There’s a nifty website called Letters of Note. Two letters of note you’ll find there are an exchange between a sixth grader named Phyllis and Albert Einstein. Here’s the exchange, which LoN took from the book Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children.
The Riverside Church
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.
January 24, 1936
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
I asked Jill Tarter a similar question: was faith a part of her life? I found it a difficult question to ask her, and I hemmed and hawed my way through it. Thankfully, Tarter indulged me and answered with her typical eloquence.
Faith in terms of an organized religion, no, it’s not part of my life. Marvel, looking at this universe that we have and then being blown away by how spectacular it is and enjoying the prospect of figuring out how it works, that’s a big part of my life. Here we are, literally stardust. We are the remnants of long dead stars. The iron in your hemoglobin was inside a massive star billions of years ago. But somehow, here we are, stardust, able to puzzle out a lot of the story of how we got here. That’s amazing! Right? How could you not be turned on by that, and it’s really empowering and exciting. And I don’t find any need for some formalized religion.
I asked this question as I was approaching my half-century mark. But I was very pleased to read that essentially the same question was posed to the most famous scientist of the 20th Century by a sixth grader (age 11 or so). After all, A Life’s Work is essentially told from the point of view of a pre-adolescent, that wondering self many of us left behind when other matters took precedence in our lives.
Science and faith — Reconcilable? What do you think?