Einstein is "one of us"
Updated: Jan 30
“Some of the most prominent scientific figures of the last century have acknowledged their strong atheism: Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, and the late Stephen Jay Gould, just to mention the Steves. Others living and dead include James Watson, Francis Crick, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Edward O. Wilson, and despite tales to the contrary, Albert Einstein.”
- Victor Stenger
It seems that everyone admires Albert Einstein and wants him on their team. After all, to have one of the most brilliant scientists of the past century in agreement with you must surely prove your viewpoint is correct. This seems to be the logic – since atheism is not accepted by the majority of people, a way to establish its truth is to show that intelligent people embrace it. And, the more intelligent those who embrace it are, the more true atheism must be.
The smartest person is right approach
The challenge with the “the smartest person in the room is right” approach as evidence for atheism is that it doesn’t really work. Only 11% of college graduates and 10% of undergraduate professors in America are atheists. So, for this approach to work at all, it’s necessary to keep selecting smaller and smaller samples of intelligent people.
Does the revised approach work? Not reliably. There have been many brilliant scientists who believed in God’s existence and others who didn’t. This raises the question, if brilliant people have different views on the existence of God, who is correct?
Let’s use Max Planck, Max Born and Albert Einstein as examples. All three of them won Nobel Prizes in Physics. They were friends and Einstein clearly admired Planck as a scientist. If these three men disagreed about the existence of God, who would be correct? Should we ask other scientists to vote to decide who is the smartest and side with the winner? We’ll come back to this question later.
What did Einstein actually believe about God?
Okay, back to Victor Stenger’s original claim. Was Albert Einstein an atheist or not? Let’s investigate.
Public statements – Biographers record that Einstein had a lot to say about God. When asked by a Rabbi if he believed in God, Einstein responded that, like Spinoza, he believed in a “God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists.” However, unlike Spinoza, he did not equate God with nature. Instead, Einstein’s God created nature. He conveyed to a student:
“I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.”
Yet was Einstein’s use of the word “God” just a figure of speech, as some have suggested? Did he merely use the word as a synonym for the order and intelligibility of the universe? No.
Biographer Max Jammer concluded, Einstein did not consider himself to be an atheist or a pantheist. While he saw God in nature, Einstein did not consider God to be nature.
Published Essays – Albert Einstein was raised in a Jewish family and participated in religious services as a child. However, as an adult he did not. Yet, from his published essays, it’s clear that Einstein admired the Jewish-Christian religious tradition and standards of value, morality and ethics. To him, these were subjects that science and the scientific method were incapable of illumining.
Einstein seems to have believed in the notion that meaning, value and morality exist apart from scientific justification – they are revealed. And, he conveyed “It is only to the individual that a soul is given.” However, he did not believe in the idea of a personal God.
To Einstein, the universe was law-driven and deterministic. The idea that God has emotions and intervenes in nature didn’t make sense to him. To him, a structured law-driven universe meant that God does not interfere in natural events.  Does that mean he was an atheist? Not at all. Let’s look at what he said to his friends.
Private letters – Max Born and his wife, Hedi, were long-time friends with Einstein. They wrote to each other actively for four decades. In these letters, they shared their personal thoughts, their lives and their beliefs. What a great source of information!
In his letters to the Borns, Albert Einstein often commented about God. He used phrases like “But God knows,” “May God preserve him,” “Thank God,” and “the good Lord” frequently. Was he just being polite to Max Born, who did believe in God, and to Hedi, who was a devout Quaker? It doesn’t seem so.
While expressing his doubts about the indeterminism of quantum mechanics in a letter to Max Born in 1926, Einstein wrote:
“Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one’. I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice.”
Who is this “old one” who does not play dice? We see in another letter to Born in 1944 that the “old one” is God.  Then, in 1953, Einstein used the “dice playing God” phrase again:
“This may well have been so contrived by that same ‘non-dice playing God’ who has caused so much bitter resentment against me, not only amongst the quantum theoreticians but also among the faithful of the Church of the Atheists.”
What did Max Born make of Einstein’s many comments about God? After a friendship of forty years, he stated that Einstein was not an atheist.
Was Einstein infallible?
Even if Albert Einstein had been an atheist, would his conclusion have settled the question of God’s existence? After all, both Max Planck and Max Born – two other friends and Nobel Prize winners in physics – did believe in God. Wouldn’t Einstein have been outvoted by them?
While he was a brilliant person, even Einstein wasn’t always correct. He couldn’t accept the notion that indeterminism was a part of nature – though it is. He was wrong and Max Born was right. Though brilliant, Albert Einstein didn’t know everything and he wasn’t infallible.
And the conclusion is...
Everyone seems to admire Albert Einstein – justifiably so. He truly was a great scientist. However, to look to him as an implied authority on everything – including the existence of God – doesn’t make sense. It also doesn’t make sense to claim that Einstein was an atheist when he wasn’t. He did believe in God and was angered by those who claimed he did not.
It seems that Victor Stenger was mistaken about Albert Einstein. He was not an atheist; he was a deist. He was also mistaken about Edward O. Wilson. He wasn’t an atheist either – he also considered himself to be a deist.
If atheism is to be marketed, I would kindly suggest using a different strategy. The smartest person in the room approach doesn’t seem to be working.
About Victor Stenger (1935 - 2014):
Victor Stenger was a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Hawaii and then taught philosophy at the University of Colorado. He was educated at NJIT in New Jersey and earned his PhD in Physics at UCLA. He was an avid proponent of atheism and wrote many books in support of it.
 Victor Stenger, The New Atheism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), 75.  In America, Does More Education Equal Less Religion?, Pew Research Center, April 26, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/26/in-america-does-more-education-equal-less-religion/  Max Planck, Where Science is Going? (London, England: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1913), 7-12. (Einstein wrote the prologue, expressing his admiration for Planck as a person and as a scientist.)  William Lanouette, , Genius in the Shadows, A Biography of Leo Szilard (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992), 85.  Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 148.  William Lanouette, Genius in the Shadows, A Biography of Leo Szilard (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992) 84.  Hans C. Ohanian, Einstein’s Mistakes (London, England: W.W. Norton, 2008), 3.  Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion, 48, 122-123, 150.  Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1977), 23.  IBID, 24-25.  IBID, 22-23.  IBID, 23.  IBID, 28.  Max Born, The Born-Einstein Letters (London, England: The MacMillan Press, 1971), 9, 12, 113, 149, 192,  IBID, 157.  IBID, 90. (The emphasis on and capitalization of the word “He” was evidently in the original letter.)  IBID, 149.  IBID, 199.  IBID, 203.  Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion, 150.  E.O. Wilson is on Top of the World, Psychology Today, published September 1, 1998 and last reviewed on June 9, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199809/eo-wilson-is-top-the-world (E.O. Wilson was opposed to religion, but not the idea of God.) Copyright 2020 Patrick Prill.