Albert Einstein’s so-called God letter first surfaced in 2008, when it fetched four hundred and four thousand dollars in a sale at a British auction house. The letter came back into the news earlier this month, when its owner or owners auctioned it off again, this time at Christie’s in New York, and someone paid $2.9 million for it, a pretty good return on investment, and apparently a record in the Einstein-letters market. The former top seller was a copy of a letter to Franklin Roosevelt from 1939, warning that Germany might be developing a nuclear bomb. That one was sold at Christie’s for $2.1 million, in 2002. If you have any extra Einstein letters lying around, this might be a good time to go to auction.
Although it bears his signature, Einstein didn’t actually write the bomb letter. It was written by the physicist Leo Szilard, based on a letter that Einstein had dictated. But, if auction price is at all relative to historical significance, that letter should be way more valuable than the God letter. The God letter was cleverly marketed, though. “Not only does the letter contain the words of a great genius who was perhaps feeling the end fast approaching,” Christie’s said on its Web site, “It addresses the philosophical and religious questions that mankind has wrestled with since the dawn of time: Is there a God? Do I have free will?” The press release called it “one of the definitive statements in the Religion vs Science debate.” Journalistic interest was stirred up by the question of whether the letter might contradict other comments that Einstein is recorded having made about God.
This all made the letter sound a lot more thoughtful than it is. Einstein did have views about God, but he was a physicist, not a moral philosopher, and, along with a tendency to make gnomic utterances—“God does not play dice with the universe” is his best-known aperçu on the topic—he seems to have held a standard belief for a scientist of his generation. He regarded organized religion as a superstition, but he believed that, by means of scientific inquiry, a person might gain an insight into the exquisite rationality of the world’s structure, and he called this experience “cosmic religion.”
It was a misleading choice of words. “Cosmic religion” has nothing to do with morality or free will or sin and redemption. It’s just a recognition of the way things ultimately are, which is what Einstein meant by “God.” The reason that God does not play dice in Einstein’s universe is that physical laws are inexorable. And it is precisely by getting that they are inexorable that we experience this religious feeling. There are no supernatural entities out there for Einstein, and there is no uncaused cause. The only mystery is why there is something when there could be nothing.
In the God letter, the subject is not the cosmic religion of the scientist. It is the organized religion of the believer, a completely different subject. Einstein wrote the letter, in 1954, to an émigré German writer named Eric Gutkind, whose book “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt” he had read at the urging of a mutual friend and had disliked so much that he felt compelled to share his opinion of it with the author. A year later, Einstein died. Gutkind died in 1965; it was his heirs who put the letter up for auction, in 2008.
The letter to Gutkind is conspicuously short on metaphysics. It’s essentially a complaint about traditional Judaism. Einstein says that he is happy being a Jew, but that he sees nothing special about Jewishness. The word God, he says, is “nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness,” and the Hebrew Bible is a collection of “honorable, but still purely primitive legends.”
In some news accounts, Einstein is quoted as calling the Biblical stories “nevertheless pretty childish,” but that is not what his letter says. That phrase was inserted by a translator, apparently at the time of the first auction. Nor does Einstein call Judaism “the incarnation of the most childish superstitions,” also a translation error. The word that he uses is “primitiven”—that is, “primitive,” meaning pre-scientific. He is saying that, before humans developed science, they had to account for the universe in some way, so they invented supernatural stories. (Such is the nature of our own super-scientific age, however, that if you perform a search for “Einstein childish God,” you will get thousands of hits. Einstein will be eternally associated with a characterization he never made.)
Einstein had what might be called a night-sky theology, a sense of the awesomeness of the universe that even atheists and materialists feel when they gaze up at the Milky Way. Is it too awesome for human minds to know? A scientist from a generation before Einstein, William James, thought that maybe we can’t—maybe our brains are too small. There might indeed be something like God out there; we just can’t pick it up with the radar we’ve got. In James’s lovely metaphor, “We may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all.”
The best thing in Einstein’s letter to Gutkind is not the grouchy dismissal of traditional theology. It’s the closing paragraph, where Einstein puts all that aside. “Now that I have expressed our differences in intellectual convictions completely openly,” he writes, “it is still clear to me that we are very close to each other in the essentials, that is, in our evaluations of human behavior.” He thinks that if he and Gutkind met and talked about “concrete things,” they would get along fine. He is saying that it doesn’t matter what our religious or our philosophical commitments are. The only thing that matters is how we treat one another. I don’t think it took a genius to figure this out, but it’s nice that one did.