Oppenheimer Became Death, the Destroyer of Worlds. But Was He Religious?

Oppenheimer Became Death, the Destroyer of Worlds. But Was He Religious?


The first teaser for Christopher Nolan’s wildly anticipated Oppenheimer is here, promising one of Nolan’s sweeping epics about the life of the man whose most remembered contribution to the world is providing it with the means of its own destruction. The movie, starring Cillian Murphy, Florence Pugh and most every other actor who’s not starring in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (opening on the same day!) has a lot of thematic meat on the bone. J. Robert Oppenheimer was a fascinating person with a terrific mind and a complex sense of morality.

Memorably, he is said to have quoted the Bhagavad Gita upon the first detonation of atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” So clearly he had spirituality on his brain. But was he religious?

Oppenheimer was raised in a secular Jewish family in New York City, and showed a keen, early interest in not only science, but also art, philosophy and literature. A group called the Ethical Culture Society provided Oppenheimer with much of his earlier moral framework, a nuanced and complex moral code that would remain with him through much of his life and study. Though he believed the use of the atomic bomb was justified in World War II, he regretted his involvement and spoke of the blood on his hands, blaming himself and his colleagues for the arms race that followed and growing skeptical that humankind would ever use nuclear power for good instead of evil.

He grew deeply interested in religion as he grew older, reading a wide variety of spiritual texts from many different faith traditions. He admired the ethical teachings and poetry of Hinduism but did not ever subscribe to it as a spiritual belief system. The Bible and other religious texts also became part of his diet. He was not conventionally religious, but religion shaped his view of the world and deeply informed his thoughts on his extraordinarily consequential role in it.

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July 28, 2022 at 07:40PM