Albert Einstein famously proclaimed that he did not believe God played dice with the universe.
As with all such pithy sayings from famous skeptics – especially ones that seem to reveal an unexpected feature of an internal landscape – a lot of people of faith have built cathedrals on this unusual reference to religious belief from the paragon of science.
Einstein’s religious skepticism (or, perhaps more accurately, disbelief) is not contradicted by this observation.
He did not not believe that God “played dice with the universe.” Rather, he did not believe that “God played dice with the universe.”
It was his way of rejecting the emerging field of quantum physics which posited unverifiable exceptions to the laws of physics to which his theorems adhered. He was willing to stalk an uncertain outcome, but not with uncertain methods.
I don’t want to claim an expertise on Einstein beyond what I have read in various biographic profiles. But I am pretty comfortable in affirming that he was a casual atheist.
That is to say, I think he saw no particular harm in a belief in God as long as it had no consequence for the immutability of science (and perhaps other formal disciplines).
If you want to argue that point, take it offline, because that presumption informs what follows.
Just because Einstein was not a believer in God did not mean he was without his spiritual side, if you are willing to understand spirituality as an openness to awe, or what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.”
Awe is a recognition of the stunning improbability of our place in the universe, including our individual places, our collective place and the very existence of our planet. I think that responses to awe fall into two general categories: appreciation and fear.
Appreciation causes people to come closer to be immersed in the source of that awe, whatever it may be. Einstein and Heschel each rushed headlong into the embrace of radical amazement.
Fear makes people build artificial constructs to prevent being swallowed by what they do not understand.
Ironically, the reaction of each looks superficially the same.
It is easy to identify how the fearful among the secularists and the pious have built a wall to deny the other, and each identifies the other side as the greatest threat to life as we know it.
Those who claim that religion is responsible for all the world’s ills are correct only if the data is not subject to the same methods of inquiry on which they rely.
Those who deny climate change, life-saving medical procedures and the common DNA of all human beings are forced to forego not only the knowledge of science, but also the wisdom that can flow from it.
Perhaps less obvious is how the appreciators in each camp are similar. Each seeks understanding and, if integrity is intact, each seeks understanding from whatever source presents itself.
Yes, like Robert Frost imagined, each arrives at a fork in the road and chooses one to pursue. Perhaps, as a result, they have little or no contact with travelers who made the other choice. In the end, each path leads to the other side of the wood.
It may be my prejudice as someone who tries to live in this camp, but I suspect that the those who eschew fear and travel with appreciation would be glad to see others emerge in the meadow beyond – even if it meant the hard work of discovery was not concluded.
Among my very favorite authors is Alan Lightman, who teaches both physics and writing at MIT. He has written wonderful speculative fiction informed by his appreciation of the stunning improbability of our place in the universe.
I had the opportunity to interview him once; I accused him by the evidence of his behavior of being an adherent of the essential tenets of Jewish tradition.
We were sitting in front of an audience at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which may have influenced his response, and he acknowledged my framing of his lifestyle and his writing with an affirming and flowing response.
Pressing my luck, I asked, “Do you ever pray?” His answer was more succinct: No.
It was Dr. Lightman’s book Einstein’s Dreams that brought him to my attention.
It is pure fiction, not including the references to Einstein’s early job and the circumstances of his life. In it, he posits a series of dreams about the nature of time and the worlds that result from small differences in time’s essence.
I was so enamored of it that it informed my High Holy Day messages after I read it. (Also, I prayed.) It was as if someone tossed a message from the other road through the wood that landed at my feet.
Not being a High Priest (or even a low one), I never would have qualified to wear the embroidered breastplate that was part of the sacred vestments. As such, I never would have had cause to encounter the Urim and Thummim, probably best described as the dice of the universe with which God played.
Maybe if I had more of a vested interest in maintaining the wall of fear, I might have tossed the Lightman book back over the brush. What a tragedy that would have been for me.
The road might have led me to the meadow, but I probably would have turned around when I got there if I didn’t like what I saw.
I’d like to think, however, I would have reached for the dice. That I would have given them one last shake and returned the favor to my fellow traveler on the other path heading for the embrace of truth.
President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi. He is currently serving on Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board.