Do Scientists Pray? Einstein Answers a Little Girl’s Question about Science vs. Religion
By Maria Popova
Whether in their inadvertently brilliant reflections on gender politics or in their seemingly simple but profound questions about how the world works, kids have a singular way of stripping the most complex of cultural phenomena down to their bare essence, forcing us to reexamine our layers of assumptions. Take, for instance, the age-old tension between science and religion, which has occupied the minds of luminaries from Galileo to Carl Sagan, as well as some of today’s most renowned scientific minds. The enormous cultural baggage of the question didn’t stop a little girl from New York named Phyllis from posing it to none other than the great Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) in a 1936 letter found in Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library | IndieBound) — the same delightful collection that gave us Einstein’s encouraging words to women in science.
The Riverside Church
January 19, 1936
My dear Dr. Einstein,
We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.
We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?
We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.
Only five days later, Einstein wrote back — isn’t it lovely when cultural giants respond to children’s sincere curiosity? — and his answer speaks to the same spiritual quality of science that Carl Sagan extolled decades later and Ptolemy did millennia earlier. Six years prior, Einstein had explored that very subject, in far more complicated language and mind-bending rhetoric, in his legendary conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore.
January 24, 1936
I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:
Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.
However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.
But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
With cordial greetings,
your A. Einstein
Complement this with the difference between curiosity and wonder when it comes to science and scripture and Einstein on the secret to learning anything, then treat yourself to Dear Professor Einstein in its heart-warming entirety.
Portrait of Einstein by Yousuf Karsh
Published July 11, 2013