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Everyday science

Everyday science

Was Einstein an atheist?

09 Jan 2009 James Dacey

By James Dacey

I’m still finding my feet here at Physics World so it seemed wise to try and sneak a fairly inconspicuous first post on the blog. So here’s a little story involving two rarely-discussed, uncontroversial topics: British public transport and the religious views of some bloke named Einstein.

If you’ve been in a major city in England, Scotland or Wales this week, you may have noticed a slogan with a difference on the side a bus. “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” has been printed onto 800 buses in the UK’s first ever atheist advertisement campaign.

Campaign organisers – whose financial backers include Richard Dawkins – say the campaign is, “a response to a series of evangelical Christian adverts running on buses in June 2008, which featured the URL of a website saying all non-Christians were going to hell.”

Touché. It’s a free country. What’s this got to do with physicists anyway?

Well, the campaign enters its second phase on Monday which – according to the press release – will involve quotes from “famous atheists” hitting the London underground. Included is Einstein’s quote:

“I do not believe in a personal God and have never denied this but have expressed it clearly”

Now, yes we are living in post-modern times where readers can negotiate their own meanings from Albert’s words, but to label the man as atheist still seems very peculiar; especially given that he declared himself, during an interview in 1929, “I am not an atheist”.

This is not the first time a religious or atheist camp has tried to pigeonhole Einstein; surely any serious critic would agree that Einstein’s religious beliefs are far more subtle than this. Clearly, Einstein took serious issues with organized religion but there is still a very strong sense of religiosity throughout his letters. In common with atheist dogma, he held a conviction for rational thought, but he also realised the silliness of tackling religious questions with a scientific ontology: namely, trying to fathom whether there IS; ISN’T; or ‘PROBABLY’ isn’t a God.

For Einstein there was no need for rational thought and religious sentiment to be in conflict.

Indeed, his famous quote “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” seems to perfectly capture his dualistic approach to scientific inquiry.

Anyway, I’ll spare you a clumsy unravelling of more Einstein quotes but if you’re interested there’s a more serious look at this topic here

Personally, I’d like to believe that – a now very old Albert – would have supported the freedoms of both religious and atheist groups. That said, he wouldn’t have wasted his time and money in bankrolling a poster campaign for either group; besides, he’d be far too busy blowing his cash on new fiddles and having fun.

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