Pass the Brilliant Person: The Einstein Traditional God Rejection Letter

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

*Full letter at the bottom.*[1]

Einstein’s recent letter to hit some of the popular press headlines references “God” in addition to the Bible (BBC News, 2018a). At the age of 74, Einstein wrote a 1.5 page “note” or letter to Eric Gutkind, a German philosopher of the time (Ibid.).

Often, it is titled the “God Letter” (Barron, 2018). At times, Einstein identified with the term “agnostic” while rejecting atheism (Rense, 2018). Some interpret this as an open rejection of religion as a whole by Einstein, not necessarily true (Osborne, 2018).

Indeed, flat wrong, Einstein, two months after the letter to Gutkind, stated the personal sensibility of a deeply religious non-believer (Christie’s, 2018). In youth, though, Einstein “manifested… a sudden but passionate zeal for Judaism, a short but memorable phase that reached its conclusion with Einstein’s exposure to science at around the age of 10” (Ibid.).

Einstein, as written years later, through the reading of popular science textbooks and upon reflection of the contents of the texts comprising the Bible, stated the “impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression” (Ibid.).

The letter, in a New York-based auction, acquired a worth of 2.9-million-pound-sterling (or GBP), equivalent to about $4 million Canadian dollars (CAD) (Sherwood, 2018). The common interpretation of the letter, given the clarity of time and new generations, remains a rejection of traditional conceptualizations of a God and the standard interpretations – literal and metaphorical – of the Bible (Willingham, 2018).

Einstein did not adhere to an atheistic viewpoint of the universe, as many of you know. Interestingly, the letter was written in response to a book written by Gutkind entitled Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt (Johnson, 2018).

Letters from other individuals from Einstein garner similar renowned and monetary valuation, not including one to a young female scientist while, certainly, another to the late Theodore Roosevelt with the one to Roosevelt’s worth estimated between $1.2 to $0.8 million (USD), approximately $1.63 to $1.09 million (CAD) (BBC News, 2018b; Christie’s, 2002).

To claim Einstein as a traditional religious individual would disserve Einstein’s intellectual legacy, even cheapen the worldview, some labelled the Einsteinian, rather direct, stance expressed in the letter a “diatribe” (Robinson, 2018).

Peter Klarnet, senior specialist in books and manuscripts at Christie’s auction house, argued, “…one of the definitive statements in the Religion vs. Science debate” (Willingham, 2018). A note from the auction house stated, “This remarkably candid, private letter was written a year before Einstein’s death and remains the most fully articulated expression of his religious and philosophical views” (BBC News, 2018a).

Important to note, since the letter was written one year prior to Einstein’s death, this may, indeed, reflect the antiquated cosmologist’s advanced age religious and theological views as stone tablet (Willingham, 2018). That is to say, Christie’s, though seemingly bold in the declaration, seems correct in the assessment.

One dissenting voice was noted by Gillespie (2018) on the definitude of the religious and theological views of Einstein, which was the biographer of Einstein, Walter Isaacson – who is prominent and respected.

Richard Dawkins stated, “This letter was about something very important to Einstein, I suspect” (Sherwood, 2018). Something of which Einstein thought about in a critical manner since the age of 13, saying he had “abandoned his uncritical religious fervour, feeling he had been deceived into believing lies” (Ibid.).

Atheists and theists alike partake of name-dropping in history to bolster positions for themselves. Willingham (2018) touched on the vein here. The notion of an authority figure of world renowned representative, in some frame, of one’s own views and, therefore, the famous smart person reflective of a similar level of intelligence or respectability of oneself.

The more accurate view about Einstein’s worldview reflected the mathematical harmony and apparent beauty in the simplicity of the principles of nature, of its logical parsimony and precision. One found in Baruch de Spinoza, a Jewish-Dutch 17th-century philosopher, known for a pantheistic view of the universe without magic or miracles.

Some characterize the non-interventionist God of Einstein as either a Deity or a Pantheity. Simply Nature or the laws thereof, God does not care about individual human beings’ lives in this idea of God. Such an important question, thinker, and answer, to so many, the auction went for 4-minutes (Gillespie, 2018). Intriguingly, but, perhaps, not surprisingly, the Gutkind family owned the letter until 2008 prior to a former auction of the letter in a Bloomsbury Auctions in London (Ibid.; CTV News, 2018).

Einstein, born in Germany and with Jewish heritage, went straight to the point in the letter, as elderly men have things to do and things to think about, e.g., a Theory of Everything. He did not have time to read the full book by Gutkind, though he read most of it (Letters of Note, 2009). Gutkind disagreed with Einstein on free will and the role of God in an individual’s life (Mejia, 2018).

Because Einstein’s famous metaphorical words about God not playing dice with the universe represented an image of absolute truth in the world glued to determinism without an intervening God and, therefore, no movement for freedom of the will or a role of God in the life of each person for all time (The Week, 2018; Christie’s, 2018).

Einstein in the letter reflects on the lack of “ego-oriented desires” as an “un-American attitude” aligning the sentiments of Gutkind and Einstein, i.e., Einstein started on a non-confrontational point of view after reading “a great deal” of Gutkind’s text (Letters of Note, 2009).

Alas, Einstein set the word “God” as a derivation of human frailties and the Bible as “a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish,” where no interpretation can alter this conception and “the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition” (Ibid.).

