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How religious was Einstein?

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William Crawley | 22:19 UK time, Sunday, 15 November 2009

3989370913_32b72d0b54_o.jpgEinstein's comment that "God does not play dice with the universe" is often cited as evidence that the most famous scientist of the twentieth century was a theist. The statement in fact reveals no theological commitment of any kind, any more than Stephen Hawking's use of the phrase "the mind of God" at the end of A Brief History of Time implies that he is a religious believer. Einstein's comment was an expression of his concern about the randomness at the heart of the new theory of quantum mechanics, rather than an assertion of God's existence. His actual views on religion, and on sacred texts, emerge in a letter he wrote in 1954. Last year, that letter was sold at auction for £170,000. Richard Dawkins was outbid. The letter is now available online at lettersofnote.com, a fascinating archive of primary source materials.

Money quote:

'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 (for me) change this. ... 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 ... 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. Otherwise I cannot see anything "chosen" about them.'

Read the whole letter here.


  • Comment number 1.

    A very clever man.

    But then we knew that...

  • Comment number 2.

    I never did understand the fuss over Einstein's beliefs (or lack thereof). Aren't his contributions to physics more important than whether or not he believed in god? Am I missing something here?

  • Comment number 3.

    The interesting thing about the letter, to my mind, is the reference to Brouwer. According to Van Dalen, Einstein wrote to Hilbert that: "I consider him, with all due respect for his mind, a psychopath ... give him the liberty of a jester!" I wonder if that background explains the tone of the letter.

    (Incidentally, my interest is in the foundations of mathematics, and the relationship between Einstein and Brouwer, not Einstein's religious views.)

  • Comment number 4.


    "I never did understand the fuss over Einstein's beliefs (or lack thereof). Aren't his contributions to physics more important than whether or not he believed in god? Am I missing something here?"

    I don't think you're missing anything. It's just believers who are uncomfortable with the lack of rational foundation underlying their world view. And so by stating (sometimes falsely) that some prominent scientist or other great mind was a believer, they hope to gain credibility for their world view. It's a bit like 'You see, those very smart people believe, so it must be right then'.

    If you persuade a few people to give you a pound for every instance where pastor Orthodox Tradition quotes Kepler on this blog saying 'Science is thinking gods thought after him' you stand to make small fortune.

  • Comment number 5.

    PK - take your point, but isn't that what atheists are doing as well. Why else would Dawkins try to buy the letter. It's argument from authority whether it's theists or atheists.

  • Comment number 6.

    McCamley, has Dawkins ever held up Einsteins non-belief as argument against belief? I'm not aware of any instance where he has. When did that happen?

    Or is your post an attempt to drag down the atheist position, if you can't push up the not very credible theist position?

    No need to limit your answer to Einstein and Dawkins btw. If you can give a string of examples of atheists using argument from authority then please do. And it doesn't have to be as long a list as the number of instances that OT brings up Kepler, Einstein, etc. I'll pose you a small challenge: you give examples of atheists on this blog making argument from authority, and for each valid example I'll put up multiple cases of theists using argument from authority on this bog.

  • Comment number 7.

    Einstein's statements with the word "god" in them have frequently been abused by theist apologists; the truth of Einstein's views is a lot more interesting, and demolishes those abusers.

  • Comment number 8.

    Thanks, Peter, but I don't dance to your little tune. Your approach to discussion has become so dreary. You want everyone to follow your method. well, no. I simply made the point that both sides try to use Einstein and that is an argument from authority. I don't have to give other examples since all we're talking about is Einstein.

    Why do you think Dawkins wanted to buy the letter?

    One thing's for sure, Einstein knows the truth about God now.

  • Comment number 9.

    McCamley, it's fine if you don't want to extend the point beyond Dawkins and Einstein. But as you brought it up, perhaps you would at least answer the question where Dawkins was making an argument from authority through Einstein, rather than responding with the counter question "
    Why do you think Dawkins wanted to buy the letter?"

  • Comment number 10.

    Well it's no wonder people would like to load Einstein as ammunition into their guns for use in the wider debate over the places of religion and science. Loading Darwin into a gun does no good; he's already (ridiculously, in my opinion) a 'controversial' figure, on one side of the debate. Creationists in particular are pretty desperate and hungry for a widely-accepted eminent scientist to side with them on something as fundamental as whether there is or is not a God, and Einstein is at the top of the pile.

    Like theonefromcolorado said above, however, Einstein's religious beliefs prove nothing about either religion or science!

  • Comment number 11.

    His hand writing is worse than Gordon Browns!! I've just thrown my laptop across the room in disgust. If there had been more helicopters this wouldn't have happened! Pathetic. In answer to yer question William, he clearly wasn't, so why did you ask?

  • Comment number 12.

    Although, funny enough, I can see the appeal of atheistic Judaism (which has quite a high following, actually). On my recent flight home from Tel Aviv (and, William, I agree with your TalkBack caller that the security there is less of a pain than in Belfast International!) I was seated next to a lovely lady in her 60s, a "Sabra" of the pre-Independence generation, and an anaesthetist from a hospital in Haifa. Fiercely proud of being Jewish, she was also fiercely proud of being an atheist.

    Ironically, the reason she was sat next to me was that some Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox - they make David McIlveen look like a flouncing libertine dandy) had objected loudly to the cabin crew that they were seated beside a woman, and she decided that she probably didn't want to sit among such an objectionable group, and swapped seats with the Haredi who had initially been seated next to me.

