Michael KreponArmageddon

Has anyone written a great book that covers the complex relationship between religion and the Bomb? Please help me out here. I can’t think of one. The subject is so rich for so many reasons, that whoever writes brilliantly about how religion has shaped the approach/avoidance of nuclear weapons in different societies deserves to become the next Richard Rhodes. Book projects are hereby solicited.

When this book is written, Ronald Reagan’s belief system deserves more than passing mention. Reagan was not a churchgoer, but he believed deeply in a coming Armageddon, and he was prepared to take exceptional measures to avoid it. Reagan’s belief in Armageddon figured significantly in his twin embrace of a defensive missile shield and abolition. Here are verbatim notes of Reagan speaking at a Planning Group Meeting held on September 8, 1987, courtesy of Martin and Annelise Anderson’s Reagan’s Secret War (2009):

There has to be an answer to all these questions because some day people are going to ask why we didn’t do something now about getting rid of nuclear weapons. You know, I’ve been reading my Bible and the description of Armageddon talks about destruction, I believe, of many cities and we absolutely need to avoid that. We have to do something now.

Robert McFarlane’s memoir, Special Trust (1994), elaborates this point:

[The President] had a strong and persistent sense of responsibility to protect Americans against attack. He had mentioned it on occasion whenever we would be discussing some military program or other… ‘You know,’ he would say, ‘I just wish we could deliver on these things and protect Americans from this scourge of nuclear annihilation.’ He was convinced that we were in fact heading toward Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil. ‘I’m telling you, it’s coming,’ he would say. ‘Go read your Scripture.’

Would Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev have been able to break the back of the nuclear arms race without Reagan’s religious beliefs?


  1. FSB (History)
  2. Ian (History)

    Hmm, I don’t know if they meet your criteria Michael but how about publications on the morality of deterrence written from a religious perspective? For example, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle Jr., Germain Grisez, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism from 1987.

    Hardly news to you, but there was quite a lot written on this in the 1980s — particularly after senior religious figures (not least the Pope) defended deterrence on moral grounds.

    However, the arguments are based on Just War principles of proportionality and discrimination and the logic is plain: nuclear weapon use can never be sufficiently proportionate or discriminate to pass the test of moral acceptability. Therefore, strategies based on nuclear weapon use are also, by extension, immoral. Immoral behaviour is not acceptable in the eyes of God and runs counter to his teachings.

    I listened to a clergyman make a presentation in London in the early 1980s where he argued that the use of nuclear weapons in limited war could be morally justified in certain circumstances. He did not mean a nuclear depth charge in the deep ocean either, he had theatre use in mind. He went on to be a senior figure in the Church of England and is now in the House of Lords. I remember thinking at the time he should have been defrocked (and perhaps placed in care).

  3. Kevin (History)

    Ira Chernus’ “Dr. Strangegod” seems to come to mind instantaneously as a book that deals with religion and nuclear weapons. However, that doesn’t seem to be exactly what you’re looking for based on your follow-up.

  4. Kerry Kartchner (History)

    A session of my class on “Comparative Strategic Culture” is devoted to religion and approaches to nuclear weapons. I agree that a good book still needs to be written on that subject. In the meantime, a really excellent resource is: Sohail H. Hashmi and Steve P. Leed, editors, Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Religious and Secular Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, 2004. It includes extensive material on each of the major religion’s perspectives on war, peace, and the role of WMD.

  5. Alan (History)

    I’m not entirely sure it fits the brief, but “Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel” by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, particularly Chapter 4 which discusses the ideology of the NRP in Israel, is not what one would call comfortable reading.


    It doesn’t analyse nuclear weapons per se, but sets out their rather terrifying approach with the occasional reference to the potential significance were they to have their finger on the button, so to speak.

    Although a medieval lot, it shouldn’t be forgotten they command 20-25% of the vote, hold the balance of power in Netanyahu’s coalition, are a large chunk of the settler population, and constitute a significant chunk of the IDF.

