Einstein’s anti-God letter goes for $3 mil+

UPDATE:  Note that in the comments several readers point out inaccuracies in the translations I took from other sources.

___________________

You might have heard that a 1954 letter written by Albert Einstein to a Jewish philosopher, Eric Gutkind, was up for auction at eBay.  Its importance it that it dispels the myth, once and for all, that Einstein was religious.  Well, the auction ended a few days ago, and the final bid was $3,000,100 (someone put that hundred in at the last minute).

As the Los Angeles Times reports, Richard Dawkins had some interest in acquiring the letter:

The current owner of the letter picked it up at a London auction in 2008, where it sold for $404,000. At the time of the sale the New York Times reported that Richard Dawkins was among the bidders.

Eric Gazin, president of Auction Cause, the online auction management agency handling the eBay sale, said as far as he knows the London auction was the first time the letter had gone up for sale.

“It wasn’t discovered in an antique store or behind a painting,” he said. “Someone knew what it was and held onto it.”

I asked Gazin why the seller turned to eBay to sell the letter, rather than through a more traditional auction house such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s.

“At a traditional auction the bidding is over in just a few minutes,” he said. “On eBay you’ve got 100 million active members, and the bidding lasts for 10 days. You also get great exposure.”

Here’s a photo of of Einstein’s Epistle to Gutkind:

A larger image of the letter, which is written in German, is here.

What did it say? Among other things, these tidbits:

… I read a great deal in the last days of your book [Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt], and thank you very much for sending it to me. What especially struck me about it was this. With regard to the factual attitude to life and to the human community we have a great deal in common.

… The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.

In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision, probably as the first one. And the animistic interpretations of the religions of nature are in principle not annulled by monopolization. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.

Well, that settles that. Of course we all knew that Einstein didn’t believe in a personal god, and seemed to use “god” as a metaphor for “the cosmos” or “the principles of physics”.  Now maybe the faithful will catch on.

58 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Copy/paste error? Did you intend to duplicate the “For me the Jewish religion…” paragraph?

    • gbjames
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Ignore my question. Either I misread or you fixed it.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        I fixed it.Thanks!

  2. Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Now maybe the faithful will catch on.

    I doubt that.

  3. Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Wow — I suddenly feel like I’ve been channelling Einstein all along….

    b&

    • gbjames
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      I feel like I’m channeling Indiana Jones. “That belongs in a museum!”

      • Occam
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        Indy’s got no say in this, he’s just beeen denied tenure.

        • gbjames
          Posted October 22, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

          That’s great. Just great.

  4. ginger k
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    At the recent FFRF convention in Portland, Dawkins said that he did bid on the letter but was way overbid.

    Too bad.

    I hope the new owner puts the letter in a museum.

  5. Kevin Alexander
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that the buyer was a Templeton and that he’ll have an improved edition made after they burn the original.

  6. microraptor
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Its importance it that it dispels the myth, once and for all, that Einstein was religious.

    Respectfully, I disagree. Einstein’s views on religion weren’t something that he kept hidden and there’s plenty of documentation on his lack of respect for belief in a supernatural creator.

    And even if that weren’t the case, it really doesn’t matter all that much whether Einstein was religious or not, since trying to assign any relevance to his religious beliefs is just an argument from authority.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      But that is not at all the point of demonstrating that Einstein did not believe in a god. The point of doing so is to counter believers’ arguments that do use the claim that Einstein believed in the judeo christian god as an argument from authority to support their beliefs. By doing so we can point out that they are . . .

      1) Quoting Einstein out of context
      2) Wrong about Einstein’s religious beliefs
      3) Committing the fallacy you pointed out, argument from authority.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        his point though is, and I agree, that the only important thing to stress is 3).

        authoritarians gonna be authoritarians, if not Einstein, then someone else. This letter will change nothing, I promise you, within the authoritarian enclaves.

        the discussion should really NOT be about what Einstein believed, by why it is so important for authoritarians to rely on individuals who make subjective arguments to begin with.

        the real problem has never been, nor will it ever be, religion itself really, it’s authoritarianism, and how we as a society choose to deal with this particularly common personality trait.

