Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Einstein's "religious" letter...two essays

Here are two essays regarding the recently auctioned letter by Albert Einstein by Ann Talbot and Chris Talbot.

"Einstein letter sold for record sum—Part 1"


Ann Talbot and Chris Talbot

June 23rd, 2008

This is the first of a two-part article on Albert Einstein and his views on religion.

A previously unknown letter of Einstein's recently came up for sale at auction. It is a remarkable document because it contains the great physicist’s candid comments on religion.

Einstein wrote 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."

The opinions he expressed in this new letter run entirely contrary to the remark that is often quoted to sum up Einstein's views on religion. "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

This famous remark seems to suggest that Einstein thought that science and religion were compatible and is often quoted by those who want to claim Einstein for the religious lobby.

The letter had been expected to sell for about $16,000, but it eventually went for $404,000 after what was described as "frenetic" bidding. "This extraordinary letter seemed to strike a chord, and it gave a deep personal insight into one of the greatest minds of the 20th century," said Rupert Powell for Bloomsbury Auctions.

He refused to name the successful bidder who wished to remain anonymous. But one of the unsuccessful bidders was Richard Dawkins, the biologist and outspoken opponent of religion.

The price gives an indication of just how significant this document is. Potentially it casts a new light on Einstein's views on religion and the development of his ideas. It is likely that this important letter will now disappear from public view. It has been in private hands since shortly after it was written and was unknown to scholars.

Under the circumstances it might be thought that the media would have expressed a lively interest in the letter. Einstein is an iconic figure. Revelations about his love life evoked considerable media attention and attempts by feminist historians to demonstrate that it was his first wife, Mileva Maric, who discovered the theory of relativity were given far more attention than they deserved.

The centenary of Einstein's annus mirabilis, in which he published five ground breaking papers which fundamentally altered our understanding of nature and brought about a technological revolution later in the century [1], excited some interest but the new letter has gone almost unreported. The two papers that devoted most attention to the letter—the New York Times and the Guardian—both made reference to Einstein's supposed antipathy to atheists as though the ghost of the great man was wagging a finger at the atheist and unsuccessful bidder Richard Dawkins from beyond the grave.

What is expressed here is strong desire among sections of the intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic to downplay Einstein’s views on religion because they run counter to a cowardly effort to reconcile religion and science. There is certainly a reluctance to give space to views that might be regarded as critical of Israel. Neither the Guardian nor the New York Times were prepared to discuss the implications of the Einstein letter which dismissed conventional concepts of religion, praised the seventeenth century materialist philosopher Spinoza and rejected the belief that the Jews were a "chosen" people.

Einstein wrote the letter on January 3, 1954. It was addressed to the Jewish philosopher Eric Gutkind, who had sent him a copy of his book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt. An uncorrected translation of part of the letter appeared in the Guardian [2]. It is thoroughly unsatisfactory, but it is all that we have of this unique document. It is reproduced below:

... 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 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 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, i.e. in our evalutations [sic] 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.

Even in this unpolished form the content of the letter is clear. The author of these words dismisses the “word of God” as the "product of human weaknesses," describes the Bible as a series of "primitive legends," identifies all religions, including the Jewish religion, as “childish superstitions” and proceeds to praise Spinoza for his refusal to place any limitation on causality. Spinoza’s commitment to determinism and his rejection of human free will was the clearest indication for his contemporaries and his subsequent critics that he was an atheist. For Einstein he was "our wonderful Spinoza." Those words alone would under normal circumstances be enough to identify Einstein as an atheist.

But both the Guardian and the New York Times manage to convey the impression that the author of this letter is not an atheist. Both refer to a letter that Einstein wrote in 1941 in which he discusses the response to an article he had written the previous year that had been criticised by religious fundamentalists and praised by atheists. The letter expresses the views of a complex and subtle thinker to a particular situation.

"I was barked at by numerous dogs," Einstein wrote, "who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it. Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics and comes from the same source. They are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium for the people’—cannot bear the music of the spheres. The Wonder of nature does not become smaller because one cannot measure it by the standards of human moral and human aims." [3]

Einstein's 1941 letter is not a condemnation of atheists and atheism in general, but of a particular kind of atheist whose atheism took an intolerant and dogmatic form. His reference to "opium for the people" suggests that those he had in mind were Stalinists who had a mechanical view of nature. As a man who had just advanced the frontiers of human knowledge into new and little understood territory, Einstein had a healthy respect for the wonder of nature. His entire life’s work was a testament to it. But his refusal to measure that wonder by "human and moral aims" puts him firmly in the camp of atheism. There was no personal deity for Einstein. He had turned his back on such childishness long ago and preserved that outlook to the end of his life as the new letter shows. The 1941 letter and the new 1954 letter are in that sense entirely consistent.

