Review of Max Jammer’s “Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology,” by Sarojini Henry

Review of Max Jammer’s “Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology,” by Sarojini Henry

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Metanexus Sophia. 2004.10.11. 2,489 Words.

Sarojini Henry reviews Max Jammer’s “Einstein and Religion: Physics andTheology,” writing that the book “provides us with a clear,well-documented, and unbiased picture of Einstein’s religioussensibilities.” For Henry, getting the story straight on Einstein’sspiritual views is essential for the science and religion community as”Einstein’s ideas about religion have been distorted both by atheistsand by religious groups eager to claim him as one of their own.”

Sarojini Henry started her teaching career, after completing theMaster’s degree, as a lecturer in Mathematics at Sarah Tucker College inSouth India. After taking her M.Phil degree, in Mathematics, she workedas Professor of Mathematics at St John’s College, teaching graduatestudents. In 1981, Sarojini was invited by Union Theological Seminary,New York as their ecumenical fellow for a year. It was as a doctoralstudent at Union, that she received the P.E.O. Fellowship for Women andthe Roothbert Fellowship. After completing her doctorate in ethics,(Thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr’s Critique of Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Violence)at Union, Sarojini joined the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, Madurai,as professor in Systematic Theology. In 1990, she was invited by theLouisville Presbyterian Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky as an adjunctprofessor for a semester. In 1992, she was awarded the Martin BuberInstitute fellowship by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a semester.

From 1992, Sarojini started giving lectures on science and religion atthe Ecumenical Christian Center at Bangalore and still continues to doso. In 1994, she introduced a course on science and religion for theM.Th theology students at the United Theological Seminary, Bangalorewhere she was already a visiting professor. In 1997, she received theTempleton Religion and Science Course award for this Institution. In1999, she received a second Religion and Science Course award for aliberal arts college, the American college at Madurai. In 2000, she wasappointed Professor of Systematic Theology at Gurukul LutheranTheological Seminary, and for this Institution, she received a TempletonScience -Religion Course award in 2001.



Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology by Max Jammer, (Princeton:Princeton press, 1999 hdb, pbk 2002 ) pages 279 cloth bound $37.50and paperback $16,95

Reviewed by Sarojini Henry

“To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempthumbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structures of allthat there is”. These are the words with which Albert Einsteinconcluded a statement of his philosophy of life made in 1932.Einstein’s insatiable curiosity about the secrets of the world can betraced to his fascination with a toy compass, which his father gave himto play with when he was a child. The effect the compass had on youngAlbert was both prophetic and dramatic. The question for Albert was howthe little needle, enclosed in a box, should have the constant impulseto point to the north.

Banesh Hoffmann, who calls Einstein a creator and rebel, rightlysummarizes Einstein’s philosophy in the following words, “The essence ofEinstein’s profundity lay in his simplicity and the essence of hisscience lay in his artistry-his phenomenal sense of beauty.” Einsteinhad indeed captured the world’s imagination with his exceptional blendof a profound aesthetic sense, an insatiable curiosity about the secretsof the universe and a rare ability to grasp mentally the structure ofall there is. What Einstein accomplished in his life in the scientificfield was a truly an astonishing achievement for any human being. Apartfrom his scientific ingenuity, his acute sensibility to social problemsand peace concerns has become part of the legacy of the world’s mostrenowned scientist.

But what was Einstein’s attitude to religion? Not manybiographies of Einstein say much about Einstein’s philosophy of religionalthough his quest for spiritual truth had played a prominent part bothin his personal life and in his scientific research. Often, Einstein’sideas about religion have been distorted both by atheists and byreligious groups eager to claim him as one of their own. In thiscontext, this fascinating book, Einstein and Religion: Physics andTheology, by Max Jammer, the distinguished Professor of PhysicsEmeritus and former Rector at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, providesus with a clear, well-documented and an unbiased picture of Einstein’sreligious sensibilities and his philosophy of religion.

