Einstein Letter on Religion and God to Be Auctioned on eBay

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Bidding to start at $3 million.

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Wikimedia Commons/Rebecca J. Rosen

On January 3, 1954 -- one year before his death -- Albert Einstein wrote a letter to Eric B. Gutkind, whose book, Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt, Einstein had recently been reading. The handwritten letter, which is in German, has been kept in good condition over the last six decades will be auctioned off on eBay over the next two weeks. Bidding will begin at $3 million. (An image of the letter is available here.)

In the letter, Einstein offers some pointed and characteristically brief thoughts on God and religion. In a key passage, he writes:

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.* 

Despite the dramatic events in the world that he both lived through (e.g. the Holocaust) and directly brought about (e.g. the discovery of the general theory of relativity), Einstein was in many ways remarkably consistent in his feelings about God and religion, and the sentiments in this letter echo those that he had been formulating -- not to mention promulgating -- for decades.

The clearest of those here is Einstein's critique of religion as not sophisticated enough to render the universe as Einstein understood it. This is something he said, or at least hinted at, many times, such as when he wrote to a U.S. Navy ensign that he considered a father-figure-like understanding of God to be a consequence of "childish analogies." Religion, Einstein believed, made a caricature of God.

That's not, however, because Einstein rejected the notion of God, but because he took the idea of God very seriously, elevating it above a religious conception to a mathematical one. To Einstein, the elegance of the physics guiding the universe were God's handiwork, the mark not of a humanlike being that maintains control over the world, but of a divine beauty in nature's laws. As Walter Issacson wrote in his biography, following a religious phase in childhood, Einstein retained "a profound reverence for the harmony and beauty of what he called the mind of God as it was expressed in the creation of the universe and its laws."

Einstein's God -- deeply shaped by the ideas of Baruch Spinoza -- was a "superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe," he wrote. His religion followed from there. As Isaacson tells it:

One evening in Berlin, Einstein and his wife were at a dinner party when a guest expressed a belief in astrology. Einstein ridiculed the notion as pure superstition. Another guest stepped in and similarly disparaged religion. Belief in God, he insisted, was likewise a superstition.

At this point the host tried to silence him by invoking the fact that even Einstein harbored religious beliefs.

"It isn't possible!" the skeptical guest said, turning to Einstein to ask if he was, in fact, religious.

"Yes, you can call it that," Einstein replied calmly. "Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious."

In a 1930 essay, Einstein expressed this another way: "To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man."

Prayer would have little influence over such a God and have no role in Einstein's personal religion. "Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and this holds for the actions of people," he told a sixth-grade girl. "For this reason, a scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being."

All of this squares with Einstein's letter now on auction. The religion of the Bible was too provincial, too small, to contain the God Einstein revered. That God, the one he found in physics and who inspired his science, deserved more. But, nevertheless, Einstein didn't believe that differing views on God should interfere with the development of understanding among men. Supernatural matters were abstract, disconnected from the exigencies of the 20th century. In closing his letter to Gutkind he wrote, "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."


*Editor's note: A commenter has pointed out that the German word for "childish" does not seem to be in the original German and the translation instead should be something more like "honorable but quite primitive" full stop. The translations from the Isaacson text are all accurate.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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