Essay:The religious views of Albert Einstein

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"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
—Said by some guy smarter than me.

Part of the series on
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Albert Einstein is widely recognized as a genius in regards to physics, but what I wish to speak about in this essay are his religious beliefs which I find to be no less profound. Some might consider using Einstein as an expert in this field as a case of ultracrepidarianism, but when some of the other "experts" are Pope Benedict XVI, Pat Robertson, and Fred Phelps, is it really? In any case, I find his views fascinating and they have heavily influenced my own beliefs. I hope I can impart to you the same level of respect for Einstein's beliefs as I have.

What did Einstein believe in?[edit]

There is a lot that can be said about Einstein's religious views. He was Jewish by birth, but he didn't believe Jews were God's chosen people, and he turned down the chance to create the world's first geniocracy when the Israeli presidency was offered to him in 1952. He said "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can change this."[1] He didn't believe in a personal,[2] anthropomorphic,[3] or omnibenevolent God.[4] Nor did he believe in the immortality of the soul[5] or the power of prayer,[6] but he also didn't believe in atheism.[7] He was essentially a pantheist who felt his views were similar to that of Spinoza.[8] He also famously quipped "He (God) does not throw dice," in order to express his dissatisfaction with quantum mechanics.[1]

As far as I am concerned, none of that is particularly important. Those are beliefs Einstein held and people who adhere to a faith-based religion and those who are atheistic can both misrepresent Einstein in support of their position. However, by only focusing on quotes that can be used in a pointless debate between two people who are not going to change their theological position, one misses the true power and dare I say beauty of Einstein's belief system.

Hume's Law (a.k.a The is-ought problem).[edit]

To fully understand and appreciate Einstein's religious position, one must first understand Hume's law which is the problem of "How exactly can an "ought" be derived from an "is"?". For example, does the fact that rhinos are dying at the hand of poachers mean we ought to farm black rhinos and sell their horn to save them or try to preserve them from poachers in their natural habitat? Is there even a reason why we ought to save them in the first place?

The is-ought problem has bedeviled many moralistic philosophers. Some of them (such as utilitarians like myself) take the position that what is good for human well-being is the ought one should pursue. Even this position does't fully resolve the is-ought problem as one still has to deal with issues such as: Domestic or global utilitarianism? Utilitarianism of current generations or current and future generations? Well-being of only humans or animals like our rhinos as well? Can people like mass murders be considered "inhuman" (literally) and be removed from utilitarian calculations? And the always controversial question, "When does human life began?" There is no obvious solution to such questions. For example, a Christian conservative may argue that human life begins at conception and a feminist may argue that it begins at birth, and there is no objective reason to say that the feminist definition is right and the Christian conservative definition is wrong, or vice versa.[note 1]

Einstein was very familiar with David Hume and consequently the is-ought problem.

Hume saw that concepts which we must regard as essential, such as, for example, causal connection, cannot be gained from material given to us by the senses. This insight led him to a skeptical attitude as concerns knowledge of any kind... Hume has permanently influenced the development of the best philosophers who came after him. One senses him in the reading of Russell’s philosophical analyses, whose acumen and simplicity of expression have often reminded me of Hume.
—Albert Einstein, ”Remarks on Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Knowledge”[9]

The following quote from Einstein is aimed at addressing Hume's law:

If one conceives of religion and science according to these definitions then a conflict between them appears impossible. For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts.[10]

In case you missed it, what Einstein said was:

  1. According to his definitions, a conflict between science and religion is impossible.
  2. Science deals with the what is side of Hume's law.
  3. Religion deals with the ought side of Hume's law.

Profound, right? So what were Einstein's definitions of science and religion?

Definition of science[edit]

Niels Bohr and Einstein

Einstein's definition of science is the uncontroversial one as it doesn't differ much from accepted norms. The definition he was referring to in the prior quote was:

Science is the century-old endeavor to bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thoroughgoing an association as possible. To put it boldly, it is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualization.[10]

In another work he defines science as "methodical thinking directed toward finding regulative connections between our sensual experiences.[11]

Oppenheimer and Einstein

What these definitions have in common is that they are both solidly on the what is side of Hume's law. They describe how we can use our senses and systemic thought to understand the world around us. They depict the efforts of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Mendeleev, and Einstein's debate companion, Niels Bohr. What they are not, and what Einstein makes abundantly clear that they are not, are descriptions of the ought side of Hume's law. As Einstein says:

For the scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other.The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capable, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations. Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. And it is hardly necessary to argue for the view that our existence and our activity acquire meaning only by the setting up of such a goal and of corresponding values.[10]

In another piece he says "While it is true that science, to the extent of its grasp of causative connections, may reach important conclusions as to the compatibility and incompatibility of goals and evaluations, the independent and fundamental definitions regarding goals and values remain beyond science's reach."[11]

When I think about this issue, I am often recall a history class I once had in high school. The conclusion was "Science can teach you how to build the atom bomb, but it can't tell you whether or not to use it." For Einstein, the atom bomb is-ought problem was hardly theoretical.

