Einstein: Science Alone Won’t Transform Society

(This article is taken from a longer essay, Does God Exist? Does It Matter?, which can be found at my personal website here.)

Albert Einstein was one of if not the most prominent scientists of the 20th century. But in addition to his scientific accomplishments, he was also a prolific writer on many issues. One of them was the relationship between science and religion.

This is an important issue for those of us in the world-changing business. Historically, some on the political Left have taken the position that religion and spirituality are of little or no value to the process of transforming society, that scientific processes, in not just industry and technology but also in politics and social transformation, are THE way revolutionary change happens. From my experience, professed atheism has more adherents percentage-wise among leftists than among the population as a whole.

Einstein was actually a socialist, but as far as I know he was never active in movements for social change. But his views on science and religion have definite relevance.

For example, Einstein believed that serious scientists inevitably must come to believe in a mysterious, unknown, higher power in the universe. He wrote, “everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.”  (Einstein and Religion, by Max Jammer, p. 144)

This is not how the late, prominent scientist Steven Hawking saw the issue. As reported in the Washington Post on March 14, 2018, he said during an interview with El Mundo in 2014: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”

Einstein was not an atheist. As quoted above, he saw a direct connection between serious science and belief in a higher power. In one of his most famous quotes on religion, this is how he put it:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”   (Einstein’s God: A Way of Being Spiritual Without the Supernatural, by Todd Macalister, p, 11)

These beliefs probably played a role in Einstein’s apparent appreciation of Indigenous cultures. In 1948 he wrote an essay, “Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?,” in the context of which he was very critical of the hypocrisy of organized religion “prescribing brotherly love” but, instead, “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. . .’

“To show that this deplorable situation is not a necessity of nature Einstein referred to certain so-called primitive cultures, like that of the Pueblo Indians of Arizona or New Mexico, who lived under the hardest living conditions and still, ‘accomplished the difficult task of delivering its people from the scourge of competitive spirit and of fostering in it a temperate, cooperative conduct of life, free of external pressure and without any curtailment of happiness.’”  (Jammer, pps. 116-117)

Einstein did not see science as able to do what religion tries to do, teach an ethical and moral approach to daily life. In a 1930 interview in Berlin, he said, “’You cannot speak of the scientific foundations of morality.’ For science, Einstein continued, cannot teach men to be moral and ‘every attempt to reduce ethics to scientific formulae must fail.’”  (Jammer, p. 69)

21 years later, in 1951, he wrote, “A positive aspiration and effort for an ethical-moral configuration of our common life is of overriding importance. Here no science can save us. I believe, indeed, that over-emphasis on the purely intellectual attitude, often directed solely to the practical and factual, has led directly to the impairment of ethical value. . . What we call science has the sole purpose of determining what is. The determining of what ought to be is unrelated to it and cannot be accomplished methodically. The determination of ethical aims is beyond its scope.” (Jammer, p. 119-120)

For Einstein, religion at its best is about those things, “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.” (Jammer, p. 115)

As a mass progressive and independent movement rises in the US, with Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren and their Presidential campaigns catching hold and growing, progressives would do well to meditate seriously on these views of Einstein and what they should mean for each of us as we live our lives day by day.

Ted Glick has been a progressive organizer, activist and writer since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at https://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jtglick.