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Einstein the agnostic


Einstein was an agnostic, but for a public face he--for practical reasons--wished to keep his lack of faith from the public.  The press and the church wanted people to believe that he was a man of faith, and they succeeded. 

One must distingush the public face from the private reality.  His comments on god said in public are quite different from his personal writings.  One such example: 

"From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.... I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being."

M.C. Escher, 1920s


From Skeptic vol. 5, no. 2, 1997, pp. 62ff.

The following article is copyright 1997 by the Skeptics Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice.

Einstein's God
Just What Did Einstein Believe About God?

Presented here for the first time are the complete texts of two letters that Einstein wrote regarding his lack of belief in a personal god.

By Michael R. Gilmore

Just over a century ago, near the beginning of his intellectual life, the young Albert Einstein became a skeptic. He states so on the first page of his Autobiographical Notes (1949, pp. 3-5): "Thus I came--despite the fact I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents--to a deep religiosity, which, however, found an abrupt ending at the age of 12. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic [orgy of] freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived...Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude... has never left me..."

We all know Albert Einstein as the most famous scientist of the 20th century, and many know him as a great humanist. Some have also viewed him as religious. Indeed, in Einstein's writings there is well-known reference to God and discussion of religion (1949, 1954). Although Einstein stated he was religious and that he believed in God, it was in his own specialized sense that he used these terms. Many are aware that Einstein was not religious in the conventional sense, but it will come as a surprise to some to learn that Einstein clearly identified himself as an atheist and as an agnostic. If one understands how Einstein used the terms religion, God, atheism, and agnosticism, it is clear that he was consistent in his beliefs.

Part of the popular picture of Einstein's God and religion comes from his well-known statements, such as: "God is cunning but He is not malicious."(Also: "God is subtle but he is not bloody-minded." Or: "God is slick, but he ain't mean." (1946)

"God does not play dice."(On many occasions.)

"I want to know how God created the world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details."(Unknown date.)

It is easy to see how some got the idea that Einstein was expressing a close relationship with a personal god, but it is more accurate to say he was simply expressing his ideas and beliefs about the universe.

Einstein's "belief" in Spinoza's God is one of his most widely quoted statements. But quoted out of context, like so many of these statements, it is misleading at best. It all started when Boston's Cardinal O'Connel attacked Einstein and the General Theory of Relativity and warned the youth that the theory "cloaked the ghastly apparition of atheism" and "befogged speculation, producing universal doubt about God and His creation"(Clark, 1971, 413-414). Einstein had already experienced heavier duty attacks against his theory in the form of anti-Semitic mass meetings in Germany, and he initially ignored the Cardinal's attack. Shortly thereafter though, on April 24, 1929, Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of New York cabled Einstein to ask: "Do you believe in God?"(Sommerfeld, 1949, 103). Einstein's return message is the famous statement: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings"( 103). The Rabbi, who was intent on defending Einstein against the Cardinal, interpreted Einstein's statement in his own way when writing: "Spinoza, who is called the God-intoxicated man, and who saw God manifest in all nature, certainly could not be called an atheist. Furthermore, Einstein points to a unity. Einstein's theory if carried out to its logical conclusion would bring to mankind a scientific formula for monotheism. He does away with all thought of dualism or pluralism. There can be no room for any aspect of polytheism. This latter thought may have caused the Cardinal to speak out. Let us call a spade a spade"(Clark, 1971, 414). Both the Rabbi and the Cardinal would have done well to note Einstein's remark, of 1921, to Archbishop Davidson in a similar context about science: "It makes no difference. It is purely abstract science"(413).

The American physicist Steven Weinberg (1992), in critiquing Einstein's "Spinoza's God" statement, noted: "But what possible difference does it make to anyone if we use the word 'God' in place of 'order' or 'harmony,' except perhaps to avoid the accusation of having no God?" Weinberg certainly has a valid point, but we should also forgive Einstein for being a product of his times, for his poetic sense, and for his cosmic religious view regarding such things as the order and harmony of the universe.

But what, at bottom, was Einstein's belief? The long answer exists in Einstein's essays on religion and science as given in his Ideas and Opinions (1954), his Autobiographical Notes (1949), and other works. What about a short answer?

In the Summer of 1945, just before the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein wrote a short letter stating his position as an atheist (Figure 1). Ensign Guy H. Raner had written Einstein from mid-Pacific requesting a clarification on the beliefs of the world famous scientist (Figure 2). Four years later Raner again wrote Einstein for further clarification and asked "Some people might interpret (your letter) to mean that to a Jesuit priest, anyone not a Roman Catholic is an atheist, and that you are in fact an orthodox Jew, or a Deist, or something else. Did you mean to leave room for such an interpretation, or are you from the viewpoint of the dictionary an atheist; i.e., 'one who disbelieves in the existence of a God, or a Supreme Being'?" Einstein's response is shown in Figure 3.

Combining key elements from the first and second response from Einstein there is little doubt as to his position: "From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.... I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being."

Einstein continued to search, even to the last days of his 76 years, but his search was not for the God of Abraham or Moses. His search was for the order and harmony of the world.



