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Einstein Letter Emboldens Atheists

Both sides of the theism / atheism debate have, at one time or another, looked to Albert Einstein for support. His somewhat cryptic, enigmatic views on God and religion have long afforded wiggle room, if not endorsement, for cultural combatants. But according to The New York Times, a little-known letter written by Einstein, which sold for $404,000 (25 times its presale estimate), “…poured gasoline on the culture wars between science and religion this week.”

In it, Einstein proclaimed

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.

Over the years, religious and secular groups have sought to invoke Einstein as an expert witness for their side. But the letter appears to lend far greater credence to the anti-theist camp. Which could explain why Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist, was one of the (unsuccessful) bidders.

Two questions arise for me here. First, does this nullify some of Einstein’s other notable quotes about God and religion? Like, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” and “”Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man…” Some have suggested Einstein purposely evaded clarity on this issue, not wanting to be hailed as an authority for either Christians or secularists. It’s possible this letter only reinforces that inference.

But secondly, the inordinate fuss over this letter makes me wonder if both camps seek celebrity to bolster their views. Until only recently, Christianity has fared well with the intellectual class. Nevertheless, smart doesn’t equal right. There are plenty of intelligent, wealthy, good-looking folks that have been dead wrong about issues. (Remember, the Nazis were considered the cultural, intellectual elite.) It leaves me wondering if the commotion over Einstein’s letter — both the atheistic elation and the religious tepidity — isn’t a reflection of the undue weight we place upon celebrity endorsements.

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Heather May 22, 2008, 2:39 PM

    I agree. When I first started reading your post, I found myself asking, “So what?” This doesn’t nullify Einstein’s brilliance nor does it nullify my faith (or even more, God’s faithfulness). And it doesn’t nullify God’s work through Einstein, whether or not Einstein himself recognized it.

  • Nicole May 22, 2008, 3:56 PM

    “Who can you get to endorse your book, product, whatever?” It has to be a recognizable name, not Sherri down the block.

    Whether or not Einstein found Jesus Christ as Savior before His death was potentially his gain or loss if not. His “opinion” about God and salvation means nothing, no more than mine would/does to anyone else. It isn’t about a learned opinion, it’s about Truth. And without Jesus, there isn’t any. No matter who believes what.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller May 22, 2008, 6:53 PM

    Mike, I’m not taking issue with your central point, but I do want to point out an erroneous supporting comment: (Remember, the Nazis were considered the cultural, intellectual elite.) Not really. Hitler and those closest to him were thugs, pure and simply. Hitler was twice rejected at an art institute, he was homeless for a time, penniless, and imprisoned. When he joined what became the Nazi Party, it was called the German Workers’ Party and later the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. These were not your cultural elite, not the intellectual highbrow.

    This was a movement that was all about power—first assigning blame for the powerlessness all Germans felt, then seizing power from those who stood in the way.

    From Wikipedia, you get a little of the flavor in this quote: “an anonymous pamphlet appeared entitled Adolf Hitler: Is he a traitor?, attacking Hitler’s lust for power and criticizing the violent men around him.”

    Becky

  • Mike Duran May 23, 2008, 1:58 AM

    Becky, the spread of Nazism was fueled as much by ideology as power. It is well documented how Hitler idolized Nietzsche and incorporated the philosopher’s concept of a coming “master race” into Mein Kampf. Many European scientists had openly pondered the idea of social Darwinism and “racial hygiene.” In this sense, eugenics and the extermination of “lesser races” was only the implementation of a broader ideology — one that had been forged by intellectual elites. Yes, Hitler enforced it through power. Nevertheless, the Nazis still saw themselves as “cultured” ubermen, not brazen murderers. Thanks for the comment!

  • Mark H. May 23, 2008, 1:32 PM

    It would be interesting to know when in Einstein’s life he wrote that letter, and when he made the other quotes you mentioned. As people age, they mature, they continually gain wisdom, and (gasp) sometimes they change their minds based on that knowledge. Remember David Mamet’s article on why he was no longer a liberal? It wouldn’t surprise me if Einstein wrote this letter first, and then made the quotes about God later on in his life as he matured. Even if not, we would do well to remember the Bible verse that says God makes the wisdom of man look foolish. Reminds me of that old t-shirt:

    God is dead.
    –Nietzsche

    Nietzsche is dead.

    –God

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller May 23, 2008, 5:50 PM

    Mike, Hitler also took some of his ideas from Wagner, too. It still didn’t make him part of the “cultural, intellectual elite.” He was a bully and a wannabe, but not part of some elite group that decided on philosophical grounds to make a change in society.

    Here’s how he engineered his first attempt to seize power in what came to be known as The Beer Hall Putsch: “The National Revolution has begun!” Hitler shouted. “This building is occupied by six hundred heavily armed men. No one may leave the hall. Unless there is immediate quiet I shall have a machine gun posted in the gallery. The Bavarian and Reich governments have been removed and a provisional national government formed … The Army and the police are marching on the city under the swastika banner.” ¶ This last was false; it was pure bluff. But in the confusion no one knew for sure. Hitler’s revolver was real. It had gone off. (from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer.)

