Acton Institute Powerblog

6 quotes: Albert Einstein on science, religion, and liberty

Albert Einstein became the most celebrated scientist in history 100 years ago today. “Revolution in Science, New Theory of the Universe, Newtonian Ideas Overthrown,” read a headline in The Times of London published on November 7, 1919, making the introverted scientist a global figure. The previous day, November 6, he had presented his “General Theory of Relativity” to the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, citing photos of a solar eclipse that May as proof that he and not Sir Isaac Newton accurately understood the laws of the universe.

Einstein later emigrated to the United States to escape totalitarianism. He is sometimes remembered for his pacifism, socialism, even his defense of Stalin’s show trials. However, he also said things that may surprise many of his critics and supporters. Here are six quotations that show Albert Einstein’s wisdom applied to other areas of human life.

1. The fallacy of scientism: “[T]hose convictions which are necessary and determinant for our conduct and judgments cannot be found solely along this solid scientific way. For the scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other. … [K]nowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. … To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. … The highest principles for our aspirations and judgments are given to us in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition.” (“Science and Religion.” Lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary. May 19, 1939.)

2. Great achievements come only in free societies: “Valuable achievement can sprout from human society only when it is sufficiently loosened to make possible the free development of an individual’s abilities.” (From an article on tolerance, June 1934.)

3. The individual is greater than the nation: “What is truly valuable in our bustle of life is not the nation, I should say, but the creative and impressionable individuality, the personality —he who produces the noble and sublime while the common herd remains dull in thought and insensible in feeling.” (“What I Believe,” 1930.)

4. Government bureaucracy destroys every kind of industry: “In Russia, they say, it is impossible to get a decent piece of bread. … Perhaps I am over-pessimistic concerning State and other forms of communal enterprise, but I expect little good from them. Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work. I have seen and experienced too many dreadful warnings.” (“An answer to Cederström,” published in The World as I See It, 1949.)

5. On the importance of freedom of speech and tolerance: “[F]reedom of communication is indispensable for the development and extension of scientific knowledge … it must be guaranteed by law. But laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man may present his views without penalty there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.” (“On Freedom.” Circa 1940.)

6. Reducing the number of working hours necessary to purchase necessities promotes human progress: “Man should not have to work for the achievements of the necessities of life to such an extent that he has neither time nor strength for personal activities. Without this second kind of outward liberty, freedom of expression is useless for him.” (“On Freedom.”)


Good intentions must use correct means: “[I]t must not be assumed that intelligent thinking can play no part in the formation of the goal and of ethical judgements. When someone realizes that for the achievement of an end certain means would be useful, the means itself becomes thereby an end. Intelligence makes clear to us the interrelation of means and ends.” (“Science and Religion.”)

This quotation expresses the Acton Institute’s reason for existing: “Connecting good intentions with sound economics.” When economics reveals that the free market is the best means to achieve human flourishing, everyone committed to that end should support it.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.