        • darrelle
          Posted October 22, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          I agree with everything you’ve said except for “the only important thing to stress is 3).” I agree that 3 is the most important point to make overall because it is the most fundamental problem with the argument. But I disagree with “only”, I think the other points are also important. They are important because they demonstrate that the argument is bad at several different levels, providing additional evidence that people who tender this argument are ignorant, mislead or disingenuous. In short I think making the other points is tactically advantageous.

          Doing so is not likely to improve your odds of changing the mind of the person you are arguing with, but then again that is highly unlikely no matter what you say. But I think doing so can be very useful for demonstrating to bystanders, some of who your arguments may have more affect on, that your opponent is not credible.

          • Ichthyic
            Posted October 22, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

            again, you miss the point.

            Einstein could have been a dogmatic fundamentalist southern baptist.

            it makes no difference.

            • Ichthyic
              Posted October 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

              Darwin could have been a serial killer and baby kitten eater.

              makes no difference as to the applicability of natural selection as a hypothesis.

              • darrelle
                Posted October 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

                No, I don’t miss the point. But you seem to be fixated to the point where nothing else matters to you. You seem to confuse what should be the only thing that matters if people didn’t exist to fuck up a hypothetical perfect world with what actually exists. You seem to attribute the ability to see that your point should be the only relevant one to those who have least demonstrated the ability to do so, the religious apologists who make the kind of crappy arguments we are discussing here.

                Even if believers are just as likely to be persuaded by the point you are fixated on as any other points of failure, it still makes sense to use them all because of all the variables involved.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted October 22, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

                No, I don’t miss the point. But you seem to be fixated to the point where nothing else matters to you

                *sigh*

                very little point if you’re going to strawman me.

              • darrelle
                Posted October 22, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

                Oh come on. I know I am not the best at explaining things but after rereading several times it does not seem possible that you could not understand that I understand your point. Which you have stated is the only important point.

          • Larry Cook
            Posted October 23, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

            I agree it’s important to call them out on being wrong about Einstein’s beliefs and quoting him out of context for the same reason we have to check them when they try to claim the Nazis and Hitler were atheists. Why should we allow people who would discredit us and malign our non-belief to paint reality any way that suits them? They use lies to gather additional support for their angry and ignorant way of looking at the world that is in direct opposition to those of us who understand and promote science. We have to point out that they lie to warn the gullible not to believe everything they hear from the theocrats and other nutty believers. Simply pointing out that argument from authority doesn’t constitute proof won’t convince most people of anything. This isn’t a college debate.

      • gluonspring
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        I would call #2 lying about Einstein’s religious beliefs. It was never that hard to figure out what he thought that we should imagine that they are victims of an honest mistake. Sure, aunt Edna really might not know, but anyone who is in the business of talking or writing about religion has no excuse. They are simply liars to spread this false idea about Einstein. Let’s call it what it is.

        I think it can be significant, not because it matters what Einstein believed, but because it reveals the character of the people who stoop to such lies. And being lied to is an argument everyone understands. As a young man, I knew when I heard Christian physicists and engineers say such things about Einstein that they must have known better but they decided to say the falsehood anyway. That was telling. Just as they must have known better than to invoke the 2nd law of thermodynamics against evolution, but they did it any way. I really knew when the most intellectual members of my religion resorted to crass distortions and untruths that the religion didn’t have a leg to stand on.

        • darrelle
          Posted October 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          “I think it can be significant, not because it matters what Einstein believed, but because it reveals the character of the people who stoop to such lies.

          Thanks for saying it better than I could. That is exactly one of the points I was trying to sneak up on but failed miserably to communicate in my response to Icthyic above.

          Now, I admit that I may be biased, but that part I bolded above has a significant impact on my assessment of other peoples’ arguments / claims / positions. In that sense (character assessment) I find it worse than someone making an argument from authority, and it definitely seems important to me.

