05/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Einstein, Atheism and One Big Bowl of Rice

On Sunday, the NY Times website listed two articles back-to-back in the Science section that, at first glance, seemed unrelated. In terms of content, that is true; in terms of how we understand and experience the world, they are too close for anyone's comfort.

The first was titled "Einstein Letter on God Sells for $404,000." Much to the surprise of everyone involved in the auction -- twenty-fives times the original estimate, in fact -- a 1954 letter that Albert Einstein wrote to philosopher Eric Gutkind pulled in close to a half-million dollars. The text had been circulating online, with Einstein citing the Bible as pretty naïve and childishly superstitious. He did not outwardly deny the existence of a god figure, but did say such "is too vast for our minds" -- a claim that aligns him more with agnosticism than atheism.

The second article in the section was titled "World's Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut." It uses a recent agricultural tragedy in the Philippines as an example of what is occurring globally: there is not enough money to back proper research and planting procedures to stave off droughts and, as this piece discusses, insect damage. One such bug is the gnat-sized brown plant hopper, which recently destroyed large rice crops that feeds an already-impoverished population. The tragedy is that it could have been avoided, had the money been given to scientists that could have bred a more resistant crop.

There are too many "could haves" in the world right now.

Without irony, the anonymous telephone bidder of the Einstein letter, according to the auction's managing director, has "a passion for theoretical physics and all that that entails." Among the high bidders was also evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, whose outspoken book The God Delusion is a scathing, if not slightly cranky, look at how religion incarcerates minds with a theory (God) whose time has come and gone. Dawkins, like other atheist writers, discusses how we need to move beyond the corporatizing brand (God as unapproachable CEO) of archaic theorizing that much modern religion exhibits, and build actual human relationships. Open up the God question to scientific scrutiny, they go, and see if it stands a chance.

As Dawkins and others have pointed out, the idea of Western religions runs counter to how the rest of the world runs. We need to see to believe; we need to verify something before it is deemed fact. Yet the faithful offer a different paradigm: God is real, and that is their basis for belief. That's completely backwards! If you believe something, you don't know whether it is real. If God is real, why the need for belief?

Yet what we do know is real is that, as the second article states, in the 1980s the International Rice Institute employed five entomologists with a staff of 200 workers. Today there is one, overseeing a staff of eight. We also know that the United States "is in the midst of slashing, by as much as 75 percent, its $59.5 million annual support for a global research network that focuses on improving crops vital to agriculture in poor countries." Rice, a staple crop for most of the world, is one of the biggest losers in this battle.

People do not need God. I'd go a step further than Einstein's plea -- one echoing through the New Atheists, as they've been dubbed: not only is the idea too vast for our minds, it's an unnecessary hypothesis. Afterworlds, hells and heavens make great folklore (and in storytelling, they are very necessary to the imagination). Pumping money into a supposedly "real" thing that we then have to believe in does nothing to feed and shelter fellow humans. Giving them funding, scientific research and governmental (not to mention cultural) support so that we can accomplish that task is the most divine thing I can imagine.

That a respected biologist and a supposed fan of physics -- not to mention other bidders and the entire elitist auctioning process -- miss that point is unnerving, especially when the first mentioned spends his time trying to evolve the world out of the very idea of God. He's right; God is not necessary, but being human is. As Alan Watts wrote, you cannot eat paper currency. But you can use it to help others to eat.