Albert Einstein famously opined, “God is cunning but He is not malicious.” And: “God does not play dice.” When asked his motivation for doing physics, Einstein replied: “I want to know how God created the world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.” In the final weeks of his life, when Einstein learned of the death of his old physicist friend Michele Besso, he wrote the Besso family: “He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.”
What did Einstein mean by “God” playing dice, or “us believing physicists”? Was he speaking literally or metaphorically? Did he mean belief in the models of theoretical physics that make no distinction between past, present, and future? Did he mean belief in some impersonal force that exists above such time constraints? Was he just being polite and consoling to Besso’s family? Such is the enigma of the most well-known scientist in history whose fame was such that nearly everything he wrote or said was scrutinized for its meaning and import; thus, it is easy to yank such quotes out of context and spin them in any direction one desires.
When he turned 50, Einstein granted an interview in which he was asked point-blank, do you believe in God? “I am not an atheist,” he began. “The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”
That almost sounds like Einstein is attributing the laws of the universe to a god of some sort. But what type of god? A personal deity or some impersonal force? To a Colorado banker who wrote and asked him the God question, Einstein responded: “I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation. My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend about the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”
The most famous Einstein pronouncement on God came in the form of a telegram, in which he was asked to answer the question in 50 words or less. He did it in 32: “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 the doings of mankind.” (These quotes are documented in Walter Isaacson’s excellent 2007 biography Einstein: His Life and Universe.)
In a 1997 issue of Skeptic magazine (Vol 5, No. 2), one of my contributing editors, Michael Gilmore, published an article on Einstein’s God based on a series of letters that he obtained from a World War II U.S. Navy veteran named Guy H. Raner, who corresponded with Einstein on the God question. We republished those letters in their entirety for the first time anywhere. In the first letter, dated June 14, 1945, sent from the USS Bougainville in the Pacific Ocean, Raner recounts a conversation he had on the ship with a Jesuit-educated Catholic officer who claimed that Einstein converted from atheism to theism when he was confronted by a Jesuit priest with three irrefutable syllogisms: “The syllogisms were: A design demands a designer; The universe is a design; therefore there must have been a designer.”
Raner countered the Catholic officer by noting that cosmology and evolutionary theory adequately explain most apparent design in the world, “but even if there was a ‘designer,’ that would give only a re-arranger, not a creator; and again assuming a designer, you are back where you started by being forced to admit a designer of the designer etc. etc. Same as the account of the earth resting on an elephant’s back — elephant standing on a giant turtle; turtle on turtle on turtle, etc.”
At this point in his life Einstein was world-famous and routinely received hundreds of such letters, many from prominent scholars and scientists, so for him to write a lowly ensign aboard a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean reveals how much this story got his goat. On July 2, 1945, Einstein fired back:
I received your letter of June 10th. I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. Your counter-arguments seem to me very correct and could hardly be better formulated. It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere — childish analogies. We have to admire in humility and beautiful harmony of the structure of this world — as far as we can grasp it. And that is all.
Four years later, in 1949, Raner wrote Einstein again, asking for clarification: “Some people might interpret (your letter) to mean that to a Jesuit priest, anyone not a Roman Catholic is an atheist, and that you are in fact an orthodox Jew, or a Deist, or something else. Did you mean to leave room for such an interpretation, or are you from the viewpoint of the dictionary an atheist; i.e., ‘one who disbelieves in the existence of a God, or a Supreme Being?’” Einstein responded on September 28, 1949:
I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. 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.
Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist forScientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. His books include The Science of Good and Evil, Why Darwin Matters, and The Mind of the Market. He can be reached at email@example.com.