        • Posted October 22, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

          I think it does matter what he believed. He used his concept of “god” as a guiding principle as he searched for the laws of nature. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not. His famous “God does not play dice with the universe” is an instance where his intuition failed him. But his successes far outweigh his failures. If his “god” was a standard god, and if this helped him find valid laws of physics, that would be a feather in the cap of those who believed in that kind of god. This letter clarifies what he means by “god”, and it is clearly not a god of standard religions. It is important to note this, so people don’t credit the wrong god with guiding Einstein’s amazing insights into the nature of space and time.

          • Posted October 23, 2012 at 1:20 am | Permalink

            You make everything complicated. They’re wrong, so we point our fingers and say it’s wrong. We say it’s wrong because it’s wrong.

  7. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    The most recent Scientific America featured a letter from “Douglas Berman” criticizing the Daisy Grewal article “How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God”. Berman writes:

    “In this case (of research reported), those who believe in God are described as tending to rely on “intuitive” rather than “analytic” thing, which is simplistic to say the least. Offhand, the name “Albert Einstein” should put this theory where it belongs: into the wastebin of history.”

    Obviously, Berman believes the old mythology that Einstein supported (e.g. “Dice statement”) a belief in the supernatural. This letter in today’s post is willfully ignored by religionists.

    Fabulous article on the evolution of penguins in this (November 2012) Scientific American, by the way. Recent fossil finds, and all that. Penguins preceded and survived the K-T extinction event.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      ** “thing” s/b “thinking”….”analytic thinking…”

  8. David Neff
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Neff'sStudio – Blogs and commented:
    Yes, Christians, Einstein was an atheist.

    • SLC
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Actually, it is my information that Einstein once denied being an atheist. At various times in his life, he might be described as a Deist, a pantheist, or an agnostic.

      However, I would point out that, by 1954 when the letter was written, his mental faculties were fast fading. The physicist Julian Schwinger recounts being introduced to Einstein and finding him quite confused. As he put it, Einstein didn’t know who Schwinger was and seemed to have no notion of his work up to that time.

  9. Posted October 22, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    The translation given here and elsewhere included a phrase saying that the religious myths “are nevertheless pretty childish”. Somewhere online a native German speaker claimed that there is no such phrase in the original German letter. Is there anyone here who speaks German and who can confirm or disconfirm this?

    • Alektorophile
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      I just checked, and indeed there is no “pretty childish” line in the original. It only says “primitive legends”.

      • Eddie Janssen
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think the line “pretty childish” is an honest mistake. The translator simply made it up.
        For what reason I don’t know.

    • Christian
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      The sentence in question is this one:

      Das Wort Gott ist für mich nichts als Ausdruck und Produkt menschlicher Schwächen, die Bibel eine Sammlung ehrwürdiger, aber doch reichlich primitiver Legenden.

      The word “kindisch” (‘childish’ in German) isn’t used anywhere in the letter.

    • Posted October 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Thank you all for clarifying that. This is disturbing. Does the rest of the translation seem honest?

      • Occam
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        ‘Honest’ as in ‘honest mistake’, maybe.
        Though the mistakes, if such, are disturbing. There seems to be a persistent bias in the translation.

        For one thing, Einstein’s German is very imaged. Like in his early papers on physics, he uses rich, illustrative terms for even the most abstract concepts. The German word for this quality is anschaulich, and it’s a telling fact that there is no exact English equivalent for it. ‘Eidetic’ would convey the meaning, but it’s too technical a term. That quality is largely missing from the translation.

        Some of the most egregious twistings of the original:

        For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

        Oops! Childish, again. Really?

        Für mich ist die unverfälschte jüdische Religion wie alle anderen Religionen Incarnation des primitiven Aberglaubens.

        The attribute unverfälscht is missing: the unadulterated Jewish religion. And the superstition?
        Primitive, not childish.

        And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.

        Not quite: Einstein writes about the dignity, not the quality of the Jewish people:

        Und das jüdische Volk, zu dem ich gerne gehöre, und mit dessen Mentalität ich tief verwachsen bin, hat für mich doch keine andersartige Dignität als alle anderen Völker.

