Category Archives: Religious beliefs of famous folk

Real news and fake news about the God letter

It is better this time, but …

In its previous story about the upcoming auction of Einstein’s 1954 letter to Eric Gutkind, the Uncertaintist opined that compared with coverage of earlier auctions of the item, “press reporting about the letter’s content this time, at least so far, is getting closer to what Einstein wrote.” This improvement was attributed to the auctioneer, Christie’s, having based its pre-sale publicity on reliable transcriptions of Einstein’s handwritten, first-draft German.

To see whether those assessments are justifiable, your ob’d correspondent performed a small experiment, looking at about a dozen prominent reputable news providers’ stories that turn up in the first few pages in simple Google searches. This is not an exhaustive study, and not a statistical estimation of accuracy among press outlets, but just a check whether or not some major media are being truthful about Einstein’s writing, on matters where an accurate transcription would help.

The results were mixed.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Filed under Religious beliefs of famous folk

Einstein’s “God” letter up for auction again

On December 4th, Christie’s will be auctioning the famous thank you note Albert Einstein wrote to Eric Gutkind (link), in which Einstein comments on his differences with Gutkind’s conceptions of God, the Jewish Bible and Judaism. The letter will be available for viewing in San Francisco from October 25 through November 1 and in New York City from November 30 through the day of the sale. Christie’s has also exhibited the letter in Shanghai during September.

Compared with the two earlier highly publicized sales (in the UK in 2008 and on E-bay in 2012), press reporting about the letter’s content this time, at least so far, is getting closer to what Einstein wrote. This improvement is partly attributable to the auctioneer using a reliable transcription of the handwritten German original, as was confirmed in the Uncertaintist’s recent phone interview with Peter Klatner, who’s overseeing the sale for Christie’s. Unless some press outlet resurrects the comically flawed Guardian translation-wannabe from 2008, we won’t hear again about Einstein calling Bible stories “childish.”

Selective quotation remains a problem, however. For example, Newsweek (link) claims that Einstein called God the product of human weakness, while Einstein writes that of the word God; in context, the word God as Gutkind uses it throughout his book expressing a particular religious concept. Newsweek also claims that Einstein calls Judaism “an incarnation of primitive superstition.” Einstein calls a form of Judaism that, the “unadulterated” form, a reference to Gutkind’s preferred variety of Judaism, which Gutkind, writing in American English, contrasted with “watered down” Judaism.

For the Uncertaintist’s complete coverage of this issue, follow this link. For a gentler, but not contradicting, handwritten comment about the Bible written by Einstein, see link. For a sampling from Einstein’s many published comments on God and religion, visit the Unlinks page (link) and download “Einstein (ir)religion sources.” The Unlinks page is where you’ll also find a complete German-language transcript of the Einstein-Gutkind letter, with an English translation and excerpts from Gutkind’s book, the subject of the letter.

Leave a comment

Filed under Religious beliefs of famous folk

Pope’s strong women are particular women

About six months ago, the Uncertaintist discussed the possibility of ordained women serving as permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, the Pope has used several opportunities to comment on women’s role in his church, most recently during his long interview with Antonio Spadaro, featured in the current issue of America magazine, and in other Jesuit news outlets worldwide.

So far, there is nothing specific about women deacons. Pope Francis’ answer to a open-ended question about women in the Spadaro interview is the very model of bureaucratic discourse. Tea leaves give clearer counsel.

Q. What should be the role of women in the church? How do we make their role more visible today?

A. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo. Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role.

The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church.

The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.

It is significant, I think, that the one moment of clarity piercing through the fog is when the Pope speaks about a specific woman, Mary. That is typical of the interview as a whole. Specific women are vivid, women in the abstract are a problem that must somehow and someday be better addressed.

One specific woman is Nonna Rosa, his father’s mother. The Pope often refers to her in public. He repeats in the recent interview that he carries a passage from his grandmother’s last will in his breviary. He talks about her teaching him by heart the opening of a Nineteenth Century Italian novel (I Promessi Sposi, the Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni). He finds a reflection of his affection for her in a poem by Hölderlin, written for the poet’s grandmother on her birthday,

I was also impressed because I loved my grandmother Rosa, and in that poem Hölderlin compares his grandmother to the Virgin Mary, who gave birth to Jesus, the friend of the earth who did not consider anybody a foreigner.

It is, however, an anonymous nun whose story leaps out. Jorge Bergoglio was hospitalized at age 21 for a lung infection. Part of his lung was surgically removed. His doctor prescribed antibiotics, penicillin and streptomycin. The nurse, a nun, agreed with the choice of drugs, but overruled the physician and tripled the young patient’s dosage because

… she was daringly astute; she knew what to do because she was with ill people all day. The doctor, who really was a good one, lived in his laboratory; the sister lived on the frontier and was in dialogue with it every day. Domesticating the frontier means just talking from a remote location, locking yourself up in a laboratory. Laboratories are useful, but reflection for us must always start from experience.

Daring indeed. Hospitals are as hierarchical as the Vatican, and the docs are the bishops and cardinals, not the nurses. And yet, in the Pope’s opinion, he is alive today, more than fifty years later, because of an uppity woman who knew better than her acknowledged superior.

There is nothing specific to report about women deacons, then, at six months into the new papacy. But that the Pope remembers two modern strong women with admiration, gratitude and affection can’t be an entirely bad sign.

