One could say that this article is about a letter and a translation. But it is much more. It is about how atheists tend to use data in a distorted way in order to support their views. And how they tend to ignore important parts of a story simply because they do not fit into their agenda. So yes, the article will start from a simple letter. Sure, it will move on to clarify some mistakes regarding its translation. But at the end, the most important lesson to be learned is that one should be overall honest if he wishes to be anywhere close to what we call “the truth”…
Note: If you wish to go directly into finding arguments against atheism, then just skip the article and go to “How to debate atheists” article. Or go to the Harmonia Philosophica Facebook community page to discover more of science and religion philosophy articles.
Chapter 1: The letter
In the newly “resurfaced” Einstein’s “God Letter” (again, due to an auction selling the letter – money is behind everything in this world…), a trend is developing in the Internet.
Once more people try to establish their beliefs as “truer” than others, simply by quoting a “great” man.
Atheists like Dawkins claim that the letter sheds light into Einstein’s view on God. They claim that Einstein was an atheist and this letter “proves” it. (see here)
The infamous letter was sent on Princeton University letterhead, to Eric B. Gutkind, on January 3, 1954, a year before Einstein passed away, sent as response to Gutkind’s book “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt”.
Einstein is quoted to use rough language against the belief in God.
In particular, the noted physicists says…
“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. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions 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. As far as my experience goes, they are also 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.
In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision, probably as the first one. And the animistic interpretations of the religions of nature are in principle not annulled by monopolization. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.
Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, i.e; in our evaluations of human behavior. What separates us are only intellectual ‘props’ and ‘rationalization’ in Freud’s language. Therefore I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.”
(quote taken from the auction seller’s site here)
Crystal clear, right? Not.
A more careful examination reveals the truth…
Chapter 2: The translation
A truth which is out there, harsh and cold for everyone who meets it.
First of all, Einstein for decades had been clear and unequivocal about believing in “Spinoza’s God,” and that he did not believe in the “personal” God of the Bible, or that the Bible was divine in origin.
His views were consistent over many years and there no other evidence of any departure from such views. And sure Einstein’s beliefs like the “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” tells us all we need to know about how that great mind thought: surely not in “boxes” of “yes” and “no” as most people would like him to…
The context of the letter appears to be Gutkind’s elevation of Jewish “Monotheism,” that is a personal God. So it appears reasonable to conclude that in using the word “God” Einstein may have simply referred to the concept of a Monotheistic Personal God, which he had already repudiated. 
The word “childish” does not seem to actually exist in the original letter (!!!) as an analysis of the images of the letter reveals.
The widely circulated English translation, which the Guardian newspaper and the sellers attributed to an otherwise unidentified “Joan Stambaugh,” was analyzed by Steven H. Cullinane from early 2009: see here.
The detail photograph above is taken from the current sellers’ website image of the letter. The highlighted area shows the end of the “Bible” sentence, and the beginning of the next. The handwriting seems to read:
“die Bibel eine Sammlung ehrwurdiger, aber doch reichlich primitiver Legenden. Keine noch so feinsinnige Auslegung…”
which would be translated as:
“the Bible, a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends. No matter how subtle an interpretation…”
where the second sentence’s opening in the above is consistent with the next sentence in the sellers’ translation. There appears to be nothing like the provocative alleged parenthetical remark “which are nevertheless pretty childish” in the text.
Later in the same paragraph, Einstein is translated as describing the Jewish religion as “an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.” The word childish there appears to correspond with a form of the same German word used to describe legends in the passage mentioned above, which is often translated more plainly as “primitive” (as it was actually translated in the above-mentioned instance). A close-up photo confirming that Einstein wrote “primitiven Aberglaubens”(and not “kindischer Aberglaube”) appears in the second article in this series (see right below the highlighted rectangle in the second photo). 
Here is how the letter sounds if you restore the original meaning:
“The word God for me is nothing more than the product and expression of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection full of honorable but still primitive legends.
No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change it (for me). These refined interpretations are naturally highly diverse and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me, the unadulterated Jewish religion, like every other religion, is an incarnation of primitive superstitions.
And the Jewish people, to whom I gladly belong, and whose mentality I have deep affinity for, has for me however no different kind of dignity than any other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, while a lack of power saves them from the worst excesses. So I can not perceive anything “chosen” to them.” 
We should be less arrogant when we claim something and more careful when we read the Internet…
A wise man like Dawkins should know that…
Epilogue: A conclusion and a lesson
The conclusion is much more about a mistake (deliberate or not) in the translation. It is about the way people tend to search for the truth and make it fit their own beliefs. Atheists and theists alike tend to do that. And we should all try to be more honest in how we structure our arguments.
Einstein did write this letter. This is a fact. However the idea of “primitive” does not necessarily mean something negative in the senses atheists want to believe it does. Modern man has many misplaced beliefs which have alienated him from his true nature. One can read articles in Harmonia Philosophica related to “primitive” keyword to see why being primitive can be sometimes better – especially when it comes to being in touch with our true nature and place in the cosmos.
“Primitive” related articles
- What primitives knew, What we have forgotten…
- Stupid. Primitive. Wise. Ecology.
- Odysseus and the fear of “Nobody”… [OR: The primitive against the new, OR: The fear of the abyss]
- Ice Age art, primitives, “primitives”…
What is more, Einstein said many more things. So focusing on only one letter is simply wrong. One should draw conclusions based on the whole picture; relying on selected parts always results in distorted conclusions…
Last but certainly not least, what matters is not what Einstein said. Because Einstein was a physicist. Not a theologian and certainly not a philosopher. Read Einstein to understand the theory of relativity. But do not rely too much on him to understand religion, Christianity or God. At the end, Einstein was just a man. As we all are.
Search for the truth on your own.
The path to knowledge is a lonely one…
Related article: Religion & Science unification.
Appendix – The letter
For future reference, the full letter is attached below.