Einstein and Darwin Were Not Believers

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. (from Albert Einstein, the Human Side: New Glimpses from His Archivespage 43.)

My article, “Religion’s Smart People Problem,” appeared in Salon yesterday. As of today it is still the most read piece, generating more than 2000 comments. I thank the readers for their interest. Here are a few more points about a big topic.

I do think that religion has a smart-people problem, as the religious themselves sometimes sense. Often I have heard defensive believers say things like: “Well, Einstein believed in God,” or “Darwin converted on his deathbed.” One problem is that both claims are false. Einstein’s religious views have been studied in detail and he was a pantheist or agnostic. The Darwin deathbed conversion story is an urban Christian legend discredited even on creationist websites. Although Darwin had originally studied for the clergy, he was an agnostic or quiet atheist by the end of his life.

The other problem is that appeals by believers to the beliefs of scientific luminaries seem desperate. It’s as if they’re saying: “Maybe I can’t give reasons for my beliefs but some smart people believe them so they can’t be stupid.” But if your beliefs are true, what difference does it make whether Einstein or Darwin believes them? If you are confident of your beliefs, why invoke the name of some great scientists? You likely invoke them to give legitimacy to beliefs that you worry may be indefensible. But a proposition is true of false independent of what anyone believes. Apollo is either real or he is not.

As I said in my Salon piece, there are smart, educated  people who have religious beliefs. Yet it is a fact that such belief decreases with education. This fact doesn’t make your religious beliefs false, but it should cause you to wonder what would happen to your beliefs if you had a better scientific or philosophical education. Your beliefs might remain unchanged, but the evidence suggests otherwise. That is why religious indoctrination tries to shield the faithful from contrary ideas.

The issue is similar if you consider your place of birth. If you were born in the United States you are probably not a Muslim, if you were born in Iran there is a good chance you are. If you were born in India you are probably not a Christian, if you were born in the United States there is a good chance you are. You might believe that your religious beliefs would be the same had you been born somewhere else, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

This indicates that you have been conditioned to hold religious beliefs by, among others things, your education and place of birth. Once conditioned you hold onto those beliefs with tenacity because, as the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce said:

Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else.

Why Do You Want To Take My Religion Away?

The best defense of religious beliefs and practices is that life is tough and people find religion soothing. I didn’t try to talk my now deceased 86 year-old mother out of her religious beliefs. For one thing it would have been pointless—she believed that her lighting a candle caused me to get my first academic job!  Another reason was that it helped her cope—it was her drug of choice. If religion soothes, if it make people’s lives go better or helps them treat others better, fine.

But religious beliefs come at a cost. These includes: inquisitions, intolerance, religious wars, human sacrifice, collaboration with despotic regimes, persecution of homosexuals, pedophile priests and countless examples of religious cruelty throughout recorded history.  As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Moreover, religious institutions are often anti-democratic, anti-progressive, misogynistic, medieval and authoritarian. Religion also leads to guilt, shame, and fear.

This doesn’t mean that religion is the worst thing in the world—some good has come from religious beliefs. But evolutionary biology implanted religious, tribalistic, aggressive and other tendencies within our brains that need to be abandoned. Human beings need to take control of their destiny. They need to become the protagonists of cosmic evolution. We need to make a better world. No one has more eloquently expressed these hopes than one of our greatest living scientists, E. O. Wilson:

The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.[i]

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[i] Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 209.

3 thoughts on “Einstein and Darwin Were Not Believers

  1. “Another reason was that it helped her cope—it was her drug of choice. If religion soothes, if it make people’s lives go better or helps them treat others better, fine.”

    Karl Marx: Religion is the opiate of the people. My response is this, coping mechanisms of any kind are bad. If you need religion to justify your life, you should probably see a therapist or read self-help books. Religion takes the “reality” out of life. Why work out, why work hard, why take risks? It gives validation to people who aren’t getting what they want out of life because someday they will receive paradise. I’d like to pose the question of who is more religious, poor people or rich people?

    I used to be super religious. I used it as a coping mechanism for emotional pain that I experienced. Something that should be talked about more is the fear of death and how that plays a huge “behind the scenes” role in decision making. People are afraid of death and the unknown and if you can promise them that they will truly never die, they jump on it.

