Claim: While a student, Albert Einstein humiliated an atheist by using the “Evil is the absence of God” argument on him. [Example]Snopes.com: FALSE.
Origins: For those looking for a quick answer to the question of whether this item is literally true, we’ll state up front that it is not. Nothing remotely like the account related above appears in any biography or article about Albert Einstein, nor is the account congruent with that scientist’s expressed views on the subject of religion. His name has simply been inserted into an anecdote created long after his death in order to provide the reading audience with a recognizable figure and thus lend the tale an air of verisimilitude.
The Internet forward quoted above draws upon yet another possible explanation: that evil is the absence of God, in the same way that cold is the absence of heat, and dark is the absence of light. This argument has been around for a long time, as has the legend about the pious student using it to squelch an atheist professor.
The name of Einstein 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.
Likewise, “the atheist professor” is a figure common to a number of urban legends and anecdotes of the faithful: he gets flung into the mix where there’s a need for someone to play the role of Science Vanquished in Science-versus-Religion tales. But he is not inserted merely to serve as an icon of learning to be humbled in tales that aim to teach that faith is of greater value than provable knowledge; he is also woven into these sorts of stories for his lack of belief. Just as the villain in oldtime melodramas had to have a waxed moustache, a black cape, and an evil laugh, so too must the bullying professor of such stories be an atheist: it would not be enough for him to be merely an insufferable, over-educated git arrogantly attempting to stretch the minds of his students by having them question something deeply believed. No, he must instead be someone who rejects the existence of God, an assignment of role that re-positions what might otherwise have been a bloodless debate about philosophy as an epic battle between two champions of faith and denial and sets up the action to unfold as one putting the boots to the other.
Posting this in response to the 100K+ reblogged story circulating on Tumblr about Albert Einstein as the True Believer Against the Atheist Professor (who, strangely, spends more time teaching against religion than teaching science)…
IT IS NOT TRUE. ALSO, ALBERT EINSTEIN WAS A JEW, NOT A CHRISTIAN!
Albert Einstein criticized atheism, but he identified as an agnostic, among other secular labels — and given how he has reacted to the many lies made up about the religiousness of his views, I doubt he’d appreciate being made into a True Believer Posterchild, much less having his ethnoreligious identity co-opted.