When I was a believing Mormon I appreciated science, but I also sensed great spiritual danger lurking beneath its surface: a tendency to promote atheism, nihilism, and hedonism. So it is ironic to me that, five years after resigning from the LDS church, the more I’ve studied what scientists say about the Universe and Nature, the more I’ve felt drawn toward a new spirituality that has led me to redefine the concept of God for myself.
It is of course true that scientific answers to the big questions in life can and often do lead people to the triple-threat of “soul-destroying” -isms that I mentioned above. But that certainly isn’t the only road to which science leads us. The explosion of scientific understanding in modern times has presented humankind with a choice: (1) to ignore or twist scientific findings to match ancient articulations of God; (2) to reject religion, spirituality, and the concept of God altogether; or (3) to revise and update our conception of God and spirituality in the light of scientific inquiry. Albert Einstein is an excellent example of someone who took this latter approach.
Although Einstein became disillusioned with the God of the Bible in his youth, he came to embrace the “pantheistic” God described by the 17th-Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Here’s how Einstein described his faith crisis and the awakening it triggered in him:
“I came . . . to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment . . . . It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation . . . . The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. . . . The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.” (Einstein, Albert (1979). Autobiographical Notes. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, pp. 3-5.)
Later in life when Einstein was asked if he believed in God, he consistently responded that he could not believe in a personal God, but that he believed in Spinoza’s God:
“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” (Isaacson, Walter (2008). Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 388-389.)
“It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly.” (Hoffmann, Banesh (1972). Albert Einstein Creator and Rebel, p. 95.)
“Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. . . . This firm belief, a belief bound up with a deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance this may be described as ‘pantheistic’ (Spinoza).” (Einstein, Albert (2011) Ideas & Opinions.)
“The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s Pantheism.” (Viereck, George Sylvester (1930) Glimpses of the Great, pp. 372-373.)
Einstein described himself as “devoutly religious” only in one specific sense:
“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science.
He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and
the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—
this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men.13.3333px; line-height: 20px;">” (Philipp Frank (1947) Einstein: His Life and Times, p. 284.)
As I’ve been reformulating my own ideas about spirituality and God, Einstein’s views have deeply resonated with me because the more I learn about Nature, the more I am over-awed by it. For example, it is astounding to me that the bodies of living beings contain an almost unfathomable amount of information that is hundreds of millions of years old and yet is too small to be seen with the naked eye.
For example, the human body consists of approximately 10 Octillion atoms arranged in approximately 100 Trillion cells which are organized by DNA that consists of approximately 3 Billion informational units. Our DNA is contained in each of our cells, which means our bodies contain 3 Billion times 100 Trillion informational units. What’s more, our DNA is a link in a biological information chain that stretches back hundreds of millions of years to our non-mammalian ancestors and beyond. For example, we humans inherited our immune system from fish who lived approximately 300-400 million years ago.
Think of it: we live in a Universe where, at least in our tiny corner of it, the creation and operation of living beings is guided by biological material too small to be seen with the naked eye that contains billions of units of information that are hundreds of millions of years old; information that is shared by thousands of different plant and animal species; information that results in the elegant form and beauty displayed by the pair of mantises pictured here:
In sharing these thoughts, I want to be clear that I don’t presume for one second to hold the “one true” view of God or spirituality. I’m simply sharing a perspective I’ve been defining for myself within the past year or so. The reason I’m sharing this perspective is that I have many ex-Mormon friends and acquaintances who tell me they want a sense of spirituality in their lives, but who say they cannot find it within the predominant religions and churches because they seem to conflict too much with modern science. I too was in that same predicament during my first four years out of the LDS church, which is why I want to provide those transitioning out of the LDS church an opportunity to consider a perspective that lays between the polar extremes of religious dogmatism and despair-inducing nihilism.
Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Although embarrassing to admit it, I have only recently discovered the long line of truth seekers stretching back thousands of years who came to similar conclusions: the ancient sages of India, Lao Tze in China, the Buddha, the Stoic philosophers of Greece, Sufi mystics like Rumi and Hafez, medieval Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart, pre-Enlightenment philosophers like Baruch Spinoza, Transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson, modern scientists like Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan, and many more. Although varying in some particulars, there is an amazing overlap in their views, carving out a well-trodden spiritual path between the extremes of religious dogmatism and despair-inducing nihilism. And thus far, it’s been an inspiring journey to follow their lead.
Thanks for sharing. Very relevant
Thanks Shawn, glad you enjoyed it.
The pantheistic mindset or the God of Spinoza is very close to my heart. I have a PhD in physics, and a few months back I went through all my old physics homework; thousands of pages of hand written mathematical equations. These were my prayers at a time I could hardly pray. After my mission I had a very hard time ‘asking’ God in prayers for anything, I mostly could only share gratitude in prayer. It seemed arrogant and wrong to me that the God of the universe would listen to my pleadings. Yet, at this same time I was asking God questions in these physics equations and I was in fact getting real answers, I was getting real insights into Logos of Nature. If you study God, you will get answers and they are both beautiful and mind blowing. You ask Mother Nature a question, and She will play her game of riddles back with you. If you are cleaver, you can tease out some answers, but only on Her terms. It is a grand game! She will give you life without a thought, and She will take it away if you fly to close to the sun as Icarus did. I love Her.