Max Jammer, like Einstein himself, comes in the long line ofJewish scientists, of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, JacquesLoeb in physiology, Minkowski in Mathematics, Paul Ehrenfest in thequantum theory, Haber in chemistry, Leo Szilard in nuclear physics allbearing witness to the spectacular part that Jewish scholarship hadplayed in the field of science, often displaying exemplary courage inthe face of anti-Semitism Thus Max Jammer was not only at home withthe theoretical part of Einstein’s physics but also shared hiscultural background. Further, Jammer knew Einstein personally and thisacquaintance enabled him to draw on a wide range of less familiaranecdotes in Einstein’s life and thought.

The book has three chapters; the first chapter examines the role ofreligion in Einstein’s personal life and includes some biographicalnotes. The second chapter deals with Einstein’s philosophy of religion,both from Einstein’s writings and also from the interviews thatreligious leaders had with Einstein. The third chapter analyses theeffect of Einstein’s physics on theology, although Einstein himselfabstained from using the word theology.

The first chapter begins with a discussion of Einstein’s childhoodreligious education and the religious atmosphere–or its absence–amonghis family and friends. It then reconstructs, step by step, thedevelopment that led young Albert from the religious paradise of hisyouth to the stage when, “through the reading of popular scientificbooks”, he “reached the conviction that much of the stories in the biblecould not be true.” Such a posture seemed to have motivated Einstein tofind God in the physical world itself, from the atomic level to thestellar level; and Einstein attests that this road beckoned him like aliberation and since then has proved itself trustworthy.

Max Jammer goes on to explain how Einstein’s religious sentimentswere closely allied to that of Spinoza. Baruch Spinoza, a seventeenthJewish philosopher, was the author of a rigorously monisticinterpretation of reality, and Einstein had read Spinoza’a Ethics whileworking at the Berne office. When Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of theInstitutional Synagogue in New York called Einstein in 1929 to askwhether he believed in God, Einstein cabled a reply, “I believe inSpinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of whatexists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions ofhuman beings”

Einstein was influenced by Spinoza’s belief in determinism inwhich all events in nature occur according to immutable laws of causeand effect. Einstein also believed like, Spinoza, that some superiorintelligence reveals itself in the harmony of the universe. Then again,like Spinoza, Einstein regarded the idea of a personal God as ananthropomorphism. For Einstein there is no personal God, but held thatthere is “a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe- a spiritvastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with ourmodest powers must feel humble” . Further, Einstein believed that thelaws of nature though complex can be understood by the human person andhence Einstein could assert “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he isnot.”

In the second chapter, Jammer explores Einstein’s writings andlectures on religion and its role in society, and how far they have beenaccepted by the general public and by professional theologians like DeanR. Fowler, Paul Tillich or Frederick Pond Ferr�. Einstein not only gavelectures on the theme of religion and science but also responded to manyqueries addressed to him by several clergy and rabbis. Further,Einstein was also interviewed by several religious peoples and otherscholars including the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Jammer gives a vivid account of Einstein’s meeting withRabindranath Tagore in his home at Caputh in the summer of 1930.Tagore the Nobel Laureate for literature in 1913 and Einstein bothshared a love of music and of nature. The discussion turned to truthand beauty and to the question whether they are independent of the humanperson. When Tagore denied that truth or beauty is independent of thehuman person, Einstein asked Tagore “If there would be no human beingsanymore, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful?” WhenTagore replied “No”, Einstein answered “I agree with regard to thisconception of Beauty but not with respect to Truth.” Einstein’s pointwas that scientific truth must be conceived as a truth independent ofreality. When Tagore claimed,” If there be some truth which has nosensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain asnothing so long as we remain human beings.” Einstein seems to havereplied triumphantly, “Then I am more religious than you are.”

One of Einstein’s articles published and preserved is Religionand Science which occupied the entire front page of the New York Timesof November 9, 1930. “Everything that men do or think”, it began,”concerns the satisfaction of the needs they feel or the escape frompain.” Einstein then continued, to outline three stages of religiousdevelopment, starting with the religion of fear that moved primitivepeople to envisage supernatural beings. This stage gave rise to themoral religion which arises from the “desire for guidance, love andsupport”. This leads to the “God of Providence who protects, disposes,and rewards.” Einstein pointed out that the Christian Scriptures is anadmirable illustration of the transition from the religion of fear tothe religion of morality.

