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

einstein on god

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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Comments (22)
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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.

  • Bill says:

    I find it strange that peo­ple who claim to be athe­ists are nev­er “just, mere­ly, only” athe­ists. They are always athe­is­tic fem­i­nists, or Marx­ists, or neo-fas­cists, etc., etc. Sil­ver­streak admits up front to being an athe­ist who finds prayers to super­nat­ur­al enti­ties to be naïve. And yet, some­how, as we see with the Marx­ists and Envi­ron­men­tal­ists, so also with the Fem­i­nists: though they don’t believe in God, they still some­how think that He (or She) is “on their side”. Do remem­ber that “Moral­i­ty” is nec­es­sar­i­ly more than just a series of felt impuls­es. By Judeo-Chris­t­ian doc­trine, the impuls­es we all feel were “built in” by God, and thus reflect some­thing tru­ly Tran­scen­den­tal and Cos­mic, name­ly the Will of our Cre­ator. Deny that Cre­ator and there is noth­ing cos­mic or uni­ver­sal to these feel­ings… they are sim­ply arti­facts of Evo­lu­tion, no dif­fer­ent from the much baser and more ani­mal­is­tic pas­sions that dri­ve us to com­mit our count­less acts of evil. It may indeed be true to claim that so-called moral impuls­es often prove to be “use­ful” on a soci­o­log­i­cal basis. But this is a far cry from say­ing that feel­ing them con­sti­tutes “moral­i­ty”. Work­ing togeth­er may help soci­ety to sur­vive, but then so does geno­cide. By way of exam­ple, Sil­ver­streak is indig­nant that makes should dom­i­nate females for their own grat­i­fi­ca­tion, but doubt­less Evo­lu­tion found it “use­ful” for males to thus exploit and dom­i­nate females. If it had­n’t, then some oth­er behav­ior would have pre­vailed. And males, of course, found dom­i­nat­ing females to be grat­i­fy­ing. (Still do, as far as I can tell.) Fem­i­nists, like their clan­des­tined elder states­per­sons the Marx­ists, do not sim­ply state “how things are”, they FIND FAULT with them. On the one hand, Marx­ists reduce the behav­ior of the bur­gousie to what almost amounts to a “prob­lem in social physics”, but then sub­ject it to a with­er­ing con­tempt that only the pre­sup­po­si­tion of real moral account­abil­i­ty could sup­port. But what if gain­ing wealth and pow­er is what the rich WANT to do? What if it fur­thers their sur­vival and repro­duc­tive poten­tial? Sil­ver­streak, by con­demn­ing male dom­i­nance (which I assume she does) auto­mat­i­cal­ly implies that MALES ought to share her con­dem­na­tion and “change their ways”. CAN they? In a world con­trolled by physics is it even pos­si­ble to “change one’s own char­ac­ter”? And, even if it were, why SHOULD they, if “male dom­i­nance” gets them what they want? Sil­ver­streak, and all Fem­i­nists, and all Marx­ists, etc, etc, want to be rid of their oblig­a­tion TO GOD, but they still want to exploit HIS AUTHORITY for the pur­pose of con­demn­ing oth­ers. A log­i­cal­ly-con­sis­tent Athe­ist should be supreme­ly STOIC. Peo­ple do what they do, for what are ulti­mate­ly CAUSES rather than REASONS, and there is no basis for con­demn­ing them or demand­ing that they change. One does not have to like their con­duct. (I myself do not like either Fem­i­nists or Marx­ists), but that is beside the point. They “are what they are”, just like the rest of us. TO sug­gest that they, or males or cap­i­tal­ists or any­one else, is “in vio­la­tion of some kind of uni­ver­sal cos­mic moral stan­dard” that tells us how things “real­ly ought to be” is to RE-ENTER the realm of RELIGION, whether Sil­ver­streak wish­es to admit it or not. She can claim that “reli­gion” is naïve, but she is as reli­gious as the rest of us. The real ques­tion is “What rea­son is there that I (a male and cap­i­tal­ist) should pre­fer HER RELIGION over my own?” The answer, obvi­ous­ly, is that there are none. Hav­ing denied God, and there­fore denied “Cos­mic Good­ness”, Sliv­er­streak has no more rea­son to speak in its’ name than I do.

