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Einstein: ‘god is human weakness’

einstein letter full.jpgUPDATE 2: It has emerged that, as per our prediction, Richard Dawkins did bid for the letter. “What surprises me is the extraordinarily low estimate the auction house originally gave,” he says (Guardian). “In a way, I’m delighted that such a thing should be so highly valued.”

UPDATE – The letter sold to an anonymous bidder for £170,000, over 20 times more than expected. With fees included the actual price is over £200,000.

Einstein’s often-debated views on religion look to have been made clearer by a document up for auction tomorrow.

“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,” he writes in the 1954 letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind.

Bloomsbury Auctions, which is selling the letter, expects it to go for between £6000 and £8000 (press release). If you don’t have that much spare change, you can always read Einstein’s 1940 Nature article ‘Science and Religion’ (subscription required).

In that piece he notes:

During the youthful period of mankind’s spiritual evolution, human fantasy created gods in man’s own image, who, by the operations of their will, were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. … The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old conception of the gods.

The Guardian has more extracts of the letter than the press release, and its coverage quotes John Brooke of Oxford University thus:

Like other great scientists he does not fit the boxes in which popular polemicists like to pigeonhole him. It is clear for example that he had respect for the religious values enshrined within Judaic and Christian traditions … but what he understood by religion was something far more subtle than what is usually meant by the word in popular discussion.

Are we the only people who expect Richard Dawkins to bid?

einstein letter Bloomsbury Auctions.jpg

More coverage

Einstein letter shows disdain for religion – Daily Telegraph

Einstein describes religion as ‘childish’ in letter now up for auction – Canadian Press

Image: Bloomsbury Auctions


  1. Report this comment

    Marc Pengryffyn said:

    Actually, I expect the anti-rational religious fringe to attempt to buy it, with a mind to either it’s quiet disappearance or it’s public immolation, depending on the extent of their rabidity.

  2. Report this comment

    Sergio Stagnaro MD said:

    Poor Einstein, a scientist who ignored the non local realm (See Lory’s Experiment) since he knew only two energy forms (EM and EV)ignoring EI, the fundamental form which came for the Big-Bang, namely Energy Information. In addition, Einstein, although father of relativism, overloked it when covered his face with the mask of theologian to repeate inversely the error of those theologians, who with the mask of scientist, stated that the Earth is in the centre, without moving itself.

  3. Report this comment

    Marc Pengryffyn said:

    Well, its been sold, for an astronomical price, to an anonymous “private collector”. I must say, my fears are only increased by this. What are the odds that this priceless document will continue to exist in any form other than disordered carbon molecules and a few gases? Perhaps a follow-up article is in order…

  4. Report this comment

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar said:

    Dear Sir,

    This refers to your blog (Einstein: ‘god is human weakness’ – May 14, 2008), pertaining to the auction of a letter in which Einstein referred to God as a product of human weakness. It is not unlikely that Einstein may have been perplexed as far as the concept of god is concerned. Much earlier, commenting on the uncertainty principle of Werner Heisenberg he (Einstein) was known to have remarked that, “God does not play dice with the universe”.

    Sincerely yours,

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

    Research Scientist

    Basic Sciences Division

    New York University

  5. Report this comment

    Richard said:

    Einstein was not perplexed so far as god was concerned. This is what he had to say:

    “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.”

    No God, no interference, no miracles or answer to prayers. God was used synonymously with nature and its properties. The quote was taken during his dispute with Neils Bohr over the interpretation of the randomnous of nature itself, which he rejected, and has been widely touted by theists to claim that Einstein was one of them.

  6. Report this comment

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar said:

    Evidently the definition of God depends, on the person, religion, philosophy, culture etc. However wide the definition of God, the fact remains that the definition of God is surely within a certain spectrum in most societies. Thus the use of the word God by Einstein, while commenting on the uncertainty principle of Werner Heisenberg, clearly makes evident that this word could not have been chosen at random (specially by a person of his calibre) by him.

    Moreover, it is possible that Einstein though a great physicist and a stupendous human being had a vacillating belief in God, as he may not have dabbled in spirituality.


