A letter in which Albert Einstein explicitly rejected God and religion will be auctioned in December for the second time since the famous physicist wrote it, a year before his death.
Einstein wrote the letter to a Jewish philosopher in 1954, and it caused a sensation when it first went public at an auction sale in 2008 – complete with Einstein’s unambiguous declaration: “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. “
For decades, people had been debating the theorist’s concept of religion, in large part because they kept misunderstanding it.
When Einstein was a child, Denis Brian wrote in his book Einstein: A Life, he was for a time so devoutly Jewish that he wrote “songs in praise of God, which he belted out as he walked to and from his high school”.
That changed at age 13, when Einstein became interested in higher mathematics and philosophy, and “abandoned his uncritical religious fervour, feeling he had been deceived into believing lies”.
But he did not become an atheist. As Eugene Mallove wrote for The Washington Post in 1985, Einstein believed in what he called a “cosmic religion” – which was less a religion than “a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection”.
For Einstein, the mystery in the architecture of the physical universe – an architecture he helped reveal with his breakthroughs in relativity and the nature of space and time – was more profound than any wonder he read about in the Talmud or the Bible.
“I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes its creatures, or has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves,” he wrote in an essay in 1931.
Einstein did speak often of “God,” and was sometimes confused with a theist because of it. But he used the word as metaphor. “Einstein’s God was the Universe itself, not an external ‘grand puppeteer,’ “ Mallove wrote.
And for Einstein, the deepest secrets of the universe were as unknowable as the mind of God was to a theologian.
So the physicist read with interest a book published in 1952 by the philosopher Eric Gutkind, which attempted to marry Jewish spirituality and intellectualism, arguing that the pursuit of science could and would lead people to a complete understanding of God.
“As Einstein profoundly remarked,” Gutkind wrote in the book, “it is the most astonishing feature of the universe that the universe can be known. “
Einstein’s review was polite, but pretty savage.
“I read a great deal in the last days of your book, and thank you very much for sending it to me,” he wrote to Gutkind in 1954, before delivering his line about “human weaknesses” and “primitive legends. “
“For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions,” Einstein wrote, according to the Guardian’s translation of his handwritten German, “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. “
It’s not clear what Gutkind did with the letter, or how it emerged from obscurity in 2008, when the Associated Press wrote that someone with “a passion for theoretical physics and all that entails” had bought it at an auction for $404,000.
In 2012, the letter showed up again on eBay for an asking price of at least $3 million, but apparently never sold.
In case the excerpts above have given the impression that Einstein’s letter is a polemic, it’s really not. Whatever his views on religion, he maintained a deep respect for what he called “religious geniuses”, and believed that religion was necessary to guide people between right and wrong.
“Science can only ascertain what is, not what should be,” as he put it.
So while Einstein spent a paragraph or two criticising Gutkind’s understanding of the universe, he praised what he called Gutkind’s “factual attitude to life and to the human community”.
“I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things,” the physicist wrote in conclusion. “With friendly thanks and best wishes, Yours, A. Einstein. “
Words by Avi Selk
© The Washington Post
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies