10/16/2012 03:48 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Einstein's Religion as Weakness Supported by Science

As a 1954 Einstein letter goes up for sale on eBay, the contempt he expresses for conventional religion therein is hard to miss. The buzz surrounding the letter is remarkable considering that the distinguished physicist had been saying essentially the same thing for decades. His idea of religion as a response to vulnerability is supported by recent science.

What Einstein had to say

As a public figure, Einstein took seriously the responsibility of a public person to educate the public. We know more about his religious views than those of almost any other leading scientist in recent history.

Einstein's willingness to share his detailed opinions about religion seem to have created the rather misleading impression that, unlike most other leading scientists, he was open to common religious views. He was also fond of peppering his writings with the word "God." He felt that God did not play dice with the universe, but this turns out to have been a fairly loose statement of his objection to the uncertainty inherent in quantum physics. He wrote: "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind."

If religious people have often made the mistake of taking comfort that Einstein was one great scientist who was a believer -- one of them -- they probably shouldn't.

Indeed, if all religious people believed as little as Einstein, religion would soon go out of business. It is quite clear that Einstein did not believe in a personal God, did not believe in heaven and hell as payments for good or bad lives, respectively, dismissed freewill, and did not believe that the soul survived death. That doesn't leave very much for any formal religion to work with.

Now, his 1954 letter reveals a certain impatience, even hostility to conventional religion: "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive, legends."

This hostility is nothing new. In a 1930 New York Times Magazine article, he writes: "With primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions -- fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death." Then religion becomes more involved in social problems and education -- more Unitarian, so to speak.

Einstein's view of religion as motivated by weakness, fear, or vulnerability has been taken seriously by social scientists -- and it has been thoroughly evaluated by scientific tests.

What the relevant science has to say

The worldwide picture of religion and atheism is fairly clear. One finds that the weakest countries, places that are miserably poor, where life is difficult, often violent, and brief, are the most religious. In sub-Saharan Africa there is almost no atheism. Belief in God declines in more developed countries and atheism is concentrated in Europe in countries such as Sweden (64 percent nonbelievers), Denmark (48 percent), France (44 percent) and Germany (42 percent). In contrast, the incidence of atheism in most sub-Saharan countries is below 1 percent. This unmistakable pattern is sometimes referred to as the secularization thesis. It used to be controversial but is now accepted by all reasonable scholars based on the strength of the empirical evidence.

Why are wretched countries deeply religious whereas atheism blossoms in countries enjoying the best standard of living? It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. Religious rituals and practices actually counteract stress. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion.

Churches may also lose ground in developed countries because there is such a variety of alternative "feel-good" products that may be replacing formal religion. They include anti-anxiety drugs, psychotherapy, yoga, and entertainment. Even sport spectatorship may be replacing religion as it produces similar psychological benefits and is on the rise in countries where religion is in decline.

Einstein certainly didn't get everything right but his intuition that religiosity is a response to distressing circumstances was certainly on the money. That insight is worth having but it may not be worth the $3 million of the opening bid.