Dear Mr Einstein, Do scientists pray?

Einstein On The Porch

“Do scientists pray?”

That’s the question that occupied the thoughts of a sixth-grade Sunday school class at The Riverside Church, and who better to pose it to than one of the best scientific minds of our time, Albert Einstein?

A young girl named Phyllis penned a polite and inquisitive note to the great physicist, and she was probably surprised to receive a considerate reply. The exchange was published in the book “Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children,” edited by Alice Calaprice.

She wrote:

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men to try and have our own question answered.

We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.

Respectfully yours,


He replied a mere five days later, sharing with her his thoughts on faith and science:

January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

your A. Einstein

While the letter doesn’t reveal much about Einstein’s own personal views on religion, he brilliantly manages to capture the sublime sense of wonder that science can evoke in a way that it’s possible to describe as “religious.”

Josh Jones of Open Culture commented, “I think it’s a moving exchange between two people who couldn’t be further apart in their understanding of the world, but who just may have found some small common ground in considering each other’s positions for a moment.”


9 thoughts on “Dear Mr Einstein, Do scientists pray?

  1. Einstein’s letter was a good one, though necessarily slightly patronizing in its communication with a primary school child.

    His statement that:”some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man” is somewhat of an over-concession in that spirit of patronization. I don’t mean patronizing in a bad sense, just that he is bending over backwards to avoid hurting sensibilities.

    Unfortunately in the area of beliefs without evidence, sensibilities do get hurt when Truth is sought rigidly, as it must be in any area of wishful thinking if Truth is in fact to be found.

    But this “manifest spirit”, while pandering to the imaginings of believers (whom he refers to as “naive”), is nothing more than a “scientific God of the gaps” and simply refers to those aspects of the universe which we still do not fully understand, though those gaps are closing steadily.

    The idea that this supposed “manifest spirit” is vastly superior to man (what? in its ability to solve complex problems? or simply in extent?) is something that even Einstein might have refrained from using, had he lived long enough to see the vast strides that have been made in Sciences of every sort since his death in 1955.

    What progress have religions ever made in the last two thousand years?


    • Rol, we can all sound patronising at times, even you and me.

      I found Einstein’s answer to be simple, open and honest, suitable for any age, and I didn’t find it patronising at all. Why do you think he was anything but sincere?


  2. Strewth,
    I meant patronizing from the point of view of being gently understanding and accommodating so as not to offend.and to try to appear to have some common ground.

    “Spirit” is one of those words which are so nebulous as to be pretty-well meaningless. It’s an abstract noun that describes something that is essentially imaginary, as when used to denote some disembodied “entity” or as some aspect of the mind or personality. Somewhat in the manner in which “life force” is used. But there is no independent life force. When an organism reaches a requisite level of functional complexity at which it can sustain itself and reproduce then it is alive. If a vital part of that system malfunctions it cannot sustain itself and there is no further life there. It has not gone anywhere else any more than a flame has gone anywhere else when the candle goes out.

    It’s like “supernatural”. Everything is natural. That’s it. Why invent supernatural? Oh, yes, it’s when you can’t understand something. Bear in mind that no proof of the supernatural or paranormal has ever stood up in the face of rigorous inquiry, despite a Million dollar reward offered, and still unclaimed.


    • Try to appear to have some common ground? That ground is common, Rol. We are all like children when we move beyond the provable. I still wonder why you can’t take his words at face value.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s