Definition of religion[edit]

So what was Einstein's definition of religion? Well the definition he referred to in the is-ought problem quote was the following:

To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly.[10]

In another work he defined religion as follows:

As regards religion, on the other hand, one is generally agreed that it deals with goals and evaluations and, in general, with the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting, as far as these are not predetermined by the inalterable hereditary disposition of the human species. Religion is concerned with man's attitude toward nature at large, with the establishing of ideals for the individual and communal life, and with mutual human relationship. These ideals religion attempts to attain by exerting an educational influence on tradition and through the development and promulgation of certain easily accessible thoughts and narratives (epics and myths) which are apt to influence evaluation and action along the lines of the accepted ideals.[11]

There is a lot to take in here so let's break it down.

Goals, evaluations, and the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting[edit]

Both of the above quotes explicitly state that "religion's" purpose is to set fast goals/fundamental ends and evaluations into the emotional life of the individual. In some ways, it is unfortunate that Einstein used the word "religion" to describe what he was referring to because it is an emotionally loaded term and one that has a multitude of interpretations. In other ways, it was a smart move because using such terminology enabled him to appeal to people who would otherwise be turned off by Einstein's pantheistic and philosophical worldview. In any case, we need to get past our own preconceptions of religion and view religion through the eyes of Einstein to fully appreciate what he was speaking about. So let's talk about football (the American version of it).

The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it's theirs.
—Dr Cyril Wecht in the movie Concussion

Mary people in Europe and South America are emotionally invested in what Americans call soccer, people in the USA are often fond of American football (though that emotional investment may be on the decline), and people in New Zealand are often fond of Rugby. Why? Well according to Einstein's definition, it is because these sports are a part of people's religion. Obviously most people don't usually think of something like the NFL as being religious, but it would have been considered that way by Einstein. Consider, for example, the NFL's recent problems with concussions and CTEWikipedia's W.svg. The original "emotional foundation of human thinking and acting" promoted by the NFL was hard hits to the head area. This changed due to revelations brought about by Dr. Bennet OmaluWikipedia's W.svg, among others. The NFL's new value system meat that people like Vontaze BurfictWikipedia's W.svg were no longer to be celebrated for their hard hits to Antonio BrownWikipedia's W.svg as that was now against the religion of the NFL. Instead they were to be vilified for it (even more so because Cincinnati lost the game). Not everyone has come to like this new religious belief system... there are still fans out there that are wishing that the NFL stuck to its religious roots instead of becoming a new wave religion more focused on player safety. But given Junior Seau'sWikipedia's W.svg shooting himself in the chest and on-the-field injuries to people like Ryan ShazierWikipedia's W.svg, it is safe to say that it is here to stay. Some say the NFL has to do even more or its talent pool is going to dry up as more parents come to the emotional conclusion "Playing football is not one of the fundamental ends we want in our child's life."

Another "religious" movement the NFL has had to contend with has been Black Lives Matter and the resulting anthem protests. Spurned on by what many perceive as cases of excessive force and/or negligence by police towards blacks, a multitude of people took to the streets to protest. In the case of the Black Lives Matter movement, what people were seeking to change has been the "emotional foundation of thinking and acting" of police during their encounters with suspects. As the NFL was America's place of worship, it naturally spilled over to that medium as several NFL players joined the cause.[12] The NFL has also had to contend with the Me Too movementWikipedia's W.svg recently in regards to the Washington Redskin's cheerleaders. In the case of those cheerleaders, the issue was a topless photo shoot and being used as dates for male sponsors.[13] In general, the Me Too movement is concerned with the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting in regards to male-female interactions in the society at large.

An example of a "religious" movement unconnected to American football is trying to get people from Africa and India to use condoms. In that case, organizations are trying to alter people's "emotional foundation of thinking and acting" in regards to condom use. As illustrated by these examples, Einstein's definition of religion was much broader than those promoted by most faith based religions.

