“Do Scientists Pray?”: A Young Girl Asks Albert Einstein in 1936. Einstein Then Responds.

Albert Einstein endeavored to express his view of God as forthrightly as possible to a public eager to know where he stood in the popular conflict between science and religion. In 1936, a sixth-grade girl named Phyllis wrote him a letter on behalf of her Sunday School class. “We have brought up the question,” she wrote, “Do scientists pray? It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion.” Einstein’s reply is somewhat equivocal. He is clear enough in stating that a scientific fidelity to the “laws of nature” means that “a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.” This would seem to settle the question. However, he goes on to invoke the philosopher Spinoza’s god and distinguish between intellectual humility and wonder, on the one hand, and a more popular, supernatural faith on the other.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

This is probably not the response that Phyllis and her class had hoped for, and they (or their teacher) may have taken offense at the description of their faith as “naïve.” But Einstein’s careful reply also expresses a kind of scientific awe that acknowledges the limits of reason and leads to a kind of sublime feeling that can legitimately be called “religious” (much as Carl Sagan would do decades later). This, I believe, is not a casual or callous dismissal of Phyllis’s faith, something that so-called “New Atheists” are often accused of (justly or not). Instead it’s a considered response in which the great physicist shares his own version of “faith”–his faith in Nature, or the “laws of the universe,” which he concedes are “vastly superior to man.” I think it’s a moving exchange between two people who couldn’t be further apart in their understanding of the world, but who just may have found some small common ground in considering each other’s positions for a moment.

Einstein’s correspondence comes to us via the always illuminating Letters of Note

Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.

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  • JOFilho says:

    Very interesting. I think Einstein gave a gorgeous response. Of course the word “naive” can bother someone, but we need to understand his view. In my opinion Einstein managed to write flatly and careful. It’s a genius! :)

  • kareem says:

    why we usually think that science and religion are so far , they complete each other , in the question of Einstein i think he was wise enough to answer , he didnt do any efforts to answer

  • Jim Scott says:

    I get the sense he was running a little PR there… skillfully navigating a delicate situation involving a child’s beliefs. He would have said the same about santa claus I suspect.

  • Dabitch says:

    He is not describing their faith as naive, he is saying “someone more naive”, ie; a child or a regular person who is not aware/knowledgeable about many (sciency) things in the vast universe.

  • Brian says:

    Josh – A thoughtful and well-written piece.

  • Hanoch says:

    I am not all that interested in what Einstein had to say about matters of religion because, based on everything I have seen, he had no expertise in this area.

    Leaving that aside, Mr. Jones’ take on Einstein’s comments seem to betray his own opinions rather than those of Einstein. Mr. Jones describes Einstein’s “faith” as a “faith in Nature, or the ‘laws of the universe'”. But one does not have “faith” in physical realities (e.g., gravity) — those realities exist and can be confirmed by the human senses. What Einstein actually said in his letter was that his knowledge of science led him to believe that “some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man.” That statement is obviously ambiguous, but unless one is entirely blinded by bias, one inescapable interpretation is that Einstein is leaving open the possibility of a deity from which the “laws of the universe” arise.

  • Josh Jones says:

    @Hanoch: My commentary on Einstein’s view has nothing to do with my own biases, be they what they are. In matters of “faith,” Einstein hewed closely to the views of Baruch Spinoza, who defined God as Nature or the laws of nature, and whom
    Einstein read as a determinist with no belief in supernatural beings. That’s the allusion he’s making in his letter. This site explains his views more thoroughly: http://www.einsteinandreligion.com/spinoza2.html

  • Eisenstein came to this conclusion after discussion in regard the observer effect in quantum physics. There is, in fact, a spirit, but it is not outside of men, it is within men. It is the consciousness; that which separates all people, giving them each a sense of “I am”. It has begun to make more logical sense to conclude that the very fundamental essence of nature (this formless thing we call energy) IS consciousness. Lending credence to the idea that most religious works may not have been so “naive” in and of themselves, but rather completely misinterpreted simply by thinking GOD is outside yourself.

  • louis says:

    very interesting, my little girl of nine years old passed away 3/14/13 today is 3/21/13 i don’t know what happend to the last week in time ? my thoughts of my little baby girl have consumed me to this point. God is. allthings and all things come from Him, and if you except Him. through Him, and back to Him. God is…

  • Don Miller says:

    Having discovered this news item only today, I feel I have found a re-affirmation of my personal beliefs arrived at more than 50 years ago. Each new year of life experience and learning have added to my clarity of thought on this subject. Saying that differently, the world we live in and the complexity of the universe obviously could not be attributed to a being unable to describe its “rules” for those who evolve to a point of having language and the ability to read a collection of short stories written in the last .01% of the age of the earth.

  • Silverstreak Jet says:

    I am a scientist and an atheist and never pray. It is a useless exercise and anyone who does pray and gets their pray answered has just experienced a coincidence.

    I agree it is naive to believe in supernatural entities.

    As a feminist, I also believe that gods were invented by men for the benefit of men. Obviously, men were tired of arguing with women about their superiority and needed gods to validate their superiority. Otherwise why would these gods make rules about men having “dominion” over women and women “serving” men?

  • GodDay says:

    If you don’t believe in God or gods then u are in for a big time trouble.it also means u don’t believe in the existence of witchcraft.

  • Anar says:

    Einstein meant God.

  • Bert McCoy says:

    Einstein said in this letter, “in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith.” The faith word comes from the religions-faith in what so and so said. Thus, this faith in a ultimate spirit relies upon the past or on a certain prescribed future from someone of the past- more accurately, someone from the graveyard.
    As I see It, the “Final Ultimate Spirit” makes Its Self known in the hear and now…from what can be seen, tasted, smelled, heard, and touch. Therefore, One doesn’t need any kind of faith to realize What is ever present before him or her.

  • Job Xavier says:

    While I empathise with Einstein who had to give a balanced response to the girl, not to ruffle feathers, my own little research and surveys show that irrespective of religion and communities, prayer can be considered as the one, single most powerful emotion in man.It defies logic when people pray to Allah, Jesus, Hindu Gods and myriad other gods and all seem to get relief for their troubles. Logic tells me that prayer is the most scientific and proven mode of reaching the ultimate superior force.

    Job Xavier

  • Rod Ashcroft says:

    “… that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. ”

    Einstein nailed it when he said the above. The conclusion I have come to in my 64th year is that it is far, far harder NOT to believe in such a spirit than it is to believe in one. Science has never accounted for the soul, or consciousness, and it never will, and that tells me in clear terms that a spirit exists in the universe that is above science. And I welcome that – it provides my life with meaning and gives me peace of mind.

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