  6. bob (History)

    I’m not entirely sure that this fits the brief either, but Freemasonry may also have had a minor role to play in the original bomb project.

    In addition to the role that any such fraternal organisation may have had in enabling trust and networking between major actors on both sides of the atlantic, there may have been some use of Masonic terms and beliefs in presentations and briefings.

    This may have made some difference to getting commitment to the enormous necessary expenditure.

    I seem to remember that this was mentioned in one of the many accounts of the project (poss Rhodes) but cannot presently find it.

  7. Doug (History)

    Here’s a brief treatment of an ongoing conversation about “God and the Bomb” from a Catholic perspective http://woodstock.georgetown.edu/report/Woodstock_Report_97_June-2010.pdf

    I also have a chapter on “Theology and Nuclear Weapons Policy” in an edited volume titled Theolegal Democracy: Whose God Rules? covering impact of divergent religious perspectives on various U.S. policy issues, currently under review. Would be game to pitch in on an edited volume focused on nuclear weapons and religion globally.

  8. Mark Gubrud (History)

    I thought it was obvious the Bomb is a god.

    The bombs sit there, not actually doing anything, but always poised as if they’re about to. We lavish our treasure and reverential attentions on them, worry that we haven’t done enough for them, place our trust and seek our security and salvation in them, and tremble in fear before them. We invoke their might to threaten others, and cower in their shadow against others’ threats. We project on them our myths of Apocalypse and Armageddon, which dangerously represent the ultimate end (in both senses) of everything we do.

    The physicists’ Bomb the Son of Man, the presidents’ Bomb the Father of the nation, the strategists’ Bomb the Holy Spirit of deterrence.

    “I am become [sic] Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Cue the unearthly choir of Oppenheimer, the vomitous organ chords of Teller, the ridiculous “Hopi prophecies” put to the music of Philip Glass.

    Well, you might see a pattern here, but however much the nuclear facts may resonate with the pre-existing notions of various religions, I tend to think that religion (as its history demonstrates) is quite adaptable, more like an ecology than a particular creature, and will riff on whatever is going on around it in the secular world that seems to be of importance to people.

    That is, I don’t think religion will be found to explain much about the forms or trajectory of the Cold War or other nuclear arms races. It’s one of the sources of people’s thinking, but people do think, and even when they think in religious terms, they probably think with these terms more than crank nukes through the mechanics of their religions to compute resultant attitudes and policies.

    After all, most religious texts provide a good priest or imam with enough source material to laud or condemn just about anything.

    I’m sure that apocalyptic cults have flourished when the world seemed threatened with imminent nuclear destruction, and I think one of those cults is the cult of the Bomb itself.

    But if causality ran much the other way, how would we explain the behavior of “Christian” America? Or of Ronald Reagan — if he really “believed deeply in a coming Armageddon,” why would he be “prepared to take exceptional measures to avoid it”? Such beliefs seem to me, if anything, more likely to cause people to take steps to fulfill prophecy, as it seems to me Reagan did in reality. But then again, he ultimately took as many steps in the other direction, so am I right, then, in what I’ve been saying: that when it really matters, people ultimately use religion in their thinking, more than they let religion do the thinking for them?

    • Alex (History)

      The Bomb may be God, but only the SS-18 is Satan.

  9. Alex W. (History)

    This is not a fully-fledged book, but I might recommend the extremely interesting essay on Robert Oppenheimer’s flirtations with Hinduism by James A. Hijia, “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Link: http://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/Hijiya.pdf

    And for the religious responses to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Paul S. Boyer’s _By The Bomb’s Early Light_ (1994) is indispensable.

  10. JP (History)

    Somewhat apropos:

    The Cult at the End of the World: The Terrifying Story of the Aum Doomsday Cult, from the Subways of Tokyo to the Nuclear Arsenals of Russia by David E. Kaplan

  11. krepon (History)

    Thanks, all.
    I think we have the makings of a course syllabus here.

