In his best-selling biography Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson writes, "[W]e should do him the honor of taking him at his word when he insists, repeatedly, that these oft-used phrases were not merely a semantic way of disguising that he was actually an atheist." It's a generous assessment, but one that encompasses the physicist's more milquetoast pronouncements on the matter and conveniently ignores what Isaacson elsewhere concedes was Einstein's maddening tendency to be purposefully gnomic or oblique. Another biographer, Ronald W. Clark, observed that when Einstein talked about religion, "he tended to adopt the belief of Alice's Red Queen that 'words mean what you want them to mean.' " (Clark quotes the line incorrectly and attributes it to the wrong character; the line "When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean. ..." is uttered by Humpty Dumpty. *) That comes closer to the mark and is best evidenced in the famous quotation, "I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos." Only a literal mind would see here a prime mover at a celestial craps table.
Einstein is not the only cosmic dragoman whose figurative comments about the great "out yonder" have been taken at face value. In the last paragraph of A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking uses the phrase "knowing the mind of God" as a metonym for the Theory of Everything, which Christian physicist Karl Giberson interprets as either a cheeky way of marketing a science book or a sign of Hawking's "theological naivete."
Elsewhere, sincere celebrations of faith by scientists have led to troubling category problems. Stephen Jay Gould came up with the term "nonoverlapping magisteria" to compartmentalize science as the exclusive domain of facts and religion as the exclusive domain of values. Except that values must be rooted in facts if they are not to be simply invented willy-nilly by religion. And, as an analytic philosopher of my acquaintance points out, if Gould's rule rang true, then it would entail that, as a scientist, he had no authority to advance that value-laden dichotomy in the first place.
More recently, geneticist Francis Collins, a former atheist, claimed that he came to Christ after hiking one day and spotting a waterfall frozen in three streams. Even if you accept that a triune phenomenon in nature is proof of the holy trinity, it surely isn't the kind of interpretive leap Collins' colleagues at the Human Genome Project would make in the lab. Nor does competence in biology necessarily translate into competence in metaphysics (just as Ben Stein's talents as a game-show host have not translated well into documentary filmmaking).
Most believers have long given up trying to legitimize the supernatural in microscopes or cyclotrons. That scientists like Einstein resorted to a numinous vocabulary is not the "gotcha" some wishful thinkers would like it to be. Faith has had impressive minds on its side in the past, but it will have to work without the assumption that the greatest of the 20th century was one of them.
Correction, June 18, 2008: This piece contains a quotation from Einstein biographer Ronald W. Clark that attributes lines from Through the Looking Glass to the Red Queen instead of Humpty Dumpty. Clark also misquoted the line. The incorrect quotation remains in the piece, but a parenthetical explains Clark's errors. (Return to the sentence.)