Atheists, Believers and Religious Illiteracy: Albert Einstein got there before Pew.

Much amusement is being had over the story about how little believers know about their own religions (and less about anyone else’s) compared with atheists and agnostics.*

Here’s my  favorite line in the New York Times piece on the Pew study various blocs’ knowledge:

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” [American Atheists president] Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”


I’d just like to point out to you that Albert Einstein, who did not quite call himself an atheist, made a similar point more than sixty years ago.  In his “Autobiographical Notes” (he described as  “something like an obituary,” Einstein remembered his approach to and then rejection of revealed religion — a journey accomplished by the time he was twelve years old.

In telling how he banished himself from what he called “the religious paradise of youth,” Einstein recalled his brief exposure to traditional Judaism, mandated by the Bavarian educational system that in the late nineteenth century required that all students undergo formal religious training.  Here’s how that experience played out, at least in the remembrance of that child-Einstein’s 68 year-old heir:

Even when I was a fairly precocious young man, the nothingness of the hopes and strivings which chases most men restlessly through life came to my consciousness with considerable vitality.  Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase….As a first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine.  Thus I came — despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiosity…

And it was an appreciation of traditional religion, not the rather loose God-in-nature talk of his later life.   His sister, among others, reported that Einstein absorbed both the formal outward signs of Jewish observance — cajoling his parents into forgoing pork, for example — and an inner emotional commitment that manifested itself, briefly, in spontaneous expression like composing religious songs on his way to school. And then it all…

…found an abrupt ending at the age of twelve.  Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  The consequence was a positively frantic [orgy of ]** of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies…

That reaction, which Einstein reports initially seemed tragic (“a crushing blow” is the phrase he used — in German, niederschmetternder Eindruck) grew less as he discovered the consolation, the reward of scientific inquiry.  He wrote, in one of the most beautiful scientific credos I know,

“Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.  The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation [italics added].

Note, contra Silverman’s natty soundbite, it wasn’t just handing Einstein a Bible that made an impact, it was Einstein’s capacity to compare that text with experience.  Which is what I think Silverman was trying to say.

Just two more things:

First, three cheers for science writing!  It got Big Al off the schneid,so it must be worth doing, right?  Or so we here at MIT Science Writing do avow.

Second:  science, the investigation of “this huge world,…which stands before us like a great eternal riddle,” is liberating. Or, to use the word that describes what I feel when I encounter an intricate elegance or a grand idea, it exalts.

Which, for all the social value that I believe writing about science does indeed have, is really why I do this job.

*And Jews and Mormons, though I have to pause before touting the quality of Jewish religious education if the numbers on those who can correctly identify the faith professed by Maimonides are to be believed.

**the translator’s interjection, not mine.

Images: August Allebé “The Butterflies,” 1871

Gerard Dou, “Astronomer by Candlelight,” c. 1665

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9 Comments on “Atheists, Believers and Religious Illiteracy: Albert Einstein got there before Pew.”

  1. Andrew W Says:

    You know what in this story got the biggest reaction (perhaps appropriately)? They used a set of non-religious general-knowledge questions to set a kind of baseline, and it turns out 33% of Americans say they don’t know the author of Moby Dick while 4% think it was Stephen King.

    • Tom Says:

      You know, those numbers aren’t that bad, especially when compared with, say, that on transubstantiation.

      Still, Stephen King?

    • I think you’ve got this backwards. There is no way that two thirds of Americans know who wrote Moby Dick. A third would be a surprise, a pleasant one at that.

      • Ian Preston Says:

        No, it is right. One third admit that they don’t know but that doesn’t mean the other two thirds get it right. 42 per cent actually get it correct.

      • Ian Preston Says:

        … and that’s not such a surprisingly high number given that it was a multiple choice question with Melville’s name therefore in front of people and the other choices including Stephen King and Edith Wharton.

        On transubstantiation, by the way, there appear only to have been two choices in the available answers so Catholics are the only group who (barely) did better than guessing randomly.

      • Ah, multiple choice, thanks Ian. On an open-ended question, I’d expect only double the success at answering the Maimonides question. After all, only 56% could name Joe Biden as veep.

  2. Gramsci Says:

    A nice coincidence seeing Dou’s painting– Damasio’s “Looking for Spinoza” uses it on the cover, Spinoza being an inspiration to Einstein along scientific and religious/cultural grounds.

  3. Downpuppy Says:

    The Sunday quiz at
    does religion. It’s much harder.

  4. Allan Cartlidge Says:

    Wow!! I am sure that all this is good stuff. Trouble is – I find it a bit difficult sometimes to work out who is arguing in favour of what as there rarely seems to be any agreement about anything. It is just an observation of mine. Sorry.
    Do the Internet / Google / Wikipedia etc help people to make up their minds? The more I read the more confused I become since there are so many convincing arguments on all sides.
    The one definite fact that I personally try to keep sight of is that religion has no EVIDENCE to offer to support the BELIEFS. It is simply raw no-questions-asked acceptance.
    Science – even when found to be incorrect – is hopefully far closer to the REAL truth at least most of the time. Mistakes can be rectified – hypothesis tweaked etc. None of which is allowed in religious belief.
    The big difficulty with some scientists is that they often end up believing theories are fact without there being any conclusive evidence either. I suggest that the big bang theory is being accepted as fact by many when it is unproven science.
    As we know – Big Al admitted he was wrong about his “biggest blunder” and Prof Hawkins about his early black hole beliefs.
    Just for the record I consider myself to be a devout scientific atheistic ex-Christian. After reading Charles Darwin, Einstein, Hawkin and Dawkins I found that my disbeliefs were justified.

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