“Do scientists pray?”
That’s the question that occupied the thoughts of a sixth-grade Sunday school class at The Riverside Church, and who better to pose it to than one of the best scientific minds of our time, Albert Einstein?
A young girl named Phyllis penned a polite and inquisitive note to the great physicist, and she was probably surprised to receive a considerate reply. The exchange was published in the book “Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children,” edited by Alice Calaprice.
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.
He replied a mere five days later, sharing with her his thoughts on faith and science:
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
While the letter doesn’t reveal much about Einstein’s own personal views on religion, he brilliantly manages to capture the the sublime sense of wonder that science can evoke in a way that it’s possible to describe as “religious.”
Josh Jones of Open Culture commented, “I think it’s a moving exchange between two people who couldn’t be further apart in their understanding of the world, but who just may have found some small common ground in considering each other’s positions for a moment.”