© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Owning Einstein

I’m itching to write about the UC Davis situation. There’s something important to be said that isn’t much being talked about. But it’s too important to rush, and the book deadline is seriously looming, so I’ll wait until December when no one cares anymore. For now, another teaser from Voices of Unbelief (ABC-CLIO, August 2012).

One of the great games in the culture wars is claiming the good and smart for your team and pushing the monsters away. Picture Christian and atheist captains in a sandlot choosing basketball teams. “Einstein, we get Einstein!” say the atheists. “No way, he used the word God!…Well Jefferson then.” “Oh you WISH!” And so it goes until only Hitler is left, standing alone in short pants.

The push-me-pull-you process is done by cherry-picking quotes, and Albert Einstein is the three-point shooter everybody wants to draft. To nicely complicate that, I’m including five excerpts from Albert Einstein’s correspondence, adding up to a relatively clear and nuanced picture by the end. We’ll start by picking the atheists’ favorite cherry, then keep moving around the tree.

Excerpts from the personal correspondence and interviews of Albert Einstein

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. 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.

–Letter of March 24, 1954 to a correspondent asking him to clarify his religious views. Dukas, Helen, and Banesh Hoffman, eds. (1981). “Albert Einstein: The Human Side.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 43.

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 own being.

–Letter to Guy H. Raner Jr. (28 September 1949). Isaacson, Walter (2008). “Einstein: His Life and Universe.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 390.

My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.

–Letter to M. Berkowitz, Oct. 25, 1950. Einstein Archives 59–215.00

I’m absolutely not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.

–From a 1930 interview with poet, writer, and later Nazi propagandist G.S. Viereck. Frankenberry, Nancy K. (2008). “The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 153.

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilized interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion, like all other religions, is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.

In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism…With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.

With friendly thanks and best wishes
Yours, A. Einstein

–Letter from Einstein to author Eric Gutkind, January 1954, in response to receiving Gutkind’s book “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt.” Quoted in “Einstein’s letter makes view of religion relatively clear,” The Guardian, May 13, 2008

It’s interesting to see Einstein and others (including Carl Sagan) whose views are essentially identical to mine but who see atheism as a position of certainty (which in practice it almost never is) and reject the label on those terms. If theism can accommodate strong conviction rather than certainty, it seems that atheism should be allowed the same latitude. But at least Einstein makes his reasoning clear in these letters. I’ll bet that’ll put an end to all the confusion.

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This was written on Wednesday, 23. November 2011 at 08:59 and was filed under belief and believers, diversity, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Uncategorized. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. I had no idea that Frankenberry was a Nazi propagandist… Count Chocula sure… everybody knew that, but Frankenberry… what must Boo-Berry have thought?

    Comment: blotzphoto – 25. November 2011 @ 8:41 pm

  2. Ok.. i know I read it wrong, but I stand by the joke… its just too funny.

    Comment: blotzphoto – 25. November 2011 @ 8:43 pm

  3. 1 great thing about our modern TMZ culture, we know a lot more about public figures, so there’s less guess-work on their personal beliefs. At the same time, that’s also a terrible thing about our culture…

    Comment: TomZ, a miasma of incandescent plasma – 28. November 2011 @ 4:38 pm

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