Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Einstein's God

There's been a lot of commentary in the blogosphere about a January 3, 1954 letter from Albert Einstein to philosopher Eric Gutkind which contains the following statements:
The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.
For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are 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.
Einstein expressed similar sentiments in a pair of letters he wrote on July 2, 1945 and September 28, 1949 to Ensign Guy H. Raner of the U.S.S. Bougainville which were first published in Skeptic magazine in 1997:
From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. Your counter-arguments seem to me very correct and could hardly be better formulated. It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere--childish analogies. We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of the world--as far was we can grasp it, and that is all. [July 2, 1945]
I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being. [September 28, 1949]
Einstein didn't consider himself an atheist in the common usage of the term (his 1945 letter restricts the term to "from the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest"), though he was clearly comfortable being called an agnostic. He rejected the idea of a personal god, but was apparently willing to accept the possibility of Spinoza's pantheistic god.

UPDATE (May 14, 2008): ERV quotes this description of a statement by Oxford historian and theologian John Hedley Brooke, and describes it in a comment as "a 'respected' theologian lying to try to 'keep him'" (emphasis hers):
"Like other great scientists he does not fit the boxes in which popular polemicists like to pigeonhole him," said Brooke. "It is clear for example that he had respect for the religious values enshrined within Judaic and Christian traditions ... but what he understood by religion was something far more subtle than what is usually meant by the word in popular discussion."

Despite his categorical rejection of conventional religion, Brooke said that Einstein became angry when his views were appropriated by evangelists for atheism. He was offended by their lack of humility and once wrote. "The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."

ERV also writes, after giving this quote, "Evangelical Atheism!!!! During the MCCARTHY ERA!!!! AAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA! w00t!"

But she's clearly wrong and Brooke is clearly right, if you read the quotation I gave from the 1949 letter. Einstein said "professional atheist" rather than "evangelical atheist," but the point Brooke describes is exactly the point Einstein made.

Some have argued that the newer 1954 letter is clearly more atheistic than the older letters I've quoted from above, in that it removes the qualifier "personal" from its expression of distaste about the use of the word "god." But if Einstein continued to use the word "god" himself after the 1954 letter, then it's not clear to me that he's not simply continuing to make the same point about the word "god" as it's normally used, to refer to the gods of the major world religions. Other than the lack of the qualifier "personal" in one sentence, the quotes from the new letter strike me as consistent with his position in the previous letters.

UPDATE (October 27, 2009): Images of the Gutkind letter, its translation into English, and a transcription of the original German may be found here.

1 comment:

Hume's Ghost said...

Jennifer Michael Hecht criticized Christopher Hitchens for claiming Einstein for atheism in her review of God is Not Great.

That still doesn't compare to the worst usage of Einstein for political reasons that I've seen ... that being the absolutely attrocious Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible from Regnery publishing which attempted to use Einstein to buttress its central argument that the Bible is a necessary precursor to science.