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There has been numerous videos online claiming that Einstein as a student had a debate with an atheist professor about God.

I read the text version of this story in forums and via hearsay, but I just discovered that apparently the Macedonian Ministry of Education used this story in an ad promoting religious studies in schools:

The "Does God Exist?" Macedonia Commercial

Is this story supported by factual evidence or is it merely an anecdote to exemplify a point?

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Relatedly: I've always thought it an interesting compromise to allow a 'teach the controversy' evo/creation program into schools; provided the controversy is taught as part of a critical thought/debate course where students must argue the opposite opinion than what they believe. – DampeS8N Apr 6 '11 at 14:12
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@DampeS8N What controversy? Among the people who should know, i.e., biologists, there is no controversy. – Lagerbaer Apr 6 '11 at 14:18
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@Lagerbaer: Correct, which is exactly what everyone will realize if put to the above, properly structured and well researched, debate. However, the people who 'should know' are everyone. Hence the emphasis on debate/critical thinking. – DampeS8N Apr 6 '11 at 14:34
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The problem with debates is that it is much easier to make up nonsense than it is to dispel it. The recent debate of William Craig with Lawrence Krauss is an excellent example for this. – Lagerbaer Apr 6 '11 at 14:57
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I am Macedonian, and can confirm, that this indeed was used in a Ministry of Education campaign. The campaign however, was not in any way connected with religion, it was a general campaign that promotes learning. – SWeko Apr 6 '11 at 16:34
up vote 53 down vote accepted

The fact that this very same debate, or with slight modifications, is found all over the internet but with different protagonists (e.g. atheist professor, Muslim student http://www.myiwc.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-3067.html) should be strong evidence that this is a myth.

If you do a quick google search on "Atheist Professor", you will get countless variations of the same theme: Smug, arrogant atheist professor is humiliated by Einstein/Evangelical Christian/Muslim scholar.

The Einstein version was debunked by Snopes: http://www.snopes.com/religion/einstein.asp

Although 2004 tellings of the legend name Albert Einstein as the faith-driven student, there is no reason to suppose the renowned physicist had anything to do with the fictive incident. Biographies of the man are silent on his having dealt one of his teachers such a comeuppance. Moreover, this famous scientist gets used in legends whose plots call for a smart person, one whom the audience will immediately recognize as such (i.e., modern tellings of an ancient legend about a learned rabbi who switches places with his servant feature Albert Einstein in the role of esteemed scholar). This venerated cultural icon has, at least in the world of contemporary lore, become a stock character to be tossed into the fray wherever the script calls for a genius. (Thankfully, contemporary lore has other uses for him too. In a legend of entirely different character, Albert Einstein was rumored to have made a guest appearance on the television western Gunsmoke.)

EDIT: Doing a Google search for each year since 1990 individually, the first hit I got was in 1997. It tells the story, but does not name Einstein: "Things on Which to Reflect" This, of course, still does not prove that the story is wrong, but, if Einstein genuinely said this, there should be an earlier reference, given that he died in 1955. Add to this that the only sites that mention this have a clear religious intention and do not cite a source for their claim. I believe this is more than sufficient to demand evidence from the other side, and, lacking this, refusing to believe that Einstein really said this.

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No. That is not enough proof. It may still be the case that one of them is true, and the rest are mis-attribution. – Fitri Apr 6 '11 at 14:22
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But the normal way is to embellish your myth by including famous persons, not the other way round. – Lagerbaer Apr 6 '11 at 14:51
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@Fitri But what is the source of the Einstein story? A biography? A contemporary news account? An interview with the man himself? Apparently not. If there's no verifiable source for the story, it's up to people to prove that the story really happened, not that it didn't. Add to that the fact that the version with a generic student humiliating the professor has been documented 5 years before the Einstein version, and I think it's safe to say it's just a glurgey story with a famous person retroactively attached. – Scott Hamilton Apr 6 '11 at 19:58
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Exactly. I could attribute any conversation to any person. But the burden of proof would be on me. A 100% percent proof that it didn't happen is impossible. – Lagerbaer Apr 7 '11 at 3:29
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Impossible for a Gymnasium Teacher (in Bavaria "Studienprofessor") in Germany at that time to teach atheism openly. There were some atheist teachers8more in Universities), but teaching that in Gymnasium would have been professional suicide. Especially in Bavaria at that time the catholic Zentrum Party (Ultramontanists) sniffed around at schools to supress teachers. What I liked to know: who produced that nonsense? (BTW at the age of 17 Einstein abandoned Jewish religion) – No longer here Apr 7 '11 at 20:46

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

This is quote from: letter to an atheist (1954) as quoted in Albert Einstein: The Human Side (1982) edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman ISBN 0-691-02368-9 (wikipedia)

Since Einstein did not believe in supernatural god it was not possible he would argue in favour of a supernatural god .

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I really like your evidence, but I don't agree with your conclusion. The person in this story doesn't defend Christianity/Religion so much as disprove a professor's bad argument. – ProdigySim May 2 '11 at 20:15
    
@ProdigySim edited the conclusion . – Alaukik May 3 '11 at 15:40
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Now you might argue that Einstein believed in god when he was a student. I certainly do not stand behind a lot of things I said and did in high school any more. – Lagerbaer May 3 '11 at 18:36
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@Lagerbaer: Einstein was a rabid atheist as a teenager, as is recounted in his autobiographical quotes. "Discovering science at the age of (13-15) led to an explosion of freethinking in me, in which I was convinced that youth was systematically being lied to by elders." He was the least religious youth you could find. His Deist religious instincts came much later in life, but he never believed in a meddlesome sort of God. – Ron Maimon Mar 28 '12 at 16:17

It is, in fact, hard to source many of these meme-type stories from the internet. In this case, the story does, indeed, appear in many forms and with many attributions, including Einstein. However, to discard this as false "because we can't source it" is a logical fallacy. To discard it "because it appears with other people's name" is a similar logical fallacy. To discard it, using broken logic, is also a logical fallacy. I have seen the excuses, "Einstein didn't say it because he didn't believe in a supernatural god"... when in fact, Einstein didn't believe in a PERSONAL god (God), which isn't the same thing as not believing in a supernatural god (God). I have seen many other logical fallacies applied to say "Einstein didn't say this" or "Einstein didn't believe in god"... and to say that, "it is false because Einstein didn't say it"...

