The three million dollar meme – Einstein was an atheist (not)

Few personal opinions about the question of God are as tirelessly analyzed as Albert Einstein’s. Some people think that a personal letter of his, written in 1954 to Eric Gutkind, the author of a book about Judaism, casts new light on Einstein’s religious views. The letter, already a sensation in the auction world for having fetched $ 404,000 (including the auction fees paid by the buyer) in 2008, will be offered again at auction in early October, this time online and with a minimum bid of $ 3 million.

Atheist activist Richard Dawkins believes the letter finally settles that Einstein was an atheist. Does it? Does it shed any new light on Einstein’s thoughts about God?

Dawkins contributed the word meme to the language, meaning an idea that propagates through a culture as a contagious infection travels through a susceptible population. In his recent posting about the Einstein-Gutkind letter,

Dawkins tries to infect his readers with the notorious “Einstein was an atheist” meme, of which Dawkins is among the most famous carriers.

[Einstein] couldn’t have anticipated the extent of today’s dishonest quote-mining. So it is good to see this letter, written shortly before his death, which should lay to rest, once and for all, the eager myth that Einstein believed in God. Along with various other sources, this letter finally confirms that Einstein was, in every realistic sense of the word, an atheist.

Dawkins then re-runs the seller’s blurb, with its quotes from “key passages,” one big block of which is critical of God, the Bible and religious aspects of Jewish culture.

Previously on the Uncertaintist…

Einstein was not an atheist, nor did he belong to any other easily labeled theological grouping, as was discussed here last year in connection with Antony Flew. Unsurprisingly, Flew got it right, that the best standard term for both Einstein’s and his own views is deist. Deists typically do not rely on revelation, do not think that God intervenes in human affairs, but do believe in a creator distinct from the creation, with a mind or intelligence even if not necessarily a “person.” A collection of source material about Einstein’s irreligion is available on the Unlinks page of this blog.

Also on the Unlinks page is a transcript of remarks Dawkins made about the merits of deism while commenting about Antony Flew,

..who has long been a champion of atheism…has…announced in his old age that he has been converted to … a form of deism where he thinks there probably is some kind of mysterious intelligence at the root of the Universe. Many great people have thought the same…

There may be good reasons for believing in a God, and if there are any, I would expect them to come from possibly modern physics, from cosmology, from the observation that, as some people claim, the laws and constants of the Universe are too finely tuned to be an accident.

That would not be a wholly disreputable reason for believing in a – some form of supernatural deity. I think there’s a very good argument against it, and I developed much of my chapter four [of The God Delusion] to, as I think, refuting that argument

Dawkins clearly distinguishes atheism from deism. He actually shows some respect for the arguments of deists, which he rebuts from his own atheist standpoint. And, while he was speaking about Antony Flew, Dawkins gave as clear and as succinct an explanation of the substance of Einstein’s views about God as you are likely to find. Einstein “thinks there is probably some kind of mysterious intelligence at the root of the Universe,” based on his understanding of modern physics and belief that the laws of the Universe are not an accident.

In other words, Einstein was not an atheist. Einstein believed in God, as he understood the term.

Does the letter shed new light?

Back in 2008, when the letter first came up for auction, some media coverage emphasized that the letter was little known and previously uncatalogued. For the current auction, buyers are assured

The authenticity of the letter has never been questioned, as it has been well known in the scientific community for over 50 years.

Well, which is it? Was the letter breaking news five years ago, or was it well known fifty years ago?

It turns out that the answer is both. That Einstein had written to Gutkind was well-known for a long time, because Gutkind answered Einstein a few weeks later. That letter is in the Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At some point through the years, the archives also acquired a photocopy of Einstein’s letter and some transcriptions of it.  Einstein’s letter itself, however, apparently remained in private hands, largely unpublicized, from the time it was mailed until it was offered for public auction.

Now that the letter is available, did Einstein say something about his religious views that contradicts or extends his many, well publicized earlier remarks? The current sales literature alludes to the “timing” of the letter in Albert Einstein’s life; it was written just over fifteen months before Einstein’s death. Was there a late-in-life conversion? Was Einstein an earlier Antony Flew?

On the question of God, no. It appears uncontroversial that Einstein had left the religious and theist aspects of Jewish culture behind him in adolescence, at about the same time he first formed a life-long admiration for Spinoza’s philosophy.

The passage of the Einstein-Gutkind letter that bears most directly on the question on God, and a brief description of its context, is quoted in the Unlinks page source file on Einstein.

…Much of the letter concerns Judaism, and so “God” here plausibly refers to a revealed conception of God, and specifically the Jewish revelation…

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].

More on the brackets in a moment. The entry also notes that the sentiment expressed in the letter parallels something which Einstein had written earlier,

Denominational traditions I can only consider historically and psychologically, they have no other significance for me.

The 1954 statement says much the same thing as the earlier writing, but the diction is stronger, more dismissive, more Dawkinsian. Weakness…primitive…[childish], You can almost hear Dawkins saying “Now you’re talking, Al.”