The inalterable hereditary disposition of the human species[edit]
Did he treat Elsa the same as Mileva?

In his definition of religion, Einstein noted that the “emotional foundation of human thinking and acting” was not entirely dependent upon religion/culture. Rather some of that emotional foundation had to do with our biological predispositions. Consider, for example, someone who is homosexual. Their emotional preference for same-sex relationships is not something that was culturally determined (at least not by any cultural influences that we have a full understanding of).[14] Moreover there is no amount of “religion” that is going to alter the foundational core of the individual’s identity. Some Christian conservatives would disagree with Einstein on this point and argue that people can be forced into being something that they are not.

A more widely accepted form of this logical error is the idea that people should be treated “equally” and not be “discriminated.” Each individual has a unique personality that has been influenced by both genetic and social factors (a.k.a. nature vs. nurture). Let’s suppose that biological factors (such as how signals from nociceptorsWikipedia's W.svg are interpreted by the brain) leads one person to enjoy spanking during sex and another person to hate it and instead prefer something like massage. Is a romantic partner supposed to ignore these differences and treat one’s new sexual partner who enjoys massage equally with their ex who enjoyed spanking? Or should one instead discriminate between the two individuals? If we apply Einstein’s line of reasoning, then one should not ignore the importance of these biological predispositions. This type of reasoning becomes particularly important in regards to gender issues given that sexual differentiationWikipedia's W.svg has led males and females to have distinct psychological characteristics that are determined, in part, by biological factors. Recognizing these inherent differences is important because one cannot achieve Einstein’s individual and communal ideals by taking the human out of humanity.

Establishing ideals for the individual and communal life and mutual human relationship[edit]

Of all the things that Einstein has said, this part of his definition on religion has been the most influential to me as it made me think about what the individual ideal and the communal ideal were, and to think about mutual human relationship. For me, the individual ideal is empowerment and the communal ideal is the greatest empowerment principle.[note 2] As for mutual human relationship, I promote the concepts of justified tolerance and justified intolerance as being the ideal form of morality.

This philosophical perspective is so ingrained in my worldview that it is difficult for me to perceive morality in ways other than striving for the individual and communal ideals and with the establishment of mutual human relationship. In the case of something like divine command theory, I perceive things like biblically-inspired homophobia as going against the individual ideal of the homosexual and the communal ideal of the society. In the case of something like libertarianism, I take issue with the corrupting influence vast amounts of wealth has on the communal ideal. And in the case of something like the cultural promotion of anti-discrimination, I take issue with the idea that people shouldn’t be treated as unique individuals as I feel this goes against the individual ideal and mutual human relationship.

Einstein promoted the individual and communal ideals, and mutual human relationship, as religious goals, but such a position is not contingent on the use of religion in the traditional sense. I, a utilitarian, promote the same goals and utilitarianism is widely recognized as a philosophy. There may be other ways of approaching these ideals, but I cannot speak with any authority about such approaches as I am unaware of any other philosophical system that has considered Einstein as a moral philosopher. What I can say with confidence is that the importance of these ideals should not be overlooked by any ethical or religious system.

Educational influence on tradition through epics and myths apt to influence evaluation and action along the lines of the accepted ideals[edit]

You know the story of the Tortoise and the HareWikipedia's W.svg? Most people do, at least in the west. It is somewhat ridiculous, and it is not nearly as interesting as Zeno’s tortoise and AchillesWikipedia's W.svg, but it does have an important message. Sometimes slow and steady enables you to win the race. According to Einstein, the tortoise and the hare story is religious because it is helping "to influence evaluation and action along the lines of the accepted ideals." In the case of the tortoise and the hare, that ideal is not rushing things.

In order to better understand the importance of epics and myths on a culture’s value system, let's consider the cultural importance of the IliadWikipedia's W.svg and the OdysseyWikipedia's W.svg. If one were to describe the character of the Ancient Greeks, two images immediately come to mind. One is the heroic and warlike character exemplified by the Iliad’s champion AchillesWikipedia's W.svg. The other image is that of the brilliant and conniving character exemplified by the Odyssey’s champion OdysseusWikipedia's W.svg. The imagery of Greek warmongering and genius is not just because of their epics. It is also rooted in their history. The small Greek city-states had no business beating the huge Persian empire, but they did it not once. Not twice. But three different times, Alexander’s conquestWikipedia's W.svg being the coup de gras.[note 3] The bravery of the Greeks at ThermopylaeWikipedia's W.svg and MarathonWikipedia's W.svg is legendary. The Battle of SalamisWikipedia's W.svg and Alexander's conquests were pure military genius. Can one imagine the Greeks completing these feats if they followed the pacifistic beliefs of the MorioriWikipedia's W.svg instead of using the Illiad and the Odyssey as the source of their religion? Obviously one cannot. The Ancient Greek groupies, the Romans, appeared to understand the importance of the Greek epics and described in their Aeneid how they were descended from the Trojans.

