With dependable frequency, the religious views of Albert Einstein get revised and re-revised according to some re-discovered or re-interpreted quotation from his scientific work or personal correspondence. It’s not especially surprising that Einstein had a few things to say on the subject. As the pre-eminent theoretical physicist of his age, he spent his days pondering the mysteries of the universe. As one of the most famous public intellectuals in history, and an immigrant to a country as highly religious as the United States, Einstein was often called on to voice his religious opinions. Like any one of us over the course of a lifetime, those statements do not harmonize into a neat and tidy confession of belief, or unbelief. Instead, at times, Einstein explicitly aligns himself with the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza; at other times, he expresses a much more skeptical attitude. Often he seems to stand in awe of a vague deist notion of God; Often, he seems maximally agnostic.
Einstein rejected the atheist label, it’s true. At no point in his adult life, however, did he express anything at all like a belief in traditional religion. On the contrary, he made a particular point of distancing himself from the theologies of Judaism and Christianity especially. Though he did admit to a brief period of “deep religiousness” as a child, this phase, he wrote “reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve.” As he writes in his Autobiographical Notes, after a “fanatic orgy of freethinking,” brought on by his exposure to scientific literature, he developed a “mistrust of every kind of authority… a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment—an attitude that has never left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections.” In contrast to the “religious paradise” of his youth, Einstein wrote that he had come to find another kind of faith—in the “huge world… out yonder… which stands before us like a great riddle.”
Einstein’s rejection of a personal God was undeniably final, such that in 1954, a year before his death, he would write the letter above to philosopher Erik Gutkind after reading Gutkind’s book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt on the recommendation of a mutual friend. The book, Einstein tells its author, is “written in a language inaccessible to me.” He goes on to disparage all religion as “the most childish superstition”:
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and whose thinking I have a deep affinity for, have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power…
You can read a full transcript at Letters of Note, who include the letter in their second volume of fascinating correspondence from famous figures, More Letters of Note. The letter went up for auction in May of 2008, and a much more dogmatically anti-religious scientist had a keen interest in acquiring it: “Unsurprisingly,” Letters of Note point out, “one of the unsuccessful bidders was Richard Dawkins.”