Einstein’s letter impugning religion, scripture, and the idea of God goes up for sale again

UPDATE: I wrote about this letter six years ago when it was up for sale, but forgot (my post is here). At that time commenter Wolfgang, a German speaker, said that most translations of this letter, including this one are somewhat inaccurate, in particular that the phrase “childish superstition” is simply not in the letter, even in German. Wolfgang suspects this is a meme that has gotten perpetuated, probably because it appeals to some people’s preconceptions.  (The gist of the letter besides that, however, seems pretty much the same.) Nevertheless, please see Wolfgang’s comment if you want his criticism of this and other translations.

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Why is everybody so concerned about whether Albert Einstein was religious or an atheist? I suspect that it’s because he’s regarded as The Smartest Man of Our Time, and so his opinion on any issue is taken as authoritative. And if Einstein was religious, well, then accommodationists can claim that science and religion are compatible.

But there are two errors in that train of logic. Someone who’s a great scientist need not necessarily offer the most authoritative word on other topics. Further, just because a scientist might be religious does not—at least to me—show that science and religion are compatible. Readers should be familiar with my argument for incompatibility, so I won’t reprise it here.

Nevertheless, the debate continues, although there’s ample evidence that Einstein was not a theist, but at best a species of pantheist who derived personal awe from the regularity of the laws of nature. He surely wasn’t religious in the sense that religious Americans are religious, as he abjured belief in a personal god, the Scriptures, and so on.

The latest revival of the “Was Einstein religious?” issue is the reappearance of a letter that he wrote in 1954 in response to having read (at the instigation of a friend) a book promoting God and religion.  Einstein’s letter was directed to the book’s author, Erik Gutkind (see below). The letter is up for auction again, and at a fancy price: it was bought in 2008 for $404,000 (Richard Dawkins was an unsuccessful bidder), appeared on eBay six years ago with an asking price of $3 million that wasn’t met, and is now up for auction by Christie’s, with an estimated selling price of between $1 million and $1.5 million. The high price is without doubt due to the letter’s content.

You can see the reports at CNN, LiveScience, and the Washington Post.

It turns out the letter is pretty damning about religion and God, explicitly rejecting both; the former is a “childish superstition” and God “nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness.” The Bible, too, is merely a “collection of primitive legends.” After reading the letter (see below), it would be hard to maintain that Einstein was religious in any sense!

Here’s a photo of the letter (in German) and a translation from Letters of Note:

The translation, with my emphases:

Princeton, 3. 1. 1954

Dear Mr Gutkind,

Inspired by Brouwer’s repeated suggestion, I read a great deal in your book, and thank you very much for lending it to me. What struck me was this: with regard to the factual attitude to life and to the human community we have a great deal in common. Your personal ideal with its striving for freedom from ego-oriented desires, for making life beautiful and noble, with an emphasis on the purely human element. This unites us as having an “unAmerican attitude.”

Still, without Brouwer’s suggestion I would never have gotten myself to engage 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 weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and whose thinking I have a deep affinity for, 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.

Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, i.e; in our evaluations of human behavior. What separates us are only intellectual “props” and “rationalization” in Freud’s language. Therefore I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.

With friendly thanks and best wishes,

Yours,
A. Einstein

Since this was written a year before Einstein’s death, I think it can stand as the culmination of his thinking, regardless of how deistic, theistic, or agnostic he was earlier. Einstein was certainly not mentally incapacitated or demented when he wrote this, and so those who say Einstein was religious will have to somehow rationalize the letter away. I look forward to the religion-osculators at Brainpickings and Krista Tippett’s unctuous show “On Being” coming to grips with Einstein’s words. Tippett, I suspect, would somehow try to claim that Einstein still had a quasi-religious faith.

33 Comments

  1. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 5, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Einstein published an essay in the New York Times called “Religion and Science” in which he distinguishes three senses of the word “religious” and states he is religious in only one of them.

    In that essay he disavows belief in a personal God saying that in the “struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God”.
    The essay was castigated by various rabbis and prominent Catholics.

    Now, this sort of precision in defining your words is always pleasing to me.

    In a letter replying to a 6th grader, Einstein writes,
    “the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.”

    So folks who want to claim Einstein is
    semi-demi-hemi-quasi-MoreOrLess-kinda-sorta-religious should, like Al himself, define exactly what they mean by the term.

    IMO, Einstein was religious in the same sense that Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and John Muir were religious.

    Since Richard Dawkins at a talk I personally attended said he was not sure that Buddhism was really a religion in the “proper” sense, but more of a philosophy with an ecclesiastical structure built around it, Dawkins might not consider Emerson or Thoreau et al to be religious.

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Einstein’s brilliance as a scientist was nearly matched by his diplomacy. Apologists were quick to capitalize on his congenial statements during, and especially after his lifetime. Dawkins stated something along the lines that he was around 97% atheist,(coincidentally(?) close to genome overlap % with chimps) and allowed for a miniscule probability of theistic belief accuracy.John Muir was diplomatic from a different perspective considering his father’s influence.

      • Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        One of the reasons Einstein used conciliatory language about religion is that he had a much bigger concern than theism vs atheism, namely the threat to the Jewish people. America really was not ready to cope with the concept of atheism.

        Even the mild comments he did make led to letters such as:

        “[Einstein] does his own people a grave injury by making public such a statement. By doing so, he is giving the religious bigots, especially the followers of Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, fuel for their fanatical fires. They will charge that he is presenting the Jewish faith when, as a matter of fact, what he is presenting is an utter denial of the whole Jewish concept of God.” (Letter to the Detroit Free Press in 1940.)

        And:

        “Deep regret that you … ridicule the concept of a personal God. In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement. Conceding your right to free speech, I still say that your statement constitutes you as one of the foremost sources of discord in America.” (Letter to Einstein, 1940.)

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        John Muir’s father was a ferocious Scottish Calvinist, and from early on, Muir was in fierce rebellion against that form of piety. Muir found much more source of reverence in the forest than in any picture of a crucified Jesus.

  2. Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    God does not play dice with the universe.

    The about quote is attributed to Einstein. I may not have it exactly right.

    I would like to hear arguments as to why someone who made this statement would not be considered religious.
    Or why he would be religious.

    • Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      The quote (translated from the original German) is “Quantum mechanics … delivers much, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the Old One. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice.”

      Einstein seems to be using “God” or “the Old One” as a metaphor for nature, not as a reference to a personal god.

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      God (Altmann) does not play dice with the universe perhaps because he doesn’t exist in order to play anything with anything?

      • Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        What does that say about Einstein?

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted October 6, 2018 at 4:58 am | Permalink

          That he liked metaphors?

          cr

          • Posted October 6, 2018 at 8:28 am | Permalink

            Good answer. Maybe that was it!

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Woody Allen’s reply to that was “No, he likes to play hide-and-go-seek”
      (“Hannah and her Sisters”)

    • James
      Posted October 5, 2018 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      If someone hits their thumb with a hammer and starts blaspheming, does that mean they are religious?

      The English language cannot, outside of very specific situations, be read with the precision of a legal document. English is a flowery, poetic language, filled with metaphors. I have used two in that sentence–yet I doubt you would argue that I think English literature literally contain flowers, or that since there are spaces between metaphors it is not, in actuality, filled! Scientific literature attempts to avoid such language, but not always successfully, and it seems that the more prominent the scientist, the less rigorous they are–Gould’s essays (not his peer-reviewed papers) certainly used such conventions, for example.

      “God” is often used as a metaphor for unknown causes. It’s like saying “It’s lucky the lightning missed me!” Strictly speaking, it’s NOT luck; we could examine the physical forces involved and determine why the lightning behaved as it did. But it’s superfluous to do so. Similarly, when discussing cosmology and the grand questions of physics in a semi-formal or informal way, “God” is frequently used as a metaphor for those things which we know must exist, but which we haven’t found yet and often haven’t defined yet–the reason why, in a nutshell, the universe is what it is. This isn’t uncommon–Hawking did so, for example.

      I’m not saying that Einstein used the term in that way. I frankly don’t care; he was a genius in physics but I’ve never considered him an authority in culture, philosophy, religion, or other portions of the humanities. I’m merely presenting this as one possible explanation.

  3. Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Teachers of religion must have the stature to give up their doctrine of a personal God.

    The inference is that there would still be religion after the giving up of the doctrine of a personal God.

  4. Wolfgang
    Posted October 5, 2018 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jerry and fellow WEIT’ers,

    I would kindly like to remind you of my post ( https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/einsteins-anti-god-letter-goes-for-3-mil/#comment-310744 ) in 2012.

    TLDR: This translation of the letter is both extremely common online AND objectively incorrect. Some parts of the translation do not correspond with anything in Einstein’s original letter at all (e.g.: the “childish” part).

    I am probably fighting a battle I can’t win. But would you please update the post to make it correct?

    Thank you,

    W.

    • Posted October 5, 2018 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Hi,

      It’s not a battle; I had forgotten about that entirely and of course will link to your comment in the post above and say there seems to have been some mistranslation.

      Besides the “childish” bit, though, it seems that the tenor of the letter isn’t that different from the rest of the translation, no?

      It would be good if you could translate the letter in your own words. If you do, I’ll either add your whole translation to this post or put it in a new post. I do want to be accurate and apologize for forgetting your comment or even that I’d posted on this letter previously.

      Thank you.
      jac

      • Wolfgang
        Posted October 7, 2018 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

        Hi!

        Thank you for the quick response.

        Two things:

        Apologies: I didn’t mean to suggest that I am battling JAC or anyone else on WEIT. I merely wanted to express that it is difficult to scrub this particular mustache / translation from the internet.

        Thank you for asking, but I don’t think I am the best person to provide a more decent or more official translation. Iam traveling and I won’t have access to a computer anytime soon. Moreover, I am sure others are more qualified.

        Thank you for being so generous and quick to update the earlier post.

