Christie’s Auction House announced on Thursday that a controversial letter penned by Albert Einstein containing his views on God and religion is expected to fetch more than $1 million at auction in December.
Peter Klarnet, a senior specialist in books and manuscripts at Christie’s, wrote in a release provided to CNN that the one-and-a-half-page letter is considered “one of the definitive statements in the Religion vs. Science debate.”
Einstein wrote the letter to Jewish philosopher Eric Gutkind in 1954 in response to his book, Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt.
A translation of the letter reads:
“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.”
Though Einstein was a self-proclaimed agnostic, his belief in God is the subject of fierce debate to this day. Einstein was raised by secular Jewish parents and attended a local Catholic public elementary school in Munich. He described this in his autobiographical notes.
“I came — though the child of entirely irreligious parents — to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve,” Einstein wrote. “Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.”
“The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression.”
Einstein frequently referred to God and is often misquoted as saying, “God does not play dice with the universe.” This phrase is understood to mean that the course of all events is predetermined. In point of fact, Einstein wrote, “I, at any rate, am convinced that [God] does not throw dice” in a letter to Max Born in 1926. Einstein was expressing his dissatisfaction with the preeminence of probability in some interpretations of quantum mechanics.
If he did believe in God, Einstein’s belief certainly took him out of the framework of classical religion. “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes its creatures, or has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves,” he wrote in an essay in 1931.
His non-belief was plainly stated in a letter he wrote in 1954, the same year he wrote the letter to Gutkind.
“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.”
Nonetheless, it would be inaccurate to say he was entirely non-religious as Einstein waxed poetic when describing his own religious beliefs.“I am a deeply religious nonbeliever,” he once wrote. “This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”
In “The World As I See It,” a collection of his essays published in 1949, Einstein described what he saw as the deeper aspect of life.
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms; it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”
The “God Letter” was first sold at an auction for $404,000 in 2008, then for a little over $3 million via eBay in 2012 to an unknown buyer.