Ein­stein’s let­ter de­scrib­ing re­li­gion as ‘the ex­pres­sion of and prod­uct of hu­man weak­nesses’ sells for $2.9m

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - RACE & RELIGION - RAF CASERT

IF IT were writ­ten now as a se­ries of tweets, they would surely go vi­ral.

Think of it: One of the most famous peo­ple in the world is pan­ning re­li­gion. “The word God is for me noth­ing but the ex­pres­sion of and prod­uct of hu­man weak­nesses, the Bi­ble a col­lec­tion of ven­er­a­ble but still rather prim­i­tive leg­ends,” the message reads. “No in­ter­pre­ta­tion, no mat­ter how sub­tle, can (for me) change any­thing about this.”

That is only 239 char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing the spa­ces, pe­ri­ods and com­mas, well short of the 280-char­ac­ter limit for a tweet. There is more where those words came from – a let­ter writ­ten in 1954 by Al­bert Ein­stein that was sold for $2.9 mil­lion (R41m) by Christie’s on Tues­day. It pro­vides a glimpse of Ein­stein’s pri­vate thoughts and would prob­a­bly be in­flam­ma­tory in to­day’s po­larised so­cial me­dia world.

The one-and-a-half-page doc­u­ment, writ­ten in Ger­man, be­came known a decade ago as the “God let­ter”, a nick­name that makes some Ein­stein ex­perts wince, but while the let­ter has to do with his Jewish iden­tity and mankind’s search for mean­ing, Ein­stein used the word “God” only once in the let­ter, in the pas­sage quoted above.

He sent the hand­writ­ten let­ter to Eric Gutkind, a Ger­man philoso­pher who had writ­ten a book called Choose Life: The Bi­b­li­cal Call to Re­volt that, ap­par­ently, Ein­stein did not much like. By one ac­count, the book “pre­sented the Bi­ble as a call to arms, and Ju­daism and Is­rael as in­cor­rupt­ible”.

A re­view in Com­men­tary mag­a­zine said Choose Life was “gen­uinely in­spired by Jewish tra­di­tion” and “chal­lenges a dis­il­lu­sioned gen­er­a­tion to pre­pare the world for the King­dom of God”.

Ein­stein wrote in the let­ter that he was dis­en­chanted with Ju­daism, even as he said he was proud to be a Jew. In the let­ter, he de­clared: “For me the unadul­ter­ated Jewish re­li­gion is, like all other re­li­gions, an in­car­na­tion of prim­i­tive su­per­sti­tion. And the Jewish peo­ple to whom I gladly be­long, and in whose men­tal­ity I feel pro­foundly an­chored, still for me does not have any dif­fer­ent kind of dig­nity from all other peo­ples.

“As far as my ex­pe­ri­ence goes, they are in fact no bet­ter than other hu­man groups, even if they are pro­tected from the worst ex­cesses by a lack of power. Oth­er­wise I can­not per­ceive any­thing ‘cho­sen’ about them.”

Ein­stein wrote dozens of let­ters in which he men­tioned God or Ju­daism.

Wal­ter Isaac­son, au­thor of the 2007 bi­og­ra­phy, Ein­stein, said in an in­ter­view: “No­body should read one Ein­stein let­ter and think that solves what he thinks about God.” In dif­fer­ent decades “or even on dif­fer­ent days”, Isaac­son said, Ein­stein’s views “were not to­tally un­chang­ing”.

The let­ter sur­faced in 2008. Until then, it had ap­par­ently been in the hands of Gutkind’s heirs (he died in 1965).

It rock­eted into the uni­verse of big-money auc­tions, sell­ing in that year for $404 000 in Lon­don.

The buyer was not iden­ti­fied. The Guardian said that evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist Richard Dawkins was one of the bid­ders who lost out.

The let­ter went on the auc­tion block at Christie’s on Tues­day with a pre­sale es­ti­mate of $1m-$1.5m. It had been of­fered for sale on eBay for $3 mil­lion in 2012. The auc­tion­eer who han­dled the list­ing, how­ever, said at the time he could not dis­cuss the out­come, but a Christie’s spokes­woman said that the let­ter had not sold at the time and that the per­son who had bought it in 2008 had been the cur­rent seller.

The let­ter, writ­ten the year be­fore Ein­stein’s death, seems to out­line Ein­stein’s view of for­mal re­li­gion and the idea of a God who plays an ac­tive part in ev­ery­day life, an­swer­ing in­di­vid­ual prayers.

“He did not be­lieve in a God who went around choos­ing favourite sports teams or peo­ple,” Isaac­son said.

How­ever, at other times Ein­stein de­scribed him­self as “not an athe­ist” and the let­ter does not an­nul the seem­ingly spir­i­tual char­ac­ter­is­tics of his think­ing.

“Ein­stein of­ten uses the word God – ‘God does not play dice with the uni­verse’,” said Re­becca New­berger Gold­stein, who teaches phi­los­o­phy and wrote Plato at the Google­plex: Why Phi­los­o­phy Won’t Go Away.

“A lot of physi­cists do this. It mis­leads peo­ple into think­ing they’re the­ists.

“It’s a metaphor­i­cal way of talk­ing about ab­so­lute truth. Ein­stein used it metaphor­i­cally and play­fully.”

She said he had been re­li­gious when he was a child, but “lost his re­li­gion and sci­ence took over”.

“Ev­ery time he was asked if he be­lieved in God, he an­swered cagily: ‘I be­lieve in Spinoza’s god’,” she said, re­fer­ring to Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-cen­tury Dutch thinker who drew from Jewish re­li­gion and his­tory.”

“If you say, ‘I be­lieve in Spinoza’s god’, that’s al­ready say­ing you don’t be­lieve in what most peo­ple who be­lieve in God be­lieve,” she added.

“You be­lieve the laws of na­ture are com­plete in them­selves and con­tain all the an­swers.” Gutkind had made the case in his book that “the Jewish soul is per­fect in­tel­lec­tu­ally as well as spir­i­tu­ally”, ac­cord­ing to the re­view in Com­men­tary mag­a­zine.

“The math­e­mati­cised Ein­steinian uni­verse is Jewish as well as pro­gres­sive, be­cause it is anti-mytho­log­i­cal.”

Com­men­tary also noted Gutkind’s “ea­ger­ness to find sal­va­tion for mod­ern man in the Jewish spirit” (al­though the re­viewer added that do­ing so in­duced Gutkind “to make the most ex­trav­a­gant claims in its be­half”).

Diana L Kor­mos-Buch­wald, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and direc­tor of the Ein­stein Papers Project, said Ein­stein was “not par­tic­u­larly thrilled at the spe­cial place that Gutkind de­votes to Ein­stein’s sci­ence as the – how shall we put it – the best ex­am­ple of Jewish de­ter­min­is­tic thought”.

“The Jews are the only group to which he feels he could be­long,” she said, “but he iden­ti­fies with them be­cause that is what he was born into, not be­cause they are the cho­sen peo­ple.” | AP

A LET­TER known as the ‘God let­ter’, writ­ten by Al­bert Ein­stein and ad­dressed to philoso­pher Eric Gutkind in 1954, is seen on dis­play at Christie’s auc­tion house, ahead of its sale in New York on Tues­day.

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