Historians of modern science have good reason to be grateful to Paul Arthur Schilpp, professor of philosophy and Methodist clergyman but better known as the editor of a series of volumes on “Living Philosophers,” which included several volumes on scientist-philosophers. His motto was: “The asking of questions about a philosopher’s meaning while he is alive.” And to his everlasting credit, he persuaded Albert Einstein to do what he had resisted all his years: to sit down to write, in 1946 at age sixty-seven, an extensive autobiography –forty-five pages long in print.
To be sure, Einstein excluded there most of what he called “the merely personal.” But on the very first page he shared a memory that will guide us to the main conclusion of this essay. He wrote that when still very young, he had searched for an escape from the seemingly hopeless and demoralizing chase after one’s desires and strivings. That escape offered itself first in religion. Although brought up as the son of “entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents,” through the teaching in his Catholic primary school, mixed with his private instruction in elements of the Jewish religion, Einstein found within himself a “deep religiosity”–indeed, “the religious paradise of youth.”
The accuracy of this memorable experience is documented in other sources, including the biographical account of Einstein’s sister, Maja. There she makes a plausible extrapolation: that Einstein’s “religious feeling” found expression in later years in his deep interest and actions to ameliorate the difficulties to which fellow Jews were being subjected, actions ranging from his fights against anti-Semitism to his embrace of Zionism (in the hope, as he put it in one of his . . .