Then comes the third stage of religious experience which Einsteincalled the cosmic religious feeling, which, recognized neither dogma norGod made in the image of man. Einstein pointed out that the Psalms andsome prophetic books display aspects of the cosmic religion. Further,Einstein was sure that any person who is thoroughly convinced of therationality of the universe will have no use for the religion of fear orfor moral religion. Einstein then reaffirmed his belief that thecosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest driving forcebehind scientific research and added that in our largely materialisticage, the serious scientific workers are the only profoundlyreligious people.

Einstein’s cosmic religion was based on the view that the cosmosis governed by strictly deterministic laws. Einstein could not acceptthe probabilistic interpretation of the quantum theory because of hisdeep conviction in the rationality of the universe. In his view, thestatistical laws necessary to explain the subatomic world, can onlycompel God to throw the dice in each case. He wrote to Max Born in Dec,1926 “Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tellsme that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot but does notreally bring us any closer to the secret of the Old One. I, at anyrate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.”

After moving to the United States, Einstein was invited to give alecture at a conference at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1939.Einstein titled his talk ‘The Goal’ and concluded that scientificthinking alone cannot lead to the ultimate and fundamental purpose ofour existence. Again in 1940 at a ‘Conference on Science Philosophy andReligion’, held at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, Einsteinpresented a paper on ‘Science and religion’. In addition to his famousstatement “science without religion is lame and religion without scienceis blind”, Einstein also claimed a certain independence of science andreligion by asserting that “science can only ascertain what is, butnot what should be,” whereas “religion on the other hand, deals with theevaluations of human thought and action.”

It was Einstein’s denial of a personal God that elicited sterncriticism from American clergy. In Einstein’s strict determinism, Godcannot be personal capable of responding to people’s prayers andperforming acts on his own volition. God, in Einstein’s view does notconcern himself with human actions so that for Einstein, morality hasnothing to do with religion. Einstein believed that God is devoid ofethical properties, and that morality and the concept of good and evilare all relative to human values and norms. He did not see that a futurelife was essential for ethical behaviour in this life.

The last chapter of Jammer’s book deals with the importantquestion, whether Einstein’s scientific work, and in particular histheory of relativity, has theologically significant implications. Such aproblem is important for those who are interested in the new disciplineof the relation between science and religion and it is already anestablished fact that Einstein’s theory of Relativity has alteredirreversibly the philosophical discussions of the nature of time and space.

The new cosmology, based on Einstein’s general theory ofrelativity, is raising some deep philosophical issues and is producingdirect and indirect statements concerning the nature of time and spaceand of the universe and the ultimate reality with significantimplications for theology. It looks as though contemporary science ofEinstein has taken on the roles that once belonged exclusively tometaphysics and as a consequence is having direct impact on theology andphilosophy. Contemporary physicists are engaging in the question of theeffect of physics in theology, to the extent that they seek to go beyondthe mere data of the universe and address the fundamental metaphysicalquestions about the origin, purpose, and ultimate destiny of the universe.

Jammer also points to process philosophy developed by AlfredNorth Whitehead in consistent with the new physics in which nature isunderstood as evolutionary, dynamic and emergent and where theemphasis is on becoming rather than being. The implication of thisphilosophy for theology is worked out by Charles Hartshorne, accordingto whom God is immanent with the world just as the world is immanentwith God, although God and the world do not form an identity.

In Jammer’s view, Einstein’s cosmic religion is incompatible withthe doctrines of the Christian and Jewish religions. The point ofcontention is the idea of a personal God. The general impression fromthe several interviews and Einstein’s response to queries fromindividuals and groups, is that most Christian clergy opposed Einstein’sstand while Jewish rabbis approved it. The question is how oneunderstands the concept of a personal of God. Paul Tillich, thenprofessor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary, wassympathetic to Einstein’s view, in pointing out that the notion of apersonal God is only a symbol, though a necessary one. Max Jammerrightly concludes that “Tillich’s statement converges towards Einstein’scosmic religion as much as is possible for a theistic theologian.”