    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

  7. Report this comment

    John Collins said:

    I would like to think that I am one of many who are surprized that Einstein’s views on religious belief and the supernatural had not been previously clarified in public. He presents a healthy immune reaction against any group which protests that they have a patent on “the immutable truth”.

    I visited a talk on this topic with Geoff Schell (who developed gene cloning in plants) in a synagogue in Berlin in 1978. It was an obviously uncomfortable theme for the Rabbi even then.

  8. Report this comment

    Dr.Upinder Fotadar said:

    I guess John Collins meant Jozef (Jeff) Schell and not Geoff Schell. Jozef (Jeff) Schell was from my

    Alma Mater, that is the University of Ghent. Schell was a renown plant molecular biologist.

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

  9. Report this comment

    Richard said:

    I guess she did mean Jeff and not Geoff (pronounced the same). Thank you for your correction, which along with your revelation about your alma mater does not take away from the fact that Einstein was not perplexed about the existence of God, (he was quite clear there was no “creator”). You seem to be however about Einstein’s views. I suggest you do a little more reading than merely take a few quotes out of text.

  10. Report this comment

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar said:

    I stand by my views. Einstein should never have used the word God while commenting on the uncertainty principle of Werner Heisenberg. The word God has a reasonably clear meaning. He could have chosen another word.

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

  11. Report this comment

    Richard said:

    If you do stand by your views you do so in the face of evidence to the contrary.

    As I said it is quite clear from his writings that he did not believe in a personal god, or one that interfered in natural (or human) events and did not believe in an afterlife.

    He wrote – “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.”

    As for your quarrel with Einstein over his choice of words, unfortunately you cannot take it up with him as he has “passed away” (excuse my choice of words)

  12. Report this comment

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar said:

    I am surely not a dogmatic person, however, what is clearly evident is that Einstein used the term God. Thus there is a great probability that this great man was confused as to the concept of God. We must also take into account that Einstein was a person known to choose his words thoughtfully. Moreover, one does not anticipate that Einstein had any great desire to re-invent the dictionary!

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

  13. Report this comment

    Richard said:

    Confusion that arises with the choice of words does not necessarily reflect any confusion in or by the user. It could however cause confusion in the interpreter or receiver of those words, as is the case here. Einstein clarified his views about God, the universe, nature, the soul, an afterlife, quite plainly.

    Other words that cause confusion – Evolution (both a bunch of factual data and a scientific theory), Electricity (many meanings) etc etc.

    Talking about “playing dice” Einstein felt deeply, like many of us, that things don’t just happen, that they occur due to a cause. (However he believed these causes were due to natural and not any supernatural events). This flew in the face of the “Copenhagen interpretation” of the quantum theory, as espoused by Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Born, where causality in atomic physics was “impossible”.

    He realised that when we toss dice we have no notion on which side the dice will land and its probable eventual position can be well described by statistics. However this is only because of our ignorance of the initial position and forces applied to the dice. If these and all other relevant forces etc were known then its eventual position could perfectly be determined by physics. He thus distinguished between causal and predictive determinism. Predictive determinism was “impossible”, simply because of the vast amount of events in the microscopic world, but that does not necessarily imply the breakdown of causal determinism.

    In a black hole and at the very beginning of the Universe, the laws of physics seem to breakdown. However recent theories seems to cast doubt on this, one hypothesis by Antony Valentini using a rival of quantaum mechanics called bohmian mechanics has devised a test that will soon determine who was right.

  14. Report this comment

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar said:

    Quite often people get confounded and surely scientists are no exception to this rule. As I have already mentioned the definition of God can be wide, though in most societies it is for sure within a defined spectrum. Also Albert Einstein like many geniuses made things simple for people and surely had no intention to confuse people. For example, he explained general relativity to lay people by mentioning, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That is relativity.”

    However, in the definition of God (in my opinion) he could have been confused and also his interpretations of God varied. For example in his reply to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein in 1929, Einstein mentioned that, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It must be remembered that Spinoza was a pantheist and not an atheist.

    This reminds me of a quote by Issac Newton in his Principia in which he stated, “The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion on an intelligent and powerful Being.”

