Posted tagged ‘Believers’

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

September 28, 2010

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.”

Zing.

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