Albert Einstein On God: “Nothing More Than the Expression and Product of Human Weakness”

Einstein Gutkind Letter

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Do Sci­en­tists Pray?”: A Young Girl Asks Albert Ein­stein in 1936. Ein­stein Then Responds

Albert Ein­stein Reads ‘The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence’ (1941)

Ein­stein for the Mass­es: Yale Presents a Primer on the Great Physicist’s Think­ing

Albert Einstein​ & Sig­mund Freud​ Exchange Let­ters and Debate How to Make the World Free from War (1932)

Free Online Physics Cours­es

50 Famous Aca­d­e­mics & Sci­en­tists Talk About God

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Martin Cohen says:

    For­tu­nate­ly or unfor­tu­nate­ly, Jews are no longer “pro­tect­ed from the worst can­cers by a lack of pow­er”.

  • Ein Sof says:

    “dog­mat­i­cal­ly anti-reli­gious”?
    Not sure the word “dog­mat­i­cal­ly” is what you are look­ing for. Maybe “pas­sion­ate­ly”?


    Per­ma­nen­te­mente, des­de los cenácu­los reli­giosos se real­izan deses­per­a­dos inten­tos por enga­tusar a las gentes, hacién­doles creer que Ein­stein era reli­gioso-teís­ta. Creen así, burlar la ver­dad, pasan­do por enci­ma de la cien­cia inten­tan­do mostrar a uno de los may­ores cien­tí­fi­cos y mentes humanas como gana­do para su causa. Fra­casan y se ter­mi­nan frus­tran­do como cuan­do a toda cos­ta inten­tan pro­bar de cualquier man­era la exis­ten­cia de un dios. Ter­mi­nan embau­can­do a algunos incau­tos dóciles, pero la civ­i­lización humana, cada vez más va adquirien­do un may­or número de per­sonas instru­idas y las muy opre­so­ras reli­giones van en reti­ra­da en todo el mundo.El Geniol de las reli­giones ya no alcan­za y sus ros­tros de supues­ta bon­dad y sin­ceri­dad ya no con­ven­cen. Los “rebaños” ya no quieren ser tales. El humo de las reli­giones se está empezan­do a disi­par.

  • JV says:

    Athe­ists can be dog­mat­ic. I’d put Dawkins up as a prime exam­ple. Not sure that Ein­stein could be con­sid­ered as such, but the phrase “dog­mat­i­cal­ly anti-reli­gious” is a valid one when describ­ing cer­tain peo­ple.

  • Ruby Myrobalan says:

    if one does not ascribe to it, why talk about it so much. I am a com­fort­able athe­ist who has no need to dis­cuss it at length because I have no need for oth­ers to con­cur. I can’t believe I even read fur­ther. I guess it was because Ein­stein was men­tioned, and he is some­what inter­est­ing to me.

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