It is not so much that Einstein wrote something so very new about his religious thinking or his cultural Jewishness. The more startling thing is that Einstein was talking tough.

Or was he?

Did Einstein really say that the Bible was pretty childish?

disputed area of letter

click on image to enlarge

A widely circulated English translation, which the Guardian newspaper attributed to an otherwise unidentified “Joan Stambaugh,” was used both by the auction house in 2008 and the current sellers. There has been for years a dispute about whether Einstein actually wrote any German which corresponds with “which are nevertheless pretty childish.” I don’t know who gets credit for the scoop, but here’s a blogged analysis by Steven H. Cullinane from early 2009:

This site does not claim priority, but it is the earliest I found, and has been reblogged since.

The detail photograph above is taken from the current sellers’ website image of the letter. The highlighted area shows the end of the “Bible” sentence, and the beginning of the next. The handwriting seems ro read:

die Bibel eine Sammlung ehrwürdiger, aber doch reichlich primitiver Legenden. Keine noch so feinsinnige Auslegung …

which would correspond with

the Bible, a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends. No matter how subtle an interpretation…

where the second sentence’s opening in the above is consistent with the next sentence in the sellers’ translation. There appears to be nothing like the provocative alleged parenthetical remark “which are nevertheless pretty childish” here in the text.

Later in the same paragraph, Einstein is translated as describing the Jewish religion, like religion in general, as “an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.” The word childish there appears to correspond with a form of the same German word as modifies legends in the passage photographed, which is often translated more plainly as “primitive,” as it was in that instance. A close-up photo confirming that Einstein wrote primitiven Aberglaubens, not  kindischer Aberglaube  appears in the second article in this series (see right below highlighted rectangle in the photo).

Update: an unabridged English translation and a German transcritpion of the letter has been added to the Unlinks page.

See the series on the Einstein-Gutkind letter.



Filed under Religious beliefs of famous folk

7 responses to “The three million dollar meme – Einstein was an atheist (not)

  1. Paul

    The notion that this letter is only special because of Einstein’s use of the word “childish” is utterly ridiculous.
    The letter in question is blunt indictment of organized

    • Chris


      When Einstein says the following: “… The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses,” That right there is clear that he does NOT believe in God.

      Even if the following words translates to “the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends…” instead of [continuing] “…which are nevertheless pretty childish.” , this changes nothing as far as how the letter reads. In both translations Einstein is saying he does not believe in God, and therefore is an Athiest.

      He even goes on to say about the Jewish religion “As far as my experience goes,…I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”

      The famous God Letter was a personal letter written to Eric B. Gutkind, and expressed his private views between the two distinguished colleagues. There is absolutely no reason to think that Einstein was anything but Athiest; and if he believed in God he would have said so in that letter. He in fact said the opposite.

    • Thank you for writing.

      Paul: Einstein didn’t write about “organized” religion here.

      Chris: What changes is whether a gentleman renowned for his civility and politeness called another grown man’s devoutly held beliefs “childish” to the man’s face, while thanking him for a favor. What part of that do you find credible?

      Einstein rebutted only what Gutkind argued. There was no reason for Einstein to describe yet again the God he believed in. Gutkind’s book wasn’t about deism.

  2. Eric Gazin

    Interesting analysis. The key point Einstein is making is that he is questioning religion and God, and after a lifetime of scientific research, he still has not embraced faith more, as he neared the end of his life, something that often does happen. The translation is the accepted understanding and despite some interpretive conjecture here, does not make a substantive difference.

    • Thank you for writing.

      Whenever it was written, the translation attributed to Stambuagh wasn’t widely disseminated until 2008. Its accuracy was first contested no later than February of 2009. It is not, then, “the accepted” anything, but has been disputed for about as long as it has been practical for the public to do so.

      I agree, of course, that Einstein was consistent in his religious opinions throughout his adulthood.

  3. Pingback: Einstein’s God Letter – A translation, a fool, the truth. « Harmonia Philosophica

  4. Triumph

    So people change their minds. We do it all the time. Can a person “Believe in a God” or “Believe in God” then change their mind? Why not? If a person decides at one moment in time, that they are with god, does that amount to proof that they believed in god at that moment? Yes.

    We have moments in our lives when we are with god, and moments in our lives when we are sure there is no “god” If a person has stated both do you go with that believe in god, when a person is witnessing unbearable grief, but in the prime of his or her life ? Or do we take the last moments of a person’s life, as the final verdict? It’s a tough call.

    I know at one point in Albert Einstein’s life, he turns to God. That moment is on July 7th, 1934. This is when he learns of the death of his step daughter Ilse. He has written to a friend, a very personal letter, and states he “Feels like an old animal under God’s never-ending sky, and you’re pierced by the futility of human efforts” My take on this letters is clear. Albert Einstein believed in God, on this day.

    I personally believe this letter could be the most personal letter ever written by Albert Einstein. I feel this is as important as the “God” letter, if not more, being he wrote this while in the prime of his life, not at the very end of his life. I plan on sharing this letter, soon. It’s complicated to say the least.

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