Dennis Overbye has written a sympathetic biography of Einstein that takes into account some of the wealth of material on his personal life now available [4]. His New York Times article on the new letter was too brief to do justice to its full significance and even he seems to have felt duty bound to drag in an extract from the 1941 letter in which Einstein criticises atheists.

The Guardian article was far more disingenuous. James Randerson, the Guardian science correspondent, has relied heavily on John Brooke of Oxford University who is cited as a leading expert on Einstein. Brooke claims that "Einstein became angry when his views were appropriated by evangelists for atheism" and that he was "offended by their lack of humility."

But Randerson neglects to tells us is that Brooke is Professor of Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology at Oxford and that he has a long association with the Templeton Foundation. He is co-director of the Templeton Science and Religion in Schools project. Founded by the wealthy Templeton family, the foundation gives grants to those bringing together science and religion as well as developing free-market initiatives against poverty. In the words of the Templeton Foundation, "The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works." It "aims...to identify ‘entrepreneurs of the spirit’." [5]

The Templeton Foundation is said to have been associated with right-wing causes and a number of science journalists and leading scientists have criticised it. Richard Dawkins commented that the Templeton Prize was "a very large sum of money given... usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion" [6]. The World Socialist Web Site has criticised Dawkins on philosophical and political grounds, particularly for his tendency "to adopt a contemptuous attitude toward the religiously-minded population, which is still a majority of the working class around the world" [7]. But his attitude toward the Templeton Prize is nothing but commendable.

Brooke has a professional interest in denying that Einstein was an atheist or materialist. For the Guardian to cite him as an expert on Einstein without further comment is tendentious and misleading. It is an attempt, despite the clear statement of atheism in the new letter, to continue to present Einstein as a witness for the compatibility of science and religion.


[1] "One hundred years since Albert Einstein's annus mirabilis," by Peter Symonds, WSWS, July 11-14, 2005
[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/may/13/peopleinscience.religion
[3] Einstein and Religion by Max Jammer, Princeton University Press, 1999, p. 97
[4] Einstein in Love, A Scientific Romance by Dennis Overbye, Penguin, 2000
[5] http://www.templeton.org/
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Templeton_Foundation
[7] "Science, religion and society: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion," by Joe Kay, WSWS, March 15, 2007

"Einstein letter sold for record sum—Part 2"


Ann Talbot and Chris Talbot

June 24th, 2008

Albert Einstein was educated in both the Christian and Jewish religions, but he became a convinced atheist at the age of 12 and refused to take part in the Jewish Bar Mitzvah ceremony. His marriage in 1903 was a purely civic and non-religious occasion. He opposed his children receiving religious education at elementary school, saying, "Anyway, I dislike very much that my children should be taught something that is contrary to all scientific thinking." [8]

As the newly revealed 1954 letter makes clear, Einstein thought the Jewish religion was "childish superstition," but he did feel a "deep affinity" for the Jewish people. His earlier support for Zionism may be criticised, but he had made clear in his opposition to World War I that he was opposed to all forms of nationalism, and this included Jewish nationalism. He was opposed from the start to the setting up of a Jewish state and to mass emigration into Israel.

In 1939 he wrote, "There could be no greater calamity than a permanent discord between us and the Arab people. Despite the great wrong that has been done us, we must strive for a just and lasting compromise with the Arab people.... Let us recall that in former times no people lived in greater friendship with us than the ancestors of these Arabs." [9]

He was also one of the signatories to an Open Letter to the New York Times in 1948 denouncing the terrorist activities of Menachem Begin and the massacre carried out in the Arab village of Deir Yassin [10].

Einstein's views on the Jewish question have a very direct relevance today, but neither the New York Times nor the Guardian sought to explore what he had to say on the matter.


As a young man Einstein's philosophical development was heavily influenced by the ideas of Ernst Mach. Mach made some important contributions to science, but in philosophy he put forward an extreme empiricism which held that sensations and complexes of sensations were the only permissible objects for scientific research. No assumptions should be made about a real world, or in Kant's terminology a "thing in itself" that lay behind the sensations. Mach was very influential in the early years of the 20th century. Such was the extent of his influence within the Marxist movement that Lenin found it necessary to write Materialism and Empirio-Criticism to refute his ideas, which he saw as leading to the embrace of reactionary and religious notions. Lenin derisively called Mach’s followers in the socialist movement "God-builders."

