Do Scientists Pray? Einstein on Knowledge and Authority

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein

As one of the world’s most celebrated scientists, Albert Einstein was regularly questioned about his views on religion. His most famous words on the topic derive from a letter to Eric Gutland in 1954.

The latter was the author of a novel Einstein had recently encountered, and the diatribe about religion leaves a question about how Einstein finds linkages between miracles, while actively rejecting the very force that most of the world attributes, for causing miracles. The letter states:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nonetheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can [for me] change this.

However, prior to this harsh rejection of divinity, Einstein’s views on a higher order to the universe, however inexplicable, can be found in a letter the famous scientist had worded almost two decades earlier. In January 1936, Einstein had broached the topic of God in response to a young girl named Phyllis, who had written to him on behalf of her science class.

Phyllis asked Einstein the very direct question: do scientists pray, and Einstein’s response is specific to the wording of her questions, and serves as a fantastic reminder that even when a scientist may not believe in God, their response to the magic and order of the universe, is very different.

The letters can be found in Letters of Notea wonderful collection of timeless missives.

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.

We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class. 

Respectfully yours,

Phyllis


January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer: 

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievement of science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

your A. Einstein

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