Did Albert Einstein believe in God?

A letter from the scientist which goes on auction this week is a New Atheist's dream. But the reality of Einstein's faith is complex

December 04, 2018
Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

On 12 April 1930, Albert Einstein attended a concert in Berlin. Bruno Walter was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, with Yehudi Menuhin as the soloist. So enraptured by the performance was the world-famous physicist that, at the end, he dashed over Menuhin, embraced him and said, “Now I know there is a God in heaven.” 

Einstein talked a lot about God. He invoked him repeatedly in his physics—so much so that his friend, Niels Bohr, once berated him for constantly telling God what he could do. He was “enthralled by the luminous figure” of Jesus. He believed that “the highest principles of our aspirations and judgments are given to us in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition.”  

Details like these that have persuaded millions of religious people round the world that the twentieth century’s greatest physicist was a fellow traveller. They are wrong—as a letter that has just come up for auction underlines. Written in 1952 to the Jewish philosopher Eric Gutkind, who had sent him his book Choose Life: The Biblical Call To Revolt, Einstein does not mince his words.  

“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.” You can understand why Richard Dawkins was purportedly interested in buying it the last time it came up for auction. It’s a New Atheist fantasy. 

In reality, this letter tells us little we didn’t know. Einstein jettisoned biblical beliefs in his teens. He never attended religious services or prayed. He disliked mysticism. He could not conceive of a God who punished and rewarded people (partly because he was a thoroughgoing determinist). He repeatedly distanced himself from the idea of a personal God. He refused a tradition Jewish burial. All in all, not very religious.  

Yet, that does not mean that the atheists are right to crow, and that Einstein only ever spoke of God idiomatically, meaning nothing more by his frequent references to the divine. Our star witness here is Einstein himself. A global celebrity and known for his willingness to talk God as much as physics, he was frequently asked, in private and public, to pronounce on his beliefs. In as far as these can be summed up, they appear to be deistic. “I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist,” he once said when asked to define God. “I believe in Spinoza’s God,” he told Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogues of New York, “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists.” All the finer speculations in the realm of science “spring from a deep religious feeling,” he remarked in 1930. In the order, beauty and intelligibility of creation, he found signs of the ‘God’ he also heard throughout his life in music. 

This was not the personal God of the Abrahamic faiths, but nor was it the idiomatic “God” of atheism. Indeed, Einstein could be equally withering on this point. When asked whether there was an inherent antagonism between science and religion, or whether science would ever supercede religion, he was emphatic in his denial. Nor had he any time for deriving morality from science. “Every attempt to reduce ethics to scientific formulae must fail,” he once remarked. There are still people, he remarked at a charity dinner during the War, who say there is no God. “But what really make me angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” “There are fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics,” he said in 1940. Remind you of anyone?  

Einstein, then, offers scant consolation to either party in this debate. His cosmic religion and distant deistic God of cosmic order and elegance 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.  

Einstein once famously remarked that to punish him for his contempt for authority, Fate made him an authority himself. As with physics so with religion. We do the great physicist a disservice when we go to him to legitimise our belief in God, or in his absence.