In The World As I See It, an autobiographical collection of Albert Einstein's papers, notes and lectures etc., the most renowned scientist of the twentieth century - and not unrelatedly one of that century's most visible and public atheists - makes the following comments regarding religion, God and the deep mysteries of life:
"The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery--even if mixed with fear--that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms--it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."
Yet while Einstein embraced the religious sentiments invoked by the inevitably opaque mysteries at the heart of existence, he most emphatically rejected all notions of an anthropomorphic and superhuman God, as well as the possibility of an afterlife for the individual soul.
"I cannot conceive," he writes,"of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls."
The mysteries and beauty of the microcosm and the macrocosm, and the life supported therein, were more than sufficient to satisfy all of Einstein's religious feelings. "Enough for me," writes the great scientist, are "the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature."
Although Einstein was a professed atheist, his observations - particularly his observation that "the mysterious" is "the fairest thing we can experience" - are markedly similar to the positions taken by the renowned protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, a contemporary and compatriot of Einstein's who also left Nazi Germany for the United States.
In his famous collection of sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations (at pp. 56-57), Tillich makes the following observations about atheism, the nature of God, and what Einstein would likely call "the mysterious". Tillich writes:
"The wisdom of all ages and of all continents speaks about the road to our depth. It has been described in innumerably different ways. But all those who have been concerned - mystics and priests, poets and philosophers, simple people and educated people - with that road through confession, lonely self-scrutiny, internal or external catastrophes, prayer, contemplation, have witnessed to the same experience. They have found that they were not what they believed themselves to be, even after a a deeper level had appeared to them below the vanishing surface. That deeper level itself became surface, when a still deeper level was discovered, this happening again and again, so long as their very lives, as long as they kept on the road to their depths."
Einstein was as much a mathematician and scientific philosopher as he was a theoretical physicist. Indeed, his revolutionary theories of special and general relativity were conceived and explained through what Einstein termed "thought experiments". As an unknown Swiss patent clerk shut out of academia, he had the opportunity to probe the depths of what he terms the "mysterious". And as a result, in 1905 - Einstein's annus mirabulus - he wrote and published five papers on problematic areas in the then-state of theoretical physics , four of which radically altered the course of physics as we know it. Einstein would go on to win the Nobel Prize in physics on the basis of one of these papers, although surprisingly it was not for his formulation of relativity theory.
Einstein looked back at his time in the Swiss patent office fondly, remarking that it had given him the time to examine the very basic depths of physics and to think at great lengths. It was there that he was able to gain knowledge in the impenetrable, manifest the profound reason and explain the workings of the macrocosm and microcosm in their "radiant beauty". It was through the experience of probing the hidden secrets of our universe with his intuitive reason, I believe, that made Einstein "a deeply religious man", although he remained a professed atheist throughout his life. "I want to know the thoughts of God," he purportedly remarked, "all the rest is mere details."
In his veneration of "the mysterious" - of what he avowed to be the basis of all true religious feelings - Einstein's remarks come very close to the concept Tillich called "the depths of existence". Even Einstein's rejection of a superhuman God with a will like man's, comes very close to Tillich's observation that, at least for some, putting aside all traditional ideas of God - and even the very word 'God' itself - might be essential in order to grasp the inner depths of each man, woman and child. In explaining the importance (and limits) of what he termed "the psychology of depth", Tillich observed that, "(i)t leads us from the surface of our self-knowledge into levels where things are recorded which we knew nothing about on the surface of our consciousness."
While being very similar to Einstein's "mysterious", Tillich's description of man's depths also seems an apt description of the Higher Power that many early A.A's found at the root of their spiritual awakening. Appendix II of the Big Book- on 'Spiritual Experience' - written when there were approximately 150,000 members describes how:
"With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves."
Appendix II continues, noting that, "(m)ost of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it God-consciousness."
In describing 'depth' - which many A.A.s might label "an unsuspected inner resource" - Tillich writes:
"The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is 'God'. That depth is what the word 'God' means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything that you have learned about God, perhaps even the word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You then cannot call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God."
Indeed, the layers of depth within mankind is identified (on p. 55) of Alcoholics Anonymous as where, ultimately, a Power greater than 'self' must in the end be found- and that, after looking everywhere else, most particularly at the bottom of many bottles, dope bags and/or pill containers.
"We found that Great Reality deep down within us," is perhaps the penultimate message of the Big Book. "In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found."
Small wonder then, that Einstein - an avowed atheist who believed in neither God nor an afterlife - was, as he says "a deeply religious man". For Einstein plumbed the depths of the universe as well as the depths of consciousness within him. Then, inevitably he endeavoured to dig ever deeper, ever searching and communing with the "mysteriious" depths available to all mankind.