Albert Einstein: “Relative” to the Universe

Albert Einstein (b. A.D. 1879 – d. A.D. 1955) was already coming into fruition as a physicist when the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth; his discoveries in theoretical and applied physics would, of course, change forever the method and manner in which the universe (and its space and time) would be conceptualized. Almost as important as his contributions to physics and cosmology was Einstein’s support throughout the first half of the twentieth century for the growing impact that such philosophical movements as rationalism, positivism, relativism and materialism had been having on science in general during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (The Enlightenment). The rules for discussion between religion and science were changing with “light speed” (all puns intended here!) during the first half of the twentieth century.

Einstein’s first impacting contributions to science came in 1905 when he received his doctorate from the University of Zurich and, subsequently, published three theoretical papers that have now been substantiated as being of central importance to twentieth century physics. The third paper, entitled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” contained what became known eventually as the “Special Theory of Relativity” and was actually Einstein’s attempt to explain why Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s (b. A.D. 1831 – d. A.D. 1879) mathematical assertions about his well-accepted “Theory of Electromagnetism” were correct. Einstein’s “Special Theory of Relativity,” of course, finally became just as well-known, well-debated and well-accepted as Maxwell’s theory.

As soon as these papers had been published, however, Einstein immediately began work on extending and generalizing the theory of relativity to all coordinate systems. His full “General Theory of Relativity” was finally published in 1916. His more-than-brilliant depiction of time and how the interplay between gravitation and the space-time continuum affected time (now called “Time Dilation”) stood the experimental tests of time and is now still well-accepted.

By way of his discoveries in theoretical physics, Einstein developed a religious philosophy that came to “inform his science.” Denying the logical possibility of a personal God (i.e., one who intervened in personal human affairs), Einstein, however, was anything but an atheist. In describing the radiant beauty, the harmony and the awesome structure of the universe Einstein sometimes utilized the term “God” to depict a Divine Reason, Spirit, or Intelligence: a God who was identified with the universe and its laws taken together.

While Einstein was usually not enamored by the religious apologists of his day for his belief in a non-traditional God different from those described in various sacred scriptures, he also received enormous peer pressure from fellow scientists because of his unswerving belief in a Creator of the universe. In a now well-known dialogue of 1935, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr argued that recent developments in quantum mechanics demanded a “complete renunciation of the classical idea of causality and a radical revision of attitudes toward the problem of physical reality.” In response to this, Einstein, asserting his eccentric belief in a beginning and a Beginner, stated, “I am convinced that He (God) does not play dice.”

Although many scientists during the twentieth century continue to affirm belief in a particular God and/or a particular religion, there are many learned persons of science who have managed to make the pursuit of scientific knowledge itself a kind of religion. Some have called this unyielding faith in natural philosophy and the pursuit of a more complete understanding of the laws of the universe as its own religion of sorts: “scientism.”

The earlier twentieth century revolution in physics, vanguarded primarily by Einstein but then, also, by others in the sciences, seemed to have been an important factor in widening an ever-growing gap of understanding between science and religion.

 Einstein’s Belief In God: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fates and actions of human beings.” [Telegram of 1929]

Einstein on Science and Religion: “But, on the other hand, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.” [As quoted in Dukas, Helen and Banesh Hoffman. (1979). Albert Einstein – The Human Side. Princeton University Press.]


Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. (1995) Einstein’s Legacy/Unwinding the Clockwork Universe. In Spacetime Wrinkles. At web site http://www.ncsa.uiuc/edu/Cyberia/NumRel/NumRelHome.html

Brinton, Crane, John B. Christopher and Robert Lee Wolff. (1967). Man’s Fate in the Twentieth Century: The Sciences. In A History of Civilization (Volume Two). (pp.652-653), Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Brooke, John Hedley. (1991). Science and Religion in the Twentieth Century – Toward a New Understanding of Science: The Revolution in Physics. In Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. (pp.321-334), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Brunner, Borgna (ed.). (1998). People/ Maxwell, James Clerk. In The Time Almanac 1999. (p. 660), Boston: Information Please LLC.

