"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Albert Einstein: Spiritual, But Not Religious?

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
I have long suspected that arguably the greatest scientist of all time, Albert Einstein, may have been just like many people today: "spiritual but not religious." A friend of mine recently forwarded me an archived article from Time magazine that seems to confirm this view.

Eintein's disapproving objection to the indeterminism of quantum mechanics - the "other theory," which along with Einstein's "theory of relativity," shattered  all notions of 'classical physics' and forever changed our understanding of the universe - may be the most famous of his many memorable sayings: "God does not play dice with the universe!"

By his own admission, Einstein was not an atheist. (Indeed, I've heard it said that all physicists are probably closet mystics, drawn to metaphysical speculation as a moth is drawn to the candle's flame, about which I will have more to say, below.) In Time's excerpted article from "Einstein," by Walter Isaacson, (Simon & Schuster: 2007) Isaacson writes:
"(T)hroughout his life, Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist. "There are people who say there is no God," he told a friend. "But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views." And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. "What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos," he explained.
In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. "The fanatical atheists," he wrote in a letter, "are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who--in their grudge against traditional religion as the 'opium of the masses'-- cannot hear the music of the spheres."
"The music of the sphere's." Do any of the spiritual masters, past or present, express either the spiritual nature of the universe, or what may be God, any more poetically? . . . as poetically, perhaps; but, more poetically? Certainly, not.

'Finger of God' Nebula: NASA
In fact, Einstein insisted that an 'inner religious' or 'spiritual' curiosity is necessary for the true scientist, and all scientific inquiry. "Science can be created only by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding," he once remarked. "This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion." Isaacson notes that these remarks on the religious well-springs of scientifc curiosity garnered "front-page news coverage," and prompted another of Einstein's most famous, pithy sayings: "(S)cience without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

But what were the sources of Einstein's "inner-religiousity" or "spirituality?" Isaacson notes that his parents were almost militantly, non-observant Jews, and that he received a Catholic early education. Nonetheless, he seems to have practiced his own form of Orthodox Judaism until at age twelve he abandoned all outward religious affectations.

I suspect that like many of the leading scientists of the early twentieth century (Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg and Robert Oppenheimer, spring to mind), Einstein may have been influenced, more than is readily discernible, by the then-recently transplanted Eastern wisdom teachings such as Bhuddism and the Advaita Vedanta. As Isaacson again notes, based on Einstein's own thoughts and words, Einstein was a profoundly "religious man." Like Heisenberg, who outlined the "uncertainty principle" in quantum theory that Einstein would spend a career unsuccessfully trying to refute, Einstein also penned a credo entitled, "What I Believe." In it, he notes:

"The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man."
A "snuffed-out candle" is the root of the Pali word that the Buddha used to describe enlightenment: nirvana. A candle is also used extensively in Sufi imagery as a metaphor for the Divine. ("Judge the moth by it's candle," Rumi wrote.) And, of course, in the 'Sermon on the Mount,' Jesus urged people not to hide the "light" of their candle under a "bushel" basket, so as to deprive one's neighbour of candlelight in the large, communal houses many lived in at the time.

This is purely speculative, of course. But a man of Einstein's unslakeable curiosity and deeply held spiritual (rather than outerwardly religious) inclinations would surely have looked into the beliefs held by so many others, if not just the beliefs held by Heisenberg and Einstein's close colleague, the Nobel-laureate physicist, Pauli.

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