Friday, June 06, 2008

Only His nonexistence could excuse Him

Tom Levenson, an MIT professor of science writing, wrote an interesting analysis of Einstein's relationships to Judaism in particular and religion in general.

Einstein's characteristic attitude is revealed by the following quote in his letter to Edgar Meyer (January 1915):
I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of His children for their numerous stupidities, for which only He Himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only His nonexistence could excuse Him.
I have heard many people saying that Einstein was a deeply religious person. It was never clear to me why they ever thought so (if they actually did). Even a superficial reading of Einstein's texts - including at least some of the things hidden in between the lines - must assure a sensible reader that Albert Einstein was as strong an atheist as e.g. Steven Weinberg.

Einstein's nice words about Jewishness largely reflected his compassion with other Jews who have also been harrassed because of their ethnicity. Einstein's references to God in general speeches were engineered to maintain his good relationships with other Jews while all of his authentic comments about God were metaphors about science (for example, the remarks about God who didn't play dice).

I remember reading his "Mein Weltbild" that makes many of Einstein's opinions about religion, Jewishness, pacifism, Nazism and German politics, quantum mechanics, origins of relativity, dynamics of rivers ;-), principled theories in physics, other giants of physics, and many other topics manifest. The book was translated to English as "The World As I See It": unfortunately, the translation is not quite complete.

Among thousands of other ideas, he explains that he thinks that religion was born out of fear while the "other" type of religion - linked to moral values - has almost nothing to do with the classical concepts about God.

In this short text, I don't want to claim that Einstein's opinions were good or bad but they have been whatever they have been. What I find more surprising is the easiness with which some elementary historical questions - such as Einstein's opinions about religion - can be rewritten and clouded in myths. It is both tempting and doable to employ authorities of Einstein's magnitude as drivers of a particular world view.

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