LONDON - Albert Einstein: arch rationalist or scientist with a spiritual core?
A letter being auctioned in London this week adds more fuel to the long-simmering debate about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist's religious views. In the note, written the year before his death, Einstein dismissed the idea of God as the product of human weakness and the Bible as "pretty childish."
The letter, handwritten in German, is being sold by Bloomsbury Auctions on Thursday and is expected to fetch between $12,000 and $16,000.
Einstein, who helped unravel the mysteries of the universe with his theory of relativity, expressed complex and arguably contradictory views on faith, perceiving a universe suffused with spirituality while rejecting organized religion.
The letter up for sale, written to philosopher Eric Gutkind in January 1954, suggests his views on religion did not mellow with age.
In it, Einstein said that "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."
"For me," he added, "the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions."
Addressing the idea that the Jews are God's chosen people, Einstein wrote that "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 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."
Bloomsbury spokesman Richard Caton said the auction house was "100 percent certain" of the letter's authenticity. It is being offered at auction for the first time, by a private vendor.
John Brooke, emeritus professor of science and religion at Oxford University, said the letter lends weight to the notion that "Einstein was not a conventional theist" — although he was not an atheist, either.
"Like many great scientists of the past, he is rather quirky about religion, and not always consistent from one period to another," Brooke said.
Born to a Jewish family in Germany in 1879, Einstein said he went through a devout phase as a child before beginning to question conventional religion at the age of 12.
In later life, he expressed a sense of wonder at the universe and its mysteries — what he called a "cosmic religious feeling" — and famously said: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
But he also said: "I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. My God created laws that take care of that. His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking, but by immutable laws."
Brooke said Einstein believed that "there is some kind of intelligence working its way through nature. But it is certainly not a conventional Christian or Judaic religious view."
Einstein's most famous legacy is the special theory of relativity, which makes the point that a large amount of energy could be released from a tiny amount of matter, as expressed in the equation e=mc2 (energy equals mass times the speed of light squared). The theory changed the face of physics, allowing scientists to make predictions about space and paving the way for nuclear power and the atomic bomb.
Einstein's musings on science, war, peace and God helped make him world famous, and his scientific legacy prompted Time magazine to name him its Person of the 20th Century.
An abridgement of the letter from Albert Einstein to Eric Gutkind from Princeton in January 1954, translated from German by Joan Stambaugh. It will be sold at Bloomsbury auctions on Thursday:
... I read a great deal in the last days of your book, and thank you very much for sending it to me. What especially struck me about it was this. With regard to the factual attitude to life and to the human community we have a great deal in common.
... 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. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions 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 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 priviliege 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 monopolisation. 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, ie in our evalutations of human behaviour. What separates us are only intellectual 'props' and 'rationalisation' 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
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