        Let’s try again:
        “And the Jewish people, to which I gladly belong and to whose mentality I am deeply attached, does nevertheless not possess, as far as I am concerned, dignity of a different nature than that of all other peoples.”
        It is significant for Einstein’s thinking that he uses the term “Volk”, people, in the sense of gentes, not in the sense of an indefinite generic plural for ‘humans’.

        Finally:

        As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power.

        Cancers?

        Soweit meine Erfahrung reicht ist es auch um nichts besser als andere menschliche Gruppen, wenn es auch durch Mangel an Macht gegen die schlimmsten Auswüchse gesichert ist.

        “Auswüchse” means excesses, not cancers.

        Und so weiter. A new, critical translation is badly needed.

        Thanks to Christian for providing the transcription of the German Urtext.

        • Posted October 23, 2012 at 1:26 am | Permalink

          That’s pretty sloppy, yes.

        • Wolfgang
          Posted October 29, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

          I can add that I have already tried to point out some of these errors (clearly and explicitly) to some of the more influential science/secularism/atheism bloggers/personalities. I have also tried to contact the people responsible for the auction of the letter on e-bay, well before it was sold. (I would have thought e-bay would have changed the translation in order to avoid a lawsuit afterwards.) So far I have only managed to have the article in The Atlantic updated.

          I am more than willing to believe that the bloggers have not yet had the time to verify the errors in this translation (which appears to be the default translation).

          It is a shame that it should be so difficult to correct objective errors of this nature and it is a shame that people do not process information of this kind with more skepticism.

          On the other hand, it would appear [RanerLetter] that Einstein has used the expression “child-like” to describe the idea of a personal god in other instances (but, please check the original document, since I cannot):

          “I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth.”

          The caveat is, of course, that this translation too may be incorrect. Does anyone have access to this Urdokument? ^^

          W.

          • Wolfgang
            Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

            Sorry for the duplication, Jerry asked I posted this (edited) version of my e-mail in the thread. I have removed the names of the famous science people to avoid any embarrassment.

            Dear Mr. A, Mr. B, and Mr. C,

            I do not wish to inconvenience you too much. I just wanted to point out a rather relevant and recent error in:

            LinkA, LinkB and LinkC.

            (All emphasis below is mine). All three posts use essentially the same translation of Einstein’s letter. This translation, as Rudolf Root (one of the commenters) on the website of the Atlantic pointed out, is incorrect. The part where Einstein calls (the legends of) the bible “pretty childish”,

            “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends *which are nevertheless pretty childish.* No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text.”

            does not exist at all. I originally found Root’s statement hard to believe for the following two reasons: (1) surely nobody would make this part up and expect to get away with it, and (2) I remembered reading this statement, “childishness” included, before in texts whose authors’ competence as scholars I respect.

            The corresponding translation WikiQuote on Wikiquote.org seems to have the same mistake, and worse:

            “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends *which are nevertheless pretty childish.* No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. … For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of *the most childish* superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”

            The parts in bold are, quite frankly, completely absent in the scanned version ScannedVersion of Einstein’s letter. The German sister GermanWikiQuote of WikiQuote gets the transcription right:

            “Das Wort Gott ist für mich nichts als Ausdruck und Produkt menschlicher Schwächen, die Bibel eine Sammlung ehrwürdiger, aber doch reichlich primitiver Legenden. […] Für mich ist die unverfälschte jüdische Religion wie alle anderen Religionen eine Inkarnation des primitiven Aberglaubens. Und das jüdische Volk, zu dem ich gern gehöre und mit dessen Mentalität ich tief verwachsen bin, hat für mich doch keine andersartige Qualität als alle anderen Völker.”

            It gets worse. A quick Google search reveals that this meme has spread beyond description. The earliest occurrence is, as far as I can tell, EarliestGoogleIndex, 1988.

            On the other hand, it would appear [RanerLetter] that Einstein has used the expression “child-like” to describe the idea of a personal god in other instances (but, please check the original document, since I cannot):

            “I have repeatedly said that in my opinion *the idea of a personal God is a childlike one.* You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth.”

