Baruch! Albert Einstein, world-famous physicist but little-known fellow Spinozist, is having a letter sold at auction this week whose contents should finally put to rest that silly notion that Einstein was religious.
We know Spinoza left a strong impact on Einstein. I visited Spinoza’s home in Rijnsburg a few years ago and saw with my own eyes Einstein’s signature in the visitor’s book, dated 1920. In 1929 a Rabbi alarmed by the suggestion that Einstein’s theory of relativity might present a slippery slope to atheism asked Einstein for a clarification of his beliefs:
New York’s Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein asked Einstein by telegram: “Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid 50 words.” In his response, for which Einstein needed but twenty-five (German) words, he stated his beliefs succinctly: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”
Spinoza’s God, of course, is exactly analogous to “Nature”. Unlike anyone else before him, Spinoza maintained that “God, or nature” is intrinsic to the universe (as opposed to extrinsic, e.g. a God that can create a universe). Thus, postulating the existence of God is no different than postulating the existence of a universe governed by physical laws. And that is something atheists can live with.
So what does the letter being sold at auction this week reveal about Einstein’s religious views? Einstein was writing in 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, and here is what he wrote, among other things:
The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.
[…] For me the Jewish religion like all others 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 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.
Those words could have been uttered by Spinoza 300 years earlier, and indeed Spinoza’s writings make those very same arguments. At one point, Spinoza writes that perhaps not everyone has the mental fortitude to abandon conventional religion — that his abstract notion of God = Nature may only really be accessible to a philosophical elite — and that conventional religion would suffice to bring happiness to the rest. In Steven Nadler’s Spinoza: A Life (p.290) we get this response from Spinoza to his landlady when she asked him if she has chosen the right religion:
One day, when Van der Spyck’s wife asked Spinoza whether he thought she could be saved in the religion that she professed, he replied: “Your religion is good, and you need not search for another one in order to be saved, as long as you apply yourself to a peaceful and pious life.”
In other words, belief is merely a means to an end; what is more important is good deeds. Still, you might think Spinoza is being a bit patronizing here to a good but not particularly clever soul.
Myself, I am a little less sanguine about belief — happiness at the expense of a realistic world view seems like too high a price to pay. Perhaps, however, I’ve been lucky, and I can’t fathom the kinds of misery that make the crutch of religion a necessity for many.