Al­bert Ein­stein's 'God let­ter' re­flect­ing on re­li­gion auc­tioned for $3m

The Guardian Australia - - Science - Har­riet Sher­wood

A hand­writ­ten mis­sive by Al­bert Ein­stein known as the “God let­ter” fetched al­most $3m at auc­tion on Tues­day.

Christie’s auc­tion house in New York stated on Tues­day af­ter­noon that the let­ter, in­clud­ing the buyer’s pre­mium, fetched $2.89m un­der the ham­mer. That was al­most twice the ex­pected amount.

The one-and-a-half-page let­ter, writ­ten in 1954 in Ger­man and ad­dressed to the philoso­pher Eric Gutkind, con­tains re­flec­tions on God, the Bible and Ju­daism.

Ein­stein says: “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.”

The sen­tence has been hailed as ev­i­dence that the physi­cist, one of the 20th cen­tury’s most es­teemed thinkers, was an athe­ist. But Ein­stein at times said he was not an athe­ist, and re­sented be­ing la­belled as one.

In the let­ter – be­ing auc­tioned at Christie’s in New York on Tues­day – Ein­stein, a Jew, also ar­tic­u­lates his dis­en­chant­ment with Ju­daism. “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,” he wrote.

“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.”

The let­ter was writ­ten in re­sponse to a book by Gutkind, called Choose Life: The Bib­li­cal Call to Re­volt.

The let­ter had been held among Gutkin’s pa­pers, but it came up for auc­tion in Lon­don in 2008. The

evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist Richard Dawkins was beaten in bid­ding that ended at £170,000.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing his dis­ap­point­ment in fail­ing to se­cure the item, Dawkins said: “This let­ter was about some­thing very im­por­tant to Ein­stein, I sus­pect.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ein­stein: A Life, a bi­og­ra­phy pub­lished in 1996, he was de­voutly re­li­gious as a child. But at the age of 13, he “aban­doned his un­crit­i­cal re­li­gious fer­vour, feel­ing he had been de­ceived into be­liev­ing lies”.

He said he be­lieved in “Spinoza’s God” – re­fer­ring to Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-cen­tury Dutch thinker – “who re­veals him­self in the law­ful har­mony of the world, not in a God who con­cerns him­self with the fate and the do­ings of mankind”.

On another oc­ca­sion, he crit­i­cised “fa­nat­i­cal athe­ists whose in­tol­er­ance is of the same kind as the in­tol­er­ance of the re­li­gious fa­nat­ics”.

Nick Spencer, a se­nior fel­low at the Chris­tian think­tank Theos, said: “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.”

Pho­to­graph: AP

Al­bert Ein­stein in Prince­ton, New Jersey, in 1954, the same year he wrote the ‘God let­ter’.

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