            I understand that a number of religious people will consider this revelation to be evidence of a fundamental dishonesty in the movement of Atheism. This is nonsense, of course. I think it is reasonable to assume that, even in the worst case, only one (fantastically hubristic?) individual can be accused of having manipulated the English translation in such a fashion. And everyone who has, afterwards, regurgitated this translation is to be blamed for having lazily copied of this unfortunate mutation, and for nothing else.

            I humbly suggest we show this particular subset of the population that we value the fundamental principles of Science: “if a claim feels good and the evidence is against it, we (openly) retract the claim and move on.”

            After all, we have no need for dishonesty, intentional or otherwise, to support our case and our cause.

            I thank you for your time and your attention,

            W.

            P.S.: As noted above, credit should go to Rudolf Root.

            P.P.S: Since there is no hope of me contacting the thousands of webpages with the incorrect quotes, I am counting on you, three of the leading Science writers, to attempt to rectify the situation. I will be very thankful if you choose to do so.

            P.P.P.S.: I imagine interested buyers would want to know that the content of the letter does not conform to what is presented in any of the press releases. (Might affect the price, though … ^^)

  10. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Elsewhere (in his essay “Science and Religion”) Einstein praises the moral goals of (some) religion , but even in this superficially pro-NOMA essay, he suggests that religion discard any notion of anthropomorphic theism in favor of a much more generic concept of transcendence.

    In other words, unlike Stephen Jay Gould, Einstein’s version of NOMA restricts religion to making virtually no metaphysical truth-claims at all(!!), and openly states religion needs to discard the ones it has made in the past. Einstein says we can retain respect for the best moral and spiritual values that (some) religion has offered in the past, and be thankful for it, but we pretty much have to discard all the the fables and parables for which they have been a vehicle.

    The essay is reprinted in S.T. Joshi’s “The Agnostic Reader” and it includes Einstein’s famous statement “Religion without science is blind, and science without religion is lame.” Einstein clearly means by religion what Sam Harris means by spirituality!!! The forms of religion Einstein seems the most comfortable with in this essay are Spinoza’s pantheism and Buddhism, both because of the absense of a anthropomorphic deity. All else Einstein thinks is in desperate need of revision in the light of modernity & science.

    Now that’s NOMA that doesn’t do a dental extraction on science!!!

  11. Christian
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Here is the original German letter:

    Princeton, 3.1. 54
    Lieber Herr Gutkind!

    Angfeuert durch wiederholte Aufforderungen

    Anregung Brouwers habe ich in den letzten Tagen viel gelesen

    in Ihrem Buche, für dessen Sendung ich Ihnen sehr danke. Was

    mir dabei besonders auffiel war dies. Wir sind einander

    inbezug auf die faktischen Einstellung zum Leben und zur

    menschlichen Gemeinschaft weitgehend identisch: Ihr

    persönliches Ideal mit dem Streben nach Befreiung von ich-

    zentrierten Wünschen, Streben nach Verschönerung und

    Veredelung des Daseins mit Betonung des rein Menschlichen,

    wobei das leblose Ding nur als Mittel anzusehen ist, dem

    keine beherrschende Funktion angerechnet werden darf. (Diese

    Einstellung ist es besonders, die uns als ein echt

    “unamerican attitude” verbindet.)

    Trotzdem hätte ich mich ohne Brouwers Ermunterung nie dazu

    gebracht, mich irgendwie eingehend mit Ihrem Buch zu

    befassen, weil es in einer für mich unzugänglichen Sprache

    geschrieben ist. Das Wort Gott ist für mich nichts als

    Ausdruck und Produkt menschlicher Schwächen, die Bibel eine

    Sammlung ehrwürdiger, aber doch reichlich primitiver

    Legenden. Keine noch so feinsinnige Auslegung kann (für

    mich) etwas daran ändern. Diese verfeinerten Auslegungen

    sind naturgemäss höchst mannigfaltig und haben so gut wie

    nichts mit dem Urtext zu schaffen. Für mich ist die

    unverfälschte jüdische Religion wie alle anderen Religionen

    Incarnation des primitiven Aberglaubens. Und das jüdische

    Volk, zu dem ich gerne gehöre, und mit dessen Mentalität ich

    tief verwachsen bin, hat für mich doch keine andersartige

    Dignität als alle anderen Völker. Soweit meine Erfahrung

    reicht ist es auch um nichts besser als andere menschliche

    Gruppen, wenn es auch durch Mangel an Macht gegen die

    schlimmsten Auswüchse gesichert ist. Sonst kann ich nichts

    „Auserwähltes“ an ihm wahrnehmen.