How important was Mach’s influence for Einstein? Gerald Holton, the historian of science, has demonstrated Einstein's transition from his early sympathy with Mach's views to his later materialism. Holton argues that for Einstein in his later period "there exists an external, objective, physical reality which we may hope to grasp—not directly, empirically, or logically, or with the fullest certainty, but at least by an intuitive leap, one that is only guided by experience of the totality of sensible 'facts'." [11]

Holton shows that although Einstein was influenced by Mach in developing his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, by 1913 he found that the mathematical development of his General Theory was in contradiction to Mach's extreme empiricism and so he adopted what he called a "rational realism." He wrote later, looking back on this period, that he became a "believing rationalist, that is, one who seeks the only trustworthy source of truth in mathematical simplicity." [12]

In a talk given in 1918 Einstein wrote that "the general laws on which the structure of theoretical physics is based claim to be valid for every natural phenomena" and that "it ought to be possible to arrive at the description, that is to say, the theory, of every natural process, including life, by means of pure deduction, if that process of deduction were not far beyond the capacity of the human intellect." [13]

This quote is taken from a talk given in 1918 on the 60th birthday of the famous German physicist Max Planck who was an explicit materialist. Einstein clearly sided with Planck's materialist views against those of Mach, saying that in the development of physics one theoretical system "always proved itself decidedly superior to all the rest" and that "in practice the world of phenomena uniquely determines the theoretical system."

Nevertheless Einstein spoke of the scientist, like the painter, the poet and the speculative philosopher, struggling to understand the world, "in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience." He argued that in discovering the fundamental laws of a scientific theory, "there is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience..."

There is, as Holton notes, a certain "theological undertone" in Einstein’s attitude to science when he maintains, "[T]he state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or the lover..."

What appears in 1918 as a passing comment seems to have been developed more fully in Einstein's later ideas on religion. His main writings on the subject, according to by Max Jammer (author of Einstein and Religion), date from 1930 to 1941. All these late writings contain the same basic attitude to institutional religion as Einstein expressed in the 1954 letter. Einstein rejected conventional religion with its personal God in all these writings, but he also developed, from 1930 onwards, an idea of a "cosmic" religion, a kind of worship of an impersonal God of the universe.

In his essay "Religion and Science, written for the New York Times magazine in 1930 [14], Einstein gave a historical conception of the growth of religion that would have been widely accepted in intellectual circles at the time, certainly in Europe. Jammer notes several German authors on theology who would have advanced similar views.

Primitive man would have developed religious ideas because of fear—of hunger, of wild beast, sickness and death. With an underdeveloped understanding of causal connections, the human mind would have created imaginary beings that controlled the destiny of individuals or society—beings that had to be prayed to, appeased, and so on. The second stage in the development of religion was the "social or moral conception of God” that “protects, disposes, rewards and punishes" his subjects. Einstein sees this as a step forward and corresponds to the "religions of civilized peoples," including Judaism and Christianity.

All such religions, whether of the primitive or more developed variety, have an "anthropomorphic" character, Einstein explains. But beyond these there is a third type of conception of God that is not of a personal character, a "cosmic religious experience." Such a God is experienced in feeling the "futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought."

In putting forward such a God, Einstein admitted he was heavily influenced by his reading of Spinoza, a philosopher he first read in his youth and who is mentioned in many of his letters from the 1920s onwards, and in the new 1954 letter. In 1932, for example, Einstein wrote, "Spinoza was the first to apply with strict consistency the idea of all-pervasive determinism to human thought, feeling and action." [15]

In his New York Times article Einstein wrote that historically "one is inclined to look upon science and religion as irreconcilable antagonists" because "the man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causality cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events.... He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion."

So when Einstein appears to be saying that science and religion are in some way reconcilable it must be made clear that he is referring to this "cosmic" conception of God and religion, one that would not be acceptable to believers in a personal God or any of the religions that are preached in churches, temples and mosques throughout the world.

Einstein came under considerable attack for rejecting a personal God. Irate clergymen and religious-minded people were incensed by his talks and writings on religion. Even Paul Tillich, the well-known theologian who had been forced to flee from Germany to the United States because of his support for Social Democracy, wrote a detailed argument against Einstein defending the conception of a personal God.

Einstein may have wished to avoid antagonising American public opinion. As an exile, even an illustrious one, he was in a vulnerable position. He insisted, "I’m not an atheist" [16]. But this can hardly be reconciled with his expressed admiration of Spinoza. Spinoza was an atheist. In his influential biography of Spinoza, Steven Nadler writes, "Despite Spinoza’s theological language and what look like concessions to orthodox sentiment ("the Love of God is our greatest blessedness"), there is no mistaking his intentions. His goal is nothing less than the complete desacralization and naturalization of religion and its concepts..." [17]

Einstein's longstanding friend, the French physicist Maurice Solovine, who translated Einstein’s book Out of My Later Years into French in the early 1950s, tried to persuade him not to refer to the "cosmic" conception of religion, justifiably arguing that Einstein's use of the word religion differed from normal usage. Einstein's idea of "religion" promoting higher ideals presupposed, he pointed out, "the existence of institutions and people to carry out this task," which clearly contradicted Einstein’s rejection of institutional religion.

