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Jewish Journal

The Coyne wars reach Einstein

by Roger Price

March 27, 2014 | 9:55 am

Photo via wikimedia commons

Q: What do Jonathan Sacks, Ross Douthat and Albert Einstein have in common?

A:  Let’s see. The first is the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, the second is a New York Times based columnist who writes frequently about religion, and the third was the pre-eminent physicist of the twentieth century, responsible for teaching us how light can bend, time can slow, and mass and energy can convert into each other.

Oh, I know. In recent months, Jerry Coyne, biology professor at the University of Chicago, and author of the excellent book Why Evolution is True, has written critically of each.


In the cases of Sacks and Douthat, Coyne was responding to an essay. Rabbi Sacks’ piece appeared in The Spectator under the title “Chief Rabbi: atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians.” In it, Rabbi Sacks railed against two forces he saw as detrimental to an enduring, moral society: first, the idolatry of “the market, the liberal democratic state and consumer society,” aided and abetted by tone deaf, humorless secularists, the “new atheists,” and, second, a religious fundamentalism which combines into a toxic brew “the hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights.”

Douthat’s article “Ideas from a Manger,” appeared just before Christmas 2013, and did not address either global matters or the kind of religious fundamentalism that occupied Sacks, but it shared with Sacks a worry over the diminution of a classical biblical worldview. Douthat saw the traditional religious orientation in America being replaced by two alternate “world picture(s).” One is a somewhat amorphous spiritual civic religion, “Christian-ish,” but “adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian.” The other picture was more purely secular, and depicted “a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents,” the morality in which, while seemingly firm, was based on the wobbly reeds of “the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism” and “Darwinian justifications for altruism.”

In their essays, neither Sacks nor Douthat discussed biology or evolution, Coyne’s areas of professional expertise, in any way. But Coyne is not only a scientist by training and profession, he is an atheist, and a member of its militant, crusading denomination. And to Coyne, the thoughts of Sacks and Douthat are, if not mortal sins, at least sufficiently egregious to require a prompt and firm response.

So, despite his disclaimer in his response to Sacks that he only resorts to name calling “when pushed to the limit,” Coyne titled that response “Rabbi Sacks is an ignorant fool,” and it was downhill from there. Douthat, by comparison, got off lightly, merely accused of being “wooly-brained” and “filled with unrighteous anger.”

The name calling was unnecessary of course, and unbecoming and unworthy of serious critical commentary, but Coyne can’t seem to help himself. Like Pavlov’s dog, if he catches a whiff of stimulus, in this case God or religion, he responds, or more probably, attacks. If he actually studied the Hebrew Bible, instead of simply writing about it, perhaps he would fancy himself one of the watchmen Isaiah envisioned on the wall, never silent, always ready to rant at those who err. (See Isa. 62:6.)

At least when Coyne went after Sacks and Douthat, he was reacting to an essay recently written by each man concerning some aspect of religion or secularism in contemporary society, and each victim of Coyne’s barbs alive and quite capable of defending himself. This is said not to justify the tone of Coyne’s comments (or the content for that matter), but merely to observe that Sacks and Douthat are public figures who are or should be used to the give and take of debate on controversial issues. In this sense, Coyne was being true to his apparent self-appointed mission of eviscerating the religious orientation of true believers.

But why did Coyne feel compelled to go after Albert Einstein, as he did recently, condemning him for errors and neglect in a piece called “Einstein’s Famous Quote About Science and Religion Didn’t Mean What You Were Taught”? Einstein was not a professional theologian. His Nobel Prize was not earned for his expressed views on religion, the Bible or God.  And Einstein died almost 59 years ago, on April 18, 1955.

It is certainly not because Einstein worshipped the old sky-god. He surely did not. As Coyne recognized, Einstein once wrote that the word God was for him “nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness . . . .”

Coyne could have gone further and referenced other statements by Einstein to the same effect. Einstein was both clear and consistent in disclaiming “a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”  (See Jammer, Einstein and Religion (Princeton 1999), at 49.) He said that he could not “conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.” (See Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster 2007), at 387.)  Einstein thought such beliefs were anthropomorphic and superstitious.   

But Einstein did not restrict his view of religion to the worship of the straw man caricature of the father figure with anger management issues that Coyne loves to attack and dismantle. Instead, Einstein saw a “universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws,” and was willing to concede that we “only dimly understand these laws.” (See Isaacson, at 386.) That reality led him to a kind of religiosity, because after all of the effort to discover the secrets of nature, “behind all of the discernible concatenations,” for Einstein there remained “something subtle, intangible and inexplicable.” His religion was “(v)eneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend.” “To that extent,” he admitted, “I am, in point of fact, religious.” (See Jammer, at 39-40.)

