Albert Einstein and the Religion of Mystery

There have been few thinkers in modern history who have been as influential as Albert Einstein. Even today, his words serve as some of the most valuable philosophical testaments on subjects such as love, imagination, non-conformity and religion.

Albert Einstein often expressed his distaste for classical religion, calling those who believed in life after death “feeble souls”. Belief in an all-powerful god, for Einstein, was the result of “fear or ridiculous egotism”. Though this does not mean he did not consider himself a religious man. Einstein rejected the term “atheistic”, and preferred the term “religious non-believer” for his religious views. He was religious, but did not believe in any religion. What did he mean by this?

In one of his most poignant essays, published in 1931 for Living Philosophies, he explains.

“The most beautiful thing that we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can only comprehend in their most primitive forms- this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.”

Einstein expresses that it is the sense of mystery that sits at the heart of true religiousness. This is a sentiment that is echoed by Ram Dass, philosopher and psychedelic renegade of the mid-to-late 20th century:

“Every religion is the product of the conceptual mind attempting to describe the mystery.”- Ram Dass

When looking at the function of religious mythology, it becomes clear that it has been formed in reflex to a sense of mystery. But where Einstein stands rapt in awe, other religions try to provide answers that extinguish the mystery, and the fear coupled with it.

Why are we here? Where did life come from? Where is life going? What happens upon death?

It is these questions that are the most mysterious to humans; they are also the questions that virtually all religions answer.

But the sense of mystery for Einstein does not come from these existential questions.

“To ponder interminably over the reason for one’s own existence or the meaning of life in general seems to me, from an objective point of view, to be sheer folly.”

He did not need to ponder these questions to feel a sense of mystery. For Einstein, this sense of religious mystery came upon his appreciation of the universe itself.

“It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.”

Perhaps a prescription from Einstein on how to experience the divine could be expressed in two words; Seek mystery.

Source: Living Philosophies, Simon & Schuster, 1931, New York.