The problem with using scientists' words to support religious beliefs.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
June 18 2008 7:10 AM

It Doesn't Take an Einstein

The problem with using scientists' words to support religious beliefs.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.)



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Votes to Remain in U.K.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Can Democrats Keep Counting on Republicans to Offend Women as a Campaign Strategy?


Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 19 2014 11:36 AM Breaking Up Countries Is Still Hard to Do
Business Insider
Sept. 19 2014 11:37 AM Why Urban Outfitters and Other Brands Troll Their Customers
Lexicon Valley
Sept. 19 2014 11:32 AM Why Do Pirates Talk Like That?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Sept. 19 2014 11:51 AM This Is All That’s Left of New York’s Once-Thriving Borscht Belt 
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 11:40 AM Apple Invented the Perfect Way to Handle Your Giant New Phone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM The Curious Incident of the Supernova in the Nighttime
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.