Einstein on a Personal God

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On 22 March 1954 a self-made man sent Einstein in Princeton a long handwritten letter-four closely packed pages in English. The correspondent despaired that there were so few people like Einstein who had the courage to speak out, and he wondered if it would not be best to return the world to the animals. Saying "I presume you would like to know who I am," he went on to tell in detail how he had come from Italy to the United States at the age of nine, arriving in bitter cold weather, as a result of which his sisters died while he barely survived; how after six months of schooling he went to work at age ten; how at age seventeen he went to Evening School; and so on, so that now he had a regular job as an experimental machinist, had a spare-time business of his own, and had some patents to his credit. He declared himself an atheist. He said that real education came from reading books. He cited an article about Einstein's religious beliefs and expressed doubts as to the article's accuracy. He was irreverent about various aspects of formal religion, speaking about the millions of people who prayed to God in many languages, and remarking that God must have an enormous clerical staff to keep track of all their sins. And he ended with a long discussion of the social and political systems of Italy and the United States that it would take too long to describe here. He also enclosed a check for Einstein to give to charity.

On 24 March 1954 Einstein answered in English as follows:

    I get hundreds and hundreds of letters but seldom one so interesting as yours. I believe that your opinions about our society are quite reasonable.

    It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

    I have no possibility to bring the money you sent me to the appropriate receiver. I return it therefore in recognition of your good heart and intention. Your letter shows me also that wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.

From p. 66

There is in the Einstein Archives a letter dated 5 August 1927 from a banker in Colorado to Einstein in Berlin. Since it begins "Several months ago I wrote you as follows," one may assume that Einstein had not yet answered. The banker remarked that most scientists and the like had given up the idea of God as a bearded, benevolent father figure surrounded by angels, although many sincere people worship and revere such a God. The question of God had arisen in the course of a discussion in a literary group, and some of the members decided to ask eminent men to send their views in a form that would be suitable for publication. He added that some twenty-four Nobel Prize winners had already responded, and he hoped that Einstein would too. On the letter, Einstein wrote the following in German. It may or may not have been sent:

    I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation. I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science.

    My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality. Morality is of the highest importance-but for us, not for God.

From pp. 69-70

A Chicago Rabbi, preparing a lecture on "The Religious Implications of the Theory of Relativity," wrote to Einstein in Princeton on zo December 1939 to ask some questions on the topic. Einstein replied as follows:

    I do not believe that the basic ideas of the theory of relativity can lay claim to a relationship with the religious sphere that is different from that of scientific knowledge in general. I see this connection in the fact that profound interrelationships in the objective world can Ije comprehended through simple logical concepts. To be sure, in the theory of relativity this is the case in particularly full measure.

    The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious. It is more a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe. It does not lead us to take the step of fashioning a god-like being in our own image-a personage who makes demands of us and who takes an interest in us as individuals. There is in this neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only sheer being. For this reason, people of our type see in morality a purely human matter, albeit the most important in the human sphere.


    Einstein on the Soul

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    From p. 39

    On 17 July I953 a woman who was a licensed Baptist pastor sent Einstein in Princeton a warmly appreciative evangelical letter. Quoting several passages from the scriptures, she asked him whether he had considered the relationship of his immortal soul to its Creator, and asked whether he felt assurance of ever lasting life with God after death. It is not known whether a reply was sent, but the letter is in the Einstein Archives, and on it, in Einstein's hand writing, is the following sentence, written in English:

      I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.

    From p. 40

    In Berlin in February 1921 Einstein received from a woman in Vienna a letter imploring him to tell her if he had formed an opinion as to whether the soul exists and with it personal, individual development after death. There were other questions of a similar sort. On 5 February 1921 Einstein answered at some length. Here in part is what he said:

      The mystical trend of our time, which shows itself particularly in the rampant growth of the so-called Theosophy and Spiritualism, is for me no more than a symptom of weakness and confusion.

      Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seems to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.

The entire article is found at http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/einsci.htm#ONE

This article appears in Einstein's Ideas and Opinions, pp.41 - 49. The first section is taken from an address at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 19, 1939. It was published in Out of My Later Years, New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.


Einstein’s address at Princeton Theological Seminary

{The audience of believers effects his tone} Nobody, certainly, will deny that the idea of the existence of an omnipotent, just, and omnibeneficent personal God is able to accord man solace, help, and guidance; also, by virtue of its simplicity it is accessible to the most undeveloped mind. But, on the other hand, there are decisive weaknesses attached to this idea in itself, which have been painfully felt since the beginning of history. That is, if this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?

The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God. It is the aim of science to establish general rules which determine the reciprocal connection of objects and events in time and space. For these rules, or laws of nature, absolutely general validity is required--not proven. It is mainly a program, and faith in the possibility of its accomplishment in principle is only founded on partial successes. But hardly anyone could be found who would deny these partial successes and ascribe them to human self-deception. The fact that on the basis of such laws we are able to predict the temporal behavior of phenomena in certain domains with great precision and certainty is deeply embedded in the consciousness of the modern man, even though he may have grasped very little of the contents of those laws. He need only consider that planetary courses within the solar system may be calculated in advance with great exactitude on the basis of a limited number of simple laws. In a similar way, though not with the same precision, it is possible to calculate in advance the mode of operation of an electric motor, a transmission system, or of a wireless apparatus, even when dealing with a novel development.

 What was important was how to make the world a better place and in pursuit thereof he chose a couple of key causes outside of religion, such as the militarism of the type that bred Hitler and having a planned economy managed by enlightened people—he was a socialist. Given the sentiment of so many towards those skeptical of their absurd faith, he chose to judiciously treat their beliefs with respect--jk.