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Einstein Was No Idiot
Contrary to what the religious would have you believe, Einstein did not believe in god:

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...(w)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'(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."

(P.S. Thanks, Charles [GodlessRose], for posting this in the comments on the Mencken entry. Thought it was worth an item all of its own.)

Posted by aalkon at January 10, 2005 9:29 AM

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And I'm like whatever, but see the mighty Hitch this morning, where the coda to this piece discusses Sontag's genital traffic:

. "She didn't ask. She didn't tell, and some
. of those who wanted to make a noise when
. she had only just died might profit from
. studying her good taste and reserve."

This is not prissy British reserve, as anyone who's considered the entirety of Hitch's experience of the world must conclude. I have this theory that between 70%-94% of the heartache that comes to a modern child through sexuality could be eliminated by recognizing that these are private and personal forces.

IOW, mindyerown beeswax.

Posted by: Cridland at January 10, 2005 6:33 PM

Apparently attributing Einstein...

"I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being."

What a perfectly sensible conclusion this is.

Not that either a belief or complete disbelief in God by Einstein would have diminished one iota his contribution to our scientific knowledge.

Posted by: RKN at January 10, 2005 7:05 PM

Crid -- I don't think I've ever "considered the entirety of Hitch's experiences of the world," but I'm assuming it's probably larger than average. And my guess is that sexuality wasn't a big issue with Sontag precisely because she was comfortable with it. I doubt that readers in France or other European countries are fretting a great deal about her proclivity for muff-diving. All this gabbing in the press about it has only made me feel a little embarrassed about being an American. Lena

Posted by: Lena at January 10, 2005 9:04 PM

Again, Crid -- Thanks for the link to that Hitchens piece. It's the end of the day now, and I finally had time to follow it, and then another link to his piece of 12/29 on her. It reminded me of yet another piece he wrote about her in Vanity Fair a few years ago (How long ago? After her second round of cancer treatment. Before 9/11.) I like his way of conveying the mixture of admiration and love he felt for her. I had a crush on her too! -- Lena

Posted by: Lena in black at January 11, 2005 4:50 AM

The only thing to truly believe in is yourself.

Posted by: james malina at January 13, 2005 5:38 PM

the only thing to believe in is your self.

Posted by: james malina at January 13, 2005 5:39 PM