Albert Einstein was certainly one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. Dr. Einstein is responsible for some of the biggest innovations in modern physics. But did you know, Einstein also had some interesting things to say about God and religion.
The Nature of God
One interesting thing Einstein said about God was that he believed in God. Of course, Einstein vehemently denied belief in the Church God, which is God as angry, Aryan patriarch, flying around and beating bad people up. To be perfectly blunt, Einstein thought that Church God was primitive and childish rubbish.
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of [primitive and childish legends]. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. Einstein, letter to Gutkind, 1954
Nevertheless, despite his rejection of church god, Einstein did believe in a higher intelligence. Einstein called this higher intelligence the “old one” and said that apprehension of it sparked a “rapturous amazement” and wonder so powerful, it left one feeling small and utterly insignificant as a result. As Einstein said:
His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. Einstein, The World as I See It
Three Stages of Religion
Certainly, the fact that Einstein believed in God is very interesting. Something else interesting that Einstein said about God and religion was that human religion went through three stages.
According to Einstein, stage one religion (1930) was tribal. For Einstein, tribal religion was religion based on lack of control and fear of the natural world. In this first stage, humans used magic, ritual, and sacrifice to gain control over powerful and often destructive natural forces.
With primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions — fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death…One’s object now it to secure the favour of these beings … to … propitiate them or make them well disposed towards a mortal. Einstein, Religion and Science
Unlike stage one religion which was based on humans relationship with an uncontrollable natural world, for Einstein, stage two religion was based on humanity’s relationship to civilization. In stage two religion, humans reacted to the pain and angst of living in a “modern” civilization, by creating a father or mother god who could protect them, nurture them, and provide them with psychological and emotional support.
The desire for guidance, love, and support prompts … the social or moral conception of God. This is the God of Providence who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes, the God who… cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race… the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing, who preserves the souls of the dead. This is the social or moral conception of God. Einstein, Religion and Science
According to Einstein, stage one religion was based on humanity’s relationship to the natural world while stage two religion was based on humanity’s relationship to civilization. In a similar vein, stage three religion was also based on a relationship, but this time it was a relationship to the cosmos and creation fuelled not by fear or existential angst, but by authentic spiritual experience. In this stage, people and societies put fear, superstition, and anthropomorphic projections behind them and embraced spiritual experience. Once people embraced spiritual experience, Einstein said they would develop cosmic religious feelings.
But there is a third state of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form, and which I will call cosmic religious feeling. Einstein, Albert. The World as I See It
For obvious reasons, Einstein felt that this third stage of religious feeling was the “highest kind.” In this stage, the “religious geniuses of all ages” put fear, superstition, and anthropomorphic projections behind them and instead understood and experienced the universe as a rapturous and amazing “single significant whole.”
The Importance of Third-Stage Religion
Perhaps the most interesting thing that Einstein said about religion and God was that the third stage of religion was very important, for at least two reasons.
One the one hand, he thought that the “cosmic religious feelings” that developed in the third stage were strong inducements to science.
“Cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest incitement to scientific research.” Einstein The World as I see it.
On the other hand, he thought that an advanced third stage of human religion based on a relationship with the creation, and religious experience, could, if it was properly purified and purged, cure all our social ills, and even help save the planet. As he says:
If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions, especially those of the priests, one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity. Einstein, The World as I see it
It is important not to under-emphasize this last statement. Einstein thought that third-stage religion could save the planet. I don’t think he was particularly hopeful about getting this message through to people, as his words below indicate; but, he was pretty clear about the potential of third-stage religion. It was only a human spirituality based on religious experience (what I would all Authentic Spirituality), a human spirituality that created and fostered Cosmic Consciousness, that would save humanity from the descending spiral it is on.
Of course, no one wants to listen to me, yet as sure as I’m sitting here we will be destroyed unless we create a cosmic conscience. And we have to begin to do that on an individual level, with the youth that are the politicians of tomorrow. Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet
And so, there you have it. God as a vast cosmic intelligence, three stages of religion, two which were primitive and childish, and a third stage that could, if we would encourage it and let it, ultimately save the planet. Whatever side of the fence you are on issues of God and religion, I’m sure you’ll agree, these are three very interesting things that Einstein said about God and religion.
Einstein, Albert. 1930. “Religion and Science.” New York Times, November 9.
— — — . 2000. Out of My Later Years. Citadel Press.
— — — . 2018. The World as I See It. Kindle. Samaira Book Publishers.
Hermanns, William. 1983. Einstein and the Poet. Boston: Branden Books.
Mike Sosteric is a sociologist and author of Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy and Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Authentic Spirituality. Find him on twitter @MikeSosteric and, for the more academic stuff, at academia.edu