“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.

by | Permalink | Comments (21) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (21)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.