You’ve most likely seen the picture and accompanying story that’s been floating around Facebook. Basically, it describes a meeting in a University classroom between a presumably atheist professor and a Christian student – who turns out to be Einstein! For those too lazy to click the link and read, it begins with the prof berating the student for his religious beliefs and then goes topsy-turvy as the student discovers a new-found confidence and destroys the professor with seemingly logical conclusions that prove the existence of a higher being.
The picture/story has become something of a standard for the religious social networkers, with millions of people spreading the message and saying lugubriously pathetic things like, “this a definitive proof of the fallacy that is material atheism.” Or my favorite, “God has shined through your words to destroy higher education’s need to debase all that is true with the world, praise Him!” Hilarious as that might be, we decided it was time to take apart the text and find out exactly what the faithful facebookers are so excited about…
Let’s start by clarifying Einstein’s actual religious position. In 1954 Albert Einstein wrote to philosopher Eric Gutkind, in which he stated:
“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.”
Einstein’s overall agnosticism and avoidance of the religious question makes his religious position difficult to articulate, which makes it easy for the faithful and non-faithful alike to assume he’s in their camp. Einstein did not believe in a personal god, but flirted with Spinoza’s pantheism – where an impersonal God is found in and conflated with the universe itself, being revealed through its very harmony. However, Einstein never fully took the pantheist position and ultimately refuses the term in an interview published in 1930, where he notes that the problem “is too vast for our limited minds.”
If Einstein ever had a god, it was an impersonal, Spinoza-esque entity that was part of the constitution of the universe itself. More than anything, Einstein advocated a position of humility – which lead him to denounce strong atheism – and an appreciation of mystery: to him, our minds were far too limited and the question of the religious (beyond the monotheisms he thought to be false outright) was one for which we could not even approach an answer. His position was an admirable one in that he saw our ignorance not as a sign that a greater supernatural entity could exist, but as an indication of our own limitations as we struggle for knowledge.
So this tale gets some points taken away for complete historical inaccuracy and misrepresentation. Not a good start.
It’s also odd that anyone would assume that just because Einstein believed in super-Jesus that such a belief would be more legitimate. Isaac Newton believed in alchemy, Joseph Priestley thought that an understanding of nature would induce Christ’s millennial reign, and Alfred Russell Wallace (a great collaborator of Darwin) attended many spiritualist sessions that celebrated the production of ‘ectoplasm.’ The point being that many of our species’ smartest members held or hold peculiar beliefs – indeed, they may do so because intelligent people are talented at justifying belief in poor ideas that they arrived at for unintelligent reasons. So even if Einstein did (and he absolutely did not) say these things, it is not a point in favor of the faith argument.
Now let’s look to what this student actually argues in the story.
The prof first ridicules the student for believing in a good, personal god that would allow evil:
“My brother died of cancer even though he prayed to GOD to heal him. Most of us would attempt to help others who are ill. But GOD didn’t. How is this GOD good then? Hmm? […]Evil is everywhere, isn’t it ? And GOD did make everything. Correct?”
After noting that cold and darkness are not the opposites of heat and light, but merely a lack of both, the student later responds to this criticism:
“Sir, you are working on the premise of duality. You argue there is life and then there is death, a good GOD and a bad GOD. You are viewing the concept of GOD as something finite, something we can measure […] To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing […]Death is not the opposite of life: just the absence of it.”
In other accounts, the student says “Evil is a term which man has created to describe the result of the absence of God’s presence in the hearts of man.”
The clever semantic wordplay seems to solve the problem of evil in only a few lines. This hijacks Saint Augustine’s position (known as Augustinian Theodicy) that evil exists only as a lack of good – in this case, evil exists only because of a ‘lack’ of god (who, presumably, is equivalent to goodness).
‘Cold’ and ‘dark’ are words we use to describe degrees of energy or illumination, and we all understand this. Hot and cold obviously aren’t separate things, and neither are light and darkness. There is no solution in lumping in a theistic conception of good and evil with these comparisons of degrees – as usual, the religious argument rests, and falls, on tenuous and often ridiculous analogies. In one case we have a measurement of empirical values measurable in quantitative terms (in degrees, joules, or lumens) and in the other we have the attempted measurement of a moral value.
This is why analogies SUCK: they ask us to assume that two categorically-different sets of values be equated as one. Too bad that the quantity of lumens needed for me to read such a stupid story can’t be compared to the ‘distance’ from god I must have for calling the idea of faith an idiotic one.
So not only does the student make a category mistake, but he trivializes both suffering (a long-time hallmark of religion) and the good.
This is because by placing a god behind the moral scene, the student removes the evilness of evil and the goodness of good. It dilutes evil by disregarding someone’s active agency in choosing to harm someone. The student would lead us to say that a distance from god underlies anyone’s motivation for causing harm, which minimizes the role of the criminal in the crime. In terms of goodness, it becomes a free will question: how can we be ‘given’ free will by god when our moral actions have to align with him to be moral in the first place? In the student’s world, goodness is good only in that is aligned with the personal will of a god, whereas without god goodness must be good in it of itself.
