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Einstein’s ‘God letter’ hits auction block Dec. 4

Albert Einstein, in 1947, with the famous "God letter" he penned in 1954. Einstein photo courtesy of Creative Commons; letter photo courtesy of Christie’s

(RNS) — A handwritten 1954 letter by physicist Albert Einstein in which the Nobel laureate is dismissive of religion in general and Judaism in particular is expected to bring a seven-figure price when auctioned by Christie’s in New York City on Dec. 4.

In the so-called God letter, written to philosopher Eric Gutkind, Einstein wrote that the word “God” was “for me nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses,” while calling the Bible “a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends.”

Einstein wrote the letter after reading Gutkind’s book “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt,” a volume urged upon him by Dutch philosopher and mathematician Luitzen Egbertus Jan Brouwer.

Albert Einstein’s 1954 letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind will be auctioned on Dec. 4, 2018. Photo courtesy of Christie’s

Without Brouwer’s “repeated suggestion” that he read the book, Einstein wrote, he would not have engaged with the text because its arguments were “written in a language which is inaccessible to me,” specifically its spiritual references.

According to Peter Klarnet, the Christie’s expert handling the item, Einstein’s letter “is just a remarkable and very, very precise — and quite blunt — expression of his philosophy about religion. More than any of the others he’s written about the subject, he gets to the core of the subject.”

Speaking with Religion News Service, Klarnet said he anticipates a ready market for the document, which the firm gave a “somewhat conservative” estimate as bringing $1 million to $1.5 million.

“I think the level of interest is quite high,” he said. “We would term this a ‘masterpiece’ item as it stands with other important properties in the last 10 to 20 years.”

In 2002, Christie’s sold one of two copies of the physicist’s 1939 letter to then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning of Nazi Germany’s plans to develop atomic weaponry. That letter sold for $2 million, and since then interest in science-related items, such as first-edition copies of Sir Isaac Newton’s “Principia” and Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” has grown, according to Klarnet.

Along with the 1939 Einstein-Roosevelt letter, Klarnet noted the more than $6 million paid in 2013 for a letter Francis Crick wrote to his son after the discovery of the structure of DNA.

The Christie’s sale will come less than a month after another Einstein letter, in which he wrote in 1922 about his fears of growing anti-Semitism in his native Germany, sold at an auction in Israel for $32,000.

In the Gutkind letter, Einstein discussed his connection to the Jewish people — “to whom I gladly belong,” he wrote — but said, “For me the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition.”

Albert Einstein in 1947. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/LOC/Oren Jack Turner

Einstein dismissed the idea the Jews were God’s “chosen,” and he denied that they “have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples.”

Klarnet said the subtleties of Einstein’s philosophy were an aspect of the letter that could attract buyers.

“Although Einstein did not believe in an anthropomorphic God (and wrote) that the Bible was a book of stories, he still believed people should have a moral foundation, but it was up to individuals to realize that,” Klarnet said.

“The letter speaks to that and towards Einstein’s antipathy towards chauvinism, that he would place a religion he identified with on a pedestal above anyone else. That’s part of the magic of this letter and why it gets attention when it comes to the public eye,” he added.

Compelling as the Einstein letter may be, one scholar cautions against wielding it as a cudgel for atheism, as noted atheist Richard Dawkins has claimed. Ironically, Dawkins was one of several underbidders when the “God letter” was last auctioned, in 2008 in London.

According to Stanford University professor Thomas Ryckman, whose 2017 biography, “Einstein,” looked at its subject’s philosophical and physics studies, the letter has been “mischaracterized” by some as “Einstein’s emphatic rejection of religion.”

But, Ryckman told RNS via email, Einstein echoes the beliefs of the Italian philosopher Baruch Spinoza about “God, or Nature” (“Deus, sive Natura,” in Spinoza’s “Ethics”). Einstein described in several other places the “religious feeling” he experienced when in 1915 he was “able to uncover some part of the ordered structure of nature,” specifically the relativistic theory of gravitation.

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Mark A. Kellner

7 Comments

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  • “God” was “for me nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses” – Einstein

    That statement reminds me of a heated argument I had in middle school with a strong-willed girl who transferred from another school. An outspoken atheist, she maintained that “religion is nothing but a crutch.” When she hurled that accusation at me I was stunned and stumped. I had no response to offer in rebuttal. Later on, I confronted her and said, “you know, you were right – religion is a crutch, but sometimes people need crutches.” We later became good friends.

    As a Christian, I have to agree with Einstein’s antipathy towards religious chauvinism. Any time a religion lords its authority over others as “the one true faith” or having within itself “the fullness of the faith” (that one particularly irks me) it reflects a distinct lack of humility that should be anathema to the spirit of any true religion. No religion has a monopoly on the truth, no matter what they say or how long they’ve been around. All religion is flawed because all people are flawed. Recognizing that could go a long way in fostering healthy ecumenical relations.

  • Why is religion a crutch? Is it ones desire to be with those of a common belief? Or, the belief in one greater than humanity?
    Also, what is Einstein’s definition of weakness? I would argue that demonstrating humility to the creator shows great strength in ones understanding of their individual self.

  • Anything that helps us get through life can be considered a crutch, and I don’t mean that in a way that’s pejorative, the way my middle-school friend did, I just think it’s a fact. Crutches are good things – ask anyone with a broken leg.

  • Exactly!! If I have a BROKEN leg, a crutch helps. If my legs work well, I’m fine without. Deity worshippers worship BECAUSE their moral compass’s are broken. Clergy topping that list.

  • “the word God” is highly different than “God”.

    The creator is surely far beyond anything we can use to describe it for it is unique.

  • the image of religion as a crutch certainly can be true, but often not .

    humans have religion because we are human . as intelligent social animals we know our limitations and we perceive ways of filling the unknown and projecting solutions to problems onto a creative force outside ourselves .

    humans have those who are atheists because any human conception of that beyond ourselves is bound to be a fragile understanding, itself expressing our limitations .

  • the story is told that the medieval theologian, thomas aquinas, stopped writing toward the end of his life . when asked why he simply said ‘the only things worth writing cannot be written’ .

    this may be apocryphal yet expresses something real .

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