A never-before-published excerpt from a 2007 interview. Read the rest of the interview here.
You say that there's a harmony and beauty inherent in the laws of physics. Can you say more about that?
When I was in North Carolina, a teacher brought me a painting his class had done of the double helix and the Jefferson Bible together. It was extraordinary. It's interesting that DNA would be beautiful. Now unfortunately, so is a photograph of a nuclear mushroom cloud unfolding.
They say that when Robert Oppenheimer first saw a nuclear explosion, he quoted the Bhagavad-Gita: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, it would be like the splendor of the Mighty One." That's the section where Arjuna looks into Lord Krishna's mouth and sees him just chewing up men and spitting them out.Ah yes, that's where the juggernaut concept comes from. Fascinating. I didn't know enough about Hinduism to write about it my book, and I decided I wasn't going to pretend that I do.
How do you feel about funerals? Is there any good reason to build a ritual around death?I do think people need ritual, and probably particularly funerals. Because no one wants to be told, "Okay, you have a dead relative. Go bury him someplace." They want to know that something will kick in now. It will be taken out of my hands, and everyone will know what to do. There's a routine. Just like in Antigone -- you don't want people just lying unburied in the streets. It was very clever of the churches to take control of moments of this kind.And weddings, too?And christenings. Hatchings, matchings, and dispatchings. They have a monopoly on those. And that's what I would want to do if I were the ruling party. You control that, and you have people more or less where you want them.Do atheists miss having ceremonies or seasonal celebrations in their lives?
Look, I'm not for the monarchy. You can't give people hereditary titles in America -- it's against the Constitution. But we still have to have some kind of ceremony, something to distinguish exceptional moments and exceptional people. My friend Robert Conquest came to D.C. last year to get the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work. Good. He got it with Aretha Franklin. It was great to see Bob Conquest sitting next to the Queen of Soul in the White House. We do it minimally in America, but it does have to get done.
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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, a former senior editor at The Atlantic, is now a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine.