Do Scientists Pray? Albert Einstein Responds. So does Jill Tarter, in a Way

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.
Albert Einstein

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.

Respectfully yours,



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

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.

Jill Tarter looks up at the sky

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?


2 Replies to “Do Scientists Pray? Albert Einstein Responds. So does Jill Tarter, in a Way”

  1. I don’t think there is, or has ever been, a rift between science and faith. Both require admitting there is an unknown and attempting in one’s own way to understand theses mysteries — perhaps even to master a part of them — so one can move on to the next level, and help others along the way.

    There are however some hard-core scientists who truly believe — as their only religion — that at some point humans will know everything there is to know about the universe and religious zealots who are convinced they already know everything there is to know about the universe . These rigid ideologies are essentially the same: deciding you know or will know everything in advance. Neither square with an ever-changing wondrous grasp of the worlds around us, so little of which we know.

    Go faith! Go science!

    1. Perhaps the more accurately phrased question would have been science and religion. For surely, there have been times when these two were at oddst–Galileo, Copernicus and on and on until the present, with Creationism or Intelligent Design or whatever it’s called now. But perhaps these are the zealots?

      I like, “Go faith! Go science!”

      As always, thanks for the thoughtful comment!

Comments are closed.