Ferris, Timothy. (1997). Contrarian Theological Afterward. In The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report. (pp.303-312), New York: Touchstone Books.

Gribbin, John. (1981). The Origin of the Universe: The Expanding Universe (Chapter One). In Genesis: the Origins of Man and the Universe. (pp.5-37), New York: Delta Publishing Co.

Harrison, Paul. (1996). Albert Einstein. On The A to X-Files – Albert Einstein’s Thoughts On….. Website (http://www.angstromprod.com/xfiles/albert.html)

Menton, David N. (1991). Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism. Missouri Association for Creation, Inc.

Ross, Hugh. (1996). Einstein’s and Hawking’s Conclusions About God. On The Y Files Website (http://www.yfiles.com/relativity.html)

Scott, Jon. (1997-98). Was Einstein an Atheist? On The Talk.Science Archive Website (http://www.mytownnet.com/content/WA/Aberdeen/Einstein.htm)

Hyperlinks to Short Articles – Albert Einstein:

1) “Special Theory of Relativity:”

Einstein’s first theory of relativity, eventually dubbed the “Special Theory of Relativity,” was first published in 1905 within the paper entitled “The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” In it he broke away from Isaac Newton’s dependence on space and time as distinctive, invariable frames of reference and he attempted, apparently in a successful manner, to address contemporary inconsistencies discovered in James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory.

Two postulates were theorized by Einstein in his 1905 paper:

1) The speed of light is the same for all observers, regardless of their motion relative to the source of light; and

2) All observers moving at constant speed should observe the same physical laws.

In fusing together the logic within these two postulates, then, Einstein asserted that the only way these things can happen is if time intervals and/or lengths change according to the speed of the system relative to the observer’s frame of reference. This insight conflicted with traditional scientific logic based upon Newton’s and Maxwell’s assertions; Einstein’s claims, however, have since been confirmed to hold true in a number of subsequent, solid experiments.

When Einstein discovered this relativity of space and time he also discovered something very revolutionary: matter and energy are interrelated, even equivalent. The similitude of space and time was summed up by Einstein in the famous equation: E = mc2.

Einstein’s 1905 theory is referred to as the “Special Theory” because it is limited to bodies moving in the absence of a gravitational field.

2) “General Theory of Relativity:”

Einstein spent eleven years between 1905 and 1916 nurturing and formulating his “General Theory of Relativity” which claimed to account for the effect of gravitation on space and the flow of time. This “General Theory” proposed that matter causes space to curve.

In this theory Einstein speculated that smaller masses travel toward larger masses because the smaller objects are traveling through space that is warped by the larger object. It is difficult for us to fully envision this phenomenon, since we can only observe in three dimensions: Einstein’s theory conjectures that this space-time warp occurs in a seven dimension configuration which includes one dimension for time.

The theories advanced by Einstein, including his “General Theory of Relativity,” are generally expressed mathematically via complex equation sets involving tensor algebra and Riemannian geometry. They are utilized in order to describe and “squeeze” a seven-dimension circumstance into a more understandable three-dimension space-time continuum. The involved mathematical calculations describe how an object curves space and how the curvature, then, stretches or squeezes matter in three spatial directions, i.e., north-south, east-west and up-down.

3) “Time Dilation:”

The “Special Theory of Relativity” as maintained by Einstein took into account that time does not flow at a fixed rate. This effect of “Time Dilation” is only minuscule in most circumstances within the universe as we understand it, but it does become quite significant at very high velocities that approach the speed of light.

The equations of relativity, moreover, when “generalized” to account for gravitation predict that gravity (or the curvature of space-time by matter) either stretches or shrinks distances (depending on their direction with respect to the gravitational field under scrutiny) and the flow of time appears to slow down or “dilate.”

Example: An observer located a far distance from a black hole (an area of absolutely dense matter with an extremely strong gravitational attraction) would view time passing remarkably slowly for a person falling through the black hole’s boundary and would never see the person actually fall; time, as measured by the observer, would seem to stand still.