Those in the Ancient world had a reason to cherish military might as a cultural value - if you instead cherished pacifism as the Moriori did, then you get slaughtered (which is exactly what happened with the MorioriWikipedia's W.svg). In the modern era, this remains the case as all the superpowers have militaries and most of the other nations do as well. Unless a pacifistic group such as the Quakers is being protected by non-pacifists, the group simply doesn't survive for very long. Internationally, war-readiness may forever remain a part of a nation's value system, but within a stable countries borders, one should ask "What other narratives are necessary to promote the ideals necessary to improve the human condition?" What about something like Thoreau's Civil Disobedience which promotes resistance against objectionable state actions or something like Thomas Paine's Rights of Man? Even though as an atheist I am philosophically opposed to Paine's deism, I have a deep appreciation for the viewpoint he advocated. Anyone interested in Paine's beliefs should read the preamble he wrote for Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.... legislation that led Pennsylvania to become a free state. In my opinion, it is more eloquent than the Gettysburg address.

In the case of the United States and the western democracy in general, it was the “epics and myths” of the Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Paine and James Madison that led to new conceptions about how society ought to operate. This represented a huge leap forward from the divine rightWikipedia's W.svg ought of the medieval period. In order to address the modern challenges we have in our present era, we should follow the example of the enlightenment thinkers and discover new works that can enable us to "influence evaluation and action along the lines of the accepted ideals."

Fundamental ends as powerful traditions[edit]
Einstein becoming a US citizen.

Tradition is closely linked to epics and myths. In the case of James Madison, some of his “epics” became legal documents that the USA is supposedly run by (namely the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights). The US Supreme Court spares no effort in trying to explain how things like reasonable doubt or the political contributions of corporations are “constitutional” when, in fact, the framers of the constitution never addressed those topics. The reason judges do this is because they are appealing to peoples sense of tradition and if they failed to frame it in this way, then their legal opinions would be exposed for what they are … BS.

This concept of tradition is a powerful thing. Lawyers even have a name for it. It is called stare decesis, i.e. using the idiocy of prior idiots to defend your idiocy. In fact, knowledge of this idiocy is why lawyers get paid so much money. It is a great system if you are a lawyer. It is not so great for the people who can’t afford them. In one historically bad case, the people who won their lawsuit ended up losing money. What is even more ridiculous is the fact that many of the people "involved" in the lawsuit didn't even know that they had "hired" lawyers.[15]

In a very real way, politicians and lawyers are the instillers of tradition. Consider, for example, the creation of the FDAWikipedia's W.svg. The original idea behind this institution was that drugs marketed to people would have to be proven safe and effective, a sound tradition designed to benefit everyone. Ideally, all traditions would be like this. But given that the rich own the politicians through campaign contributions and the rich keep lawyers on their payroll to ensure that the law favors them, this doesn’t actually happen. In fact, the rich often use their influence to corrupt the good traditions that are in place. In the case of the FDAWikipedia's W.svg in the United States, this has appeared to have occurred with Boston ScientificWikipedia's W.svg and their gynecological mesh,[16] and with Purdue PharmaWikipedia's W.svg and Oxycontin.[17] Similar examples of corruption appears to have occurred with the FAAWikipedia's W.svg.[18] And the DEAWikipedia's W.svg.[19] And the ATFWikipedia's W.svg.[20] And the SECWikipedia's W.svg.[21]

Perhaps a new set of traditions are necessary to combat the corrupt ones currently in place? It is something that I recommend we do. I feel Vietnam has a good tradition in this regard.[22]

Powerful traditions come into being through revelation through the medium of powerful personalities[edit]

Christians who read this quote from Einstein will probably think he was talking about Jesus, and maybe he was. People who believe in Jesus certainly believe that he was someone who had something important to say about what people ought to do. However, in order to address modern issues, we need to broaden our scope. After all, what did Jesus say we ought to do about global warming again? I must have missed that Sunday School lesson…

People in the modern era have a remarkable tendency to focus their attention on the wrong personalities. Oprah Winfrey is one of the last people you should get medical advice from though they say she is pretty good at recommending books.[23][24] The top two people followed on twitter are Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. And what exactly have they said that is so important? The third on the list is Barack Obama. At least that makes some kind of sense…[25] There is a guy on YouTube who is famous for eating old MREs. PewDiePie made $12 million in 2017 for reviewing video games and DanTDM made 16.5 million for videos about minecraft.[26] And why does anyone care about the Kardashians again? There are so many better people to be paying attention to.