Keep up the great articles Andrew, if you are ever in Utah I would love to buy you a meal just to get a chance to talk for a bit. I have had quite a hard time finding anyone on this wavelength to talk to in person. It would be a treat for me!
Sterling, thanks for the kind words. I hope to be able to take you up on your offer. Likewise, if you’re ever in Orange County, CA, let me know. You can find me on Facebook. Cheers.
This year I made two New Years resolutions: 1- stay away from toxic institutions and toxic people, 2- stay way from people who deem themselves to be intellectuals. I’ve found reasons for both.
Lose a child, experience a devastating loss of something or someone dear to you; then wrap your head around an emotionless, cold, pantheistic god. No thanks.
For whatever reason, left brainers feel a need to over intellectualize everything. It is beyond the grasp of some of us. To have a sense of wonder and awe at beauties and things of the universe that we don’t understand, is a wonderful thing to possess til the day we die. I choose to believe that our universe was made by a super intelligent, wise, loving being who cares for our happiness and well being. I frankly do not care what a hundred physicists or other scientists opine about their belief in deity. Until they croak, it is simply opinion. Empirical knowledge does not require faith or hope.
Faith and hope contribute to a sense of humility and gratitude for things we do not understand, but hope for. Isaak Dinesen wrote: “perhaps the reason God made the world round, is so that we could not see too far down the road.” I’m sure that my friends who choose to dwell in trendy ‘mindfulness’ or scientific surety, would deem this saying as naive and quaint. It has come to be a truism in life for me, in the face of several devastating losses. Through all of them, I have chosen to believe that there is purpose in everything. That I am loved and helped by a loving Father. There is beauty all around us. There is goodness around us too, if we choose to look for it.
One simply needs to wipe a tear from a sweet child’s face, offer a helping hand to the humble and downtrodden, accept kindness from a stranger when it is not expected, sit in stillness and wonder at creation, and mingle with humanity, to see the face of God. To look another fellow being in the eyes and see lifetimes, is a humbling thing. No amount of science can explain the divine within us.
I have felt many affirmations from a loving, personal god over the past few years. None of this had anything to do with formal religion.
I am the first, to hold an awe at the big bang theory, at black matter, at the magnificence of the universe and the fact that we know so little. The desire to explore and learn are a wonderful thing. To help me keep grounded on this sphere, I find that a belief in a loving Being is helpful in navigating some of life’s hurdles. He who created it all has not given up on any of us, even though certain circles of the scientific world may have given up on Him. It’s a pity.
Doug, I don’t begrudge anyone their personal God. I could have written the paragraph of yours “one needs to wipe a tear . . .” to describe my own view. I worship with a congregation of people, some of whom believe God is personal, others who believe God is impersonal. We don’t condemn or judge each other for our respective views of God. Though God usually seems impersonal to me, there are times when personal manifestations of God (e.g. Jesus) seem most effective in communicating the ethical imperatives of the impersonal God, and in teaching the need to transcend our egos and connect with the One Great Whole. And for what it’s worth, I am a curious person, but I don’t consider myself an intellectual, as I have no such qualifications or credentials.
This post really resonated with me. When I began my faith-refining process 3 years ago, almost all of my beliefs came crashing down. There was a time when all that anchored me to sanity were two beliefs. The first is that I know there is some kind of loving Being watching over, helping and guiding me. I had had too many experiences with that to let that belief go. I also hung onto the “ask and ye shall receive” principle. I had many instances of pleading for guidance, help, understanding and being guided to the understanding I needed, whether through books, people, or thoughts coming to my mind, which I sensed were from outside of myself. I’ve had too many experiences that would be classified as “spiritual” to completely disregard all faith and spirituality. However, many aspects of orthodox religion suddenly began to not make sense to my logical, common sense mind. Many teachings seemed to be contradictory or have no basis in logic, common sense, or cause-and-effect relationships. Truth, for me, had to be able to bring all these things together in a greater whole and clarity. I do believe that there is true science behind all spirituality. When I started merging science and spirituality, many things began coming together.
I have really enjoyed the writings of JJ Dewey. There are three books I found especially fascinating. The titles are The Immortal, The Lost Key of Buddha and Eternal Words (all found on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/The-Immortal-J-J-Dewey/dp/0966505301; also here’s the free PDF version online http://www.freeread.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Immortal-I.pdf). They blend science and spirituality (from a variety of faith traditions). They are written in a fictional backdrop but many of the ideas and principles have resonated with me. Eternal Words seems to have the most science (atomic as well as cosmic) but the books make a bit more sense of read in order.
Thanks for sharing those recommendations, GP. I’ll have to check them out as they sound like something I’d enjoy reading.
I really resonated with this:
“As I’ve been reformulating my own ideas about spirituality and God, Einstein’s views have deeply resonated with me because the more I learn about Nature, the more I am over-awed by it. For example, it is astounding to me that the bodies of living beings contain an almost unfathomable amount of information that is hundreds of millions of years old and yet is too small to be seen with the naked eye.”
Thanks for this, I really appreciated this.