Become a deep thinker, offer a little sage advice, and you have a sure fire formula for being misunderstood. If you look at Einstein’s comments on religion as an example, the mischaracterizations never seem to end.
A popular belief is that Einstein was a religious man. He certainly used the word religion enough, but if one studies the context in which he writes on religion, it becomes evident he is not speaking of centralized religion, and certainly not monotheistic religion. Einstein is talking about ethics, which he loosely equated with religion because it was common to do so in his time. Still, he was referring to general human spirituality, which in his day was represented by religion.
One of Einstein’s most oft-quoted phrases (“Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”) speaks of the shortcomings of science without religion, and the blindness of religion without science. Einstein applied the scientific method as his preferred avenue to material knowledge, but he did not consider it useful in determining right from wrong. He generally referred to the practice of thinking about life and applying oneself to an inclusive ethical system, whether it came from a secular philosopher or the Bible, as “religion.” Atheists and non-theists, to him, could therefore be religious.
At the same time, Einstein embraced reason, not revelation. Existence itself was God to him. He was awed by God’s order as it appeared before his reason, not before blind belief or faith. Like the 17th century Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, the Bible to Einstein was cultural literature, not the dogmatic word of God.
Einstein had no use for the concept of a personal God, either. Like Spinoza, he too was a pantheist. In fact, he believed it the duty of priests to reject the monotheistic God that fostered exclusiveness and that was separate from humanity and the world. Einstein strongly felt that priests would fail their calling as teachers of morality unless they rejected a personal God.
In speaking of his own Jewish religion, Einstein had little tolerance for the concept of a Chosen People. He considered it the immature divinization of a clan, just as nationalism was to him a psychological disease befitting a childish humanity.
If there was a high religious, meaning ethical, imperative to Einstein, it was to establish a multinational organization whose unifying purpose was to prevent war. A staunch pacifist who considered Gandhi an exemplary spiritual leader, Einstein’s greatest fear was the near destruction of the human race through nuclear weapons.
But Einstein’s “religion” of self-expansion and selfless service to humanity, combined with freedom from narrow religious and nationalistic identities and the resulting unity of the human race, is not one that many find a comfortable fit. Liberation from the narrow sense of self, which Einstein believed was the true measure of a human being, is not a religion most people aspire toward. It is easier to be divisive and exclusive because being so easily justifies selfish materialistic ambitions.
The challenge is that if Einstein is right, then his sense of religion is our best and only hope; and we’re finding that he’s increasingly right each day, even when we thought he was wrong. Will the leaders of nations, churches, and corporations heed his warning?
Einstein’s faith in science as the way to understand how the world works, and lack of faith in science as the way to understand right from wrong, points out a crucial distinction that clears the dust kicked up by our current cultural war. When a religious concept does not engage the questions of ethics, it has no place in religious discourse because all religious engagement must eventually, in some way, inform the distinction between right and wrong. Religion has no place in discussing material science, and when it does, it perverts the quest for sound ethics, usually transforming it into a political tool to incite divisiveness and promote wrongdoing and ignorance. This can be no clearer than in the issue of teaching Intelligent Design as an alternative to the theory of evolution.
We’ve probably all heard some of the past religious beliefs, posing as scientific theories, concerning what the world rests on. There’s Atlas’ shoulder, begging the question, “What’s Atlas standing on?” Then there’s the comforting children’s song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” And there’s the turtle theory: The world is sitting on the back of a turtle, and it’s turtles all the way down – but down to what?
The human mind can’t fathom the noumenon; it can only handle the world of phenomenon. The mind is limited by space, time, and causation; therefore, eternities, infinitudes, and first causes are not in its purview. Hence, these concepts are not in the purview of science either. At the same time, the concept religious leaders repeatedly miss is that these issues can only enter a theological discussion when they pertain to an ethical imperative, and more specifically, one that reveals the unity of humanity and inspires selfless service and the obliteration of the narrow sense of identity. Creating gods, make-believe first causes, and infinities is only legitimate when the resulting myth psychologically engenders a sense of self in the seeker that is above divisiveness.
Intelligent Design has as little to do with science as the ancient Hindu “Cosmic Egg” creation story. The mind will always look for the chicken that laid the egg, and there is no chicken. There’s just the egg. One can marvel at the “grandeur of reason incarnate in existence,” to quote Einstein, but the mind can’t say a peep about the absolute nature of the Reasoner behind it all, even if there is one. If scientists happen to be inspired by one or another ancient myth, or by the wonder of the order and intelligence in the universe during their research hours, that’s great. But that is as far as science and the mind can go.
Intelligent Design is a failure as a scientific theory for these reasons, and as it expected, its source myth engenders a narrow self and unethical behavior. No wonder it has translated in real terms into a shoddy political attempt to dumb down an entire nation; and attempts at promoting it have led to disingenuous behavior, mendacity, and generally immoral political practices.
We might very well become the laughing stock of the world if we did something as scientifically suicidal as give “both sides,” as President Bush, who never worked a day in his life as a scientist, urges. There are no “both sides” to this issue at all. There may be many minor sides in the scientific community when it comes to the details of evolution, but the case is closed, and Intelligent Design, along with Genesis, Creationism, the virgin birth, the Cosmic Egg, Zeus on Olympus, and Ptah and Osiris, belongs in the humanities department of schools under the heading, “Some strange and interesting things human beings once believed, or still believe.”
The religious right hated that abortion was made nationally legal by the judiciary and not the legislative branch of government, which means by a select few. The religious right probably feels the same way about the few elite scientists that keep creationism out of science courses. But extreme religionists have it backwards, both intellectually and ethically, and this is the likely reason science bothers them so much. They are in the minority, and it is they, more than anyone, who consider themselves the elite, the saviors, and the chosen – by (their) God.
Only someone with a savior complex would be attracted to the worship of an image of God that is the only true savior of the world, relegating the rest of humanity to ignorance and suffering for being to spiritually dense to get the “good news.” Only those so cocksure of themselves would ever think to push Intelligent Design into science classes and evolution out by political means, demeaning science as the work of peons who don’t spiritually know any better, but who had better forget evolution and get busy with real science – such as making fun new gadgets they can buy at the real center of our materialistic lives, Wal-Mart – America’s true church.
Scientists like Einstein know that such cocksurety is the kiss of death to the scientific method because it limits the questions one is willing and able to ask, let alone research to find answers. But no surprise there. When’s the last time anyone heard of a scientific breakthrough occurring through Bible study or Mass? Indeed, it is revelation that prevented scientific investigation and understanding. Since religion has been with us for centuries, it’s natural that many scientists, like Einstein, will have been raised to believe, or at least be accustomed, to religious doctrines and verbiage. But even when they gave credit to God or faith, behind that humility is years and years of the real fire of penance – research.