Consider, for example, Dr. Bennet OmaluWikipedia's W.svg, who was instrumental in bringing the issue of CTE to light. Instead of taking Oprah’s medical advice, why not take advice from him?[note 4] Or instead of listening to Jenny McCarthy who Oprah promoted, why not listen to Samuel Berkovic about vaccines? In 2006, he found that 11 of 14 newborns considered to have chronic encephalopathy following pertussis vaccination actually suffered from Dravet’s syndrome. Of course, this did not receive nearly as much news coverage. Why would it? Correct diagnosis would only “reassure the family as to the true cause, remove the blame of having vaccinated the child, direct appropriate treatment, and allow realistic planning for the prognosis.” [27] Heck, if you need a celebrity opinion about vaccines, then why not choose someone smart like Bill Gates? And just in case you are wondering, Bill Gates is not using polio vaccine to sterilize woman. He is using it to eliminate polio.[28] Geeze.

Outside the realm of medicine and following the advice of people like Dr. Bennet Omalu in regards to things like CTE, the issue of “ought” becomes a bit more subjective, but there are still plenty of people we should be paying attention to such as global warming scientists[29] and people who farm seaweed.[30] By the way, I feel more people should be paying attention to whoever is on 60 minutes. Its reporting is superb.

In our digital age, I feel many people have lost sight of what is truly important and have instead focused on the noise. On the other hand, we are more interconnected than ever and if one can somehow harness that interconnectivity, then maybe something good can come from it. But that is not going to happen by following Biebs on twitter unless he starts making songs about Medicare Part D or the Marino bill.[note 5] Following Doug BaldwinWikipedia's W.svg on the other hand...[12]

Not what is[edit]

So I have talked about the NFL, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, the tortoise and the hare, the Homeric epics, the constitution, lawyers and their cherished stare decesis, politicians and the FDA, Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, Bill Gates, Katy Perry, Justin Beiber, PewDiePie, and Doug Baldwin. “But”, you may protest, “I thought you were supposed to be talking about Einstein’s religious beliefs?” Well, I am. Einstein’s definition of religion was not a dogmatic one. Rather it was a prescriptive definition. The way I would define it would be: “Religion, according to Einstein, are the beliefs, ideas, customs, traditions, and procedures necessary for the individual, interpersonal, and societal oughts to be achieved.” This type of definition requires one to take a broader view of “religion” than is traditional. As the NFL, lawyers, politicians, Oprah, and Marcus Baldwin are all addressing the ought, then they are using religion as Einstein has defined it. Religion defined in this way permeates every aspect of life and culture. The actions of the drug-abuser, wife-beater, and school-shooter are influenced by “religion.” The actions of the philanthropist, environmentalist, and the social worker are influenced by it as well. In order to avoid the emotionally loaded term of religion and possible conflicts with “church and state,” I will usually use the term meme to describe these culturally necessary beliefs, ideas, customs, traditions, and procedures. But my ideas are really no different than Einstein’s. We are just using slightly different terminology.

As all-inclusive as this definition was, Einstein made certain to exclude one area. Namely, religion had no business trying to describe “what is”.

It is this mythical, or rather this symbolic, content of the religious traditions which is likely to come into conflict with science. This occurs whenever this religious stock of ideas contains dogmatically fixed statements on subjects which belong in the domain of science. Thus, it is of vital importance for the preservation of true religion that such conflicts be avoided when they arise from subjects which, in fact, are not really essential for the pursuance of the religious aims.[11]
For example, a conflict arises when a religious community insists on the absolute truthfulness of all statements recorded in the Bible. This means an intervention on the part of religion into the sphere of science; this is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo and Darwin belongs... These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors.[10]

As one can see by these quotes, "what is” is the domain of science and what ought is the domain of religion according to Einstein. Thus, by persecuting Galileo, religion was in the wrong because they were venturing out of their domain. A similar argument can be made about determining whether or not Jesus was a historical person. Such a question is on the “What is” side of Hume’s law and thus should be addressed by science, not religion. This is obviously a much different conception of the roles of science and religion than what most people have.

