of fact nearly all religions canonize, in one form or another, the “golden rule”, that is, the ethic of reciprocity. Whether or not one claims their god as the source of their version of the Golden Rule, it seems to resonate universally – even among those who are not theists.

Humans have always sought answers where none exist with all too many seeming not to hesitate to fill in gaps in knowledge of the workings of the world by making up answers which they claim take the mystery out of the mysterious. The advancement of science has been an exercise of slowly explaining the mysterious, peeling away layers of ignorance, steadily providing answers where none previously existed, and in so doing frequently debunking religious fantasy stories. As this happens, it is my perception that many theists retreat ever deeper into the pool of the yet unknown, claiming that therein lies their particular god or gods. Yet, by definition, it is the unknown, meaning that any specifics claimed by the believer are indeed, made up.

I prefer to accept, acknowledge, and respect the mystery of the unknown and in so doing, honor it. I have too much respect for it than to claim knowledge where none exists.

Though I am a physician, most find it curious that my undergraduate degree is in Cartography. Perhaps this is why I see a parallel between theology as a source of knowledge about the world in which we live and the history of mapmaking. For the latter is chock full of examples of claims of knowledge where none exists.

For centuries, Europeans had no knowledge of the world beyond their horizons. This did not prevent early cartographers, though, from making stuff up. The history of mapmaking is replete with examples of far off continents, oceans, and coastlines that never existed and all too often detailed maps failed to distinguish topographic features which were known from those which were not. For example, for 200 years, beginning in 1622, Dutch maps showed the shoreline, in great detail – including jagged contoured inlets and peninsulas – of the north shore of the island of Baja California. Given that Baja California is a peninsula and not an island – there is no north shore – from where did all those details come? (most notable of which is the island’s distance from the mainland) Clearly, they came from the imagination of the cartographers who, lacking intellectual honesty, simply made it up.

So it is with the workings of the world around us. Scientists steadily reveal spectacular wonders, typically far more awe inspiring than anything made up by individuals (whether or not claimed to be of divine origin). Though religious texts, written by humans and not deities, may have wonderfully penetrating insights into the human condition and how humanity can best function, when it comes to the working of the world, religious revelation is an oxymoron for it is intellectually dishonest and reveals nothing. I believe the answer to why so many folks, who in all other matters of the world are logical critical thinkers, gravitate to religions full of fantasy is the interweaving of a nurturing community and an appealing subjective philosophy for living – though many believers would balk at the suggestion that this philosophy is indeed subjective.

It seems the acceptance of, or I’m sure in many cases, the tolerance for such fantasy, is fueled by the followers hunger for community and an appealing subjective philosophy for living. We UU’s offer community and are unapologetic creators of our own subjective philosophy for living, know to us all as our Seven Guiding Principles. We hold them up as a guide for living because to us they make sense and we don’t claim a fantasy story as their source.

Einstein claimed that his religion (and here he does not mention a god) emanates from his respect for the mysterious and his “awe and reverence” for the world around him. But awe and reverence does not a god make.

So allow me to finish by sharing one last quote about Einstein’s embrace of awe and reverence:

“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead… To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

To paraphrase, Einstein considered his religion to be his awe and reverence for the world around him and for that which is yet unknown. However, he did not believe in an afterlife. He did not believe that wishes to “a supernatural being” (i.e. prayer) could affect change. Though at times he made statements inferring the existence of a god he proceeds to remove from his definition of this “god” the characteristics of a deity. Though he may have claimed his awe and reverence for the world around him to be his religion, again, awe and reverence does not a god make. Ergo, I posit that Einstein was not a theist.


Brief summary about the theme of: Was Einstein a Theist?

1) The label “atheist” is a confusing term, meaning different things to different folks, and is actually unnecessary. Therefore it should be abandoned in favor of using the label theist where appropriate.
2) We best rely on our collective intellect to understand the world and not on theistic claims (typically fanciful and lacking intellectual honesty).
3) An appealing philosophy for living can reliably come from our collective wisdom, e.g. the UU Seven Guiding Principles, and not depend on edicts attributed to a conjured up deity.


About the Author

John Udell (Jack) has been a member of UUF of La Crosse for over ten years. Though raised in a liberal Christian tradition, he came to UUism later in life, discovering that he, like many, actually had been a UU is whole life – though just didn’t know it.

As a member of this Fellowship he feels he has been inspired, nurtured, and empowered. After listening deeply with trust, respect, and compassion he wishes to share a few insights that he feels may contribute to our fellowship’s collective conversation about the importance of being intellectually honest and about how we make sense of the world.

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