  12. Pedro (History)

    The same science that gives us the Atomic Bomb also, with a bit of consideration, gives us “There is no God!” (or at least “No God was necessary for creation”). This is a powerfull message that desparately needs to be spread among the religious, but uneducated, majority.

  13. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    Be sure to also check out A.G. Mojtabai’s powerful 1987 book “Blessed Assurance” (republished in 1997), which looked at the role fundamentalist religion plays for the workers at Pantex and the larger community of Amarillo. It might be just what you’re looking for – http://books.google.com/books?id=0PEIFW2WILAC&pg=PA258&lpg=PA258&dq=blessed+assurance+mojtabai&source=bl&ots=F1pZSBprxl&sig=UgNxjTSAwcGvU2t805C_BrRFeOU&hl=en&ei=gXyATMfBDYbQngfg04Vu&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CCUQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q&f=false.

  14. Jim (History)

    I think it would be helpful to include material about communist domination of Eastern Europe & how that influenced American catholic thinking, as well as the writing of anti-nuclear monk Thomas Merton.

    Most who engaged in the very early (pre-May 1977)third wave anti-nuclear movement were Catholic-affiliated;
    many active after had spiritual roots to their activism.
    (more likely buddhist, new age, quaker, sufi than mainline protestant).

  15. JohnLopresti (History)

    Hoping to avoid begging the question proposed in the author’s post, here, I suggest the cite from the President’s reading scriptures needs a measure of clarification from a historian perspective, as well as a metaphysical one.

    Indeed, the writers of religious tracts, in the times when Reagan’s Bible segments were taught and penned, often evoked comparisons from the devastations of civilizations wreaked in times of material conflicts. The archeologist of the Levant knows that the several scriptural accounts of obliterated settlements and cities reflect only fragmented physical views of events; that beneath one Jericho lie numerous strata of earlier cities; the same applies to many hilltop cities of that region, that serial civilizations were built on the debris and sediments of prior settlements.

    There is, further, a sort of metaphysical dissolution of individuality incorporated in the processes of senility. Reagan’s own passing eventually may have been a personal armageddon, or simply a dissolution, a separating into his basic perceptive elements.

    I am dubious religion* may have congruency with any form of obliteration, though pious teachers have added to religions’ tenets copious proscriptions against wrecking things with many a vivid metaphor in support of those thoughtful warnings. Religion preserves those salubrious suggestions, and mandates.

    As the many commenters have annotated, there is a substantial body of literature on these topics, including multifaceted reviews of nuclear arms. I would add that some such explicit discussion has taken place during at least one Presidential press conference; I refer to the notable remark by JFK at one such media event, at which his retort was something like, ‘The combined arsenals of the CCCP and USA can kill 100 million people in 10 minutes. I think that is enough.’ The polemics are couched in humanitarian terms there, but seem much like the ruminations contained in the Reagan quote, as well.
    *Without further philosophical diversion, a definition of religion as a preserver of teachings seems an easy way to characterize the ethics question the article poses without delving into concepts of self unique to some “religion” belief systems which support atavisms in various degrees.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      John, nearly every major (and probably minor) religion encompasses a myth of Apocalypse, the End of Time and The World, often involving the coming or return of a Savior/Destroyer, and often a great battle between primal forces, e.g. Good and Evil. The Apocalypse is both feared and yearned for; it represents a catharsis and release from the world’s oppressions and burdens of existence, as well as Death and the destruction of all that is familiar to us. It often represents a new beginning. In the Christian fundamentalism that holds sway over a large segment of the US population, the Apocalypse is also the Rapture, the Second Coming of Christ in which the forces of Evil will be defeated and all the good and loved souls of the past will rise to join the faithful under the thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth, blah, blah…

      It is dangerous when people mix this kind of thinking (which most basically reflects the coming not of the end of the world but of the end of one’s own life) with the reality of nuclear weapons and the potential for nuclear holocaust. But as I have already argued, it seems to me that this kind of pathological thinking, even in the case of Alzheimer’s patient Reagan, does not exert a determining influence on the course of nuclear confrontation, arms races, or national policies. God forbid it ever should.

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