What is cosmic religion

Einstein's religion

Editorial by Markus Mühling

Examples of the mutual influence of religious and scientific content

Albert Einstein (1879–1955) changed the world with his special and general theory of relativity. It is also known that he saw himself as a religious person. And Einstein - like no other scientist - also became a kind of star of the popular culture of the 20th century, even during his lifetime. In view of this situation, it is not easy to judge how science and religion have mutually enriched each other in Einstein's work. Prejudices still prevailed here at the end of the 20th century ...

It is therefore not surprising that there was a prejudice regarding this relationship until the end of the 20th century. It was believed that Einstein was a Spinozist and that Baruch de Spinoza's († 1677) pantheistic understanding of reality led Einstein's scientific work (1). This view was supported by statements by Einstein, who report that Spinoza was highly respected, by Einstein's poems on Spinoza, and by statements from friends of his youth that between 1903-1905, among others, Spinoza had been read. Nevertheless, this is a prejudice that could only arise because Einstein's utterances were timelessly received without paying attention to when they were made.
Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity (SRT) dates from 1905; His work on the light quantum hypothesis, which later earned him the Nobel Prize, comes from the same year. The General Theory of Relativity (ART) was also completed by 1917 at the latest. Einstein's well-known skepticism towards the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, which Einstein compared to Max Born († 1970) with perhaps the best-known, not quite literal Einstein dictum, "The old man doesn't throw the dice" (2), expressed, is based on Einstein's insights from 1909, although this quote neither goes to the heart of his scientific criticism nor is directly related to his religious beliefs. From the time after 1917 until his death, Einstein was primarily concerned with a general field theory, which he viewed as an extension and completion of the GTR - a work that was no longer successful. All of this work was not influenced by Spinoza. Because Einstein wrote in a letter to his second wife from 1915 or 1917: “Here [Heilbronn] I read through almost all of Spinoza's ethics, many of them with great admiration. Kraft was very right to draw my attention to this profound work. I think it will have a lasting effect on me. "(3) This letter clearly documents a first acquaintance with Spinoza's work. The memories of the childhood friend, however, come from the time after Einstein's death. It can be assumed that he backdated his later intensive discussions with Einstein about Spinoza - falsely remembering (4). All of Einstein's statements that reveal his acquaintance with Spinoza date from the time after this letter. Since Einstein's scientific achievements were essentially complete at that time, they cannot be influenced by Spinoza.

Nevertheless, Einstein's scientific work is inconceivable without his religious convictions - and vice versa. In order to be able to see this, the 5 most important substantive characteristics of his religious understanding of reality should be named.

1. The world is evident to human reason

"I can well understand your aversion to the use of the word 'religion' [...]. I have no better expression than the expression 'religious' for this trust in the rational and at least somewhat accessible nature of reality to human reason. Where this feeling missing, science degenerates into mindless empiricism. I give a devil if the priests capitalize on it. (5)
Einstein's view of the principle that the world is open to human knowledge has accompanied Einstein since his youth. He found them many times in the "Natural Science Folk Books" by the Jewish journalist Aaron Bernstein († 1884), which Einstein devoured as a teenager. This insight accompanied Einstein throughout his life; he finds this insight immediately confirmed in his scientific work.

2. The medium of manifestation is religious genius

“The religious geniuses of all times were distinguished by this cosmic religiosity, which knows no dogmas and knows no God who is thought in the image of man. [...] What a deep belief in the reason of the course of the world and what yearning for the understanding [[if only]] of a reflection of the reason revealed in this world must have been alive in Kepler and Newton [...]. Only those who have devoted their lives to similar goals have a vivid idea of ​​what has inspired these people and what has given them their strength [...] to remain true to the goal. "(6)
It may come as a surprise to find Johannes Kepler († 1630) and Isaac Newton († 1726) named as religious geniuses. And in the end, Einstein counts himself among these religious geniuses. Einstein's understanding of reality actually solidifies the conviction that the world is not accessible to everyone, but only to genius. This is characterized by willingness to sacrifice one's personal life for the cause of science. Einstein became acquainted with the idea of ​​genius in 1903 through reading Schopenhauer († 1860), which had a lasting effect on him. The idea of ​​genius did not appear in Einstein's utterances immediately after 1903; this only happens in the 1910s. It took Einstein's scientific successes, his decades of insistence on the same approach of his research interests and the experience of the failure of his personal life to be able to incorporate this element into his religious convictions.

3. The will of man is unfree

"I don't believe in freedom of will. Schopenhauer's word: Man can do what he wants, but he can't want what he wants - accompanies me in all situations and reconciles me with people's actions, even if they do are really painful for me. This realization of the lack of freedom of the will protects me from taking myself and my fellow human beings too seriously as acting and judging individuals and from losing my good sense of humor. " (7)

Closely connected with the idea of ​​genius is the idea of ​​man's lack of will. Einstein also found it pronounced in Schopenhauer. This thought, too, is not immediately incorporated into Einstein's religious convictions, but appears roughly at the same time as the thought of genius. Both support each other: Because a person's will is fundamentally unfree and determined, he cannot dispose of manifestation. No act of will enables one to become a corresponding genius.

