Sunday, May 18, 2008

Einstein Letter on God Sells for $404,000

“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.” - Albert Einstein

From the grave, Albert Einstein poured gasoline on the culture wars between science and religion this week.

A letter the physicist wrote in 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, in which he described the Bible as “pretty childish” and scoffed at the notion that the Jews could be a “chosen people,” sold for $404,000 at an auction in London. That was 25 times the presale estimate.

The Associated Press quoted Rupert Powell, the managing director of Bloomsbury Auctions, as describing the unidentified buyer as having “a passion for theoretical physics and all that that entails.” Among the unsuccessful bidders, according to The Guardian newspaper, was Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, an outspoken atheist.

The price makes the Gutkind letter one of the best sellers among Einstein manuscripts. That $404,000 is only a little less than the $442,500 paid for the entire collection of 53 love letters between Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric, at an auction at Christie’s in New York in 1996. At that same auction a paper by Einstein and his best friend, Michele Besso, attempting a calculation that would later be a pivotal piece of his crowning achievement, the General Theory of Relativity, went for $398,500.

Diana L. Kormos-Buchwald, a historian at the California Institute of Technology and head of the Einstein Papers project, said she was not surprised that the Gutkind letter, which was known to Einstein scholars, fetched such a high price.

“It is an important expression of Einstein’s thoughts and views on religion, on Judaism, on his views about God and religious texts,” she wrote in an e-mail message. She said the letter, which was not written for publication, was “concise and unvarnished” and more straightforward than the metaphors he usually turned to in public.

Gerald Holton, a historian of science at Harvard and a longtime Einstein expert, also was not surprised. He said Einstein’s marketability had been improved by the last few years of hoopla about the 100th anniversary of relativity, which included his selection as Time magazine’s Man of the Century in 2000, and several new biographies. Dr. Holton described the letter as “a feat of eloquent Credo in short form.”

Einstein, as he says in his autobiographical notes, lost his religion at the age of 12, concluding that it was all a lie, and he never looked back. But he never lost his religious feeling about the apparent order of the universe or his intuitive connection with its mystery, which he savored. “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility,” he once said.

“If something is in me that can be called religious,” he wrote in another letter, in 1954, “then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as science can reveal it.”

Einstein consistently characterized the idea of a personal God who answers prayers as naive, and life after death as wishful thinking. But his continual references to God — as a metaphor for physical law; in his famous rebuke to quantum mechanics, “God doesn’t play dice”; and in lines like the endlessly repeated, “ Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” — has led some wishful thinkers to try to put him in the camp of some kind of believer or even, not long ago, to paint him as an advocate of intelligent design.

Trying to distinguish between a personal God and a more cosmic force, Einstein described himself as an “agnostic” and “not an atheist,” which he associated with the same intolerance as religious fanatics. “They are creatures who — in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium for the people’ — cannot bear the music of the spheres.”

NVDL: I find this differentiation instructive, and I'm tempted to define myself by the same terms. However, Einstein operated during a period when the likes of atheists like Hitler and Stalin gave atheism a particularly bad name. Einstein may have been able to remedy this faulty association, but instead his disassociation in some ways confirms societies resentments, I believe unfairly. But he nevertheless makes a very important point: to foster a grudge against religion should not make one deaf to the music of the universe and all its wonders, and this can be easy to do. Worship, after all, is opening oneself to awe and wonder, something religious people often and purposefully practise. Atheists do not, to their detriment, though in my case I experience 'the cheap kick' of the spiritual through an emotional connection to popular culture, and better yet, a deeper and more sublime enlightenment through strenuous physical activities, like long distance cycling, running and swimming. Spending time in nature is another way for the agnostic to go to church.

The problem of God, he said, “is too vast for our limited minds.”

Einstein’s latest words offer scant comfort to the traditionally faithful.

As for his fellow Jews, he said that Judaism, like all other religions, was “an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.”

He claimed a deep affinity with the Jewish people, he said, but “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.”

By DENNIS OVERBYE for The New York Times

NVDL: My question is this: If probably the most intelligent person (reflecting the thoughts of many of his peers in the science community) can so obviously see the silliness of religion, who are the 95% of the world's population who believe otherwise? Can they really claim that their ignorance is not arrogance? I don't believe so. And I believe this is an important topic to address, because I believe in a very real sense, religion makes us stupid. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the USA today, where we see the most radical President that nation has ever seen, voted into power not once, but twice, in full view of his spectacular failures (Iraq, climate and energy policies, Hurricane Katrina, the US economy).

Bush has been described not only as 'radical' but 'ineducable'. So are the constituents who voted him into power - a powerful but ill-educated sector of the USA that watch TV (rather than their better informed and better educated counterparts who read newspapers and are less open to manipulation) . This large group of evangelicals know a little about a lot, just enough to make rotten decisions.

The media shares culpability in this, as Seymour Hersch recently stated, saying 'the job of the media should have been not to support the president at the worst of times, but to discover why the country went to war.'

It is when we ask the question Why, about religion, about the behaviour of people and presidents, that we can begin to expose the foolishness and weakness inherent in some human motivations. Right now we ought to be asking why Mbeki supports Mugabe. My guess is he is being paid handsomely for his loyalty.


Anonymous said...

I think that very religous people have "blind" faith, they choose what they wish to believe and do not question it even though there are substiating contradictory facts. An intellligent person usually has an enquiring mind and explores further in order to gratify himself.

Nick van der Leek said...

Exactly. It's important to ask questions and to look for answers despite this idea of 'have faith like a child'.