    Überhaupt empfinde ich es schmerzlich, dass Sie eine

    privilegierte Stellung beanspruchen und die durch zwei

    Mauern des Stolzes zu verteidigen suchen, eine äussere als

    Mensch und eine innere als Jude. Als Mensch beanspruchen sie

    gewissermassen eine Dispens von der sonst acceptierten

    Kausalität, als Jude ein Privileg für Monotheismus. Aber

    eine begrenzte Kausalität ist überhaupt keine Kausalität

    mehr, wie wohl zuerst unser wunderbarer Spinoza mit aller

    Schärfe erkannt hat. Und die animistische Auffassung der

    Naturreligionen wird im Prinzip durch Monopolisierung nicht

    aufgehoben. Durch solche Mauern können wir nur zu einer

    gewissen Selbsttäuschung gelangen; aber unsere moralischen

    Bemühungen werden durch sie nicht gefördert. Eher das

    Gegenteil.

    Nachdem ich Ihnen nun ganz offen unsere Differenzen in

    unseren intellektuellen Überzeugungen ausgesprochen habe,

    ist es mir doch klar, dass wir uns im Wesentlichen

    ganz nahe stehen, nämlich in den Bewertungen menschlichen

    Verhaltens. Das Trennende ist nur intellektuelles Beiwerk

    oder die „Rationalisierung“ in Freud’scher Sprache. Deshalb

    denke ich, dass wir uns recht wohl verstehen würden, wenn

    wir uns über konkrete Dinge unterhielten.

    Mit freundlichem Dank und besten Wünschen

    Ihr A. Einstein.

    • Christian
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      Dang! First word should read “Angefeuert”

      • TnkAgn
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        Gesundheit!

    • gluonspring
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      If this transcription is correct, it indeed does seem like a distortion. What is the original source of the translation quoted in the newspaper article? The auctioneer? I do not speak German, but Google translate renders the first relevant passage:

      “The word God is for me nothing more than expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive abundant legends.”

      The word “reichlich” is rendered here “abundant” shows up in another dictionary as “plenty”. I don’t know if the word modifies primitive or legends and so whether he is saying they are “abundantly primitive legends”, as in very primitive (not unlike childish, but why not just say what it says), or “abundant primitive legends”, as in there are plenty of them and they are primitive. In either case, it seems like taking the license a bit too far to render it “childish”, though whatever it says is clearly not much more positive.

      The second relevant bit, from your transcript, is rendered by Google Translate as:

      “For me, the authentic Jewish religion like all other religions incarnation of primitive superstition.”

      Not a positive review of religion, but I don’t see any evidence that he used a word like “childish”.

      • Posted October 23, 2012 at 1:34 am | Permalink

        “Abundant” is modifying “primitive”.

      • Christian
        Posted October 23, 2012 at 2:33 am | Permalink

        The transcript probably still contains a few errors. I looked for a transcript on the internet and in the one I found I noticed a few typos at first glance. So I decided to compare it to the scan of the letter provided by Jerry.
        There were several more mistakes I found but I guess I still missed a few. As far as I can tell, Beat’s transcript is more accurate.

        The word “reichlich” modifies “primitiv”, so the whole expression could be rendered as “very/largely/pretty primitive legends” (although the alliteration in the latter case sounds a bit awkward).

        Nowadays, “reichlich” isn’t used that often in this context and one would rather say “ziemlich” instead (although the former still sounds a bit stronger than the latter).

        Also, primitiv/primitive resp. kindisch/childish are quite congruent so the translation can be pretty straight forward and there’s certainly no need to get all creative as in the case of “anschaulich” for which there is not exact English equivalent, as Occam already said in his post above.

