Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Quotable Einstein

A letter to be auctioned in London brings Einstein back into the fold. Seems the guy was an atheist after all. My grandmother is going to have to find someone else to quote when she wants to make the point that intelligent scientists belive in God too.

The interesting point of this story for me is how different Einstein's tone is in the private letter than in his public statements on religion. In public, he was in the habit of making ambiguous statements that left the door open for religious hucksters to claim that he was in their camp (even though he had repeatedly publicly rejected the idea of a personal God). In private, apparently, he sometimes called belief in a personal God "childish superstition" and "the product of human weakness."

Hear, hear!

In fact, I have never found much to disagree with in Einstein's public statements on religion either. Points that he makes that I like include:

  • There is no personal God - the most important point for me. I can be agnostic about whether or not there is a Creator, but I find it exceedingly difficult to respect people who think that this hypothetical All-Powerful Being gives two shits whether their grandmother just died, or where they put their car keys. There may be a consciousness to the universe. I doubt it, but I can't refute it. But if there is it can't possibly be concerned with shielding the United States against terrorist attacks so long as it keeps the lesbians in line, or making sure people don't drink alcohol on Sunday, or whatever else the religious right is currently complaining about.

  • Morality cannot come from God - a crucial point for me. Morality cannot be something determined on a reward/punishment basis. A moral action is an action undertaken for the preservation of a rule, not for the promise of a reward. While I recognize that there are some religious people who understand this, the overwhelming majority of them seem not to. If you're avoiding telling lies because you think God will disapprove, then, well, better for the rest of us, I suppose, but your motivation is nevertheless not a "good" one.

  • A legitimate conflict between religion and science cannot exist - in light of the ID "controversy", the third most important point for me. As I have said before, science and religion operate on different founding principles with different ultimate concerns. Any conflict between them has been manufactured by an interest group.

I do have some bones to pick, though. Einstein was wont to wander off into the realm of the sentimental talking about his "unbounded admiration" for the Cosmos, blah blah. I personally think we can do without all the flowery language. Yes, natural beauty is beautiful, but I don't think an ordered universe is something to marvel at. We make the assumption that the universe is ordered for the purpose of doing science, but I don't see anything in that assumption that's supposed to move me to quiet reflection. It simply is or isn't the case that the universe is ordered. From where I stand, it seems to be ordered, and I accept this as a fact so completely that I can scarcely imagine it being otherwise. Since I cannot imagine an unordered universe, I lack the requisite mindset to marvel at the order of it all.

A point that is bound to be more of a letdown for some than his rejection of religion, however, is Einstein's assertion in the same letter that the Jews aren't special. Now - there is little doubt that Einstein was a cultural Zionist, often speaking fondly of Israel as "our nation," etc. But I find it extremely gratifying that he nevertheless goes on to write that "And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people."

There is a fine line that separates Zionism from racism, and it is exactly this. The belief that the Jews are a distinct cultural group with a shared history that are deserving of nation status is perfectly fine with me. Though not Jewish myself, I largely agree with it. That this nation should exist in Israel/Palestine is obviously a more complicated issue, but since it is already there I defend its right to continued existence, and in accordance with that I support most actions that Israel takes to defend itself from its hostile Arab neighbors. But like any national-"ism," Zion-"ism" is forever in danger of crossing over into jingoism. And this idea that the Jews are somehow chosen or privileged or possessive of special destiny is pretty obviously on the other side of that line. It is an opinion so offensive, in fact, that I believe it is disingenuous of Jewish scholars to write about anti-Semitism as though it were irrational, or based purely on envy, or as though it came from nowhere. Any religion that adopts as one of its premises that its practitioners are special and that you have to be born into it to be one of the chosen (i.e. Christian-style conversions are strongly discouraged) is bound to make enemies. Jewish historians who cannot talk about this openly do their subject a huge disservice.

So it's also nice to see Einstein clearly reject this more militant form of Zionism, and reassuring to know that this man whose face appears on so many bumpers stickers was no racist.


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