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 complexby Nick Spencer / December 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
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…