    Read Richard Hanser’s Putsch! for more details. He concludes by revealing that it was in Hitler’s trial after the Putsch that he gained national attention. The judge allowed him to speak, at one point for four hours, and he delivered his rant with style: He touched all the wounds that made patriots squirm and ache for vengeance. The stab in the back. The revolution. Hunger. Marxism. Inflation. The Ruhr. Traitorous Berlin. He rejected the role of defendant and assumed the status of prosecutor. “I accuse Ebert Scheidemann and company of treason against the Fatherland and of high treason,” he said. “I accuse them because they destroyed a people of seventy million…” ( Putsch!) From that point on people, common ordinary, man-of-the-street people, began to see him as someone willing to take action to restore their national pride.

    What he learned at that point was how to work within the system: “The theory which Hitler had evolved in his vagabond days in Vienna and never forgotten—that the way to power for a revolutionary movement was to ally itself with some of the powerful institutions in the State—had now worked out in practice pretty much as he had calculated … Hitler’s immediate task therefore was to quickly eliminate them [the sources of power “which had put him into office”] from the driver’s seat, make his party the exclusive master of the State, and then with the power of an authoritarian government and its police carry out the Nazi revolution. (Rise and Fall of the Third Reich)

    The point is, he came to power using power and eliminating opposing power. His “elite” were simply those he could make use of. He was never elected as the leader of the German people. He took the position, and to say that he and the Nazis were an intellectual elite is revisionist history.

    True, after Hitler was in power, the Nazis formed a secret police inside the SS under the control of “Hangman Heydrich,” and that the “full-time sleuths of the S.D. … were recuited from the ranks of the displaced young intellectuals—university graduates who had never been able to find suitable jobs or any secure place in normal society.” Even this group that comes closest to your characterization of the Nazis is referred to as “[Heydrich’s] blond young thugs.” (Rise and Fall of the Third Reich)

    I’m sure the Nazis would love to have had people think them the kind of superman Aryan that Hitler concocted. They were not.

    Becky

  • Mike Duran May 24, 2008, 1:01 PM

    It’s a good question, Mark. According to the Times, the letter in question was written in 1954. The “Science without religion” quote appears to have been written well before, in 1941. The other is even earlier at 1936. From this we might deduce that Einstein’s letter IS representative of a more developed position.

  • Mike Duran May 24, 2008, 2:18 PM

    Hey, Becky. It’s obvious now that the Nazis were not some “kind of superman Aryan.” Nevertheless, you seem to be trying to downplay the academic origins of those concepts. Hitler built upon brewing intellectual sympathies. For instance, even influential German philosopher Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi party for a brief period. What does that say? Hitler may have been a thug, but he still manged to garner some weighty intellectual / academic support.

    I’m a bit surprised by this comment: “…to say that he and the Nazis were an intellectual elite is revisionist history.” Wow! Me? A revisionist historian?! If so, I’m not the only one. From a Ferris State University site this article:

    ERNST JÜNGER, the German conservative writer, when discussing how the Nazi Party was able to command a mass following, commented that “the spiritual preparation” for Nazism was “carried out by countless scientific works”.(5) Certainly it is true that many scientists and academics in Germany welcomed Hitler’s rise to power. Declarations of support from professors and intellectuals were made even before Hitler assumed the Chancellorship.(6) In common with their colleagues from other academic disciplines, psychologists were vocal in their support for Nazism.(7) (emphasis mine)

    Also, recently in Manhattan, a panel convened to discuss the ties between Nazi Germany and leading US universities. It outlined how “…such prominent institutions of higher learning as Columbia and Harvard Universities [demonstrated] their support for Hitler and the Nazi party during the 1930s.”

    There was also Nazi approved art. Modern art was rejected and German artists were hailed. Of course it was propaganda. But it was also viewed as the work of a “racially pure country,” an extension of a growing culture of Aryans. A good summary of what I’m getting at comes from Humanities and Social Sciences Net in their review of the book Art, Culture, and Media under the Third Reich where they write: “Nazis practiced unparalleled barbarism, yet considered themselves highly cultured and representative of the highest accomplishments of civilization.” That’s all I’m saying.

    Sure, the Nazis existed in an echo chamber. But part of that chamber included the belief that they were the “cultural, intellectual elites.” No, I’m not disputing the thuggery employed. Nevertheless, they did not consider themselves thugs as much as enforcers of evolutionary ethics.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller May 24, 2008, 8:53 PM

    Mike, the point is not what they considered themselves but what they actually were. They were not intellectual. They were not elite. Doesn’t matter what US universities bought into their schtick or what educated people grabbed onto their coattails. Study the guys who started the movement and you find thugs. Self-righteous, bombastic, power-hungry thugs. And to ennoble them by saying they were a group of thinkers with an idealistic agenda doesn’t square with facts.

    They used and abused, for their own power and pleasure. If it had served their purpose to have Jews take part in the government instead of blaming them for Germany’s ills, they would have had no problem doing it.

    And yes, there are lots of revisionists out there. ‘Tis why I’m making a big deal of a small line in your post.

    Becky

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