On Atheism

The bigotry of the nonbeliever is for me nearly as funny as the bigotry of the believer.— Albert Einstein (in Goldman, p. vii)

I was barked at by numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it. Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics and comes from the same source. They are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional "opium of the people"—cannot bear the music of the spheres. The Wonder of nature does not become smaller because one cannot measure it by the standards of human moral and human aims.

— Einstein to an unidentified adressee, Aug.7, 1941. Einstein Archive, reel 54-927, quoted in Jammer, p. 97

Atheists miss the wonder of the world

You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world (to the extent that we are authorized to speak of such a comprehensibility) as a miracle or an eternal mystery. Well a priori one should expect a chaotic world which cannot be grasped by the mind in anyway. One could (yes one should) expect the world to be subjected to law only to the extent that we order it through our intelligence. Ordering of this kind would be like the alphabetical ordering of the words of a language. By contrast, the kind of order created by Newton's theory of gravitation, for instance, is wholly different. Even if the axioms of the theory are proposed by man, the success of such a project presupposes a high degree of ordering of the objective world, and this could not be expected a priori. That is the "miracle" which is being constantly re-enforced as our knowledge expands.

There lies the weaknesss of positivists and professional atheists who are elated because they feel that they have not only successfully rid the world of gods but "bared the miracles." (That is, explained the miracles. - ed.) Oddly enough, we must be satisfied to acknowledge the "miracle" without there being any legitimate way for us to approach it . I am forced to add that just to keep you from thinking that --weakened by age--I have fallen prey to the clergy …

— From a letter to Maurice Solovine; see Goldman, p. 24

Einstein not a "Freethinker"

The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive. However, I am also not a "Freethinker" in the usual sense of the word because I find that this is in the main an attitude nourished exclusively by an opposition against naive superstition. My feeling is insofar religious as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insuffiency of the human mind to understand deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as "laws of nature." It is this consciousness and humility I miss in the Freethinker mentality. Sincerely yours, Albert Einstein.

—Letter to A. Chapple, Australia, February 23, 1954; Einstein Archive 59-405; also quoted in Nathan and Norden, Einstein on Peace P. 510

Agnosticism

My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.
Letter to M. Berkowitz, October 25, 1950; Einstein Archive 59-215

Einstein's Religion

My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible Universe, forms my idea of God.

Quoted in the New York Times obituary April 19, 1955

Source for the Spinoza Reference

"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 quotation above may be Einstein's most familiar statement of his beliefs. These words are frequently quoted, but a citation is seldom given. The quotation can be found in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (The Open Court Publishing Co., La Salle, Illinois, Third Edition, 1970) pp. 659 - 660. There the source is given as the New York Times, 25 April 1929, p. 60, col. 4. Ronald W. Clark (pp. 413-414) gives a detailed account of the origin of Einstein's statement:

While the argument over his birthday present had been going on, the theory of relativity had been used to pull him into a religious controversy from which there emerged one of his much-quoted statements of faith. It began when Cardinal O'Connell of Boston, who had attacked Einstein's General Theory on previous occasions, told a group of Catholics that it "cloaked the ghastly apparition of atheism" and "befogged speculation, producing universal doubt about God and His Creation." Einstein, who had often reiterated his remark of 1921 to Archbishop Davidson-"It makes no difference. It is purely abstract science"-was at first uninterested. Then, on April 24, Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue, New York, faced Einstein with the simple five-word cablegram: "Do you believe in God?" 

"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists," he replied, "not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings."

Years later he expanded this in a letter . "I can understand your aversion to the use of the term 'religion' to describe an emotional and psychological attitude which shows itself most clearly in Spinoza," he wrote. "[But] I have not found a better expression than 'religious' for the trust in the rational nature of reality that is, at least to a certain extent, accessible to human reason."

A further quotation on the subject of Spinoza's god follows. This material comes from G. S. Viereck, Glimpses of the Great (Macauley, New York, 1930), quoted by Brian, p. 186.

You might want to take this quotation with a grain of salt. According to Brian, the Americanized German Viereck became known as a "big-name hunter" after "capturing" Kaiser Wilhelm II; Premier Georges Clemenceau of France; Henry Ford; Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis; and the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Because of his desire to interview the great and because of his inordinate egotism, Freud accused him of having a "superman complex." Upton Sinclear referred to him as "a pompous liar and hypocrite," and George Bernard Shaw questioned his accuracy.

Is the quotation authentic? For what it's worth, here it is.

When asked whether he believes in the God of Spinoza, Einstein is supposed to have replied as follows:

I can't answer with a simple yes or no. I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza's pantheism, but admire even more his contributions to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and the body as one, not two separate things.

Did Einstein actually say this? The nonsense phrase "mysterious force that moves the constellations" troubles me. This seems much more likely to have been inserted by the scientifically ignorant Viereck than it does something that Einstein would say.

The Viereck interview with Einstein appeared first in the Saturday Evening Post (Oct. 26, 1929, p.17) under the title "What Life Means to Einstein."It is curious that Einstein's statement about Spinoza does not appear in that article. Did Viereck choose not include it? Did Einstein object to its inclusion in the article? Or was the Spinoza material removed by the editors?

I have chosen to enter the quotation on this page, because it is found in several places on the net. Perhaps someone who has seen it elsewhere, can learn here that there is some question about the accuracy of the statement.

The quotation may not be completely inauthentic. It seems improbable that Viereck could have recorded Einstein's answer verbatim during an interview. Surely Viereck would have taken brief abbreviated notes that he expanded later. Or perhaps he jotted down the conversation at some time afterwards, putting down Einstein's answers from memory. In neither case would you expect 100% accuracy.

I don't think that Viereck would have made up the statement out of whole cloth. What would be the point? The quotation is not particularly striking. There's nothing that Viereck could regard as a coup in obtaining. The quotation is merely a statement of views that Einstein was not shy about expressing and would later express again at many other times and in many other ways.

The simile of the child in a library seems like the quintessential Einstein. It is not something that Viereck would or could make up. Einstein's praise of Spinoza for treating body and soul as a single unit seems genuine too, and unlikely to be a creation of Viereck.

Material from the Viereck interview is reproduced in Brian and also in Jammer. Both books are based on extensive research, but neither book reports that Einstein ever disavowed anything attributed to him by George Viereck. In fact Brian reports that Einstein confirmed part of the interview. See Brian pp. 277 - 278.

Is the quotation something that Einstein really said? Maybe not — at least not exactly in the words that Viereck attributes to him. Nevertheless, the quotation seems to be consistent with Einstein's views. Certain elements of the quotation could come from no one but Einstein. While the statement may not be exactly verbatim, it cannot differ very greatly from what Einstein actually said.