4. Everything that exists must be clearly localized in space and time.

"It also appears essential for this classification of the things introduced in physics that at a certain time these things claim [[one from each other]] to exist independently, insofar as these things' lie in different parts of space". Without the assumption of such an independence of the existence (of 'being like that') of spatially distant things from one another [...], physical thinking in the sense we are familiar with would not be possible. "(8)

Here Einstein expresses the idea of ​​so-called spatiotemporal individuation. It was primarily this idea that led him to criticize the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory since the 1920s, but not its alleged indeterminism and its probabilistic interpretation. According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, processes take place in the world of the very smallest that no longer take place in a specific place at a specific time. Einstein also found the conviction of spatiotemporal individuation expressed in Schopenhauer as early as 1903. Here, too, he initially experiments with this assumption in his science. From 1909 he came to the conclusion that quantum phenomena must be able to be interpreted with the help of this assumption. In addition, Einstein has been working on ART since 1907, which, like Faraday-Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics, is a field theory. A prerequisite for the functioning of a field theory is the assumption of the spatiotemporal individuation of objects. As this assumption is confirmed in Einstein's scientific work through the success of the GTR, it is also solidified in his religious understanding of reality - and has an effect on his science.

5. The laws of nature are universally valid for everyone, always and in every place.

“The laws of nature are independent of the state of motion of the reference system, at least if the latter is an acceleration-free one. [...] Is it conceivable that the principle of relativity also applies to systems that are accelerated relative to one another? "(9)

The conviction that the laws of nature must always be valid everywhere and in every place is what Einstein calls the "principle of relativity", i.e. the laws of nature are universal or absolutely valid, relative to each frame of reference. This usage of meaning gave the names of SRT and ART. Einstein had become acquainted with this philosophical idea several times between 1903 and 1905, but found it most impressively expressed by David Hume († 1776), who related it to causality and which Einstein had read immediately before the discovery of the SRT. Hume's conviction that causality was always, everywhere and valid for everyone had been viewed by Hume as a natural belief. Hume then contrasted it with the "beliefs" primarily the Roman Catholic. Church, to show that this universality principle, despite its religious character, makes sense in the case of causality, but does not make sense in the case of the dogmas of the Roman church. Interestingly, this principle of universality is reminiscent of the definition of catholicity by Vincent von Lerin (5th century), who could only regard as Catholic what would be believed by everyone, everywhere and at all times. Hence, in terms of the history of ideas, one can speak of a “Catholic principle of relativity” in both Hume's assertion of causality and Einstein's assertion of universality of the laws of nature. Einstein now related this universality to the laws of nature and he regarded the constancy of the vacuum speed of light as such a law of nature. Indeed, these two assumptions were sufficient to make him find the SRT 1905. Einstein's achievement here was more or less a coincidence, because the insights of the SRT were in the air around 1905. What is special about Einstein, however, is that he immediately universalized the insight that the SRT had given him, and it led him to work at the ART from 1907 onwards. Here, too, an ideological assumption proves its worth, with the result that it now continues to determine Einstein's understanding of reality as a certainty.

The character of Einstein's religion

All five assumptions are non-empirical, but ideological beliefs. Einstein includes them in his scientific work and lets them guide and motivate him. Once they have proven themselves, they solidify and flow back in a modified form into his religious convictions, each time mixing with new elements in order to flow back again into his scientific work. This interrelationship between religion and natural science has more characteristics than the five mentioned; It also includes thoughts about the non-personality of God, the non-personality also of humans, the ability of humans to redeem, personal eschatological ideas up to theories of the development of religions, so that Einstein's religious ideas are understood as a conglomerate of very different traditions can now become authoritative for the interpretation of all other religious traditions. Although, in addition to the influences mentioned, a number of other influences, mainly of philosophical traditions, lead to Einstein's patchwork religiosity, Einstein also strives for unity in the formation of this religion of his. When he came across Spinoza in the 1910s, he found thoughts expressed here that were similar to his understanding of reality, which he had already developed independently of Spinoza, so that he now sometimes referred to his religiosity as Spinozist to name can - in order to consistently ignore everything that can be found at Spinoza, but which does not fit his own convictions. Finally, Einstein gives his patchwork religiosity the name of "cosmic religiosity".

