If someone asked you to name the most famous scientist you can think of, I’d bet that nine times out of ten you’ll pick Albert Einstein. If science was an Olympic sport, he’s the GOAT. The German physicist, born in 1879, shot to prominence in the early 20th century with his theories of general and special relativity and his groundbreaking work on the photoelectric effect, paving the way for the development of quantum mechanics.
Less famous than e=mc2 and yet still widely quoted is Einstein’s writing on science and religion. If you’ve ever come across the saying ‘God does not play dice’ or heard someone use the quote ‘science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind’, you’re at least a little familiar with Einstein’s philosophical views. Both committed believers and the most fervent atheists have at different times sought to back up their position by referencing the great physicist.
But what did Einstein really believe about God and His relation to science? And what (if anything) can Christians learn from him?
Any believer studying or working in the sciences must surely feel their heart lift at least a little when reading the following extract from one of Einstein’s letters:
‘Does there truly exist an insuperable contradiction between religion and science? Can religion be superseded by science? The answers to these questions have, for centuries, given rise to considerable dispute and, indeed, bitter fighting. Yet, in my own mind there can be no doubt that in both cases a dispassionate consideration can only lead to a negative answer.’1
Einstein is clear in his writing on the topic that he sees no inherent conflict between religion and science. In fact, he sees them as complementary, and each in different ways dependent on the other. Religion, he writes, needs science as a practical means of doing good works in the world. Science, which can tell us what is but not what ought to be, needs religious beliefs and values to direct how we use it, as well as inspire the human yearning to understand and explore the universe in which we find ourselves.
'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 capabIe, 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.'2
In a society still influenced by the legacy of New Atheism, it’s refreshing to hear a scientist acknowledging that there are important questions out there that science cannot answer. Einstein puts forward a compelling case for why science and theology, or science and personal faith, need to interact and inform one another. Our reasons for doing science cannot come from within science itself: we need a higher goal to direct and motivate scientific endeavour. Awe at the beauty God has woven into his world; a longing to know Him and his creation better; a desire to serve others as Jesus has served us: these are the motivations that should drive Christians towards scientific professions.
A religion lacking substance
Unfortunately, Einstein’s apparent strong start on the complementarity of science and religion comes to an abrupt end when we get to his definition of religion. Despite demonstrating a clear regard for Christianity, the dimension of Christian faith that Einstein seems to admire is less about God, and more about human morality:
‘The highest principles for our aspirations and judgments are given to us in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition. It is a very high goal which, with our weak powers, we can reach only very inadequately, but which gives a sure foundation to our aspirations and valuations. If one were to take that goal out of its religious form and look merely at its purely human side, one might state it perhaps thus: free and responsible development of the individual, so that he may place his powers freely and gladly in the service of all mankind.’2
Notice how Einstein seeks to strip back the ‘religiousness’ of religion to focus on the ‘purely human side’ of Christian tradition. While the general principle of trying to be a good person has merit for Einstein, he takes issue with the very heart of the faith he supposedly admires: a personal God who acts in the world. For Einstein, the idea of a God who actually intervenes in human affairs contradicts the obvious laws of cause and effect we see in operation around us. Later, he goes as far as to state that ‘the main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God’.3
The religion that Einstein sees as so compatible with science is one devoid of God as Christians understand Him: personal, relational, immanent, good. Rather, he sees the focus of religion as ‘cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself’3. Salvation in this religion is not God’s project, but a decidedly human undertaking.
It’s obvious that this kind of religion will fit very neatly with science, isn’t it? Einstein’s religion is a moral system stripped of all claims to outward truth; which will give us guidance on what ‘ought to be’ but wouldn’t dare presume to tell us anything about what ‘is’. For Einstein, science gives us facts; religion gives us values. The two don’t conflict, but neither do they intersect. (Those who’ve read a little bit in the field of science and religion will probably be reminded of Stephen Jay Gould’s model of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’). Take Christ out of Christianity, and you end up with something pretty inoffensive which will sit neatly with any philosophy you please. It’s convenient – but it’s got no power to save.
