Albert Einstein’s ‘God letter’ fetches almost US$3 million at auction

  • Missive that calls the Bible ‘a collection of primitive legends’ was expected to fetch only half that much
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 11:12am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 9:11pm

A handwritten missive by Albert Einstein known as the “God letter” fetched almost US$3 million at auction.

Christie’s auction house in New York said on Tuesday that the letter, including the buyer’s premium, fetched US $2.89 million under the hammer. That was almost twice the expected amount.

The one-and-a-half-page letter, written in 1954 in German and addressed to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, contains reflections on God, the Bible and Judaism.

Einstein says: “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish”.

The sentence has been hailed as evidence that the physicist, one of the 20th century’s most esteemed thinkers, was an atheist. But Einstein at times said he was not an atheist, and resented being labelled as one.

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In the letter Einstein, a Jew, also articulates his disenchantment with Judaism.

“For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people,” he wrote.

“As far as my experience goes, they are 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.”

The letter was written in response to a book by Gutkind, called Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt.

The letter had been held among Gutkin’s papers, but it came up for auction in London in 2008. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was beaten in bidding that ended at £170,000 (US$216,000 at the current exchange rate.

Acknowledging his disappointment in failing to secure the item, Dawkins said: “This letter was about something very important to Einstein I suspect.”

According to Einstein: A Life, a biography published in 1996, he was devoutly religious as a child. But at the age of 13, he “abandoned his uncritical religious fervour, feeling he had been deceived into believing lies”.

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He said he believed in “Spinoza’s God” – referring to Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch thinker – “who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind”.

On another occasion, he criticised “fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics”.

Nick Spencer, a senior fellow at the Christian think tank Theos, said: “Einstein offers scant consolation to either party in this debate. His cosmic religion and distant deistic God fits neither the agenda of religious believers or that of tribal atheists.

“As so often during his life, he refused and disturbed the accepted categories. We do the great physicist a disservice when we go to him to legitimise our belief in God, or in his absence.”