Not about Einstein

By Ken Perrott 29/09/2010

Book Review: Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit by Krista Tippett

Price: US$10.88; NZ$12.97
304 pages
Penguin (Non-Classics) (February 23, 2010)

The media reports of Stephen Hawking’s new book with co-author Leonard Mlodinow (The Grand Design) attracted hostile reaction from some theological quarters (see The Grand Design – neither God nor 42). This reminds me of similar treatment meted out to Albert Einstein in his time.

Einstein had many religious critics for an article of his on the philosophy of religion in 1940. An Episcopalian responded ’to give up the doctrine of a personal God . . . .  shows the good Doctor, when it comes to the practicalities of life, is full of jellybeans’. He was accused of providing fuel for the fanatical antisemitism of religious bigots and told that he should ’stick to his science’ and stop delving into philosophy (sound familiar). And this from the founder of the Calvary tabernacle Association in Oklahoma City ’Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, ‘Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from.’

Perhaps some of today’s scientists who hesitate to respond to their theological critics could learn from Einstein’s reaction. While criticising atheist reaction he described his theological critics as ’numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it.’

However, the religious usually in the past interpreted some of Hawking’s previous comments as favourable to religion and god beliefs. Similarly many of Einstein’s comments on religion have been interpreted favourably. In fact, nowadays, the favourable (to religion) interpretations prevail. How often do we hear of Einstein’s negative comments about religion today? More commonly believers claim Einstein, wrongly, as ’on their side.’

Spiritual conversations

Tippet’s book ’Einstein’s God’ is promoting this line. Even when accepting Einstein’s rejection of a personal god it still manages to encompass him in a loose, fluffy, embrace of ’spiritualism.’

However, Tippett doesn’t attempt a factual account of Einstein’s attitudes towards religion and god beliefs. For that Max Jammer’s Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology is much more reliable. In fact ’Einstein’s God’ is not about Einstein at all. The subtitle ’Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit’ is far more accurate.

Krista Tippett is the host of the public radio programme Speaking of Faith, distributed and produced by American Public Media. (This programme was recently renamed Being.) And this book is a collection of conversations between Tippett and scientific personalities from the radio programme.

The personalities are: Freeman Dyson (theoretical physicist); Paul Davies (astrophysicist); Sherwin Nuland (surgeon); Mehmet Oz (cardiovascular surgeon); James Moor (biographer of Charles Darwin); V. V. Raman (theoretical physicist), Janna Levin physicist); Michael McCullough (psychologist); Esther Sternberg (immunologist); Andrew Solomon (novelist); Parker Palmer (Quaker and educator); Anita Barrows (psychologist); and John Polkinghorne (Anglican priest and former physicist).

The science-religion conflict denied

Of course Tippett’s agenda in this book is to promote the idea that religion and science are compatible, almost two sides of the same coin. Even when recognising the epistemological conflict she still believes they are complementary.

Tippett argues that in ’the plain light of day . . . . the suggestion that science and religion are incompatible makes no sense at all.’ And in a manoeuvre often used by those who wish to justify the ridiculous she resorts to quantum mechanics. ’Images from the world of science enliven my understanding of God, and of religion.’ She uses wave/particle duality as ’a template for understanding how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true.’

And, of course, there are the tired old arguments. While accepting the power of science she claims: ’But science cannot mobilise human consciousness and human passion. We need the simultaneous resources of story, ritual, relationships and service that spiritual traditions have the capacity to nurture at their core.’ The old argument by default.

Or: ’But here again I’d insist that religion at its best is clear-eyed and reality based.’ Yeah, right!

And she refers to Einstein’s wish to understand the order ’deeply hidden behind everything’ as ’his longing to understand what God was thinking.’

So Einstein’s use of metaphor get’s tied in with the apologist ’proof’ of their god in scientific laws.

Agenda driven conversations

Of course many of the participants in these discussions are happy to engage in vague talk on spiritual issues, but I couldn’t help feeling that at times Tippett was working hard to put words in mouths. She specifically asked Davies to comment on the suggestion ’that there might be room for an involved God within the laws of physics themselves.’ (Davies response is that ’you could insert the hand of God’ into the ’interstices having to do with quantum uncertainty,’ ’if you want.’)

Commenting on James Moore’s ideas she claims: ’There is much in Darwin’s thought that would ennoble as well as ground a religious view of life and of God.’ And then she finishes that chapter quoting from the famous  last paragraph of Darwin’s ’The Origin of Species:’

’There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one;’

No mention that a ’creator’ was absent from the first edition, which reads:

’There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one;’

Insertion of a ’creator’ into later editions seems to have been an attempt to soothe religious opinion which Darwin later regretted (suggested by comments he made in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker in 1863).


So this is not a book about Einstein or his understanding of religion. It’s a collection of conversations guided by Tippett to elucidate thoughts on spirituality and religion. While scientists can reach an amazing amount of agreement about reality they are as diverse as any other social group on the issues discussed.

Their differing views may interest some readers. However, this is a limited sample and no one should see the views expressed as in any way representative of scientists as a whole.

Even with these limits the different experiences, specialities and lives could have produced some interesting insights.

Personally, I would have preferred discussions driven more by the scientist involved rather than the programme host with her own agenda. But I guess this inevitably results from the format of this radio programme.

However, the science-religion conflict is as active today as it has ever been. In fact it is a prominent feature of the current ’culture wars.’ Thus attempts to deny this or explain it away are fashionable in theological circles. ’Einstein’s God’ will appeal to those in denial. But the book doesn’t provide a suitable outline of the diverse attitudes of scientists towards religions and god beliefs. And the agenda of the ’Speaking of Faith’ radio programme doesn’t enable elucidation of their different approaches to human spiritually in any depth.

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