From Skeptic vol. 5, no. 2, 1997, pp. 62ff.
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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...hich 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'a 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."
I was fortunate to meet Guy Raner, by chance, at a humanist dinner in late 1994, at which time he told me of the Einstein letters. Raner lives in Chatsworth, California and has retired after a long teaching career. The Einstein letters, a treasured possession for most of his life, were sold in December, 1994, to a firm that deals in historical documents (Profiles in History, Beverly Hills, CA). Five years ago a very brief letter (Raner & Lerner, 1992) describing the correspondence was published in Nature. But the two Einstein letters have remained largely unknown.
Curiously enough, the wonderful and well-known biography Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel, by Banesh Hoffmann (1972) does quote from Einstein's 1945 letter to Raner. But maddeningly, although Hoffmann quotes most of the letter (194-195), he leaves out Einstein's statement: "From the viewpoint of a Jesuit Priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist."
Hoffmann's biography was written with the collaboration of Einstein's secretary, Helen Dukas. Could she have played a part in eliminating this important sentence, or was it Hoffmann's wish? I do not know. However, Freeman Dyson (1996) notes "that Helen wanted the world to see, the Einstein of legend, the friend of school children and impoverished students, the gently ironic philosopher, the Einstein without violent feelings and tragic mistakes." Dyson also notes that he thought Dukas "profoundly wrong in trying to hide the true Einstein from the world." Perhaps her well-intentioned protectionism included the elimination of Einstein as atheist.
Although not a favorite of physicists, Einstein, The Life and Times, by the professional biographer Ronald W. Clark (1971), contains one of the best summaries on Einstein's God: "However, Einstein's God was not the God of most men. When he wrote of religion, as he often did in middle and later life, he tended to...clothe with different names what to many ordinary mortals--and to most Jewsa--looked like a variant of simple agnosticism...This was belief enough. It grew early and rooted deep. Only later was it dignified by the title of cosmic religion, a phrase which gave plausible respectability to the views of a man who did not believe in a life after death and who felt that if virtue paid off in the earthly one, then this was the result of cause and effect rather than celestial reward. Einstein's God thus stood for an orderly system obeying rules which could be discovered by those who had the courage, the imagination, and the persistence to go on searching for them"(19).
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.
Dyson, F. 1996. Forward In The Quotable Einstein (Calaprice, Alice, Ed. ) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University
Press. 1996. (Note: The section "On Religion, God, and Philosophy" is perhaps the best brief source to present the range and depth of Einstein's views.)
Einstein, A. 1929. quoted in Sommerfeld (see below). 1949. Also as Telegram to a Jewish Newspaper, 1929; Einstein Archive Number 33-272.
___. 1946 and of unknown date. In Einstein, A Centenary Volume. (A. P. French, Ed.) Cambridge: Harvard Univ Press. 1979. 32, 73, & 67.
___. 1959 (1949). "Autobiographical Notes." In Albert Einstein, Philosopher--Scientist. (Paul Arthur Schilpp, Ed.) New York: Harper & Bros.
___. 1950. Letter to M. Berkowitz, October 25, 1950; Einstein Archive Number 59-215.
___. 1954. Ideas and Opinions. New York: Crown Pub.
___. on many occasions. In Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel. (B. Hoffmann with the collaboration of Helen Dukas.) New York: The Viking Press.
Hoffmann, B. (collaboration with Helen Dukas). 1972. Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel. New York: The Viking Press.
Raner, G. H. & Lerner, L. S. "Einstein's Beliefs." Nature, 358:102.
Sommerfeld, A. 1949. "To Albert Einstein's 70th Birthday." In Albert Einstein, Philospher-Scientist. (Paul Arthur Schilpp, Ed.) New York: Harper & Bros. 1959. 99-105.
Weinberg, S. 1992. Dreams of a Final Theory. New York: Pantheon Books. 245.