    To further my point, correct me if I am wrong but in the bible it states that the soul is a separate entity from the mind. Since our personality and our “self” is a derivative of the mind, wouldn’t that lead to the idea that “we” technically don’t go to heaven when we die. People who think that they will go to heaven and see loved ones are wrong because the mind stays in the dirt. What benefit is their to heaven and an afterlife if the consciousness does not go there? I feel like if people actually read the bible that they claim to believe in, and actually talked about points like this, their would be a lot less blind Christians. Then again, faith is a coping mechanism and used for emotional support so why would they spend anytime studying it when they are already receiving their “fix.”

  2. Dear John, thanks for your article in Salon. I’d like to offer an alternative perspective, if I may. I’m a 47 year old tertiary educated person living in a western democracy. By way of background, not to “impress” you but just to illustrate that I’m not “religious” (a term which of course can be debated) IN SPITE OF my intellectual curiosity but rather, I believe, BECAUSE it: I have an IQ variously measured at somewhere around 120+, a reasonable knowledge of chemistry and biology and some of physics, as well as sociology and psychology, history, art, and the theology of various religions, including my own (which happens to be Christianity). I think that your article has many valid points, but there are some perspectives you may not have considered:
    (a) Evidence-bases have many positive aspects, but in an era in which they are all-consuming, it’s important I think to also consider the areas in which evidence-based methods are imperfect. By definition, evidence shows us that which is the most common, usual experience for a given group under given conditions. However in discussing topics which may involve unique ways of thinking, I think it’s important to give atypical examples much more prominence than you would in reference to, say, measuring biological interactions.
    (b) Many, many people who are religious are not literalists or fundamentalists. The “religion vs science” dichotomy is a recent (and I believe, false) idea which has been largely popularised by those who have a particular apparent interest in discrediting if not destroying religion, because they see it as by and large a negative influence on society (mostly because of interaction with fundamentalist literalists, I assume.) It is especially unfortunate that Charles Darwin has become a focal point, given that one of his key points, “survival of the fittest”, has been wilfully or accidentally misunderstood, at least according to my understanding of Frans de Waal., and that only right-wing fundamentalists and atheists choose to read the Bible as a literal “true/false” document.
    (c) Having said that, I believe that a truly scientific approach to the question of why some people have religious beliefs is difficult, for the same sort of reasons that we don’t try to measure “love” or “art” or shoehorn the measurement of these very human feelings and endeavours into existing mathematical and rational frameworks in order to determine whether or not they are “valid”. Please consider the perspective that investigation of belief and faith may require a more open, broader spirit (pardon the pun) of enquiry which ponders the many things which are (currently, at any rate) unknown about our universe and indeed our own bodies and brains and how they interact, within individuals and within societies.
    (d) While there are some who may prefer the “neatness” of your argument – and sadly, both religious people and agnostics/atheists seem to be suckers for any argument which essentially postulates that, by virtue of agreeing with the statements made by the proponent of their favoured philosophy, they are essentially superior (either morally, intellectually, or both) – I think the discussion may be better served by more willingness to understand other people’s perspectives, with less (or no) emphasis on who is “correct”. My own reasons for believing what I do, which I try to base on a “continual enquiry” model, are based on a multitude of factors, some of which include experiences which I am unable to explain in terms of currently known scientific phenomena. I suppose you can argue that some of my beliefs lean towards panentheism, but at the same time I am intensely curious as to how the phenomena described in the New Testament, fascinating for its level of down to earth description in places, came about. And am willing to extend belief to those things on that basis, which is why I’m a Christian. There are also the social, cultural and artistic aspects of religion, which for a believer can’t be simply “split off” from religious faith. There are now part of accepted science many thing which were once regarded as supernatural. Doesn’t it seem possible that this progression may continue, and that to rule out anything we can’t currently measure as invalid might be jumping the gun a bit? Ultimately, on that basis, I think our views may cross over to an extent. But I particularly baulk at the idea that a smart religious person is either in denial for emotional reasons, ignorant of science, paternalistic or manipulative. Thank you for your consideration of these views. Best regards and dare I say it, Merry Christmas 🙂

  3. I’m not sure you get it. It isn’t about defending religious beliefs by pointing out scientific geniuses, such as Fr. George Lemaitre, but in pointing out that science can make no claim on religion anymore than religion can make a claim on science. Christians mistakenly fall into the trap of the latter. You mistakenly fall into the trap of the former. Both betray logic. Religion cannot prove God or disprove science anymore than science can disprove God. It is an article of faith and not science to believe in God. It is an article of faith and not science not believe in God. You have no greater claim not to believe based on science anymore than a believer has a greater claim to believe based on religion. Both cancel each other out.

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