Religion-Einsteinian or Supernatural?

By Dawkins, Richard | Free Inquiry, February-March 2004 | Go to article overview

Religion-Einsteinian or Supernatural?


Dawkins, Richard, Free Inquiry


An Anglican clergyman, one of my teachers of whom I was fond, told me of the never-forgotten instant that triggered his own calling. As a boy, he was lying prone in a field, his face buried in the grass. He suddenly became preternaturally aware of the tangled stems and roots as a whole new world, the world of ants and beetles and, though he may not have been aware of them, soil bacteria and other micro-organisms by the billions. At that moment the microworld of the soft seemed to swell and become one with the universe as a whole and with the soul of the boy contemplating them. He interpreted the experience in religious terms, and it eventually led him to the priesthood.

Much the same mystic feeling is common among scientists such as Loren Eisley, Lewis Thomas, Carl Sagan, and, above all, Albert Einstein. In his boyhood at least, my clergyman was probably not aware of the closing lines of The Origin of Species, the famous "entangled bank" passage: "... with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth." Had he been, he would certainly have empathized with it and, instead of the priesthood, might have been led to Darwin's view that all was "produced by laws acting around us":

   Thus, from the war of nature, from
   famine and death, the most exalted
   object which we are capable of conceiving,
   namely, the production of the
   higher animals, directly follows.
   There is grandeur in this view of life,
   with its several powers, having been
   originally breathed into a few forms or
   into one; and that, whilst this planet
   has gone cycling on according to the
   fixed law of gravity, from so simple a
   beginning endless forms most beautiful
   and most wonderful have been,
   and are being, evolved.

Carl Sagan, in his inspiring book Pale Blue Dol, wrote:

   How is it that hardly any major religion
   has looked at science and concluded,
   "This is better than we
   thought! The Universe is much bigger
   than our prophets said, grander, more
   subtle, more elegant?" Instead they
   say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god,
   and I want him to stay that way." A
   religion, old or new, that stressed the
   magnificence of the Universe as
   revealed by modern science might be
   able to draw forth reserves of reverence
   and awe hardly tapped by the
   conventional faiths. Sooner or later,
   such a religion will emerge.

All Sagan's books and, I would like to think, my own, touch the nerve endings of transcendent wonder that religion monopolized in past times. I often hear myself described as a deeply religious person. But is religious the right word to use? I don't think so.

Much unfortunate misunderstanding is caused by failure to distinguish what might be called "Einsteinian" religion from supernatural religion. The last words of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, "... for then we should know the mind of God," are notoriously misunderstood. Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature clearly shows that she is just as much of an atheist as I am. Yet she goes to church regularly, and there are numerous passages in her book that seem to be almost begging to be taken out of context and used as ammunition for supernaturalist religion. The present Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, goes to church as an "unbelieving Anglican" "out of loyalty to the tribe." He does not have any supernatural beliefs, but shares exactly the sense of wonder that the universe provokes in the other scientists I have mentioned. There are many intellectual atheists who proudly call themselves Jews and observe Jewish rites, mostly out of loyalty to an ancient tradition but also because of a confusing (in my view) willingness to label as "religion" the pantheistic sense of wonder that many of us share.

One of Einstein's most eagerly quoted remarks is, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. …

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