This is the Einstein quote you often hear from the faithful as well as from accommodationists:
“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
It’s often used to show both Einstein’s religiosity and his belief in the compatibility—indeed the mutual interdependence—of science and religion. But the quote is rarely used in context, and since I’ve just read the essay in which it appears, I’ll show you that context. But first let me show you how, in that same essay, Einstein proposes what is essentially Steve Gould’s version of NOMA (Non-overlapping Magisteria):
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. (Einstein 1954, p. 44-45; reference below).
This is nearly identical to Gould’s views from his 1999 book Rocks of Ages, though Einstein is never given credit for suggesting this type of accommodationism 45 years earlier. But in so doing, he’s nearly as wrong as Gould.
Einstein was wrong because he placed the evaluations of human thought and action in the religious sphere, completely neglecting secular morality. He also errs by saying that religion deals “only with evaluations of human thought and action,” neglecting the palpable fact that many religions are also concerned with truth statements—statements about the existence of God, what kind of God he is, and what he wants, as well as how we got here and where we go after we die. Indeed, in the third paragraph Einstein notes that religion does in fact concern itself with truth statements, so he contradicts himself.
Gould got around this ambiguity simply by claiming that religions that made truth statements, that intruded into the sphere of science, were not proper religions. But of course that disenfranchised most of the believers in the world! It won’t do to define religion in a way that leaves out most religionists. (I reviewed Gould’s book for the Times Literary Supplement and will be glad to send a copy to anyone who asks, since it’s not online).
So I take issue with Einstein’s accommodationism. The man was good, but he wasn’t God, and it’s baffling to me to see people quoting his non-scientific pronouncements as if they are unimpeachable. An expert in physics is not necessarily a doyen of philosophy.
Now it’s true that if you read Einstein’s statements on God, it’s clear that he didn’t believe in a personal God, and thought that theistic religion was man-made. The way he conceived of “proper” religion was a belief in something beyond one’s own “selfish desires”: a set of “superpersonal values” that included included awe before the order of nature. But it’s not clear to me—and this is a critical point—where Einstein thought that order came from.
As for the famous quotation at the top, here it is in context (my emphasis):
“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.” (Einstein 1954 pp. 45-46; reference below).
I have no quarrel with the claimed contribution of science to religion: helping test ways to achieve one’s goals. Einstein neglects, however, another contribution of science to religion: disproving its truth statements. Darwin did a good job of that!
But Einstein errs again by claiming that “the aspiration toward truth and understanding. . .springs from the sphere of religion.” Perhaps he’s conceiving of “religion” here as a form of science, or of curiosity about the universe beyond oneself. But he’s certainly not conceiving of religion as most people understand it. Why couldn’t he simply say that people are curious to find out stuff? Why did he have to recast that curiosity as a form of “religion”? It’s that conflation that has caused persistent confusion about Einstein’s beliefs. Was he so eager to placate the faithful that he had to redefine “religion” as a godless awe?
Finally, I take issue with Einstein’s statement that the value of reason in understanding the world is a form of “profound faith.” As I wrote in Slate, this is confusing because the religious meaning of faith is “firm belief without substantial evidence,” while the scientist’s “faith” in the laws of physics is simply shorthand for “strong confidence of how things work based on evidence and experience.” Further, we don’t have faith in reason: we use reason because it helps us find out things. It is in fact the only way we can approach understanding the universe. If other ways had proven valuable, like revelation or Ouiji boards, we’d use those, too.
In his debate with Chopra, Sam Harris said that Einstein’s statement clearly showed that he didn’t believe in a conventional God. I think that’s true, but it also shows that Einstein was confused about faith and confused about religion. What he should have done is deep-six the world “faith” in favor of “confidence” and simply not claimed that curiosity and adherence to natural laws was a form of religion. It is that confusion (or perhaps that imprecision of language) that has led to such conflict about what Einstein believed or didn’t believe about God and religion.
So let me simply recast Einstein’s famous statement in terms of what I think he meant:
“Science without profound curiosity won’t go anywhere, and religion without science is doubly crippled.”
Doubly crippled, of course, because theistic religions are based on a supernatural but fictitious being, and are further crippled when they reject the findings of science.
In the end, Einstein’s statements about religion are ambiguous, but should never be used to justify his belief in any kind of personal or theistic god. (I believe Dawkins deals with this at length in The God Delusion.) But I wish he would have either written a bit more clearly, thought a bit more clearly or, perhaps, completely avoided discussing the topic of religion and science. After all, he was Einstein, not God.
Einstein, A. 1954. Science and religion. Pp. 41-49 in Ideas and Opinions. Crown Publishers, New York. (The link goes to several of Einstein’s writings on science and religion.)