    Gracious, pragmatic, funny, and entirely unassuming, she made the 5 hour flight seem like a Belfast-to-London hop. When I thought about it, I realised that I know several Israelis who are perfectly happy to self-identify as Jewish, yet they are fully aware that there isn't a god; they're not "the chosen people", and Israel isn't "the Promised Land". They do not harbour ill feelings towards their Palestinian and Arab neighbours; they despair of their government's actions, and they want to make the world a better place for everyone. Yet they enjoy the mythology and cultural context of their people; they enjoy where history and myth intertwine.

    I would like the same to be true for Christianity - and the longer I push this "Christian Atheist" line, the more I find that that IS the case (I met two people while I was away who confided in me that they are "Christian Atheists", which I wasn't expecting, although I know there are plenty out there).

    I feel Einstein would have enjoyed this debate, and probably would have become a regular commenter on this blog. Moniker: "doesnotplaydice"...

  • Comment number 13.

    I never said Dawkins presented an argument in which he quoted Einstein as an authority; I never said that. What I said was that people were using him as an authority and that's why Dawkins wants the letter. What possible importance could the letter have to a scientist? Dawkins wants it cos he thinks it proves Einstein was an unbeliever. I'm not making some big complicated argument - don't get your "show which peer reviewed journal proves atheists use Einstein as an authority" hat on.

  • Comment number 14.

    The assertion is of course that because Einstein had original unique insight into the physical manifestation of the universe, he had special insight into its non physical dimensions if such a thing exists at all as well. This is utter nonsense just as it is for any scientist. When it comes to whether or not god exists, they have no more knowledge nor is their opinion any more valuable than anyone elses. As to whether or not the bible is literally true, I'd say there are very few respected or respectable scientists anywhere who would agree with that. To a scientist the bible is a laughable pile of children's fairy tales just as Dawkins says. In general, scientist do not believe anything they have no evidence for. Their minds don't work that way. Having a "spiritual feeling" just isn't enough for them. That is why I think most scientists are atheists or at least agnostics. They also know that logically they cannot prove a negative.

    Who is a Jew. According to Jewish law, anyone born of a Jewish mother. But according to some rabbis in Israel, that is not enough. I think they would consider atheists to be non Jews. It seems to me to be a Jew, you have to belive in god. Is Judism a religion, a culture, a heritage or what? Perhaps someone here more familiar with it than I am has a definitive answer.

    Helio, I don't think it is fair to say that just because some Jews in Israel are atheists those individuals necessarily have any particular sympathy towards the Palestinians. I don't think they resent their restaurants, their buses, their shopping malls being bombed any less than devout Jews do. Nor are they sympathetic to the Palestinians knowing the true history of the war the Arabs have waged to destroy Israel these last 60+ years and are still waging. There is nothing to support such an assertion. It wouldn't surprise me if their resentment and now their anger is just as great. I'll bet at least some of them would agree with one line in the bible...and eye for an eye.

  • Comment number 15.

    >>In general, scientist do not believe anything they have no evidence for.

    I don't think this is try at all. Most scientists accept that there are areas of life they can't treat in the same way they would the physical sciences. If they don't they aren't very observant or they've never been in love.

  • Comment number 16.


    You'll note he said, "in general", that can be as big or as small a get out clause as he wishes!

    On the point of Einstein, if William's quote is anything to go by it would appear that Einstein didn't do God (if I might put it that way). But that's OK; I, for one, don't need Einstein to 'do God' to validate my 'doing God'.

    Honestly, it mesmerises me more that those who think "the bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish" would want to attach it to their atheism.

  • Comment number 17.

    Markie, good lad - the Israel-Palestine problem seems to be something else we can add to the very long list of Stuff Markie Hasn't A Baldy About. Ho hum.

  • Comment number 18.

    This is all a slightly high brow version of tacky religious magazines which tell us about some footballer or some z lister who expressed some passing reference to their beliefs and we're all supposed to feel better that someone cool believes in God - before they reveal they're shacked up with someone and really their spiritual but don't go to Church etc Yawn.

  • Comment number 19.

    "Shacked up with someone"

    Yet another sweeping, moral judgement and condemnation.

  • Comment number 20.

    Like Jesus - he made lots of sweeping moral judgment - like when he said if you look at a woman lustfully it's adultery in the heart, or when you marry after divorce, that's adultery, or when you call your brother a fool that's like murder. Sweeping moral judgment.

    Who did I condemn?

  • Comment number 21.

    Yourself, dearie. Matt 7:1.

  • Comment number 22.

    (and it should be "whom")

  • Comment number 23.

    I'm told that when Einstein was asked if he believed in God, part of what he said was: "We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library, filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books; it does not know how....That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human beings towards God. We see the universe marvellously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws."

    It appears that Einstein - while not believing in a personal Creator - recognised design in nature, and humbly acknowledged the limitatons of human knowledge.

    Not a bad place to start. But those with a Bible in their hands can go considerably further.....just as far as God's revelation of Himself in Scripture takes us.

  • Comment number 24.

    Phil, your interpretation of Einstein's attitude is completely at odds with both the quote you give, and the letter. The bible is not a useful guide. It is interesting, for sure, but it doesn't teach us anything that we couldn't have (or in fact already HAD) worked out for ourselves, and contains a lot of error if we try to use it as a moral or scientific guide. Which is why Einstein described it as "childish", of course. It's no better than the Koran or Moby Dick or Shakespeare.

  • Comment number 25.

    Dont think Albert lends himself easily to either camp in this debate;-

    Einstein also stated: "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."

    He also said in a conversation with Hubertus, Prince of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, "In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views."[3]

    "Even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other" there are "strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies ... science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind ... a legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist."[7]



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