"In my view, it is the most important function
of art and science to awaken this [cosmic religious] feeling
and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

You can find the other Einstein Postings here:

  - Einstein - Part 2
  - Einstein - Part 3

--| Einstein on Cosmic Religious Feeling (Part 1) |-----

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the
satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to
keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual
movements and their development. Feeling and longing are the motive force
behind all human endeavour and human creation, in however exalted a guise
the latter may present themselves to us. Now what are the feelings and
needs that have led men to religious thought and belief in the widest
sense of the words? A little consideration will suffice to show us that
the most varying emotions preside over the birth of religious thought and
experience. With primitive man it is, above all, fear that evokes
religious notions—fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death. Since at
this stage of existence understanding of causal connections is usually
poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less
analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings
depend. Thus one tries to secure the favour of these beings by carrying
out actions and offering sacrifices which, according to the tradition
handed down from generation to generation, propitiate them or make them
well disposed toward a mortal. In this sense, I am speaking of a religion
of fear. This, though not created, is in an important degree stabilized by
the formation of a special priestly caste which sets itself up as a
mediator between the people and the beings they fear, and erects a
hegemony on this basis. In many cases, a leader or ruler or a privileged
class whose position rests on other factors combines priestly functions
with its secular authority in order to make the latter more secure; or the
political rulers and the priestly caste make common cause in their own

The social impulses are another source of the crystallization of religion.
Fathers and mothers and the leaders of larger human communities are mortal
and fallible. The desire for guidance, love, and support prompts men to
form the social or moral conception of God. This is the God of Providence,
who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes; the God who, according to
the limits of the believer's outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the
tribe or of the human race, or even life itself; the comforter in sorrow
and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead. This is
the social or moral conception of God.

The Jewish scriptures admirably illustrate the development from the
religion of fear to moral religion, a development continued in the New
Testament. The religions of all civilized peoples, especially the peoples
of the Orient, are primarily moral religions. The development from a
religion of fear to moral religion is a great step in peoples' lives. And
yet, that primitive religions are based entirely on fear and the religions
of civilized peoples purely on morality is a prejudice against which we
must be on our guard. The truth is that all religions are a varying blend
of both types, with this differentiation: that on the higher levels of
social life the religion of morality predominates.

Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their
conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments,
and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent
above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which
belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I
shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate
this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is
no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.

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

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.

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to
another if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no
theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science
to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

We thus arrive at a conception of the relation of science to religion very
different from the usual one. When one views the matter historically, one
is inclined to look upon science and religion as irreconcilable
antagonists, and for a very obvious reason. The man who is thoroughly
convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a
moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of
events—provided, of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causality
really seriously. He has no use for the religion of fear and equally
little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is
inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man's actions are
determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God's eyes he
cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible
for the motions it undergoes. Science has, therefore, been charged with
undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behaviour
should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and
needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way
if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after

It is, therefore, easy to see why the churches have always fought science
and persecuted its devotees. On the other hand, 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 labour 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 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 workers are the only profoundly religious people.

(Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, New York, 1954).


updated: july 24, 2001