Atheist He Was Not

This week I enjoyed sauntering through Barnes and Noble with a freshly poured latte in hand. Something about the wafting aroma of espresso in between consecutive rows of newly printed books fuels the imagination. After thumbing through a few titles, a particular sign caught my attention which read “Belief in God.” Beneath the sign were several popular books such as Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great, The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and other works from notable atheists.

I turned to the nice old man who was just a few steps away at the info counter and suggested that the sign was incorrect. After he flashed a look of concern, I let a momentary pause hang in the air before I relieved his distress by proposing a new title. “It should actually read ‘Unbelief in God’ based upon the books which you feature.” He responded with agreement, but was insufficiently motivated to do anything about it.

This little incident got me thinking about the way atheists argue against God’s existence and how the Church can appropriately respond. In addition to speaking from sound theological and philosophical reason, we can benefit from listening to key thinkers in the scientific world. As you might expect, an important voice in this conversation is the late Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was the most significant physicist since Sir Isaac Newton. In the seventeenth century Newton effectively launched classical physics, inventing calculus along the way as the language to describe his discoveries. Einstein’s great achievement was that he succeeded in describing reality at certain boundary conditions where classical physics broke down—really fast objects and extremely small or large objects. In so doing, he established two foundational pillars of modern physics—general relativity and quantum mechanics. Einstein’s discoveries resulted in such practical innovations as nuclear power and the Hubble Space Telescope. Einstein is often remembered for his celebrity-like status and womanizing, but one of his lesser-known qualities was that, unlike so many popular scientists today, he was a theist. Einstein’s religion did not include a personal God, but he nevertheless stood humbly in awe at the elegant order of the universe. When asked by an interviewer if he was an atheist, the famed scientist responded:

I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.1


1 First published as “What Life Means to Einstein,” Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929. Quoted in Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 386.

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