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Einstein’s Famous Quote About Science and Religion Didn’t Mean What You Were Taught

The scientist actually offers no solace to believers

By Jerry A Coyne | 4 December 2013
New Republic

German born American physicist Albert Einstein. (Photo: Doreen Spooner / Getty Images)

Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist of our time, and, because he was so smart, his opinions on non-scientific issues were often seen as incontrovertible. One of the most famous is a pronouncement much quoted by religious people and those claiming comity between science and faith. It comes from Einstein’s essay “Science and religion,” published in 1954.

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

This quote is often used to show both Einstein’s religiosity and his belief in the compatibility—indeed, the mutual interdependence—of science and religion.  But the quote is rarely used in context, and when you see the context you’ll find that the quote should give no solace to the faithful. But first let me show you how, in that same essay, Einstein proposes what is essentially Stephen Jay Gould’s version of NOMA (Non-overlapping Magisteria). Gould’s idea (which was clearly not original) was that science and religion were harmonious because they had distinct but complementary tasks: science helps us understand the physical structure of the universe, while religion deals with human values, morals, meanings, and values.  Here’s Einstein’s version (my emphasis):

“It would not be difficult to come to an agreement as to what we understand by science. Science is the century-old endeavor to bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thoroughgoing an association as possible. To put it boldly, it is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualization. . .

. . . Accordingly, a religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance and loftiness of those superpersonal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation. They exist with the same necessity and matter-of-factness as he himself. In this sense religion is the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and completely conscious of these values and goals and constantly to strengthen and extend their effect. If one conceives of religion and science according to these definitions then a conflict between them appears impossible. For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts. According to this interpretation the well-known conflicts between religion and science in the past must all be ascribed to a misapprehension of the situation which has been described.

For example, a conflict arises when a religious community insists on the absolute truthfulness of all statements recorded in the Bible. This means an intervention on the part of religion into the sphere of science; this is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo and Darwin belongs. On the other hand, representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific method, and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors.”

Although nearly identical to Gould’s views in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages, Gould mentions neither Einstein nor this passage.  But both men were misguided in suggesting that this tactic can harmonize science and religion.

Why? For one thing, because they ensconced human goals and values firmly within the magisterium of religion, completely neglecting two millennia of secular morality beginning with the ancient Greeks. Religion is surely not the only source, or even a good source, of how to behave or find meaning in our lives. Einstein also errs by arguing that religion deals “only with evaluations of human thought and action,” ignoring the palpable fact that many religions are also concerned with truth statements—statements about the existence of God, what kind of God he is and what he wants us to do, as well as about how we got here and where we go after we die. Indeed, in the third paragraph Einstein notes that religion does in fact involve truth statements, so his definition is clearly off.

Gould got around this ambiguity simply by claiming that religions that made truth statements—that intruded into the sphere of science—were not proper religions. But of course such a ploy disenfranchises most of the believers in the world, for most faiths, including the Abrahamanic ones, make claims about how the universe is arranged. It won’t do to define religion in a way that excludes most believers.

So I take issue with Einstein’s (and Gould’s) accommodationism. The man was a great physicist, but he wasn’t infallible, and it baffles me to see people quoting his non-scientific pronouncements as if they are unimpeachable.  An expert in physics is not necessarily a doyen of philosophy.

As for the famous quotation at the top, here it is in context (my emphasis):

“Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up.  But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion.  To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

I have no quarrel with the claimed contribution of science to religion: helping test ways to achieve one’s goals. Einstein, however, neglects another contribution of science to religion: disproving its truth statements. Darwin did a good job of that!

But Einstein errs again by claiming that “the aspiration toward truth and understanding. . . springs from the sphere of religion.” Perhaps he conceives “religion” here as a form of profound curiosity about the universe beyond oneself. But he’s certainly not seeing religion as most people understand it.  Why couldn’t he simply say that some people are insatiably curious to find out stuff? Why did he have to see that curiosity as a form of “religion”? It’s that conflation that has caused persistent confusion about Einstein’s beliefs. Was he so eager to placate the faithful that he had to redefine “religion” as a godless awe? Or was he truly a pantheist who worshipped Nature as his god? It’s not clear.

What is clear from Einstein’s writings on science and religion, though, is that he didn’t believe in a personal God, and saw theistic religion as a man-made fiction. In a letter written in 1954, he made no bones about this (translated from the original German):

“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, 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.”

Indeed, the last paragraph of the 1954 essay shows his faith not in the numinous, but in rationality:

The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge. In this sense I believe that the priest must become a teacher if he wishes to do justice to his lofty educational mission.

Finally, I take issue with Einstein’s statement that the value of reason in understanding the world is a form of “profound faith.” As I wrote in Slate, this is confusing because the religious meaning of faith is “firm belief without substantial evidence,” while the scientist’s “faith” in the laws of physics is simply shorthand for “strong confidence, based on replicated evidence and experience, about how things are.”  Further, we don’t have faith in reason: we use reason because it helps us find out things. It is in fact the only way we’ve made progress in understanding the universe. If other ways had proven valuable, like personal revelation or Ouiji boards, we’d use those, too.

Although Einstein didn’t believe in a conventional god, his explanation of the harmony between science and faith has been widely misunderstood, and some of that is his own fault. What he should have done is abandon the world “faith” in favor of “confidence born of experience,” and not tried to argue that curiosity and wonder before nature was a form of religion. It is that confusion (or perhaps that imprecision of language) that has led to prolonged debate about and misrepresentation of what Einstein believed about God and religion.

So let me simply recast Einstein’s famous statement in terms of what I think he meant:

“Science without profound curiosity won’t go anywhere, and religion without science is doubly crippled.”

Doubly crippled, of course, because theistic religions are based on a supernatural but fictitious being, and are further crippled when they reject the findings of science.

In the end, Einstein’s famous quotation should provide no solace—or ammunition—to theists, for Einstein did not see “religion” as theistic. But I wish he would have written a bit more clearly, thought a bit more clearly or, perhaps, completely avoided discussing the relationship of religion and science. On that issue he is less cogent than many philosophers or, indeed, many scientists. He was Einstein, but he wasn’t God.

version of this post initially appeared on Why Evolution is True

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and the author most recently of Why Evolution Is True.

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One Response to Einstein’s Famous Quote About Science and Religion Didn’t Mean What You Were Taught

  1. Daniel Voisin Reply

    December 6, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Don’t you find it at least a little bit arrogant to assume that it is Einstein that is misunderstanding the relationship between science and religion and not you?

    I mean you mention the Greeks and I can only assume you’re pointing to the works stemming from Socrates. You should knew Socrates and his students took their live of wisdom very seriously. So much so they often lived in poverty to focus on their pursuit of knowledge without distraction. Much like monks.

    They also believed in God. That was their big jump: from many gods controlling everything, to one God inspiring everything. They discovered the idea of subjective morality and the individual.

    They also talked about the need to combine reason with morality. Much like Wittgenstein is saying in his talk about science being blind without religion.

    Nite I’m sure you can give plenty of examples of idiotic religious people going on endlessly about the literal truth if the bible. Don’t.

    Those people are uneducated fools who have no authority to talk about anything. They’re wrong.

    Their faith has much more to do with political thought than anything contained in any holy book. In fact I doubt they could read the bible properly of they tried.

    Einstein was spot on. Religion explores the inner world and provides meaning. Science explores the outer world and provides facts. I think the real problem is there are people today who want to use science to provide that meaning alone and when that happens science becomes their religion.

    I personally would rather the world remain secular in the true sense of the word.

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