Therefore lets do this: Lets break this up into the two arguments: 1) Did Einstein have this conversation with a Professor? 2) Did Einstein believe in [god, God, or gods]?

1) Without being able to source this to anything written about or by Einstein, we can "assume" or "suppose" that he probably didn't say it. With all the writing about or by Einstein, one would thing something of this magnitude might have been confirmed in their writings. That it is not, is not proof that he DID NOT say it (proving a negative) but it is proof that it is unlikely that he did say it.

Moving on:

2) We do have many of Einstein's writings, either by or about him. He, at one time, was, in his words, "religious". Later in life, he became "agnostic" with a leaning toward the existence of a "god" or "God", but not the belief in a "personal god (God)". We do know that he respected Religion, in general, but was not a follower of any one specific religion, including his own (previous) Jewish faith. It is also repeated that Einstein said, "The more I study science, the more I believe in god (God)". Which cannot be sourced either. We do have this, from a reply to a telegram from New York's Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein on 24 April 1929 and reported in the New York Times on 25 April 1929, "I believe in Spinoza's God, 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." And we know from his other writings, he doesn't believe in a "personal god (God)" which doesn't mean he doesn't believe in "a god (God)". For instance, from a letter to Guy H. Raner Jr. on 28 September 1949, "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being." This puts Einstein in the same camp as many of our Founders who believed in "Nature's God"... a deist view. I'd imagine Einstein believed in a god (God), just from this little bit from a statement to a German anti-Nazi diplomat and author Prince Hubertus zu Lowenstein, from around 1941, and as quoted in "Towards the Further Shore : An Autobiography" in 1968, "In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognise, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views." I'd also imagine he would be just as upset by the false quotes of him supporting anything but a Deist, or Nature's god (God), or Spinoza type view of "god" (God).

There are many other quotes that support this view over at WikiQuote. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein

Conclusion:

While we can, safely, say that Einstein probably didn't argue with a professor on the nature of god (God), the view of the god (God) expressed in that exchange isn't inconsistent with Einstein's view of god (God). But to say that Einstein was anything less than "agnostic" or anything more than a "deist" might be stretching the truth as well.

The last point to make:

The exchange's purpose is to highlight the nature of God (god), or the nature of Good and Evil. Comparing this concept (these concepts) to "light and dark" and "heat and cold" are valid, in their own right. And maybe they deserve some further discussion, ignoring the actual author of the exchange. In other words, to dismiss the exchange as false because the author is unknown or misattributed is also a logical fallacy.

The actual question, "Is this story supported by factual evidence or is it merely an anecdote to exemplify a point?" would need clarification to address some of these issues, but as it sits, the answer might well be: The story, while almost certainly not an exchange by Einstein and a professor, attempts to describe the "nature of God" in an anecdotal way, which isn't to say the story is not "factual evidence" of God, which could be the epicenter of a very large discussion, but it is to say that Einstein most likely didn't have this discussion with a professor.

Topics for further review: 1) Is there a God? 2) What is the Relationship between God and "Good and Evil"? 3) Do "good" and "evil" have the same type of relationship as "heat" and "cold" or "light" and "dark"? 4) Is God a "personal God" or is God more of a "Nature's God" (Deist or Spinoza type)? 5) Does Einstein's view of God (deist in nature) contribute to the possibility that he may have said something like what the student says to the professor? Or is his view incompatible with the story's point? (in other words, does the story take a "deist view" or a "personal god view" or some other view?)

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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Hi David. Welcome to the site. Thanks for deciding to contribute. This forum is one that tries to concentrate very strictly on answering the question being asked. While the first part of answer answer is relevant, the whole second part, addressing whether Einstein believed in God, is not answering the question. This is probably going to get it downvoted and maybe closed. If you haven't done so already, please have a look at The Tour which explains more about how the site functions. Please do continue you make contributions. – DJClayworth Apr 25 at 18:33
    
It is impossible to prove that Einstein did not have this debate, however it is possible to show that the story is not based on known Einstein sources. This means that the story, if true, is an exceptional, novel finding. Together with the fact the the story doesn't claim to be exceptional in any way and that it's only available as a meme, this is strong, if not conclusive, evidence that the story is made up. – Sklivvz Apr 26 at 22:37
    
@DJClayworth, I understand. Bear with me for a second... If someone states, "Einstein didn't have this conversation with a professor, because Einstein didn't believe in god". We must explore the truth of this statement, which includes the truth of Einstein's view of god (or God, or gods). So if my posting gets voted down, or closed, or deleted is irrelevant to the truth. "Did Einstein have this conversation?" Probably not. There is little evidence to support it. But to claim he did not have this conversation because he did not believe in god (God), is false. – David Mamanakis Apr 30 at 13:15
    
If that was the question, you would have been justified in answering like this. But the question isn't about Einstein's religious beliefs. On this site we really do try to stick to the question as asked. But thanks for contributing. – DJClayworth Apr 30 at 16:51

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