        Best,

        Wolfgang

    • Posted October 5, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Dear Wolfgang,
      You could send an email with a better translation to the site Letters of Note (page about the letter, with contact details), asking them to update it.

  5. Posted October 5, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    If the tendency to believe in a religion (or higher power, or whatever) has a genetic basis, it is always possible for a great scientist to also be born with that tendency. I doubt Einstein had those genes. I am really glad that I don’t. Not that I’m a great scientist, of course. 😉

    • KD33
      Posted October 5, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Is there any evidence of a genetic basis for proclivity toward religion? I highly doubt it. As has been pointed out numerous times here, it seems to correlate mostly with where you were born, the general economic status of your country, and your parents’ beliefs. For the latter you might point to some as-yet unidentified “genes,” but this is probably easily disproved by looking at “mixed” marriages (one parent adopts the beliefs of the other) vs. the frequency of those beliefs being passed down to offspring.

      • Posted October 5, 2018 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        I know there has been research on this but I have no idea what the scientific consensus is. My guess is that there are genes which contribute to religiosity but that is only based on much research that shows our personalities are shaped more by our genetic heritage than our experience. Nature has largely won out over nurture. There is no blank slate. (Helmet on ready for the battle!)

        • Posted October 5, 2018 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          Without going to hunt sources up I’ve read, I will say that what I’ve read about this area of the brain makes it sound similar to the functions of the area of the brain that we are told deals with addiction in which the addictions can be to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sugar, etc. A broad range of categories. Maybe, God(s) are addictions too.

  6. Posted October 5, 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    “. . .there’s ample evidence that Einstein was not a theist, but at best a species of pantheist who derived personal awe from the regularity of the laws of nature. He surely wasn’t religious in the sense that religious Americans are religious, as he abjured belief in a personal god, the Scriptures, and so on.”

    Yes, that’s my take too, although Einstein himself wasn’t comfortable calling himself a “pantheist” (see quote below).

    Re the letter, however, we need to put it in context. Einstein was replying to the author of a book that made outlandish claims about the Jewish religion, going so far as to say that Abraham freed himself and the Jews from “natural causation.” Einstein strongly and openly rejected this kind of religious nonsense throughout his life, so that he should reject it here is not anything new.

    Also, it’s important to note that Einstein rejects the word “God”: “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.” I would agree wholeheartedly with Einstein’s take on “the word God” and on the Bible, but I remain a pantheist.

    As for what Einstein meant by “childish,” he makes that pretty clear in the following passage:

    “I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”

  7. Posted October 5, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Einstein claimed to be agnostic and said he was not an atheist. But the sentiments in that letter could have been written by Dawkins himself.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 5, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Ol’ Alby demonstrates once again he wasn’t a bad prose stylist.

    • Posted October 5, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      Maybe so, but having translated German (specifically Rilke) I’m always hesitant to assume the translation accurately reflects the “prose style” of the original.

      In this translation some of the word choices are clearly off. E.g., in the sentence “And the Jewish people . . .have no different quality for me than all other people,” the translator renders the German “Dignität” as “quality” rather than the obvious “dignity” for no good reason that I can see. Just a pedantic word of caution. 😊

      (Dawkins provides a readable German version here: https://de.richarddawkins.net/articles/der-einstein-gutkind-brief-mit-transkript-und-englischer-ubersetzung)

      • Posted October 5, 2018 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

        Look at the flaws in translation of Biblical elements such as the virginity of Mary. I’m more familiar with translation issues in literary works of prose and poetry where it can make all the difference in the world.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 5, 2018 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

        I will defer to you on this topic Herr Gary.

  9. Rita Prangle
    Posted October 5, 2018 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, your question as to why people feel the need to discern Einstein’s views on religion take me back to my third grade when we discussed articles from the Weekly Reader. One of the discussion questions about an article that featured Albert Einstein was “Do Albert Einstein’s thoughts on any particular subject carry more weight, even if they’re opinions outside his field of expertise, because of him being the world’s smartest person?”
    I said “no”, but the teacher and the rest of the class said “yes”.

  10. Caldwell
    Posted October 5, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that it’s because he’s regarded as The Smartest Man of Our Time, and so his opinion on any issue is taken as authoritative.

    Although his “c = constant ” and “E = mc^2” were completely amazing and an indication of a true genius, Einstein had some pretty dumb ideas about human nature, e.g. a world government.

    That “god doesn’t play dice” quote gets a lot more mileage than it deserves.

  11. Posted October 5, 2018 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I think the authority concepts of Christianity saturate their thinking about any number of things from how to define a word to how to think about famous people. Many thought Flew’s ‘conversion’ meant an automatic claim on the attention of atheists. I expect the efforts to twist Einstein into a positive Theist runs along those same lines. If we value his contribution to science, so the thinking goes, we must then accept his views on God. Add to that sloppy reading and opportunistic quote mining and you have the formula for many a shameless apologetics post.

  12. Diane G
    Posted October 6, 2018 at 3:52 am | Permalink

    sub


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