I wonder whether we’re sometimes tempted to fall into that same trap. In our well-intentioned desire to show the harmony between science and our Christian faith, do we ever run the risk of pushing the living God into the background, reducing our faith to a set of moral values that doesn’t make any claims to objective truth? If we insist that God in no way contradicts or contravenes science, are we limiting God to being less powerful than laws that he himself created?
The fact is, both science and Christianity make claims to objective truth. If Jesus’ death and resurrection aren’t historical fact but just an inspirational myth, our faith is futile. And because science and theology are both attempting to describe actual, objective reality, there’s inevitably a bit of friction.
Take miracles, for example. Water turning into wine does contradict the usual scientific laws. There’s friction there between what science says is possible and what faith says is possible. Of course that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen – we know that if there’s an omnipotent God he’s perfectly free to work using the regular laws of nature most of the time, and make exceptions to them occasionally to show us something (that’s kind of the point of a miracle, right?).
So maybe we need to be a little more comfortable with friction. If science and theology sometimes chafe with each other a little around the edges, let them. It’s a sign that our faith is one that deals with the real world, that cares about how things objectively are and can offer us a concrete hope for the future. Einstein suggests that the Judeo-Christian personal God is simply a man-made deity created in our own image. When asking which is the man-made religion, I’d be far more suspicious of a belief system that makes no real demands of us, has no bearing on the physical stuff of reality and seems to fit with science just a bit too neatly.
Two maps to truth
Fortunately, all is not lost for those of us seeking to integrate our science and our faith into one coherent story. A bit of friction around the edges is not the same as a deep incompatibility. I like the phrasing used by philosopher Alvin Plantinga: between science and theism there is ‘superficial conflict but deep concord’4.
As one example, in his writing on religion and science Einstein often mentions his wonder at the rationality of the universe. In one oft-quoted line he says: ‘the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible’. Of course, the existence of a personal God makes sense of this: the rationality built into the universe comes directly from the rational mind of its Creator. The existence of the kind of God that he denies is precisely the thing that explains Einstein’s observations of the world.
What then might we suggest as a better way of thinking and talking about the relationship between science and theology, that shows their concord and also allows them to interact in the realm of objective reality?
Scientist and theologian Alister McGrath advocates for seeing theology and science as two complementary maps of reality. I like to think of this a bit like the atlases we used to use in high school geography lessons. A chapter on Asia might show a sequence of maps of the same area, each highlighting different features: one showing political boundaries, another revealing the underlying geology, another depicting population density. The maps would look quite different at first glance – it may even be quite tricky to see how they fit together - yet they all tell us something true about the complex geography of Asia.
We might think of theology and science in the same way. The complexity of our world means that we can only get a full picture of reality when we look at it using multiple different angles or maps. Theology and science offer us truth about two different levels of reality: both can simultaneously be true, and neither one negates the other. We can interact with each on its own terms, knowing that both describe the same reality. Both are anchored in real truth about how the world is, not merely human pontification. Together they offer a fuller, richer, more satisfying picture.
Sure, there will be a bit of quibbling about exactly how the two maps align. That’s to be expected – doubtless there is some human error in both our theology and our science (and given the numerous different theological positions within orthodoxy and multitudes of competing scientific theories, we can’t all be right!) But the fault is decidedly with the mapmakers and not with the terrain. God’s reality cannot contradict itself, but we’re more than capable of describing it in terms that seem mutually incompatible.
So Einstein was right on one thing: there is no insuperable contradiction between religion and science. But it doesn’t require us to rip God out of religion for that to be the case. Armed with our two maps, we’re free to explore the rich landscape of reality on multiple levels – scientific, spiritual and everything in between. And along the way, I might be a little more careful about how I quote Albert Einstein.
1 Religion and Science: Irreconcilable? A response to a greeting sent by the Liberal Ministers' Club of New York City. Published in The Christian Register, June, 1948.
2 From an address at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 19, 1939
3 From Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium, published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941
All available at https://sacred-texts.com/aor/einstein/einsci.htm
4 Where The Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga
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