Objectivity of the means[edit]

It is easy to miss as Einstein had an incredible ability to compact a philosophical dissertation into a paragraph or two, but he provided key insights into how he felt science and religion should interact.

Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason.[10]
The interpretation of religion, as here advanced, implies a dependence of science on the religious attitude, a relation which, in our predominantly materialistic age, is only too easily overlooked.[11]

The idea that science can act upon the goals established by religion is something called objectivity of the means. Let us return to our black rhino example to explain this concept.

Let’s say that we have established through “religion” that saving black rhinos in their natural environment is what one ought to do. Given this ought, we can develop methodologies to establish this ought and use observation to evaluate how effective these methodologies are. For example, one methodology employed is transporting black rhinos by helicopter from poaching prone areas to more secure locations. The long-term effectiveness of such a methodology can be determined by examining if any reduction in rhino fatalities occur. That is an example of using science, namely the study of what is, to determine the effectiveness of methodologies used to achieve the ought established by “religion.” If instead our ought is farming rhinos, then we can employ similar objective analyses to determine the effectiveness of such farms. And if our ought is “we don’t care,” then no scientific analysis on this ought is necessary.

This same analysis can be done for other oughts we consider important. Consider, for example, the societal ought that Doug Baldwin has been advocating for. He wants law enforcement to place a “higher emphasis on de-escalation tactics and crisis management measures."[12] Procedures used to achieve that societal ought can be objectively measured. For example, after a certain training protocol in Seattle is put into effect, one can ask “Does this procedural change result in fewer cases where force must be applied?” Another way to evaluate this objective would be to ask questions such as, “Is there a measurable difference in training tactics in place A than in place B that results in place A having less police force incidents than place B? If so, is there a way to apply procedures from place A to place B and see the results? If one does this, does the application of the new procedures result in a reduction of incidences at place B?”

Asking these sorts of questions and analyzing the results is what Einstein meant when he said religion learns from science what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. And he is right. In our predominantly materialistic age, a dependence of science on the religious attitude is only too easily overlooked.

Superpersonal values and religious enlightenment[edit]

This next topic is difficult to discuss as we are going to be discussing alogical beliefs, which means without logic. To consider this type of "reasoning," let's suppose that one has come across an animal who is nudging its offspring killed by predation or disease. Do we assume that we have no way of knowing what this animal feels even though its actions appear to be analogous to ones that we may take if we were in a similar situation? Or what about one's dog? One may think that the dog who wags his tail whenever he sees one come home is happy, but how can one be sure? Animals have no way of communicating his or her feelings to us so how can we really know what they are feeling when things like MRI results are open to interpretation? For that matter, how can we know what another person that is capable of communication with us is feeling? Are words adequate conveyors of feelings? Basically what humans do is make an assumption... an assumption that is most likely accurate, but it is an assumption none-the-less. Humans assume that their limbic systems work in a similar manner to the limbic systems of other creatures and thus they are able to infer from nonverbal cues and other information what an animal or human may be feeling. Its not a perfect system, and some people are better at it than others, but it is an assumption people are forced to make throughout their lives during their interpersonal interactions.

For Einstein, religious enlightenment meant being in tune with this limbic-based inference and being able to use it to derive oughts for the human condition. The way he put it was as follows:

A person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and aspirations to which he clings because of their super-personal value. It seems to me that what is important is the force of this super-personal content and the depth of the conviction concerning its overpowering meaningfulness, regardless of whether any attempt is made to unite this content with a divine Being, for otherwise it would not be possible to count Buddha and Spinoza as religious personalities. Accordingly, a religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance and loftiness of those super-personal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation. They exist with the same necessity and matter-of-factness as he himself. In this sense religion is the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and completely conscious of these values and goals and constantly to strengthen and extend their effect.[10]

For utilitarianism, the super-personal value adhered to is some collective measure of well-being such as happiness or, in my case, empowerment. Is there any way utilitarians can create a "rational foundation" for the super-personal goal of the greatest happiness principle? Not really. We are assuming that what the limbic system considers important is, in fact, important. There is no objective way to justify this position. Rather we must understand that this super-personal goal "(exists) with the same necessity and matter-of-factness as he himself."

