It is rather common for many beliefs to lay claim to Einstein, and other rather famous people, as an individual who plays on their team, and thus bestow their specific belief with some additional credibility. In fact, so important is this idea when it comes to mega-famous-smart individuals such Einstein, that the feeding frenzy has resulted in an entire wikipedia page being devoted to his religious beliefs.
So what did he really believe?
What is perhaps the best summary of what he really thought comes from a letter he wrote about a year before his death in January of 1954.
The context of the letter is that a friend of his, Luitzen Egbertus Jan Brouwer, had encouraged him to read a book by their mutual friend, the philosopher Erik Gutkind, that was entitled, “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt,” (It is basically a reinterpretation of traditional Judaism).
After reading it, Einstein wrote the following letter to the author, Erik Gutkind (the bold highlighting was added by me) …
Princeton, 3. 1. 1954
Dear Mr Gutkind,
Inspired by Brouwer’s repeated suggestion, I read a great deal in your book, and thank you very much for lending it to me. What struck me was this: with regard to the factual attitude to life and to the human community we have a great deal in common. Your personal ideal with its striving for freedom from ego-oriented desires, for making life beautiful and noble, with an emphasis on the purely human element. This unites us as having an “unAmerican attitude.”
Still, without Brouwer’s suggestion I would never have gotten myself to engage intensively with your book because it is written in a language inaccessible to me. 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. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and whose thinking I have a deep affinity for, 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. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision, probably as the first one. And the animistic interpretations of the religions of nature are in principle not annulled by monopolization. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.
Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, i.e; in our evaluations of human behavior. What separates us are only intellectual “props” and “rationalization” in Freud’s language. Therefore I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.
With friendly thanks and best wishes,
So there you have it then, conclusive evidence that he simply did not have a religious belief at all and was not a religious man.
It is about here that I could, if I was foolish enough to do so, mount this trophy within a cabinet marked “non-belief”, but why would I do such a silly thing?
What establishes the truth of anything is not “who” adhered to that specific position, but rather what specific evidence is available to actually verify the claim. Nothing else beyond that matters, so no matter who said it, and no matter how beautiful or profound an idea might be, if there is no evidence, then it is simply not true and so should not be accepted.
I personally maintain a position of disbelief in a deity, but not because I am angry with a specific deity, nor is it because I do not wish to be constrained by some supposedly high-moral ground that is asserted to be the exclusive preserve of those that do believe, but rather because the quantity of objective verifiable evidence for a deity that is claimed to manifest in our reality is exactly zero.
For the same reason, I also do not believe in giants, lake monsters, bigfoot, Zeus, Thor, Loki, unicorns, dragon, fairies, or jinn. I suspect that most people would also reject a belief in such things for exactly the same reason – no evidence, and so it is perhaps rather odd to find specific ideas that do prevail, not because there is any evidence, but perhaps simply because they are currently popular and also embedded within our culture.
It is sometimes worth spending a bit of time pondering over things like this, so to help you along here are a couple of questions for you to think about.
- If it was verified that Einstein had actually believed that Unicorns and Dragons were quite real, and were simply invisible and slightly out-of-phase with our reality, and actually lived in a different quantum reality, would you believe?
- If as a result of his belief, the idea has gone viral and everybody around you assured you that it really was true, would you then believe?
- If the historians then chipped in and published books and articles that pointed out that the there was a prevailing dragon mythology in many different cultures, and cited this as further evidence, would you then start to consider the possibility?
- If you had friends who relating stories about how they had personally witnessed a dragon manifest, and yet when you checked, there was nothing physical to verify this, would you then believe?
- If as you looked about, you could see how the dragon belief had inspired great works of art and architecture, and observed how some had devoted their entire lives to the belief, would you perhaps consider it to be true?
- If you took the above question a bit further and realised that there were people who had not just lived, but had given their lives and died for the dragon and unicorn belief, would you or could you so easily dismiss it?
Is is of course interesting to not only wonder why specific ideas are just accepted with no evidence at all, but to also ask ourselves why they become popular ideas in the first place, and to ponder about how the idea took root and went viral. In simplistic terms it is perhaps very much down to basic human psychology; our need to grasp meaning, then once grasped, how we can then become heavily invested emotionally in a specific idea, so much so that we an unable to let go no matter what.
It has always been like this, and what has perhaps changed and evolved over time is the shape and form of the idea itself. It is perhaps a very subtle trap that we ensnare ourselves with, and yet with a bit of reason and logic, we can also potentially liberate ourselves.
We live in an age in which the flow of information has greatly accelerated, and so as a result the prevailing ideas are now being challenged as never before. This will pan out in two different but rather obvious ways.
- For some variations, the ideas and beliefs will evolve and adapt to this new environment and so will prevail and thrive
- For other variations that cannot adapt, they will instead lose ground and fade into obscurity as the older generation passes
However, what has not been changed in any way at all by this greatly increased flow of information is the basic human psychology that allows us to ensnare ourselves, and so the ongoing rally cry for the deployment of critical thinking will continue to be a persistent requirement.
In the end, a few simply words can work wonders when faced with any extraordinary claim, words such as, “And what is the evidence for that claim?”. Oh and please do remember, the answer is never ever, “famous person X believed it”, because that is not evidence of anything that is actuality true.