Actual free will entails continuing to create and interrogate our own moral codes. Without god, we construe good and evil as they actually are – namely, as good and evil, not as a distance or proximity to the will of an omnipotent deity. The student’s introduction of morality into his theistic world dilutes morality itself precisely because morality then comes to depend upon the will of a divine personhood.
Whereas if we look to ourselves, we can behave morally by determining our own judgements of what constitutes the moral. Christianity introduces this perpetual state of childhood where we are infantilized to the point of being unable to make our own moral judgments and are continually commanded to struggle in aligning ourselves with a perennial, totalitarian, parental will. But daddy, I want to be nice because I think it’s good to be nice, not because you say so!
There’s also the issue of the ‘evil’ of things like natural disasters and the indifferent events cause by natural laws: we wouldn’t call these events in themselves evil, but would use that term to describe the suffering that they cause for living, sentient beings. How would the student incorporate this kind of evil? How is an earthquake a ‘lack’ of god/goodness? The utter simplicity of the student’s rebuttal completely misses the complexity and variability of the question of evil (as well as making a categorical mistake), leaving us a ridiculous caricature of human suffering that’s meant to illustrate the ‘obvious’ existence of a good god.
After fumbling his way through the problem of evil, the student brings up the ‘fact’ that evolution and the professor’s brain are not ‘seen’ with our eyes and thus, empirically, exist only if we have faith that they do. So after doing a few face-palms, we move on to problem two.
The second major argument in this story is one that equates a ‘faith’ that things in the natural world exist when we can’t see them with the religious faith in a supernatural being. Because we all know, apparently, that ‘believing’ that the leaves will change color in autumn is the same as believing that there is a god who sent a son of his to be tortured to death so we can all go to heaven and praise his sacrifice for eternity…right?
The professor instigates:
“Have you ever felt your GOD, tasted your GOD, smelt your GOD? Have you ever had any sensory perception of GOD for that matter? […] According to Empirical, Testable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says your GOD doesn’t exist […]Yes, faith. And that is the problem Science has.”
“Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor. Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher? […] Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s brain, felt it, touched or smelt it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established Rules of Empirical, Stable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says that you have no brain, sir.”
The professor, then admitting you’d have to take the existing of his brain and evolution on ‘faith,’ prompts the student to exclaim: “That is it sir … Exactly ! The link between man & GOD is FAITH. That is all that keeps things alive and moving.”
Does the student seriously equate empirical evidence to that which we can only ‘see’ and detect with our senses in the present tense? We can see evolution occurring, and to see proof of this we need only to look to Darwin’s finches or the skinks that changed, within an observable period of time, from laying eggs to giving live births. That is to say nothing of the incredible storehouses of proof from the fossil record and the genetic makeup of life itself. Evolution is a very obvious, observable phenomenon. If you really think not seeing it with your actual eyes (which we can) is proof of it being a ‘faith’ position, I think your brain might be bleeding.
There’s also the refuge the religious take in evolution being described as a ‘theory’ of evolution. Theory can indeed mean mere conjecture, but in scientific context its connotation changes, as we can see if we look to the Oxford English Dictionary when it describes ‘theory’ as being:
“A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.”
Evolution is indeed a fact in every sense of the word, and we should not add some ‘belief’ element to it solely because of the existence of the term ‘theory.’
This is where we see the student’s biggest mistake: to assume that ‘faith’ in evolution and faith in god are the same types and degrees of faith. Faith in God and faith that the sun will rise tomorrow or that a brain rests in my skull are of two different magnitudes. Faith in this case is not just recognizing the limits of reason. David Hume claimed that we had to assume (or ‘have faith’ in) the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow morning and the earth will not be torn from its orbit.
However, assuming the continuity of nature is not the same as having a faith in a supernatural being that is behind everything we see in the natural world. This difference is what makes religious faith religious. ‘Faith’ in evolution is faith in an explanation of facts that is continuously affirmed by observation, whereas faith in a god is faith that an unproven, unsubstantiated ‘fact’ is true a priori (prior to experience or evidence). Faith in god is the faith that can never be closed, that must be ongoing, that has to persist for there to even be a relationship with a god. These two kinds of faith are actually opposites.
Thus trying to validate religious faith by saying ‘everyone has faith in different things’ is over simplistic, equates two sorts of beliefs that are actually opposites, and relies on the poverty of the terms we have for these assumptions. Just because we use the same word (‘belief’) to describe our assertions does not entail that these assertions have the same validity or are beliefs to the same degree. My faith in nature’s continuity is a faith born from having that faith fulfilled every time the sun rises.
Faith in the goodwill of people, the continuity of nature or in the ‘bang for your buck’ value of the Mandarin is an affirmed faith, and one that is not necessary for the existence of any of these things. The sun rose today even if I thought it wouldn’t. But if people stopped having faith in god, there would be no god, as we would then realize what ‘god’ actually signified: a “shout in the street,” to quote Stephen Daedalus.
And that’s what this story amounts to: baseless shouting to make an insanely offensive and illogical idea seem reasonable and insightful. It seems so revelatory! We all believe things, so why not believe in god? It makes so much sense! Well…until we stop and think for five minutes and use an internet connection, that is.