09/07/2007 07:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Einstein's God, or The Hopes for a Secular Spirituality (Part 4)

Einstein's allegiance has been claimed by both sides of the science vs. religion debate, but in reality his position was too personal and exploratory to be assigned to either camp. He believed in "Spinoza's God" rather than the Judeo-Christian God. His mind was scientific, yet he felt that there was a realm of reality that could only be dimly sensed by the mind, a realm of wonder and mystery. "Spinoza's God" isn't a phrase that resonates with many people, but Einstein went on to explain it by saying that Spinoza regarded the body and the soul as one. This is really the key concept in Einstein's religious thinking, and although he was famous for not accepting quantum mechanics, it's to quantum reality that we must look in order to find where body and soul, mind and matter might be united.

Quantum physics reduces all matter and energy to a single unifying field (held to be valid by almost all theorists even though the final stages of Grand Unification, as it is called, haven't been mathematically worked out). Because we exist inside the field, each of us is a localized outcropping in the field, the same as a single magnet is an outcropping in the Earth's magnetic field. At the most fundamental level, we are the field, and the mystery of mind or soul --both being intangible aspects of reality -- leads directly to the field and nowhere else. It is as omnipresent as Allah, Brahman, or the God of Christian theology. An all-encompassing field dotted with local minds (human beings) is interacting with itself. This fact is beyond dispute when it comes to matter and energy. An electron spinning through the Andromeda galaxy has exactly the same properties as an electron spinning in your cerebral cortex.

What fascinated Einstein is the prospect that the universe has other interrelated properties. Like every great scientific mind before the quantum era, Einstein saw order, beauty, coherence, and law in the universe. And he seemed to acknowledge that an intelligence, hidden from the five senses but perceivable, however dimly, to the human mind, made design and orderliness possible. This contention has never been refuted and is, in fact, the simplest and most elegant way to explain cosmic order. Einstein was disturbed by any version of physics that denied orderliness, and to the end of his life he couldn't reconcile himself to the Uncertainty Principle or to the radical ambiguity of the quantum world, where order and disorder play an eternal shadow game.

He wound up in old age being irrelevant on both the religious and scientific front. His God was too impersonal for the religionists; his physics was too idealistic for the scientists (idealistic in the sense that Einstein never abandoned his belief in a non-random creation). What's so heartening about him today is that Einstein never adopted the arrogant small-mindedness of contemporary atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, neither of whom evinces the slightest awareness of the quantum revolution that occurred a century ago. Without a shadow of arrogance Einstein wrote, "What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos." I remain amazed that his beliefs are dismissed while those of much lesser minds earn general acceptance. Quite rightly, Einstein thought that atheists are slaves to the religious tradition they hate and hold such a grudge against traditional religion that "they cannot hear the music of the spheres."

He was also right, sad to say, when he said that religion and science came into contention over a personal God. It's still true that science cannot accept a God who meddles in human affairs, as Einstein phrased it, while religionists refuse to see beyond a personal God that can be loved as a cosmic father or mother. If anyone doubts that Einstein was exploring a new form of spirituality for the future, consider what he had to say about Buddhism:

"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic
religion of the future. It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and
theology; it covers both the natural and spiritual, and it is based on a
religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and
spiritual, as a meaningful unity."

In the last installment of this post, I want to ask if the future has arrived: Are we ready for a secular spirituality that will include all the advantages that Einstein saw in Buddhism while forging a new path into unknown territory?

Note: For extended treatment of the quotes found here, see Walter Isaacson's "Einstein: His Life and Universe."

(to be continued)