In reply Einstein claimed he could find no other term than "religious" for his feeling of "confidence in the rational nature of reality as it is accessible to human reason." Otherwise "science degenerates into uninspired empiricism." [18] It must be said that Einstein's view of what amounted to a religious experience would hardly satisfy most believers who demand a disembodied deity. Paradoxically Einstein seemed to be insisting that his feeling for the correctness of a materialist view of the world was a religious one.

One must surely look to the tumultuous period through which Einstein lived, and his own connections with the socialist movement, to gain more of an insight into his views. Einstein was a personal friend of Friedrich (Fritz) Adler, a physicist and socialist. In Zurich, before the First World War, Einstein held many discussions with Adler on science, philosophy and politics. He tried to dissuade Adler from giving up his physics career for politics. His father, Victor Adler, was a leader of Austrian Social Democracy. In 1916 Fritz Adler assassinated the prime minister of Austria for refusing to call a meeting of parliament to discuss the war. Though Einstein disagreed with Adler’s action, he offered to be a character witness in his trial [19].

Einstein’s pacifist opposition to the First World War is well known and though he was never in agreement with Marxism he always regarded himself as a socialist and had hopes in the November 1918 revolution in Germany. Fanja Lezierska, a member of Rosa Luxemburg's Spartacus group, was a friend of Ilse, daughter of Einstein’s second wife Elsa, and took refuge in Einstein’s house in 1918 after Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by right-wing militia with the support of the leaders of Social Democracy [20].

Einstein can hardly have been unaffected by the hopes of his friends in this period. The degeneration of social democracy was personified by Adler, who, after being released from jail to be a leader of the workers' councils in 1918, went on after the defeat of the revolution to become a bourgeois parliamentary leader in Austria.

The fact that socialist politics did not succeed in Germany, that the betrayals of the Social Democrats and later the Stalinists enabled Hitler to come to power, cannot but have had an impact on Einstein’s outlook. It is perhaps here that we should seek the origins of his desire to look for solace in a "cosmic" religion. Once his faith in a mass socialist movement was dashed, Einstein became pessimistic about the possibility of the majority of people ever rising above anthropomorphic conceptions of religion. It was after the defeat of the German revolution that he began to suggest that "only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities" [21] could rise above, and achieve the higher level of "cosmic" religion that he valued.

It is surely in its historical context that we have to assess Einstein's attack on atheists. The reference to "opium for the people" suggests that Einstein had received petitions for support of a crude propagandist variety from Stalinist supporters of the Soviet Union. He would no doubt have felt the wave of revulsion towards the politics of the Kremlin that went through left-liberal public opinion after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939.

Einstein never doubted the necessity of socialism. Writing in 1949, after the Cold War had begun and such an affiliation was dangerous, Einstein professed his continuing support for socialism, and, delivering a fairly unambiguous statement of opposition to Stalinism, warned of the dangers of bureaucratism. "The achievement of socialism," he wrote "requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of economic and political power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening?" [22]

Einstein's whole adult life was lived without benefit of religion, which makes the attempt to conscript him as a posthumous partisan for religious fundamentalism entirely unfounded. He would certainly have opposed the attempt of the Templeton Society to impose religion in schools since he refused to have his own children subjected to a religious education. The kind of religious feeling he spoke about has nothing in common with any form of religion, but a great deal in common with the materialist conception of God in Spinoza's philosophy, which could be equated with material nature.


[8] Einstein and Religion by Max Jammer, Princeton University Press, 1999, pp. 26-27
[9] Einstein and Zionism by Banesh Hoffmann, in General Relativity and Gravitation, eds G. Shaviv and J. Rosen, Wiley, 1975, p. 242, cited in Einstein, Zionism and Israel: Setting the Record Straight by Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq, http://www.globalwebpost.com/farooqm/writings/other/einstein.htm
[10] http://www.globalwebpost.com/farooqm/study_res/einstein/nyt_letter.html
[11] Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein by Gerald Holton, Harvard, revised ed., 1988, p. 263
[12] Science and Anti-Science by Gerald Holton, Harvard, 1993, pp. 65-66
[13] Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein, Souvenir Press, 1973, reissued 2005, pp. 224-27
[14] ibid, pp. 36-40
[15] Jammer, p. 45
[16] ibid p. 48
[17] Spinoza: A Life by Steven Nadler, Cambridge, 1999, p. 190
[18] Jammer, pp.120, 127-8
[19] Einstein in Love, A Scientific Romance by Dennis Overbye, p. 181
[20] ibid, pp. 275, 349
[21] Einstein, p. 38
[22] Einstein, p. 158

Einstein--Gutkind letter...SOLD!

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