From Skeptic vol.
5, no. 2, 1997, pp. 62ff.
The following article is copyright ©1997 by the Skeptics Society, P.O.
Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of
this article in its entirety, including this notice.
Just What Did Einstein Believe About God?
Presented here for the first time are the complete texts of
two letters that Einstein wrote regarding his lack of belief in a personal god.
By Michael R. Gilmore
Just over a century ago, near the beginning of his intellectual life, the young Albert Einstein became a skeptic.
He states so on the first page of his Autobiographical Notes (1949, pp. 3-5): "Thus I came--despite the fact I was the son
of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents--to a deep religiosity, which, however, found an abrupt ending at the age of 12.
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...Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude... has never
We all know
Albert Einstein as the most famous scientist of the 20th century, and many know him as a great humanist. Some have also viewed
him as religious. Indeed, in Einstein's writings there is well-known reference to God and discussion of religion (1949, 1954).
Although Einstein stated he was religious and that he believed in God, it was in his own specialized sense that he used these
terms. Many are aware that Einstein was not religious in the conventional sense, but it will come as a surprise to some to
learn that Einstein clearly identified himself as an atheist and as an agnostic. If one understands how Einstein used the
terms religion, God, atheism, and agnosticism, it is clear that he was consistent in his beliefs.
Part of the
popular picture of Einstein's God and religion comes from his well-known statements, such as: "God is cunning but He is not
malicious."(Also: "God is subtle but he is not bloody-minded." Or: "God is slick, but he ain't mean." (1946)
"God does not
play dice."(On many occasions.)
"I want to
know how God created the world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I
want to know His thoughts, the rest are details."(Unknown date.)
It is easy
to see how some got the idea that Einstein was expressing a close relationship with a personal god, but it is more accurate
to say he was simply expressing his ideas and beliefs about the universe.
"belief" in Spinoza's God is one of his most widely quoted statements. But quoted out of context, like so many of these statements,
it is misleading at best. It all started when Boston's Cardinal O'Connel attacked Einstein and the General Theory of Relativity
and warned the youth that the theory "cloaked the ghastly apparition of atheism" and "befogged speculation, producing universal
doubt about God and His creation"(Clark, 1971, 413-414). Einstein had already experienced heavier duty attacks against his
theory in the form of anti-Semitic mass meetings in Germany, and he initially ignored the Cardinal's attack. Shortly thereafter
though, on April 24, 1929, Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of New York cabled Einstein to ask: "Do you believe in God?"(Sommerfeld,
1949, 103). Einstein's return message is the famous statement: "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"( 103). The Rabbi, who was
intent on defending Einstein against the Cardinal, interpreted Einstein's statement in his own way when writing: "Spinoza,
who is called the God-intoxicated man, and who saw God manifest in all nature, certainly could not be called an atheist. Furthermore,
Einstein points to a unity. Einstein's theory if carried out to its logical conclusion would bring to mankind a scientific
formula for monotheism. He does away with all thought of dualism or pluralism. There can be no room for any aspect of polytheism.
This latter thought may have caused the Cardinal to speak out. Let us call a spade a spade"(Clark, 1971, 414). Both the Rabbi
and the Cardinal would have done well to note Einstein's remark, of 1921, to Archbishop Davidson in a similar context about
science: "It makes no difference. It is purely abstract science"(413).
physicist Steven Weinberg (1992), in critiquing Einstein's "Spinoza's God" statement, noted: "But what possible difference
does it make to anyone if we use the word 'God' in place of 'order' or 'harmony,' except perhaps to avoid the accusation of
having no God?" Weinberg certainly has a valid point, but we should also forgive Einstein for being a product of his times,
for his poetic sense, and for his cosmic religious view regarding such things as the order and harmony of the universe.
But what, at
bottom, was Einstein's belief? The long answer exists in Einstein's essays on religion and science as given in his Ideas and
Opinions (1954), his Autobiographical Notes (1949), and other works. What about a short answer?
In the Summer
of 1945, just before the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein wrote a short letter stating his position as an atheist
(Figure 1). Ensign Guy H. Raner had written Einstein from mid-Pacific requesting a clarification on the beliefs of the world
famous scientist (Figure 2). Four years later Raner again wrote Einstein for further clarification and asked "Some people
might interpret (your letter) to mean that to a Jesuit priest, anyone not a Roman Catholic is an atheist, and that you are
in fact an orthodox Jew, or a Deist, or something else. Did you mean to leave room for such an interpretation, or are you
from the viewpoint of the dictionary an atheist; i.e., 'one who disbelieves in the existence of a God, or a Supreme Being'?"
Einstein's response is shown in Figure 3.
elements from the first and second response from Einstein there is little doubt as to his position: "From the viewpoint of
a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.... 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
to search, even to the last days of his 76 years, but his search was not for the God of Abraham or Moses. His search was for
the order and harmony of the world.