Ein­stein be­lit­tles God

Let­ter ex­pected to bring $1 mil­lion

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - AVI SELK

Alet­ter in which Al­bert Ein­stein ex­plic­itly re­jected God and re­li­gion will be auc­tioned in De­cem­ber for the sec­ond time since the fa­mous physi­cist wrote it in 1954.

Ein­stein wrote the let­ter to a Jewish philoso­pher a year be­fore Ein­stein’s death, and it caused a sen­sa­tion when it first went pub­lic at an auc­tion sale in 2008 — com­plete with Ein­stein’s dec­la­ra­tion: “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 decades, peo­ple had been de­bat­ing the the­o­rist’s con­cept of re­li­gion.

When Ein­stein was a child, De­nis Brian wrote in his book Ein­stein: A Life, he was for a time so de­voutly Jewish that he wrote “songs in praise of God, which he belted out as he walked to and from his high school.”

That changed at age 13, when Ein­stein be­came in­ter­ested in higher math­e­mat­ics and phi­los­o­phy, and “aban­doned his un­crit­i­cal re­li­gious fer­vor, feel­ing he had been de­ceived into be­liev­ing lies.”

But he did not be­come an athe­ist. As Eu­gene Mallove wrote for The Wash­ing­ton Post in 1985, Ein­stein be­lieved in what he called a “cos­mic re­li­gion” — which was less a re­li­gion than “a rap­tur­ous amaze­ment at the har­mony of nat­u­ral law, which re­veals an in­tel­li­gence of such su­pe­ri­or­ity that, com­pared with it, all the sys­tem­atic think­ing and act­ing of hu­man be­ings is an ut­terly in­signif­i­cant re­flec­tion.”

For Ein­stein, the mys­tery in the ar­chi­tec­ture of the phys­i­cal uni­verse — an ar­chi­tec­ture he helped re­veal with his break­throughs in rel­a­tiv­ity and the na­ture of space and time — was more pro­found than any won­der he read about in the Talmud or the Bi­ble.

“I can­not con­ceive of a God who re­wards and pun­ishes its crea­tures, or has a will of the kind we ex­pe­ri­ence in our­selves,” he wrote in an es­say in 1931.

Ein­stein did speak of­ten of “God,” and was some­times con­fused with a the­ist be­cause of it. But he used the word as metaphor. “Ein­stein’s God was the Uni­verse it­self, not an ex­ter­nal ‘grand pup­peteer,’” Mallove wrote.

And for Ein­stein, the deep­est se­crets of the uni­verse were as un­know­able as the mind of God was to a the­olo­gian.

So the physi­cist read with in­ter­est a book pub­lished in 1952 by the philoso­pher Eric Gutkind, which at­tempted to marry Jewish spir­i­tu­al­ity and in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism, ar­gu­ing that the pur­suit of sci­ence could and would lead peo­ple to a com­plete un­der­stand­ing of God.

“As Ein­stein pro­foundly re­marked,” Gutkind wrote in the book, “it is the most as­ton­ish­ing fea­ture of the uni­verse that the uni­verse can be known.”

Ein­stein’s re­view was po­lite and bit­ing.

“I read a great deal in the last days of your book, and thank you very much for send­ing it to me,” he wrote to Gutkind in 1954, be­fore de­liv­er­ing his line about “hu­man weak­nesses” and “prim­i­tive leg­ends.”

“For me the Jewish re­li­gion like all other re­li­gions is an in­car­na­tion of the most child­ish su­per­sti­tions,” Ein­stein wrote, ac­cord­ing to a trans­la­tion of his hand­writ­ten Ger­man, “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.”

It’s not clear what Gutkind did with the let­ter, or how it emerged from ob­scu­rity in 2008, when The As­so­ci­ated Press wrote that some­one with “a pas­sion for the­o­ret­i­cal physics and all that en­tails” had bought it at an auc­tion for $404,000.

In 2012, the let­ter showed up again on eBay for an ask­ing price of at least $3 mil­lion, but ap­par­ently never sold.

The auc­tion house Christie’s ex­pects that the let­ter will sell for $1 mil­lion to $1.5 mil­lion when it goes on sale in New York on Dec. 4, af­ter a series of pub­lic view­ings.

In case the ex­cerpts above have given the im­pres­sion that Ein­stein’s let­ter is a polemic, but he main­tained a deep re­spect for what he called “re­li­gious ge­niuses,” and be­lieved that re­li­gion was nec­es­sary to guide peo­ple be­tween right and wrong.

“Sci­ence can only as­cer­tain what is, not what should be,” as he put it.

So while Ein­stein spent a para­graph or two crit­i­ciz­ing Gutkind’s un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse, he praised what he called Gutkind’s “fac­tual at­ti­tude to life and to the hu­man com­mu­nity.”

“I think that we would un­der­stand each other quite well if we talked about con­crete things,” the physi­cist wrote in con­clu­sion. “With friendly thanks and best wishes, Yours, A. Ein­stein.”

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