The European Enlightenment

The lessons of The Renaissance (the re-discovery of the immense value of human reasoning as the impetus for humankind’s progress, especially as learned by the great Classic Greek and Roman philosophers, mainly Aristotle) and The Reformation (i.e., the officially accepted Church in political and ecclesiastical power is not necessarily the only beacon of truth in the known world of the day) set the stage for a mind-boggling one hundred years or so of pervasive change that would make the world a very different place for centuries to come. This historic period of time during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is now called The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment had its formative experiences in England and France with the “natural philosophies” of men such as Isaac Newton/John Locke and Rene Descartes/Voltaire respectively. The time was right and the new movement spread across Europe like a social and intellectual brushfire, extending its branches to Scotland, Germany, Italy, Spain and even to the New World. Human reason, experimental observation and systematic reporting of the universe’s natural laws and progress were the keywords of the philosophes movement, as it came to be called. Although God may have created His universe in the beginning, He had left it to humankind to learn about a rather well-ordered natural world in which human beings could learn enough to solve problems and make the world a much better place in which to live (Deism). Human reason, by learning about the surrounding universe, could cure humankind of past ills, bring about technological progress and help the world achieve utopian governments and a perfect society.

This, of course, set the stage for an awkward tension between religion and science: while there was overt disagreement with the powerful rule of the (Roman Catholic) Church over against the new intellectualism and desire for truth by experimentation, the philosophes still tacitly recognized the authority of the Church and gave a cumbersome deference to it. In Europe, the Roman Catholic Church, still assessing its losses from The Reformation, had officially censured Galileo Galilei in 1633 and The Inquisition was still looking for those who challenged Roman Catholic orthodox doctrine and teaching. The movement of the philosophes and the technological advances of the new age of human reasoning made for strained, but somehow contained, debate and disagreement between religion and science.

The classic debate in the heated discussions about creation during this time period seemed to center around the perceived role of God in the universe. Men of religion believed, according to their doctrine, that God had created the world and was still involved in running the universe and all within it in an ongoing way (called “Theism”). Men of science heartily asserted the “Deistic” point of view, that God had created the universe, but then bowed out with the intention to let mankind learn about the laws of nature around him and, then, improve the world.

The gap between the Church and natural philosophy widened and remained this way well into the twentieth century. As the new, more specialized sciences and sub-sciences developed and became more disciplined in natural observation, hypothesis, well-ordered experimental method and appropriate conclusion (the “Scientific Method”), men of science gradually moved away from asserting that God had a hand at all in the universe: perhaps even the Creation itself could be explained scientifically if more and more natural law could be discovered. Perhaps, even more, the “philosopher-scientist” contentions of Plato, Aristotle and others during the Greek classical age were true: that there was no Creation at all, that the universe was eternal, with no beginning and no end.


Brinton, Crane, John B. Christopher and Robert Lee Wolff. (1967). The Enlightenment: Eighteenth Century Science. In A History of Civilization (Volume Two). (pp. 45-46), Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Brooke, John Hedley. (1991). Science and Religion in the Enlightenment (chapter v). In Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. (pp.152-191), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Ferris, Timothy. (1997). Preface. In The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report. (p.19), New York: Touchstone Books.

Halsall, Paul. (1997). The Scientific Revolution in the 17th Century. On The Modern History Sourcebook Website (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/)

Hooker, Richard. (1997-98). The European Enlightenment: The Scientific Revolution. On The World Cultures Website (http://www.wsu.edu/8000/~dee/ENLIGHT/ENLIGHT.htm ).

Schroeder, Gerald (1999). The Age of the Universe. On the Torah and Science Web Site (http://members.xoom.com/torahscience/bigbang1.htm)

Scientific method. (1993-1996). In Encarta 97 encyclopedia (online version). Microsoft Corporation.

Weisstein, Eric W. (1996-98). Isaac Newton. On Scientific Biography Website (http://www.astro.virginia.edu/%7Eeww6n/bios0.html)

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