        So you’re correct, kindisch/childish doesn’t appear in the letter. It certainly has more negative connotations than “primitive”, probably a reason why he didn’t use it. On the other hand, it would be quite an apt description of some of these legends.

  12. Kevin
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Now maybe the faithful will catch on.

    I see. The appeal to authority ceases to be a logical fallacy as long as Einstein’s your man.

    • Matt G
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      This has already been addressed – it is valuable not as an appeal to authority but to render such appeals made by theists doubly invalid since: 1) they make an appeal to authority, and 2) they are wrong about Einstein’s beliefs.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        poorly addressed.

        the only thing worth debating on the merits is NOT what Einstein believes, since only the man himself could clarify, and he’s dead.

        the only thing worth discussing is the fact that we as a society STILL rely far too heavily on authoritarian arguments to begin with.

  13. etothipi
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, your english translation is flawed. You could be accused of putting words in Einsteins mouth (pen, rather).

    The word childish (=kindisch) appears nowhere in the letter. In one instance it has been added (after ‘legends’), in another the german original says ‘primitiv’ which is clearly ‘primitive’ instead of ‘childish’!
    I was able to correct the wikipedia-page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Albert_Einstein
    -albeit not without a fight.

    I spent quite some time deciphering the original letter, with some colleagues -all native german speakers.

    The german transcript is better, but still has errors.
    If you’re interested, I can send you a correct transcript (according to many native speakers) and an attempt at a translation.

    Thank you for this great blog, I read it regularly!

    Beat (first name)

    • gluonspring
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      I think readers here would be interested. If we’re for anything, we should be for accuracy and correctness.

      • etothipi
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        Ok, this is going to be a long post, but I think it’s well worth it because Einstein couldn’t be clearer and needs no distortions.

        Correct transcript:
        Princeton, 3.1. 54
        Lieber Herr Gutkind!
        Angefeuert durch wiederholte Anregung Brouwers habe ich in den letzten Tagen viel gelesen in Ihrem Buche, für dessen Sendung ich Ihnen sehr danke. Was mir dabei besonders auffiel war dies. Wir sind einander inbezug auf die faktische Einstellung zum Leben und zur menschlichen Gemeinschaft weitgehend ähnlich: ihr persönliches Ideal mit dem Streben nach Befreiung von ich-zentrierten Wünschen, Streben nach Verschönerung und Veredelung des Daseins mit Betonung des rein Menschlichen, wobei das leblose Ding nur als Mittel anzusehen ist, dem keine beherrschende Funktion eingeräumt werden darf. (Diese Einstellung ist es besonders, die uns als ein echt “unamerican attitude” verbindet.)
        Trotzdem hätte ich mich ohne Brouwers Ermunterung nie dazu gebracht, mich irgendwie eingehend mit Ihrem Buche zu befassen, weil es in einer für mich unzugänglichen Sprache geschrieben ist. Das Wort Gott ist für mich nichts als Ausdruck und Produkt menschlicher Schwächen, die Bibel eine Sammlung ehrwürdiger aber doch reichlich primitiver Legenden. Keine noch so feinsinnige Auslegung kann (für mich) etwas daran ändern. Diese verfeinerten Auslegungen sind naturgemäss höchst mannigfaltig und haben so gut wie nichts mit dem Urtext zu schaffen. Für mich ist die unverfälschte jüdische Religion wie alle anderen Religionen eine Incarnation des primitiven Aberglaubens. Und das jüdische Volk, zu dem ich gerne gehöre und mit dessen Mentalität ich tief verwachsen bin, hat für mich doch keine andersartige Dignität als alle anderen Völker. Soweit meine Erfahrung reicht ist es auch um nichts besser als andere menschliche Gruppen wenn es auch durch Mangel an Macht gegen die schlimmsten Auswüchse gesichert ist. Sonst kann ich nichts “Auserwähltes” an ihm wahrnehmen.
        Überhaupt empfinde ich es schmerzlich, dass Sie eine privilegierte Stellung beanspruchen und sie durch zwei Mauern des Stolzes zu verteidigen suchen, eine äussere als Mensch und eine innere als Jude. Als Mensch beanspruchen Sie gewissermassen einen Dispens von der sonst acceptierten Kausalität, als Jude ein Privileg für Monotheismus. Aber eine begrenzte Kausalität ist überhaupt keine Kausalität mehr, wie wohl zuerst unser wunderbarer Spinoza mit aller Schärfe erkannt hat. Und die animistische Auffassung der Naturreligionen wird im Prinzip durch Monopolisierung nicht aufgehoben. Durch solche Mauern können wir nur zu einer gewissen Selbsttäuschung gelangen; aber unsere moralischen Bemühungen werden durch sie nicht gefördert. Eher das Gegenteil.
        Nachdem ich Ihnen nun ganz offen unsere Differenzen in den intellektuellen Überzeugungen ausgesprochen habe, ist es mir doch klar, dass wir uns im Wesentlichen ganz nahe stehen, nämlich in den Bewertungen menschlichen Verhaltens. Das Trennende ist nur intellektuelles Beiwerk oder die “Rationalisierung” in Freud’scher Sprache. Deshalb denke ich, dass wir uns recht wohl verstehen würden, wenn wir uns über konkrete Dinge unterhielten.
        Mit freundlichem Dank und besten Wünschen,
        Ihr A. Einstein.