    In my opinion the thinking of these two great minds was fairly similar as far as the defination of God was concerned and is certainly within the framework of the accepted use of the word God.

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

  15. Report this comment

    Richard said:

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar – It is true that people including Einstein are subject to confusion. But on the subject of God, Einstein professed no confusion. Moreover his interpretations of god didn’t vary either as you assert. To him God was the natural laws of the Universe and the Universe itself, also called Nature. That is closest to the pantheistic God of Spinoza. He, like me, believed that there is an external truth out there as to the nature of the Universe, which can be discovered by science and which is impervious to our beliefs. For example the world was round, though people believed it flat, it moved around the sun though people believed otherwise, the orbits of the planets are ellipses and not circles as Kepler believed for a long time, the speed of light remains constant in vacuum etc etc etc.

    Thus if he was confused as to the concept of god, as you assert, then apparently he thought he wasn’t confused but in truth he was. Also because you can come to this conclusion, you are obviously not confused and thus could doubtless enlighten us all, on this very important subject, with your pearls of wisdom. Instead you have waffled on about the correct spelling of Geoff, your alma mater and the quote from Einstein about God not playing dice, which is supposed to reveal this confusion. The quote refers to the actual nature of nature itself, which he identified with god. He did not believe in causal non-determinism.

    You have also given a quote from Newton and claim, on the basis of that, that his thinking and Einstein are similar so far as the definition of god is concerned. This betrays firstly confusion in your own mind, as your assertion is completely erroneous, and also your obsession with “God” (for which you presumably have your own unconfused definition). The statement actually shows a similar awe and reverence to the beauty of the cosmos of the two minds. Newton clearly says the Universe was created by “an intelligent and powerful Being”. He believed in a Christian God, a god who created the Universe. I regard Newton to be the greatest genius of all time, bar none, but he lived before the time of Darwin, Mendeleev, Maxwell, Michelson and Morley. He went as far as he could go with the evidence of his time. Einstein on the other hand did not believe that the Universe had a creator.

    Most importantly Einstein believed, as I do, that all religions are man made. That is not to say that there is nothing of value to be found in any religion, but that these can be evaluated, accepted or rejected, without the burden of faith. So far as human thought on morality is concerned I have great respect for the teachings in the New Testament. That’s just my opinion, but a considered one. I will not be responding further on this posting. Sincerely – Richard

  16. Report this comment

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar said:

    There is concrete evidence (in my opinion) that this great thinker, namely Einstein was muddled as to the meaning of the word God. Are not many of us? As I have already mentioned earlier in his reply to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein in 1929, Einstein mentioned that, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” For him God is a Him, this should be taken into account and thus he clearly acknowledges the existence of God. Later on Einstein totally dissociates himself from the concept of God in his letter of 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, in which he mentions that, “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." It is thus clearly evident that there is a noteworthy contradiction of views between these two letters, which even a lay person can observe.

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

  17. Report this comment

    David Trout said:

    GOD is a/the term used for all things unexplainable by

    science; or hoped for without an understanding, uncertainty or knowledge of a solution. God is a repreive from taxing oneself with intellect.

  18. Report this comment

    Brad said:

    Read Wm Ziff’s He “the Maker”…& compare concepts “…. how be it that man … a product of My creation …creates Me in his likeness & image?” etc.

    “During the youthful period of mankind’s spiritual evolution, human fantasy created gods in man’s own image, who, by the operations of their will, were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. … "

  19. Report this comment

    N McCoy said:

    If you want to have good understanding of God, perhaps you should be critiquing Jesus’ teachings.

    With regard to Einstein’s comments on God/religion, I share the same enthusiasm and hope the letter doesn’t disappear.

  20. Report this comment

    Drew James said:

    For all of this banter, I think the important issue has been overlooked.

    Look at the letters date, make note of Einsteins age, now look at when his wife died, and when he died.

    Any social significant events? Oh right the same kinds that make men turn on God in the same periods of affect.

    Einstein was a genius, this is not to say he was resilient or even immune to depression and its effects.

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