Some beliefs, ideas, customs, traditions, and procedures will enable humans to achieve super-personal goals and others will harm this effort. According to Einstein, the aim of religious enlightenment is "to become clearly and completely conscious of these (super-personal) values and goals and constantly to strengthen and extend their effect." We want to promote those memes that enable the super-personal values to be achieved and eliminate those memes that will harm it.

Looking at society from this perspective, Einstein came to the following conclusion:

When considering the actual living conditions of presentday civilized humanity from the standpoint of even the most elementary religious commands, one is bound to experience a feeling of deep and painful disappointment at what one sees. For while religion prescribes brotherly love in the relations among the individuals and groups, the actual spectacle more resembles a battlefield than an orchestra. Everywhere, in economic as well as in political life, the guiding principle is one of ruthless striving for success at the expense of one's fellow men. This competitive spirit prevails even in school and, destroying all feelings of human fraternity and cooperation, conceives of achievement not as derived from the love for productive and thoughtful work, but as springing from personal ambition and fear of rejection.[11]

Looking at modern society through the same perspective, I see the same thing. I strongly suspect that I am not alone in this viewpoint and many feel as disheartened about it as I do.


As you may or may not realize, Einstein was a socialist. One of the reasons he held this position can be seen in the following quote.

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.[31]

In the next line he says, "The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil." Whenever I hear about something like a school shooting, the rise of suicide rates, or the Opioid epidemicWikipedia's W.svg, I am reminded of this quote. I can’t help but think that capitalism has promoted our egotistical drives to such an extent that it has caused the multitude to feel lonely, and some of them to become psychopathic. CEOs in particular. In my opinion, fully appreciating the message Einstein was conveying in this quote is one of the most important goals society ought to have.

Moral Relativism[edit]

Einstein made it abundantly clear that he was opposed to moral relativism.

When we consider the various existing religions as to their essential substance, that is, divested of their myths, they do not seem to me to differ as basically from each other as the proponents of the "relativistic" or conventional theory wish us to believe. And this is by no means surprising. For the moral attitudes of a people that is supported by religion need always aim at preserving and promoting the sanity and vitality of the community and its individuals, since otherwise this community is bound to perish. A people that were to honor falsehood, defamation, fraud, and murder would be unable, indeed, to subsist for very long... I do not think that the so-called "relativistic" viewpoint is correct, not even when dealing with the more subtle moral decisions.[11]

An interesting debate occurred in the New York Times and Slate as to whether or not teaching the “Common Core” in K-12 education was contributing to relativism. Speaking as someone with some experience in education, I feel the greater issue is that teachers are motivated to avoid moral values and other controversial subjects within the classroom. You don’t know what views children’s parents may hold and, if you say the wrong thing, then you can get into trouble with the school board. This is why I believe philosophy is not often taught in American high schools… philosophy is a political minefield. You can get away with teaching “values” if you are at say a private Christian school, but not often in an American public school setting.

I feel that this present state of affairs is unfortunate because it means that the school system is unable to combat cultural relativism beyond some uncontroversial measures such as being against bullying. This leaves society without any organizations committed to reducing the political influence of entities like Purdue Pharma,[17] Cardinal Health, McKesson, AmerisourceBergen,[19] Allegiant Air,[18] and the Westboro Baptist Church. Given this state of affairs, I think it is important that non-relativists and non-psychopaths find some way to become unified and achieve common principles. Politicians speak of doing this all the time, but it rarely happens even when there is a broad consensus on an issue such as with gun control.[32] In the USA, there does appear to be mounting pressure for politicians to respond to popular sentiment in regards to gun control, but nothing has happened at the federal level as of yet. Even if we were able to get politicians to act in the public interest on an issue like guns, repealing something like the provision in Medicare Part D that prevents the US government from negotiating for lower drug prices[33] or the Marino bill that prevents the DEA from enforcing drug control measures[19] is going to be even harder considering how much politicians are corrupted by the pharmaceutical lobby in the USA. The way I view things, only a very broad contingent of atheists and theists committed to achieving the "voting out the politicians whom are beholden to special interests" super-personal value has the potential to change the status quo.


I hope you now understand why I hold Einstein's religious views in such high esteem. I feel that the social problems he foresaw 60 plus years ago have become even more apparent and consequently the need for his solutions all the more pressing. To end this essay, I felt that I would give you one last quote from a man almost universally praised as a genius. This was in response to someone who asked him the meaning of life. I can't think of any better person to ask the question to.