        Attempted translation:
        Dear Mr Gutkind,

        Spurred by Brouwer’s repeated suggestion, I’ve been reading quite a bit in your book over the past few days, so thank you very much for sending it to me. The following struck me most. Regarding the factual attitude towards life and the human community we have a great deal in common : Your personal ideal with its striving for freedom from ego-centred desires, the striving for improvement and ennoblement of life, with an emphasis on the purely human element whereby inanimate things are only considered a means which may not be attributed a dominant function. (It is particularly this stance that unites us by being a genuinely “unamerican attitude”.)

        Still, without Brouwer’s encouragement I would never have got myself to engage in any way intensively with your book because it is written in a language inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable but still largely primitive legends. No interpretation, however subtle, can change this (for me). These refined interpretations are by nature highly diverse and have hardly anything to do with the original text. For me the unaltered Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And yet the Jewish people – to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I am deeply connected – have no different dignity for me than any other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they aren’t any better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst excesses by their lack of power. Other than that, I cannot see anything „chosen” about them.

        If anything, I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a human being and an internal one as a Jew. As a human being you claim, in a sense, a dispensation from the otherwise accepted causality – as a Jew a privilege of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza was the first to recognise with all rigorousness. And on principle, the animist view of the natural religions is in no way nullified by monopolisation. By building these kinds of walls we can only arrive at a certain self-deception; but our moral efforts will not be advanced by them. Rather the contrary.
        Now that I have stated our differences in intellectual convictions quite openly, it is still clear to me that we are very close to each other in essential things, namely in our evaluation of human behaviour. What separates us are just intellectual props or the „rationalisation“ in Freud’s language. I therefore think we would understand each other quite well if we talked about specific things.

        With friendly thanks and best wishes,
        Yours, A. Einstein

        • Occam
          Posted October 22, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

          Your translation is much more accurate, as well as more fluent.
          Well done!

          Would you mind spilling the beans about the fight you had to put on @ Wikipedia?

          • Christian
            Posted October 23, 2012 at 2:47 am | Permalink

            Seconded.
            That was really excellent work and the transcript also seems to be accurate.

            It’s really hard to believe that you can’t find an accurate transcript on the internet. Practically all of them contain typos, are missing words or use the wrong word.

            It would be nice if Beat’s transcript and translation could be put up on Wiki or some other prominent place.

  14. marksolock
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  15. Posted October 23, 2012 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    Waste of money according to me

  16. Posted October 23, 2012 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Rattlers Pit and commented:
    Einstein’s anti-God letter

  17. Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Einstein would probably agree, God is much more like music than a man.

    • microraptor
      Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

      Something that was better back before it sold out and went mainstream?

      • Posted November 1, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        You certainly could put it that way… which reminds me of another favorite: The bright side of any point depends on the direction from which light is shined.


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