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.
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.
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,
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.