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"Time" Magazine named Albert Einstein its "Person of the Century." He prevailed over the likes of John F. Kennedy, Mother Teresa, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. While this is good news, a correspondent expresses concern: "I was disappointed to hear Matthew Cooper of 'Time' Magazine speak on C-SPAN of Einstein not being an atheist and that was one reason Einstein made an excellent choice for Person of the Century."
I explained that some public figures, notably Abraham Lincoln, said things that can only be explained as attempts to avert the wrath of theistic bigots (such as the "Time" editors) who cannot tolerate even thinking that atheists exist. Much less can they conceive of honoring an atheist.
She replied with a quip from Einstein: "It was ... a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."
To a child who asked if scientists pray, Einstein said: "Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the action of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a Supernatural Being."
Though Lincoln often gave lip-service to the notion of God in his public addresses, his private philosophy was indistinguishable from atheism. It's sad that he felt the need to lie like this, but he was serving a fickle public and needed their confidence.
While many scientists lack a god belief, few scientists are openly hostile toward faith (as the "Time" editors seem to fear). We atheists appear to be moving toward a form of acceptance wherein we agree to disagree regarding matters of faith. I note the same tendency among (as Mencken called them) "off-duty" theists.
I recently enjoyed the company of a young woman who was visiting her father (I met them at a bar). She told me of her brother, a scientist, who, she said, "got all the brains in the family."
To keep the flow of the conversation, I resisted the temptation to respond by saying, "I don't detect any shortage of brains or thoughtfulness here." Instead, I waited for her to finish making her point.
She ended up by saying something that shook me down to the foundation of my outlook: "If God were to choose to reveal Himself to mankind, he would do so in a way that even the scientists would be able to see him." The God she believes in would not hide from those who seek to understand our world.
Though I had thought similarly, I'd never heard somebody express these ideas aloud.
Perhaps we can outgrow the practice of Lincoln. The "Time" editors may do well to encounter the reasonable theists out there. And atheists could learn to accept that theists have their reasons to believe.
Copyright ©2000 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon