"People need ritual, and probably particularly funerals"

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…

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.