Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Albert Einstein's letter coming up at auction: Does it show that he was an atheist?

A letter by Albert Einstein in the last years of his life has just come up at auction, and is being touted to show that he didn't really believe in God, as when he says, for example,
"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. (Breitbart, May 13, 2008)

Has anyone noticed that the article is written in such a way as to imply an atheism that the actual quotations in the article do not back up?

Or that the managing director of the Bloomsbury auction house, Rupert Powell, is treated as the authority on Einstein's views? Surely information released to the media was intended to flog up the sale price of the letter. This would be a very convenient time to do that, given the recent spate of "new atheist" books.

Einstein talks about the word "God" in the quotations, not about God as such - as he usually does when he is describing what he does believe. Einstein's God was not personal in the sense that Western theists attribute personality to God. In any event, Einstein probably changed his views at various times, but usually revolving around a central pole. Anyway, here's an excerpt (pp. 101-3) from There IS a God by Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese, that may shed some light:

--- --- ---

Einstein clearly believed in a transcendent source of the rationality of the world that he variously called "superior mind," "illimitable superior spirit," "superior reasoning force," and "mysterious force that moves the constellations." This is evident in several of his statements:
I ahve never found a better expression than "religious" for this trust in the rational nature of reality and of its peculiar accessibility to the human mind. Where this trust is lacking science degenerates into an uninspired procedure. Let the devil care if the priests make capital out of this. Ther is no remedy for that. [12]

Whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances in this domain [science] is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence ... the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence. [13]

Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order .... This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. [14]

Every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that or men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. [15]

My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God. [16]
--- --- ---

He made quite clear how he felt about popular religion:
It is a different question whether belief in a personal God should be contested. Freud endorsed this view in his latest publication. I myself would never engage n such a task. For such a belief seems to me referable to any lack of any transcendental outlook of life, and I wonder whether one can ever successfully render to the majority of mankind a more sublime means in order to satisfy its metaphysical needs.[17]

In other words, he thought popular religion childish but better than nothing. Incidentally, Flew criticizes Richard Dawkins for flogging up the idea that Einstein was an atheist.

Although it won't help sell the letter at Bloomsbury's, Einstein name should be removed from the rolls of persons believed to be atheists.

Also: Here is my review of There IS a God.

Sources for quotations from Einstein:

[12] Albert Einstein, Lettres a Maurice Solovine reproduits en facsimile et traduits en francais (Paris: Gauthier-Vilars, 1956), 102-3.
[13] Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, trans. Sonja Bargmann (New York, Dell, 1973), 49.
[14] Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, 255.
[15] Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 44.*
[16] Albert Einstein, The Quotable Einstein, ed. Alice Calaprice (Princeton, +NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 195-6.
[17] Jammer, Einstein and Religion, 51. (Citation [10] in the book.)

*This is a full citation. In the original, it is abbreviated, as it is not the first citation.