For those of you who don’t know, our friend Kevin Kim has a new website, created for the purpose of chronicling his upcoming transcontinental walk — a trek whose purpose is to explore the many parallel currents of religion in America, and if possible to help build bridges between them. The walk itself won’t get going for a few weeks yet, but you can’t keep a good blogger down, and Kevin has been posting as regularly as ever. Kevin himself is one of the more unusual religious figures I know: a trained theologian and an elder of the Presbyterian church, he’s also a non-theist.
Today he offers an interesting rumination on the Vatican’s position on Christianity for extraterrestrials; it’s well worth a look.
Meanwhile there’s other news on the religious front: a revealing letter by Albert Einstein, in which he writes with unequivocal clarity about his unbelief, and about his low opinion of religion generally.
We hear a great deal about the relationship of science to religion; for the past few hundred years organized religion has had to cope with a continuous encroachment of science upon the aspects of truth to which it can credibly lay claim. Copernicus and Darwin in particular conquered a great deal of territory, but science has been waging a patient war of attrition all along, and, in some parts of the West such as Northern Europe, has almost claimed the day. (Other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan and Kansas, “not so much”.)
This means that believers are always on the lookout for scientists they can name as sympathetic to their cause. We hear at fatiguing length, for example, of the obsessive and idiosyncratic piety of Newton. Maxwell was a devout evangelical, Mendel an abbot, and Boyle saw science as an expression of the glory of God. But the best catch of all was the great Einstein himself, who made more than a few comments that seemed to mark him as a believer: for example “God does not play dice”, and the oft-cited “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Well, as they say in these parts, fuhgeddabouddit. The letter in the news today, which was written a year before Einstein’s death to philosopher Eric Gutkind, seems clear enough:
…the word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.
Einstein also had this to say about the Jews (of which he was, of course, one):
…for me, the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. …the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity, have no different quality for me than all other people…
As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.
This is not to say that Einstein was not a spiritual man; it is well known that he had a deep and abiding sense of the numinous. But this letter should make quite clear that he would be no willing ally of old-time religionists looking for endorsements.
Finally, speaking of the distinction between religion and spirituality, New York Times columnist David Brooks had a good piece on that very subject in today’s paper. It touches upon free will, neuroscience, our experience of the sacred, and the nature of the self, and you can read it here.