In the latter case, narratives and superstitions intended for children; in the former case, not hostile inasmuch as descriptive of the limited organisms, in time and in space, grasping at what little light the rules of nature will permit of themselves, principles of existence glimpsed through an evolved and bounded mind with proportional limits in ability to know the cosmos.

Taking on the stance of humanity writ species, Einstein understood the Jewish peoples as simply another group, rather than “chosen,” and no better than the others and, in fact, “are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power” and not some divine decree or selection (Ibid.). Although, other early life written sources represent more racist views (Roos, 2018). He may have recanted personal opinions over time.

In the concluding half of the letter, Einstein leaves the boxing gloves at home to gather chalk dust flaking off the equation-filled board and then offers an olive branch. At first, he states:

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. (Letters of Note, 2009)

In this reference to Spinoza as a solution to the faux superiority posited by Gutkind, we find echoes to a consistent view of the universe as a mathematical harmony without a wink lost over human affairs and parochial belief systems, or claims to racial superiority. He then stated:

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. (Ibid.)

In this, we can see a distinct split between the intellectual and emotional common sentiment.

On a rather thoughtful, though not entirely unbiased but probably mostly true, note, Christian thinktank Theos senior fellow, Nick Spencer, stated, “Einstein offers scant consolation to either party in this debate. His cosmic religion and distant deistic God fits neither the agenda of religious believers or that of tribal atheists… As so often during his life, he refused and disturbed the accepted categories. We do the great physicist a disservice when we go to him to legitimise our belief in God, or in his absence” (Sherwood, 2018).

References

Barron, J. (2018, December 2). Einstein’s ‘God Letter,’ a Viral Missive From 1954. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/02/nyregion/einstein-god-letter-auction.html.

BBC News. (2018a, December 4). Albert Einstein’s ‘God letter’ sells for $2.9m. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46438116.

BBC News. (2018b, March 6). Albert Einstein note to young female scientist sells at auction. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43308400.

BBC News. (2018c, June 14). Einstein’s travel diaries reveal racist stereotypes. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-44472277.

Christie’s. (2018, December 12). ‘The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weakness’. Retrieved from https://www.christies.com/features/Albert-Einstein-God-Letter-9457-3.aspx.

Christie’s. (2002, March 27). Sale 1032. Retrieved from https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/einstein-albert-typed-letter-signed-to-3886884-details.aspx.

CTV News. (2018, December 5). Einstein’s ‘God letter’ fetches $2.9M at auction. Retrieved from https://www.ctvnews.ca/sci-tech/einstein-s-god-letter-fetches-2-9m-at-auction-1.4206380.

Gillespie, E. (2018, December 6). After a Tense 4-Minute-Long Auction, Einstein’s ‘God Letter’ Sells for Nearly $3 Million at Christie’s. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2018/12/06/einstein-god-letter-sold-price-christies-auction/.

Johnson, B. (n.d.). Albert Einstein’s “God Letter” Taken in Context. Retrieved from http://www.deism.com/einsteingodletter.htm.

Mejia, Z. (2018, December 5). Einstein’s famous ‘God letter’ sold for a record-breaking $2.9 million — here’s why. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/05/einsteins-god-letter-sold-at-auction-for-2point9-million–heres-why.html.

Osborne, S. (2018, December 5). Albert Einstein’s ‘God letter’ in which physicist rejected religion auctioned for $3m. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/albert-einstein-god-letter-auction-sale-religion-science-atheism-new-york-eric-gutkind-a8668216.html.

Rense, S. (2018, December 6). Albert Einstein’s Letter Calling God a ‘Human Weakness’ Netted $2.9 Million at Auction. Retrieved from https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/money/a25422404/einstein-god-letter-sells-auction/.

Roos, D. (2018, June 14). Albert Einstein’s Travel Diaries Reveal Racist Comments. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/albertin-einstein-racist-xenophobic-views-travel-journal.

Robinson, M. (2018, December 5). Einstein’s ‘God letter’ breaks record and sells for $2.9M at auction. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/05/us/einstein-god-letter-christies-auction-scli-intl/index.html.

Sherwood, H. (2018, December 4). Albert Einstein’s ‘God letter’ reflecting on religion auctioned for $3m. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/dec/04/physicist-albert-einstein-god-letter-reflecting-on-religion-up-for-auction-christies.

The Week. (2018, December 4). What’s in Albert Einstein’s ‘God letter’?. Retrieved from https://www.theweek.co.uk/98254/what-s-in-albert-einstein-s-god-letter.

Willingham, A.J. (2018, December 4). Einstein’s famous ‘God Letter’ is expected to fetch $1 million at auction. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/04/us/einstein-god-letter-auction-trnd/index.html.

Endnote

[1] The word God is a product of human weakness (2009) in full states:

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,

Yours,

A. Einstein

Letters of Note. (2009, September). The word God is a product of human weakness. Retrieved from http://www.lettersofnote.com/2009/10/word-god-is-product-of-human-weakness.html.

Photo by Justin Kauffman on Unsplash

One thought on “Pass the Brilliant Person: The Einstein Traditional God Rejection Letter

  1. Very comforting words from Albert. Since his time much more has been discovered by religious studies professionals. Albert’s valuation of “the chosen people” and “monotheism” remains a gold standard but if he were alive today he would be privy to a better knowledge of how these ideas originated. Popular books based upon modern archeological and textual discoveries wouldn’t change his assertions, but these more recent peeks into the past, from authors such as: Eisenman, Murdock or Valliant, would have comforted Albert by reveling that religion creation and development was along the lines he suspected.

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