The Coyne wars reach Einstein

March 27, 2014

Q: What do “>Ross Douthat and A:  Let’s see. The first is the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, the second is a New York Times based columnist who writes frequently about religion, and the third was the pre-eminent physicist of the twentieth century, responsible for teaching us how light can bend, time can slow, and mass and energy can convert into each other.

Oh, I know. In recent months, “>“Chief Rabbi: atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians.” In it, Rabbi Sacks railed against two forces he saw as detrimental to an enduring, moral society: first, the idolatry of “the market, the liberal democratic state and consumer society,” aided and abetted by tone deaf, humorless secularists, the “new atheists,” and, second, a religious fundamentalism which combines into a toxic brew “the hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights.”

Douthat’s article “>“Rabbi Sacks is an ignorant fool,” and it was downhill from there. Douthat, by comparison, got off lightly, merely accused of being “>Einstein’s Famous Quote About Science and Religion Didn’t Mean What You Were Taught”? Einstein was not a professional theologian. His Nobel Prize was not earned for his expressed views on religion, the Bible or God.  And Einstein died almost 59 years ago, on April 18, 1955.

It is certainly not because Einstein worshipped the old sky-god. He surely did not. As Coyne recognized, Einstein once wrote that the word God was for him “nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness . . . .”

Coyne could have gone further and referenced other statements by Einstein to the same effect. Einstein was both clear and consistent in disclaiming “a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”  (See Jammer, Einstein and Religion (Princeton 1999), at 49.) He said that he could not “conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.” (See Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster 2007), at 387.)  Einstein thought such beliefs were anthropomorphic and superstitious.   

But Einstein did not restrict his view of religion to the worship of the straw man caricature of the father figure with anger management issues that Coyne loves to attack and dismantle. Instead, Einstein saw a “universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws,” and was willing to concede that we “only dimly understand these laws.” (See Isaacson, at 386.) That reality led him to a kind of religiosity, because after all of the effort to discover the secrets of nature, “behind all of the discernible concatenations,” for Einstein there remained “something subtle, intangible and inexplicable.” His religion was “(v)eneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend.” “To that extent,” he admitted, “I am, in point of fact, religious.” (See Jammer, at 39-40.)

In a 1930 essay “What I believe,” sometimes called his “Credo,” Einstein confirmed that this religiosity was for him not just another thought experiment, another exercise in reason. Einstein said that the “most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion . . . . Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. . . . A knowledge of existence of something we cannot penetrate, . . . it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.” (See Id. at 73.)

Apparently, Einstein’s sympathetic stance toward a cosmic religion was just too much for Coyne to bear. So Coyne’s focuses his essay on Einstein’s famous dictum “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”  Coyne implies that this statement was first made by Einstein in an essay titled “Science and religion” and published in 1954. However, as the late Professor of physics and the history of science “>hyperlink indicates that the address was published a year later, in 1941.

Misleading citation aside, Coyne’s aim is to show that Einstein’s dictum “should give no solace to the faithful.” To make his case, Coyne argues that Einstein made a series of mistakes in “Science and religion.”

Coyne begins by suggesting that Einstein anticipated “>here.)

Coyne argues that Einstein is misguided (and Gould, too) because religion is “surely not the only source, or even a good source, of how to behave or find meaning in our lives.” But here, and aside from his obvious and unsupported bias, Coyne is not even using the term religion in the same broad sense that Einstein seems to be, “as the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and complete conscious of (certain superpersonal) values and goals . . . .” (See “>Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan observed that “Religion conceived in terms of supernatural origin is the astrology and alchemy stage of religion. The religion which is about to emerge is the astronomy and chemistry stage.” (See Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (JPS 2010), at 399.) Were he still with us, perhaps Kaplan would have helped us move to the quantum and cosmic stage. In any event, as Conservative “>recently confirmed:  “Long gone are the days that any Reform, Conservative or even Orthodox Jew subscribes to a pre-modern or fundamentalist view of God. Very few Jewish clergy insist on a literal understanding of the text with talking snakes, a world in which evil comes as punishment for sin, and a God who elects one group of humanity over another.” 

Coyne seems genuinely distressed by what he views as an improper conflation of curiosity and religion. “Why couldn’t he [Einstein]simply say that some people are insatiably curious to find out stuff?” asks Coyne, almost plaintively. It’s an interesting question, but not a deeply substantive one. Coyne is apparently limited to speaking in prose, but Einstein often spoke in poetry. That approach is not without precedent in the Jewish tradition.  Maybe Coyne should read some Psalms and a bit of Abraham Joshua Heschel, too.

Coyne also questions whether Einstein was a pantheist. Had Coyne gone beyond his hyperlink, he might have learned more about Spinoza’s affinity toward “>here.) Regardless of how that issue is resolved, one would have thought that Einstein’s Spinozan attitudes would have caused Coyne to be a bit more charitable. After all, Richard Dawkins, Coyne’s fellow militant atheist in arms, conceded that the God he was attacking in The God Delusion (Mariner Books 2008) was not the God of Einstein (or of other enlightened scientists). (At 41.)

Coyne’s final quibble with Einstein is what he calls Einstein’s statement that “the value of reason in understanding the world is a form of ‘profound faith’.” Actually, what Einstein said was that science could only be created by persons who were “imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding,” which Einstein thought sprung from “the sphere of religion,” and who also “had faith in the possibility that regulations valid for the world of existence are rational . . . .” (See “>www.judaismandscience.com.

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