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.
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.