26 August 2011

Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology

Here’s a book review I wrote for Science and Christian Belief some time ago:

Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Everyone with an interest in the relationship between physics and theology will welcome the publication of this volume by the distinguished philosopher of physics, Max Jammer. In spite of the general recognition of the importance of Einstein’s thought both for modern physics and its relationship with religion this is, as far as I am aware, the first comprehensive account of Einstein’s own views on the relationship.

Jammer has organised his material into three main sections. The first of these deals with ‘Einstein’s Religiosity and the Role of Religion in His Private Life’. As the title suggests, this chapter deals with Einstein’s personal attitude toward religion from childhood until his death. It is a detailed and roughly chronological account in which Jammer documents Einstein’s apparently self-contradictory attitude towards religion. On the one hand, he had a lifelong aversion to authority that was expressed in a distaste for organised religion (culminating in his request not to be given a Jewish funeral). On the other hand, as a personal response to the cosmos, he experienced what can only be described as profound religious feelings. In short, Einstein’s personal religion is shown to be typically late modern – affirming personal spirituality while disavowing organised religion.

In his second chapter, Jammer turns from Einstein’s personal attitude to what he has written about religion and its role in human society. The chapter is entitled ‘Einstein’s Philosophy of Religion’ and sets out to be a logical justification of the attitudes described in the first chapter. I must confess that I felt rather suspicious of this (re)construction of Einstein’s philosophy of religion. Jammer’s interpretative approach seems to have been to assume that it must always be possible to reconcile apparently contradictory statements. The result is a superhuman degree of consistency. Frankly I doubt whether even someone of Einstein’s stature could achieve such consistency outside his own field (and, indeed, his vacillations about the implications of relativity theory for the nature of time suggest that he did not always achieve it within his own field). That criticism apart, this chapter offers a valuable summary of Einstein’s articulated views about religion. In particular, it explores his lifelong admiration for Spinoza and sets his well-known determinism, realism and insistence on the impersonality of God in that context.

The final chapter is devoted to ‘Einstein’s Physics and Theology’. Here Jammer moves on from Einstein’s own views to explore some of the ways in which his contributions to science have been received by theologians and philosophers of religion. These explorations are organised logically (following roughly the order in which the ideas on which they are based appeared within the development of relativity theory) rather than chronologically. Among the issues tackled are the implications of Einstein’s redefinition of simultaneity for our understanding of eternity, determinism and omniscience; theological uses (and abuses) of time dilation; T.F. Torrance’s use of mass-energy equivalence as an exegesis of Incarnation and, more generally, Pannenberg’s assignment of theological significance to Einstein’s concept of field. Finally he explores some of the theological implications of quantum mechanics (on the grounds that Einstein’s criticisms played a major role in shaping its development). Some readers may find this final chapter both confusing and inconclusive. In part this is due to the fact that Jammer distances both Einstein and himself from the discussions he is reporting. Thus it reflects the current status of theological efforts to appropriate Einstein’s ideas.

Jammer has done an excellent job in bringing together and making accessible the scattered evidence for Einstein’s views about religion. Unfortunately the work is marred by the extreme length of the chapters (Chapter 3 runs to 110 pages!) and the complete lack of internal divisions. This makes reading the book a more daunting task than is necessary. Nevertheless, this is a valuable contribution to the subject.

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