Albert Einstein on Spirituality, the Strongest Force to Remain True to Your Purpose
Einstein explains a state of religious experience that has nothing to do with dogmas or God, and which belongs to everyone: the “cosmic religious feeling”.
The history of being human is, decidedly, the history of human effort. “Everything that the human race has done and thought has been concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain,” Albert Einstein wrote in 1930 in a great article for the New York Times. “One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development,” he states. His article aims not only to explain the development of religions and the social and moral necessity of a God (conceived to satisfy desires and to relieve pain), but also of a third state of religious experience that has nothing to do with dogmas and which belongs to everyone, even if, as he says, “it is rarely found in a pure form.” This third state of experience he called “cosmic religious feeling.”
Einstein considered the cosmic religious feeling to be of the highest sphere of human capabilities. It might be compared with what Freud called the “oceanic feeling” –– the intuition of infinity that every person experiences before their mere existence. In other words, that feeling of immensity and orphanage that surrounds and drowns the human being and reminds one, in a primordial way, that one is but part of a larger whole. In discussing this, Einstein acknowledges the limits of language. He admits that explaining this feeling to someone who hasn’t experienced it at all is difficult if not impossible. This is especially true because the feeling is not associated with any corresponding concept of an anthropomorphic God. That said, Einstein describes it thus:
The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.
The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.
For Einstein, the central problem of this cosmic religious feeling is the difficulty it poses at transmitting it to others. “The limit of my world is the limit of my language,” Wittgenstein would say. How does one communicate a feeling that does not result in a definitive concept of God or a theology? For Einstein, that role goes to art and science, which don’t only awaken the feeling but keep it alive in those with the capacity to receive it. And so we arrive at a most prosperous conception between religion and science, those two historically irreconcilable antagonists.
Einstein manages to link the scientific work of the most diligent men like Newton and Kepler (and of course, himself) with that regulatory strength that leads an individual to follow the universal will. It’s the longing to understand if “but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world” what compels people to spend their lives revealing the celestial mechanics. What gives a person such strength, according to Einstein, is precisely this cosmic religious feeling:
I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue.
What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics! Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and through the centuries.
Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength. A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.
Main image: Alison Scarpulla
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