In 1954, Albert Einstein, history’s most famous theoretical physicist, wrote a letter to Eric Gutkind, a philosopher of religion. In the letter, Einstein wrote, "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."
On Tuesday, the letter sold for nearly $2.9 million at an auction held by Christie’s in New York. The letter was expected to only fetch between $1 million and $1.5 million, but it instead blew away expectations and beat the previous world record for an Einstein letter at auction.
Einstein wrote the letter in response to Gutkind’s 1952 book, Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt, a book that relies on biblical teachings and a hopeful, religious optimism to inspire people towards humanistic beliefs and behavior.
The humanistic ideals to be found in Gutkind's book provided some common ground for Einstein. He wrote in his letter that he shared Gutkind's ideals "with regard to the factual attitude to life and to human community."
But that was the only common ground he could find. Beyond calling God nothing more than the "product of human weakness" and the Bible a collection of legends "primitive" and "childish," he also wrote, "No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change anything about this."
Einstein himself was a German-born Jew, and although he did not believe in the God of Abraham, he did take time in the letter to comment on his love of the Jewish people, and his shared heritage. But he also wrote that Judaism, "like all other religions... an incarnation of primitive superstition."
"The Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples," he wrote.
Einstein frequently used the word "God" when describing nature from the viewpoint of a scientist, that is, when trying to understand natural laws and mathematical concepts. One of his more famous quotes is also one of his more frequently misunderstood quotes. In 1926, in a letter that Einstein wrote to Max Born, he wrote, "Quantum theory yields much, but it hardly brings us close to the Old One’s secrets. I, in any case, am convinced He does not play dice with the universe."
The quote is often just shortened to: "God does not play dice with the universe."
It is Einstein's use of the word "God" when discussing nature and its workings that has led to a lot of attempts by some religious people to prop up Einstein as a believer. But they can only make such claims by ignoring the context of how he uses the word, and by completely ignoring pieces of evidence like the letter from 1954. In reality, all that Einstein was really saying in the letter to Born was that he rejected certain ideas in Quantum Mechanics about the uncertainty of behavior in subatomic particles (one of the things that Einstein appears to have been wrong about).
So although Einstein shied away from using the word "atheist," at least in public conversation, it appears that his thoughts on the idea of God were, at the very least, nearly atheist, if not totally atheist. So the next time a religious person tries to use an Albert Einstein quote about God out of context, show them this story.