Thursday, March 9, 2017

Scientific Name-Dropping: Why a Quaker?

Albert Einstein stated in the last year of his life:
"If I were not a Jew I would be a Quaker."*


The question is why did he identify with the Friends?

It is difficult to answer. There has been a lot written about Einstein’s views on ultimate reality.

Much of it contradictory. Some thinkers claim he was an atheist, others that he wasn't.

Einstein emphasized that he wasn't an atheist,
that atheists had no sense of the "music of the sphere," that they lacked appreciation for the amazing order and beauty and awe of the cosmos. (Photo: A Friends Meetinghouse--by James Turrell, Skyspace Philadelphia)

Einstein said, “...the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.”

"...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."

“In the struggle for ethical good teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is give up the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast powers in the hands of priests."

At times, Einstein identified as a pantheist, at other times as an agnostic.
"I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men."

"I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages...The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God."

"A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense and in this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man."

But he explicitly rejected organized religion, especially, opposed orthodox Judaism and creedal Christianity, the anthropomorphism of a “personal god,” life after death, etc.

Sometimes Einstein spoke of ethics and meaning, at others insisted that everything--including humans--is determined.

Lastly, came his striking comment, “If I were not a Jew I would be a Quaker.”

Did he identify with Quakerism because of its strong sense of wonder?

He often said that he was "religious" in a noncreedal sense,
making statements such as:

"The religion of the future will be cosmic religion. It will transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology."

"...if I could ask God one question...I would want to know why he started the universe. For once I knew that answer, then I would know the purpose of my own life."

"“Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up."

"But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion."

"To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason."

"I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

“It would not be difficult to come to an agreement as to what we understand by science. Science is the century-old endeavor to bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thoroughgoing an association as possible. To put it boldly, it is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualization..."

"Accordingly, a religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance and loftiness of those superpersonal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation. They exist with the same necessity and matter-of-factness as he himself. In this sense religion is the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and completely conscious of these values and goals and constantly to strengthen and extend their effect. If one conceives of religion and science according to these definitions then a conflict between them appears impossible."

"For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts. According to this interpretation the well-known conflicts between religion and science in the past must all be ascribed to a misapprehension of the situation which has been described."

"For example, a conflict arises when a religious community insists on the absolute truthfulness of all statements recorded in the Bible. This means an intervention on the part of religion into the sphere of science; this is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo and Darwin belongs."

"On the other hand, representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific method, and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors."

"The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge. In this sense I believe that the priest must become a teacher if he wishes to do justice to his lofty educational mission."

...the "eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."

Because Friends philosophy and theology are less anthropomorphic?

Because some Quaker leaders have been brilliant scientists?

Because of his admiration for Quaker work for peace,
reconciliation, civil rights, and justice?

For Einstein did state, "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."

Also, why did he say he was a “Jew” since he strongly rejected Orthodox Judaism?

Since he wasn’t a believing orthodox Jew, but only one culturally,
was his Quaker statement more of a cultural outlook, too, that he liked the culture and social nature of the Friends?

What do you think?

Fairly recently, out here in California, we read 2 biographies on Einstein in our thinkers’ bookclub. I was, again, amazed by Einstein’s wonder, awe,
and appreciation of cosmic order and beauty,
what he called the "music of the spheres."

What appealed to Albert Einstein in Quakerism,
contrary to his very negative views of all other religions?

*Quotes are from various sources on the Internet, from books including
Einstein: The Life and Times by Ronald Clark
Einstein: His Life and His Universe by Walter Isaacson,
The World As I See it,
Albert Einstein: Ideas and Opinions
Einstein and Religion

*This isn’t an appeal to authority—except in a bit of questioning. Besides, what his philosophical views of reality aren’t necessarily more valid (and to be followed) just because he was a brilliant physicist. Views outside of one's profession aren't valid or invalid just because one has said them.

Questions in the Light,

Daniel Wilcox


Anonymous said...

I think you ought to consider there was a Quaker meeting in Cambridge MA...and still is. He may well have been acquainted with individual Quakers as well. There were plenty of Quaker scientists and academics in NE universities at the time he was there. I was in a Meeting in Florida with an older Friend who has since passed away whose husband was a scientist at Cambridge and she fondly remembered the Cambridge Meeting wanting to have a Seder and borrowing a menorah from Einstein for the dinner...and promptly returning it.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Yes, I knew that there were Quakers there and that Einstein knew some personally.

However, I didn't know that the Cambridge Meeting had a Seder and borrowed a menorah from Einstein. Intriguing!