In a 1930 essay “What I believe,” sometimes called his “Credo,” Einstein confirmed that this religiosity was for him not just another thought experiment, another exercise in reason. Einstein said that the “most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion . . . . Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. . . . A knowledge of existence of something we cannot penetrate, . . . it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.” (See Id. at 73.)

Apparently, Einstein’s sympathetic stance toward a cosmic religion was just too much for Coyne to bear. So Coyne’s focuses his essay on Einstein’s famous dictum “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”  Coyne implies that this statement was first made by Einstein in an essay titled “Science and religion” and published in 1954. However, as the late Professor of physics and the history of science Max Jammer shows in his extensive study Einstein and Religion, the object of Coyne’s concern was originally contained in an address by Einstein at a Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in New York in 1940. (See Jammer, at 31, n. 27.) And Coyne’s own hyperlink indicates that the address was published a year later, in 1941.

Misleading citation aside, Coyne’s aim is to show that Einstein’s dictum “should give no solace to the faithful.” To make his case, Coyne argues that Einstein made a series of mistakes in “Science and religion.”

Coyne begins by suggesting that Einstein anticipated Stephen Jay Gould’s version of NOMA, the idea that science and religion occupy non-overlapping spheres of authority. In Einstein’s formulation, a conflict between religion and science, properly understood, appeared impossible because science “can only ascertain what is, but not what should be” and religion “deals only with evaluations of human thought and action; it cannot justifiably speak of facts and the relationships between facts.” (See here.)

Coyne argues that Einstein is misguided (and Gould, too) because religion is “surely not the only source, or even a good source, of how to behave or find meaning in our lives.” But here, and aside from his obvious and unsupported bias, Coyne is not even using the term religion in the same broad sense that Einstein seems to be, “as the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and complete conscious of (certain superpersonal) values and goals . . . .” (See here.)

Next, Coyne faults Einstein for neglecting to acknowledge that science has disproved religion’s “truth statements,” adding that Darwin did a good job of that. But Coyne never bothers to identify what truth statements he has in mind, so it is difficult to know what he is talking about. Presumably the Darwin reference is meant to suggest that contemporary findings in the field of evolution are inconsistent with, even contrary to, certain statements in the biblical book of Genesis. There is not much doubt about that. But that reality does not allow Coyne to crow unless he can also prove that the authors of those biblical statements intended them to be “truth statements,” that is, statements of scientific or chronological historical fact as we moderns understand such things. Coyne has not done that, and will have a difficult time doing so unless he has evidence that those authors both understood science or history as we do and purposefully sought to make definitive scientific or historical statements.  More probably, they lacked such understanding and their interests and intents lay elsewhere.

Coyne then chides Einstein for asserting that “the aspiration toward truth and understanding . . . springs from the sphere of religion.”  He suggests that Einstein has mistaken awe and profound curiosity for religion, which is different than “most people” see it.  Of course, Coyne does not cite any polling data for his conclusion as to how “most people” understand religion, and, at least in the Jewish American world, his sociological speculation is not supportable.  Coyne’s principal problem here is that he does not recognize that religion, let’s use Judaism as an example, has changed over time. Some eighty years ago, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan observed that “Religion conceived in terms of supernatural origin is the astrology and alchemy stage of religion. The religion which is about to emerge is the astronomy and chemistry stage.” (See Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (JPS 2010), at 399.) Were he still with us, perhaps Kaplan would have helped us move to the quantum and cosmic stage. In any event, as Conservative Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, who is very much here, recently confirmed:  “Long gone are the days that any Reform, Conservative or even Orthodox Jew subscribes to a pre-modern or fundamentalist view of God. Very few Jewish clergy insist on a literal understanding of the text with talking snakes, a world in which evil comes as punishment for sin, and a God who elects one group of humanity over another.” 

Coyne seems genuinely distressed by what he views as an improper conflation of curiosity and religion. “Why couldn’t he [Einstein]simply say that some people are insatiably curious to find out stuff?” asks Coyne, almost plaintively. It’s an interesting question, but not a deeply substantive one. Coyne is apparently limited to speaking in prose, but Einstein often spoke in poetry. That approach is not without precedent in the Jewish tradition.  Maybe Coyne should read some Psalms and a bit of Abraham Joshua Heschel, too.

Coyne also questions whether Einstein was a pantheist. Had Coyne gone beyond his hyperlink, he might have learned more about Spinoza’s affinity toward Baruch Spinoza and Spinoza’s God. At one point, Einstein acknowledged that he was “fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism,” but also did not think that he could be called “a pantheist.” At other times, he said “I believe in Spinoza’s God . . . .” and “We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order of all that exists and in its soul as it reveals itself in man and animal.” (See Jammer, at 48-49, 51.)

