The Guardian today reproduces a letter from Einstein, written by him in early 1954 and now on sale. (UPDATE 20th May: The letter eventually sold for a record £170,000. Richard Dawkins, famed evolutionist and atheist was a losing bidder).
The letter is to the philosopher Eric Gutkind and discusses religion. It is fascinating for two reasons: one, biographical, in that it sketches out the religious views of the twentieth century’s most accomplished physicist. Second, it is a succinct declaration about religion that deserves consideration in its own right.
The most interesting outcome of the letter is that it settles the eternal argument about Einstein’s religious views once and for all. Both religious people and atheists alike have been scrambling to claim Einstein for themselves over the years. He famously stated that “God does not play dice”, when referring to quantum theory, which some saw as indication of belief in God. But this has been interpreted, I think correctly, as metaphorical usage only. His other previously published views have been sufficiently ambiguous to not settle the argument either way. Concensus had settled on the view that he was a pantheist.
But in this letter, he states: “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses”. That’s as short and decisive a declaration of atheism as you’re likely to find. There is something emphatic and definite about it. There is no equivocation or murmurings of doubt.
He then dismisses the idea that religions are worthwhile: “For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.” While it might seem hasty to declare all religions to be mere “childish superstitions”, it is without doubt a very clear declaration. Einstein dismissed religions, period. There is no room for a religious view of life in his world.
Almost certainly, nobody’s personal beliefs will change as a result of these revelations. But it might finally put to rest the false notion that Einstein believed in a God, or had any positive feelings for religion. He didn’t. It couldn’t have been stated more emphatically. And the funny thing is: it doesn’t matter either way. What Einstein did or did not believe about God makes zero difference to the possible existence or non-existence of a God. To appeal to what Einstein said would be an empty appeal to authority.