Einstein’s views on religion

It is well known that Einstein spoke about god frequently, leading many believers to hope that he was religious in some way. This habit of his was a puzzle to his physics contemporaries who could not imagine that a scientist of his stature would be religious. They knew that he had no sympathy for the idea of a personal god and concluded that he was using the word god as a metaphor.

A portion of a letter written by him a year before his death has been frequently cited by many commentators (including me) in support of this view. The original letter was in German and can be read here. The most frequently cited translation of the relevant section is given as:

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 subtilised 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.

I too have used that translation but last week I heard from Wolfgang Alexander Moens who (following up on a comment by Rudolf Root to an article on this topic that appeared on The Atlantic website) informs me that this translation is not quite accurate, and the bolded parts indicate where the problems are. Here is the German original of the translated passage:

Das Wort Gott ist für mich nichts {anders} als Ausdruck und Produkt menschlicher Schwächen, die Bibel eine Sammlung ehrwürdiger, aber doch reichlich primitiver Legenden. Keine noch so feinsinnige Auslegung kann (für mich) etwas daran ändern. Diese verfeinerten Auslegungen sind naturgemäß höchst mannigfaltig und haben so gut wie nichts mit dem Urtext zu schaffen. Für mich ist die unverfälschte jüdische Religion wie alle anderen Religionen eine Incarnation des primitiven Aberglaubens. Und das jüdische Volk, zu dem ich gern gehöre und mit dessen Mentalität ich tief verwachsen bin, hat für mich doch keine andersartige Dignität als alle anderen Völker.

Even with my lack of knowledge of German, I could see that Moens was on to something so I sent the original letter to a colleague Peter Yang, who is a professor of German at my university, and he kindly provided me with the German text (the one above) and an independent translation that confirms what Mr. Moens said.

Here is professor Yang’s translation:

For me the word God is nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses, {and} the Bible a collection of honorable, yet nevertheless amply primitive, legends. No matter how subtle the interpretation is, it can’t change anything about this (for me). These subtilized interpretations are naturally very diverse and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the unadulterated Jewish religion is like all other religions an incarnation of the primitive superstition. In addition, the Jewish people — to which I gladly belong and for whose mentality I have a deep affinity — has for me no other kind of dignity than all other peoples.

Note that the first bolded part of the earlier translation is completely absent in the new translation, and the word ‘childish’ in the second bolded part is replaced by the word ‘primitive’.

Are these changes significant? While they do not change the fact that Einstein held religion in low regard, I think it is important that we be as accurate as possible in quoting him or anyone else for that matter. There are significant nuances involved because the words ‘primitive’ and ‘childish’ are not synonymous. As Moens said in a follow-up email to me, “The former suggests being stuck in the first phase of human culture, the latter being stuck in the initial phases of an individual life. The former (at least here and now) suggests a lack of education, the latter the inability to grow as an individual.”

I am not sure why the earlier translations introduced the word ‘childish’. Did Einstein ever refer to religion using that word? Moens refers to two occasions where Einstein did use that term in reference to religion, in letters written in English in 1945 and 1949 to a US Navy ensign Guy H. Raner who asked him about his views on religion and about a story that was circulating that Einstein had been converted to god by the logical arguments of a Jesuit priest. Einstein’s replies are quite fascinating and reinforce the idea that religious people should not look to him for support. In the 1945 letter he says:

I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me.

From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist… It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere–childish analogies. We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of the world–as far as we can grasp it. And that is all.

In the 1949 letter, Einstein again invokes the imagery of a child.

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.

So Einstein clearly viewed the idea of a personal god to be ‘childish’ and ‘childlike’ but that choice of word is not to be found in the most cited letter. But the last sentences of these two letters capture his sense of awe about the workings of the world that he played such a major role in uncovering and caused him to repeatedly invoke his favored ‘god’ metaphor.

I would like to thank Mr. Moens and professor Yang for the time and trouble they have taken to correct and enrich the historical record.