Whether Einstein was some sort of pantheist, or perhaps a panentheist, is open for debate. As discussed here previously, Judaism has connections to both pantheism and panentheism. (See here.) Regardless of how that issue is resolved, one would have thought that Einstein’s Spinozan attitudes would have caused Coyne to be a bit more charitable. After all, Richard Dawkins, Coyne’s fellow militant atheist in arms, conceded that the God he was attacking in The God Delusion (Mariner Books 2008) was not the God of Einstein (or of other enlightened scientists). (At 41.)

Coyne’s final quibble with Einstein is what he calls Einstein’s statement that “the value of reason in understanding the world is a form of ‘profound faith’.” Actually, what Einstein said was that science could only be created by persons who were “imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding,” which Einstein thought sprung from “the sphere of religion,” and who also “had faith in the possibility that regulations valid for the world of existence are rational . . . .” (See here.) Coyne finds Einstein’s terminology confusing, and Coyne makes a distinction between faith as a firm belief without evidence and faith as short hand for strong confidence based on replicated experience.  The distinction is important and valid, but the criticism unfair in that Coyne would deny Einstein his shorthand phrase while insisting on one of his own.

Coyne’s own essay ends with two points, one made with pure arrogance and the other with seeming sadness. First, Coyne recasts Einstein’s dictum as follows: “Science without profound curiosity won’t go anywhere, and religion without science is doubly crippled.” At minimum, the recasting confirms that Coyne lacks Einstein’s ability to turn a phrase. More importantly, the recasting is simply disingenuous. Einstein’s religion was more than mere curiosity. It included both awe and humility. And, though Coyne may wish it were so, he has provided no evidence that Einstein ever thought that religion informed by science was crippled, that is, damaged to the point of dysfunctionality. Einstein qualified his own epigram with respect to religions based on a personal God, and he urged religious teachers to move away from such a concept. But that is a different issue than concluding that religion is functionally impaired. Does Coyne really need a list of religious organizations or individuals, including scientists, who do good deeds and engage in acts of loving kindness and who also function quite well? Perhaps when a thaw comes, Coyne can step away from Botany Pond, walk around campus, and spend a moment at Rockefeller Chapel.  Maybe he’ll meet some fully functioning science embracing theists.

Early in his essay, Coyne criticizes Einstein for his “accomodationism,” stating that “(a)n expert in physics is not necessarily a doyen of philosophy.” At the end of the essay, again without any apparent irony or self-awareness, Coyne then wistfully wishes that Einstein “would have written a bit more clearly, thought a bit more clearly or, perhaps, completely avoided discussing the relationship of religion and science.”  Rabbi Sacks and Mr. Douthat probably would have the same wish for Coyne.

“He was Einstein,” concludes Coyne, “but he wasn’t God.” Coyne cannot help but acknowledge the man’s stature, yet seems genuinely baffled, at a total loss to understand how someone so bright, a scientist, Einstein!, could have used religious language and entertained religious, if not conventionally theistic, thoughts.

Coyne is correct about one thing. Einstein was not God, but then, he never claimed to be. What he also never claimed to be was an atheist, like Coyne. The record is clear according to both Prof. Jammer and to acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson.  According to Jammer, Einstein “always made a sharp distinction between his disbelief in a personal God and atheism.” And he “renounced atheism because he never considered his denial of a personal God as a denial of God.” (See Jammer, at 50, 150.) “What separates me from most so-called atheists,” Einstein once explained, “is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.”  (See Isaacson at 389.)

Indeed, Einstein was truly angered by those who attempted to misquote him in support of the view that there is no God. [See Id. at 389.] Isaacson concluded that “Einstein tended to be more critical of the debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful.” (See Id. at 389-90.) Said Einstein at one point: “ . . . the fanatical atheists . . . are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who -- in their grudge against traditional ‘opium for the people’-- cannot bear the music of the spheres.” (See Jammer, at 97.) Surely Einstein would have been angered by Coyne, who he would likely have regarded as tone deaf to the “music of the spheres.”

While striving to show that Einstein’s famous dictum on the interplay of science and religion provides “no solace” for the faithful, Coyne did not even mention Einstein’s considerable distaste for atheism. Whether Coyne was fully aware of Einstein’s thinking on that topic is unclear. The only honest conclusion, however, is that Einstein provides no solace to atheists like Coyne.

Another version of this essay was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Roger Price was born and raised on the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, long before Barack Obama decided to settle there. Originally schooled in a classic...

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