Einstein as an advocate for religious tolerance

Einstein's origin from a secular Jewish family plays just as little role for his religion as his early childhood, Roman Catholic. Religious instruction. His patchwork religiosity determined through and through his scientific work, his private life and his public statements. Einstein is conscious of religions and has a high level of respect for them. But he can only evaluate scientific theology as pseudoscience and it meets with his disinterest - because his scientific work becomes his theology. From the perspective of the 21st century, when religious conflicts are the order of the day in pluralistic societies, one can ask how Einstein's strong emphasis on religion is to be assessed. Einstein is tolerant of religious traditions, even if he thinks they are wrong. This tolerance does not come from indifference. Nor does it come about through marginalization of religion as a supposedly private matter. Rather, these positions are rejected by Einstein. His tolerance flows from the content, still completely in the 19th century. rooted thoughts that probably seem strange to us that revelation is only open to genius, but that it is beyond human action and will whether one can be such a genius. This is the origin of Einstein's tolerance thinking.
The Christian faith will not be able to relate to Einstein unbroken. The differences in content are too great. Einstein will have to be emphatically contradicted in many places. But there are structural similarities: Like Einstein, the Christian faith assumes that religious and ideological certainties influence all of our actions, be it scientific, personal or public actions. And like Einstein, the Christian faith also knows a principle of tolerance in terms of content. This, of course, does not exist in the thought of the religious genius. Rather, it consists in the insight that all socialization achievements that Christians can accomplish and to which they are exposed are never sufficient for the Christian certainty of faith. This requires the certainty-creating action of God the Holy Spirit in the hearts of people. This is the substantive origin of Christian tolerance in the pluralistic situation, towards more or less fixed other religious traditions as well as towards more or less coherent patchwork religions - also towards Einstein's cosmic religion.

Markus Mühling

Published in January 2012

(Copy 2)

Do you prefer to read from a book? You can find a similar article in our book on this website, "Science and the Question of God" (Bonn 3rd ed. 2018). 18 contributions by renowned authors, including the Archbishop of Sweden, introduce the dialogue with science in view of the question of God.

For further reading: Mühling, Markus, Einstein and religion, the interrelationship between religious and ideological content and the development of Albert Einstein's scientific theory. Göttingen (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 2011, ISBN 3525569890

Biographical information about the author:
Since 2011 Professor of Systematic Theology and Scientific Culture Dialogue at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, 2009–2010 visiting professor at King's College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, 2007–2011 Heisenberg scholarship from the DFG at the University of Heidelberg, 2004–2007 vicariate in the Evangelical Church in Baden, ordination, 1999–2004 research assistant at the Ecumenical Institute of the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, 1998–1999 research assistant at the Institute for Systematic Theology and Social Ethics of the Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel


(1) For an overview of the history of research, see MÜHLING, MARKUS, Einstein and religion. The interrelationship between religious and ideological contents and scientific theories of Albert Einstein in his development, RThN Göttingen (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 2011, 23-25.
(2) Cf.Einstein an Born on December 4, 1926 in Albert Einstein - Hedwig and Max Born. Correspondence 1916–1955, Munich (Nymphenburger) 1969, 154
(3) EINSTEIN, ALBERT, The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Vol. 8. The Berlin Years: Correspondence, 1914-1918. A: 1914-1917; B: 1917-1918, Princeton - Jerusalem (Princeton University Press) 1998, 167.
(4) For a detailed analysis see MÜHLING, M., Einstein und die Religion, 218–234.
(5) Letter v. 1.1.1951, EINSTEIN, ALBERT, Lettres a Maurice Solovine, Paris 1956, 102.
(6) EINSTEIN, ALBERT, Einstein Archive, (http://www.alberteinstein.info/database/ Jerusalem - Pasadena 2009, No. 28.117 from 1930, pages 4–6.
(7) HERNECK, FRIEDRICH, Einstein's Spoken Creed, Natural Sciences 53/8 (1966), 198.
(8) EINSTEIN, A., EA, No. 1.151 from 1948, sheet 2.
(9) EINSTEIN, ALBERT, The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Vol. 2. The Swiss Years: Writings, 1900-1909, Princeton - Jerusalem 1989, 476 from 1907.

Albert Einstein - Hedwig and Max Born. Correspondence 1916–1955, Munich (Nymphenburger) 1969
EINSTEIN, ALBERT, The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Vol. 2. The Swiss Years: Writings, 1900-1909, Princeton - Jerusalem 1989
EINSTEIN, ALBERT, The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Vol. 8. The Berlin Years: Correspondence, 1914-1918. A: 1914-1917; B: 1917-1918, Princeton - Jerusalem (Princeton University Press) 1998
EINSTEIN, ALBERT, Einstein Archive, (http://www.alberteinstein.info/database/ Jerusalem - Pasadena 2009
EINSTEIN, ALBERT, Lettres a Maurice Solovine, Paris 1956
HERNECK, FRIEDRICH, Einstein's Spoken Creed, Natural Sciences 53/8 (1966), 198
MÜHLING, MARKUS, Einstein and religion. The interrelationship between religious and ideological contents and the formation of scientific theories of Albert Einstein in his development, (RThN Göttingen (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 2011

Photo credit
Einstein: Wikimedia Commons
Bernstein: Jewish Encyclopedia
Schopenhauer: Wikimedia Commons
Hume: Wikimedia Commons

Einstein as an advocate for religious tolerance?

The new knowledge of our author Markus Mühling about Einstein's religion

What do you think of Einstein's religion? And how convincing do you find our author's remarks on this? Questions and thoughts that came to you while reading Markus Mühling's article, as well as your opinion on it, are very welcome here!