Leave a comment

Filed under Religious beliefs of famous folk

Who got Einstein’s Bible?

Bonhams sold a Bible last week that had been inscribed by Elsa and Albert Einstein. As the auctioneer’s catalog description noted, “Not much is known of the recipient, Harriet Hamilton.” So, here is some background information that may help shed some light.

Barbara Wolff of the Albert Einstein Archives describes Harriet as having served temporarily as Elsa’s, and possibly Albert’s, secretary. The Einsteins visited Caltech during the winters in the early 1930’s. It is plausible, then, that the Bible, given in February 1932, was an end-of-duty gift to a local Pasadena employee for whom the couple displayed an obvious personal warmth.

There was also a remarkable turn in the life of Harriet Freda Hamilton of Pasadena at just that time. As Freda Sophie Henriette Jeddeloh, she had entered the United States from Hannover, Germany in early 1925. She went to live in Akron Ohio. Five years later, in January 1930, she filed a petition in Ohio for naturalization as an American citizen.

Her citizenship petition was languishing before the Einsteins’ 1931-32 visit, but something stirred Harriet into action. In early March 1932, the Ohio court dropped her old petition at Harriet’s request. Two weeks later, she filed a new petition for naturalization in Los Angeles. Harriet pursued that initiative vigorously. Her naturalization was granted in June 1932. Court records noted both her new and former names.

It is tempting to think that Harriet’s contact with the Einsteins, with their first-hand knowledge of deteriorating conditions in her native Germany, may have helped her commit to remaining in the United States. Alternatively, she may have reached that resolution on her own, and the Einsteins wished her well. In any case, that the couple had much personal regard for their helper is plain to see.

Leave a comment

Filed under Religious beliefs of famous folk

Auction of a Bible from the Einsteins

Earlier this week, Bonhams auction house in New York sold a Bible with a handwritten gift inscription from Elsa and Albert Einstein. The Einsteins had given the book to Harriet F. Hamilton in 1932. The Bible sold for $68,500 including the buyer’s premium.

The couple inscribed the book separately.  Albert Einstein wrote a few lines in German, praising the book and recommending that Harriet read from it often. Is Einstein’s advice surprising based on his known views about Biblical literature around the early 1930’s? Do Einstein’s remarks in 1932 contradict the less enthusiastic words that he wrote about the Bible to Eric Gutkind in 1954, which were discussed last year on the Uncertaintist?

No and no.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Religious beliefs of famous folk

Rewritten Einstein goes wide again

As Monday’s opening of the eBay auction of the Einstein-Gutkind letter nears, traditional journalists’ interest heightens. A write-up by Reuters this week made quite a splash in the me2dia. Reuters’ reporter, Patricia Reaney, flogs this quasiquote from the letter:

“…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,”

Ms Reaney’s unattributed translation excerpt should be familiar. It  is, of course, the Guardian‘s, word for word, Americanizing the honourable.

Here’s an alternative sample. It’s about the same length and still in that much-copied Guardian style. The word count that this excerpt saves by striking through the “pretty childish” that Einstein didn’t write is used to restore Einstein’s context for “The word God,” as he did write it.

“… [Your book] is written in language which is inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of many honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can (for me) change this.”

The point of attending to translations is to understand Einstein’s thinking, and how that influences his culture, our culture. Update a reader kindly pointed to some distinctive big media coverage, Jessica Ravitz’ piece on the CNN Belief Blog,

Ravitz includes remarks about many aspects of the letter from Diana L. Kormos-Buchwald, history professor at the Caltech and director of the Einstein Papers Project.

None of this attention to translations, so far as I can see, affects what the letter is worth to the relatively small number of people who might afford it, individually or corporately. They know, or should know, what the letter says, independently of what’s in the newspapers or on the web.

The 2012 auctioneers’ photos are beautifully clear and complete, and have been widely distributed for a long while now. If a potential bidder doesn’t read German, then a journeyman 500-word transcription and translation job might cost about $100 or $200, which is a fraction of 1% of 1% of the minimum bid. It is unrealistic to think that anybody will be bidding from misinformation, or second-hand information of any kind.

The Albert Einstein Archives in Jerusalem, to name just one institution, would be thrilled to have this letter. The public relations value for someone who donated it to them could easily be worth more than the purchase price. Celebrity religion critic Richard Dawkins even managed to score some publciity as an underbidder in 2008.

As was reported here earlier, the Archives are thinking about digitally recreating the 1954-1955 appearance of the letter. Just loaning them the original to make even better images of the current condition of the letter could bring massive favorable recognition. If they succeed in the imaging project, then there could be continuing publicity ever after as the Archives disseminate the resulting image. And you would still own the model for that image, in this scenario.

Some of the articles here featured the disclaimer (until the conclusion of the sale; the higher of two bids made was reported to be $ 3,000,100)

The Uncertaintist does not offer advice to potential buyers. The purpose of this entry is solely to consider some factors which are possibly pertinent to understanding Einstein’s religious thinking and its effects on culture. Questions about the sale or the Einstein-Gutkind letter as an item in commerce should be directed to the auction organizers, through their website,

The price of anything reflects the economic value of what the most enterprising possible owner might do with it. On that, the sky’s the limit. It’s up to the buyer to create the emolument commensurate with the purchase price, whatever that may be. We wish all involved in the auction the best. Please do keep the Albert Einstein Archives in mind.


Filed under Religious beliefs of famous folk