Turtles all the way down

Einstein’s “God Letter” – An English translation

Posted by doctore0 on October 8, 2012

Princeton, 3 January 1954
Dear Mr. Gutkind!
Inspired by Brouwer’s repeated suggestion, I have been reading a great deal in your book in the last few days, and I thank you for sending it to me. What particularly struck me was this. With regard to our actual attitude to life and to human society we are broadly similar: an ideal beyond the personal that strives for freedom from self-centred desires, strives to make existence more beautiful and enriched, with an emphasis on the purely humane, where inanimate things are only seen as a means to which no dominant role should be granted. (It is this attitude in particular that unites us as a truly “un-American attitude”)
Still, had it not been for Brouwer’s encouragement, I would never have brought myself to delve into your book in any way, as it is written in a language that is inaccessible to me. For me, the word God is nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable but still exceedingly primitive legends. No interpretation, however subtle, could change that (for me). These rarefied interpretations are by their nature extremely manifold and are in almost no way related to the original text. For me, the unadulterated Jewish religion, like all other religions, is an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people, to whom I gladly belong and whose mentality I am deeply embedded in, for me, possess no dignity distinct from all other peoples’. In my experience, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot discern 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 human being and an internal one as a Jew. As a human, you claim to a certain extent a dispensation from otherwise accepted causality, as a Jew a privilege for monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza was the first to incisively recognise. And the animistic conception of nature religions is, as a matter of principle, not nullified by monopolisation. Such walls will only lead us to certain self-deceit; but our moral efforts are not advanced by them. Rather the contrary.
Now that I have quite openly expressed our differences in intellectual considerations, it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in what is essential, i.e. in our evaluations of human conduct. What separates us is only intellectual embellishment or “rationalisation” in Freudian language. Therefore, I think we would get along quite well when discussing concrete matters.
With kind thanks and best wishes,
Yours, A. Einstein

8 Responses to “Einstein’s “God Letter” – An English translation”

  1. Reblogged this on Gideon Jagged and commented:
    Fascinating! Definitively puts to rest the notion that Einstein was anything other than an atheist.


    • Paul G. said

      To that, Einstein’s reaction across the time is “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.” (Albert Einstein, to Guy H. Raner Jr., September 28) Einstein would actually repeatedly reject the label of Atheist put on him by others. He once said, though, “My position concerning God is that of an agnostic.” (Albert Einstein in a letter to M. Berkowitz, October 25, 1950) In other words, Einstein did not reject the idea that some kind of creative force was at work all the time behind the universe.

      For the record, my personal opinion is that the term “agnostic” does not make a lot of sense. It implies one knows whatever people call god could not be known, and that comes in conflict with the very definition of agnosticism provided by Thomas Huxley, the one who coined this term without being able to explain its meaning in a coherent manner. There may be limits as to what we are going to be able to uncover about this creative force in our current condition. The question is, where is that line drawn, and who or what establishes how far we can travel in our quest for reaching a correct understanding of reality, of our nature and our destiny. Since no one has an answer to that, no one can claim something is completely unknowable.


      • Einstein’s position would today be that of a negative atheist.

        What he is condemning is positive atheism, which the positive assertion that no gods exist (a position I don’t think is rational). He says he does not know.

        A negative atheist is anyone who is not a theist; that includes deists (there may have been a conscious creator, but it has no further interest in its creation) as well as agnostics (don’t know).

        He may have been a pantheist (god is everything, everywhere). He did so define god at one point, stating it was the sum total of all the laws that make up the universe.

        Thanks for the comment.



  2. Nina said

    Reblogged this on Nina's Garden.


  3. Paul G. said

    Linked at
    This is less of a “God letter” and much of a “chosen” Jewish theme discussion. He only mentions the god of our religions once while most of the letter is dedicated to refuting the claim made in both Judaism and Christianity that the Jewish people are god’s chosen people. As important and relevant his position on god is, remember though that he fully embraced Spinoza’s description of what some call god, the letter is more significant for his position on religion and politics. Let us not forget he was citizen of country, America, were conservative politicians and clerics make often references to an otherwise imaginary Jude-Christian tradition. More on this at

    Paul Greene


    • doctore0 said

      ” For me, the word God is nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable but still exceedingly primitive legends” <– Says it all!
      Religion/gods are human constructs, we humans must face that fact and grow up!


      • Paul G. said

        ” For me, the word God is nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable but still exceedingly primitive legends” <– Says it all!
        It actually doesn't.

        I still say the letter addresses with preponderance the issue of "chosen people." It is used by some to make it look like Einstein completely rejected the notion of god. He certainly dismissed as fabrications the personal gods of religion, “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve,” but at the same time he embraced the definition of god provided by Spinoza, “I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” The implication is that while the supernatural gods of religion are of the imaginary kind, there is something out there that is behind the order characterizing the universe, behind the laws of physics, the mathematics and the geometry of what we perceive as being material. Things are a bit more complex than simply rejecting or embracing the existence or non-existence of what some call god. Thomas Jefferson was a constant critic of religion, and yet he embraced the logical possible existence of a source that somehow produces our reality. He also was a strong supporter of the concept of "intelligent design," something that happened outside "religious fervor." I sense Einstein was absolutely convinced the supernatural gods of religion were part of political and at the same time business scheme. However, when it came to explaining reality, he was not so sure he could do that without admitting to the presence of something he often expressed his admiration toward it: "My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality." More than that, Einstein was the one who famously declared "he [god] does not throw dice."


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