  • Bill says:

    Good and well as far as you go, Rod, but remem­ber that one of the main things peo­ple expect from their faith is that it should give them “tran­scen­dence”… that is, a hope that goes beyond Death. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Death is at once both a ‘spir­i­tu­al and reli­gious con­struct’ (the ‘wages of sin’, etc.) and also a phys­i­cal phe­nom­e­non, gov­erned by the laws of physics. If one only accepts Ein­stein’s “spir­i­tu­al­i­ty”, then one must con­fess that what­ev­er “spir­it” lives with­in us and with­in the Cos­mos it does in fact, final­ly and literally,“die”. Ein­stein employed “spir­i­tu­al” talk, but he made every­thing sub­servient to Nat­ur­al Law, which he held to be absolute. It should be noticed that, in this regard, Mod­ern Sci­ence holds Ein­stein to be WRONG. The mod­ern syn­the­sis, Quan­tum Mechan­ics, was some­thing to which Ein­stein con­tributed exten­sive­ly, but to which he was also vehe­ment­ly OPPOSED. When con­front­ed with evi­dence of quan­tum inde­ter­mi­na­cy Herr Ein­stein growled “God does NOT play with DICE!” He indig­nant­ly refused to accept what is, today, one of the most well-estab­lished prin­ci­ples of mod­ern physics… that the seem­ing­ly rig­or­ous deter­min­is­tic behav­ior of bulk mat­ter over clas­si­cal dis­tances and times is actu­al­ly the sum of behav­iors of indi­vid­ual par­ti­cles, each of which is itself unpre­dictable. As it turns out, the “laws” of physics in which our famous and gift­ed patent clerk put his faith are, in real­i­ty, “approx­i­ma­tions” of a deep­er behav­ior that, to this day, Sci­ence still does not real­ly com­pre­hend. What we call Nat­ur­al Law is, more prop­er­ly viewed as a “spe­cial class of mir­a­cle”. Ein­stein ruled out “Mir­a­cles” as being incon­sis­tent with Nature, but Nature appar­ent­ly dis­agrees. Ein­stein was wrong.

  • Bill says:

    Dear Mr. Xavier. I sym­pa­thize with your view of prayer, that it’s “relief” (as in emo­tion­al and spir­i­tu­al sus­te­nance) does seem to come to peo­ple with­out ref­er­ence to the specifics of their faith. How­ev­er, I would ask you to con­sid­er that one God (or, rather, one author­i­ta­tive view of God) may prove to be the Truth in the end, and yet this does not pre­clude His answer­ing peo­ples’ prayers (or at least “grant­i­ng sus­te­nance to them”) even when they sin­cere­ly (though per­haps inac­cu­rate­ly) call on Him. As Jesus Him­self said “God makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.” I believe there is one True God, Mak­er of Heav­en and Earth, and I do believe He has revealed His true nature in Jesus. I do not, how­ev­er, think that this oblig­es Him to act only for the ben­e­fit of Chris­tians (though I am con­vinced that they will ben­e­fit from His bless­ings in ways that oth­ers may not). Jesus was kind to the Samar­i­tan woman and blessed her, even though He did not hes­i­tate to admit that “Sal­va­tion is through the Jews.” The sin­cere heart, call­ing in faith on Him Who made us, will not be for­sak­en, so long as it is open to what He has to say. Indeed, Christ taught that no man could come to Him except that the Father call him. Thus God not only can, but will, work in the hearts of those who are cho­sen, to bring them to Him­self though they start­ed from far away.

  • ptd says:

    It would be impor­tant to elu­ci­date which idea of nature is evoked by Spin­oza in his state­ment Deus sive Natu­ra. One might argue that sci­ence is con­cerned with “modes”, not the “sub­stance”. Inso­far as sci­en­tists deal with empir­i­cal real­i­ty, God is out of their domain. There­fore it is rea­son­able to claim that sci­ence can­not pro­vide us with a ulti­mate acknowl­edge­ment of God (even if it’s the God of Spin­oza). That’s why Ein­stein’s reply to the girl is so com­plex and intrigu­ing.

  • Tao says:

    He built a gen­tle bridge to open the child’s mind.

  • Jessica Kierstead says:

    Thank You! This is an old post, but from my read­ing and under­stand­ing Ein­stein was not an Athi­est, he was Agnos­tic. He had ques­tions but was open to pos­si­bil­i­ties. This is what made him a genius, he nev­er shut things out sim­ply because those ideas/thoughts did not align with his own pre-con­ceived notions on a top­ic. Yes, he would argue points he knew would not work, giv­en the capac­i­ty of tech­nol­o­gy to prove those points at that time. Some of those the­o­ries have since been dis­proven, but at that junc­ture in time they could not be any­thing oth­er than the­o­ries. Any­how, thanks for point­ing out what oth­ers seem­ing­ly have 1. failed to see and 2. don’t under­stand about the sub­ject of this writ­ing.

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