I was impressed by the earnestness of your struggle to find a purpose for the life of the individual and of mankind as a whole. In my opinion there can be no reasonable answer if the question is put this way... Nevertheless we all feel that it is indeed very reasonable and important to ask ourselves how we should try to conduct our lives. The answer is, in my opinion: satisfaction of the desires and needs of all, as far as this can be achieved, and achievement of harmony and beauty in the human relationships. This presupposes a good deal of conscious thought and of self-education. It is undeniable that the enlightened Greeks and the old Oriental sages had achieved a higher level in this all-important field than what is alive in our schools and universities.[34]

See also[edit]

External Links[edit]


  1. Though "life" at conception does lead to some logical absurdities. For example, if a woman has a fertilized egg that fails to implant in her uterus because it was not the right time of the month, then she would be guilty of murder.
  2. However, I will usually stick with utilitarian convention and refer to it as the greatest happiness principle.
  3. The last one was technically a Macedonian victory, but the game Civilization considers Alexander the Great to be a Greek so I guess it counts.
  4. On a side note, I am as shocked as everyone else that Will Smith was not nominated for an Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Dr. Omalu. Not only should he have been nominated, he should have won it.
  5. Which wouldn't be a half-bad idea, particularly if one was a rapper in the case of the Marino bill. It is all about drugs.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Childish superstition: Einstein's letter makes view of religion relatively clear The Guardian May 12 2008
  2. Einstein's Comments on a Personal God
  3. Einstein's Interview with Peter A. Bucky
  4. Einstein's Short Comments on God
  5. Einstein's Comments on the Soul
  6. Einstein's Comments on a Prayer
  7. Einstein's Comments on Atheism
  8. Einstein's Comments on Spinoza
  9. Philip Stamp (2014) "Einstein: Philosophical Ideas."
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 Einstein's Ideas and Opinions, pp.41 - 49
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 The Christian Register, June, 1948
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin asks for state attorneys general to review police training policies by Bob Condotta The Seattle Times September 22, 2016
  13. Washington Redskins Cheerleaders Describe Topless Photo Shoot and Uneasy Night Out by Juliet Macur New York Times 05/02/2018
  14. Homosexuality: Nature or Nurture by Ryan D. Johnson, April 30, 2003
  15. Math of a Class-Action Suit: 'Winning' $2.19 Costs $91.33 by Barry Meier New York Times 1995
  16. Gynecological mesh: The medical device that has 100,000 women suing by Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes May 13, 2018
  17. 17.0 17.1 You Want a Description of Hell?’ Oxycontin’S 12-hour Problem by Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion and Scott Glover LA Times May 5, 2016
  18. 18.0 18.1 Allegiant Air: The budget airline flying under the radar by Steve Croft on 60 Minutes Apr 15, 2018
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Ex-DEA agent: Opioid crisis fueled by drug industry and Congress by Bill Whitaker on 60 Minutes Jun 17 2018
  20. Inside the Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns by Jeanne Marie Laskas GQ August 30, 2016
  21. Is the SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes? by Matt Taibbi Rolling Stone
  22. Vietnam’s punishment for corrupt bankers: Death by Terrence McCoy Washington Post April 4, 2014
  23. Why Health Advice On 'Oprah' Could Make You Sick by Weston Kosova Newsweek 5/29/09
  24. The Oprah-fication of medicine by David Gorski on June 1, 2009
  26. Meet The YouTube Millionaires: These are the 10 highest-paid YouTube stars of 2017 by John Lynch Business Insider Dec. 8, 2017
  27. “What Else Could It Be?” When Neurologic Disorders Follow Immunization Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development by David W. Scheifele, MD April 2013
  28. Bill Gates, polio vaccines and sterilisation myths? Why do they persist? by Emma Batha Thomson Reuters Foundation, Mon, 11 Feb 2013
  29. Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Melting Way Faster Than Expected, Scientists Warn by Dominique Mosbergen Huffington Post 06/14/2018
  30. Seaweed farming and its surprising benefits by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes Apr 29, 2018
  31. Why Socialism? by Albert Einstein Monthly Review May 1949
  32. NPR Poll: After Parkland, Number of Americans Who Want Gun Restrictions Grows by Asma Khalid NPR March 2, 2018
  33. Under The Influence by Michelle Singer on 60 Minutes March 29, 2007
  34. The meaning of life from a letter written by Einstein in response to a 19-year-old Rutger's University student