I'm a long ways – a very long ways – from sharing Albert Einstein's understanding of the universe. But when it comes to Einstein's religious bent, we're almost soul brothers. Just as, I suspect, many other churchless people are.
As described in a TIME article, "Einstein and Faith," in 1930 Einstein wrote a credo called "What I Believe." It ended with this oft-quoted passage about what he meant when he called himself religious.
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.
However, many people still wanted a simple answer to the question of whether he believed in God. Rabbi Goldstein, an Orthodox Jewish leader, sent a telegram to Einstein: "Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid. 50 words." Einstein used about half of his allotment.
I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.
So what is Spinoza's God? Basically, nature. Spinoza, a seventeenth century heretical Jewish philosopher, didn't want anything to do with a transcendent God who sits up in the heavens and guides the goings-on down here on Earth. His God is immanent in everything that exists.
I'm reading Matthew Stewart's "The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World." Stewart says:
In Spinoza's view, to put it simply, God and Nature are not and never will be in conflict for the simple reason that God is Nature…The "Nature" in question here is not of the blooming and buzzing kind (though it would include that, too). It is closer to the "nature" in "the nature of light" or "the nature of man" —that is, the "nature" that is the subject of rational inquiry.
However, it's easier to point to what Spinoza's God isn't, than to what it is, because the philosopher leaves us guessing about some of God's subtler qualities. However, Stewart says, this much is clear:
Spinoza's God is not the God of Sunday school and Bible readings. It is not the kind of supernatural being who wakes up one morning, decides to create a world, and then stands back at the end of the week to admire his achievement. In fact, God has no "personality" at all: it isn't male or female; it has no hair, likes or dislikes, is not right- or left- handed; it does not sleep, dream, love, hate, decide, or judge; it has no "will" or "intellect" in the way we understand those terms.
Well, if God is Nature, where's the need to add something abstract called "God" to the concrete reality of the natural world? I find myself asking this question quite often, generally to myself. For I'm fond of using "God" to mean the totality of everything in existence.
When I type out or speak that word, "God," increasingly it seems unnecessary to me. Why don't I simply say "reality," "existence," or "cosmos"? It's as if I've broken up with someone once dear to me and I can't bring myself to take her photo off of the bedside table.
If we no longer have a relationship, why am I still relating?
Once in a while I also find myself talking to the guru who I used to believe was part and parcel of my innermost being. Now I don't. Yet out of habit I sometimes have a (one-sided) conversation with him.
Of course, now and then I do that with my mother, who also is dead, and I have almost zero confidence that she's capable of hearing me.
So I'm having to face some contradictions in myself. Which is a good thing. More and more I catch myself when I start to fall back into old anthropomorphic religious habits, such as looking upon really real reality as being something transcendent and apart, rather than right here and now.
According to Spinoza, God or Nature causes the things of the world in the same way that the nature of a coffee, for example, causes it to be black. But we do not usually say that the nature of coffee is divine, so why should we say that Nature is God?
In the Ethics [Spinoza's main writing], as a matter of fact, one can substitute the word "Nature" (or "Substance," or even simply an X) for God throughout, and the logic of the argument changes little, if at all. So why use the term "God" at all?
Looking over Einstein's thoughts about God, religion, and theology, I strongly suspect that he too mostly used the word out of habit and respect for social convention. "God" is a flimsy abstract conception that pales in comparison to the power and glory of nature. Which, naturally, includes us and indeed is us.
I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
… A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.