Science, Religion, and the Bomb

Presented at the First International Congress on Religion and Science, Tehran, Iran, May 2006

I want to thank the organizers and sponsors of this First Iranian International Congress on Religion and Science. Many years and a lot of hard work brought us to this event.  Much study and thought has gone into preparing the many wonderful lectures.  Thank you also for your gracious hospitality in hosting us.  I hope there will be many more such opportunities in the future to listen and learn from each other.

Concurrent with the planning of this Congress has been a growing conflict between Iran and the West about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not to mention the US invasion of Iraq on the pretext of finding weapons of mass destruction.  And so I want to address some of these sensitive political and military issues with you today, because science and religion also are also involved in these debates about international relations and military power.  In the history of nuclear armaments, science and religion intersect in multiple and profound ways. 

I want to emphasize at the outset that I speak about these matters as a private citizen.  I certainly do not represent the U.S. government, nor for that matter any of the other Americans participating in this Congress.  Nor do these reflections today represent the views of the Metanexus Institute or any of our sponsors.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age sixty years ago with the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many scientists and religious leaders have united in opposition to nuclear weapons.  In the United States, there are hundreds of scientific, environmental and religious organizations that have actively opposed nuclear weapons for many decades now.  The list includes the Federation of American Scientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Pugwash, the National Resources Defense Council, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Peace Action  - it would be a long list.  Every major religious organization in the United States has made public statements against nuclear weapons1, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.2   As a young man in 1982 I participated in and helped to organize the largest demonstration in the history of the United States with a million people gathered to oppose the US nuclear weapons build-up in New York City.  The core support for these activities has come from scientists and religious leaders, and also many retired military leaders3, united in their conviction that nuclear weapons are inherently immoral and provide no real security, rather only insecurity.  The same concerns extend to chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

Traditional just war theory sets two criteria for the lawful, moral use of military force.  First, there must be just cause, which minimally includes self-defense.  Second, the war must be conducted by just means.  The second point includes rules-of-engagement that limit war to combatants and exclude violence directed at civilian populations.  The second point also includes notions of proportionality.4   Nuclear weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction and even many so-called conventional weapons today, cannot distinguish civilians from combatants. Nuclear weapons also have destructive consequences extending many decades after their formal intended consequences (e.g., cancer resulting from radiation).  And thus on both accounts, nuclear weapons, by their very nature, violate the traditional just war doctrine. 

Unfortunately, the logic of war always undermines the just war doctrine, because winning by whatever means necessary becomes the precondition for survival in armed conflicts. The history of warfare in the 20th century points ever more to the harsh logic of war.  Civilian casualties now regularly exceed those of combatants in wars waged around the world.5  The logic of war also always dictates that governments tend towards dictatorships, restricting freedoms and waging war against dissent among their own citizens.  Warfare is always dehumanizing, so the logic of war quickly leads to the torture of prisoners and committing other atrocities.  In the future, nuclear weapons may be used again, perhaps between Pakistan and India, perhaps in the Korean Peninsula, perhaps in the Middle East.

Nuclear weapons are a terrible fact of life.  Wishful thinking and pious proclamations are not going to “put the genie back in the bottle”.  The most difficult part of the manufacturing process is obtaining enriched uranium or plutonium.  Once these are in hand, the actual bomb is not particularly difficult to build.6   The current nuclear club includes the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and probably North Korea.7 

Many in the West believe that Iran is about to become part of this nuclear weapons club.  Strategic planners in Iran, looking at the world today, might feel well justified in seeking their own nuclear weapons.  Iran is surrounded by the US military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf.  Many of its neighbors already have nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan, Israel, and Russia, not to mention the United States with forward deployment of weapons on our navy fleet in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

Of course, the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty itself provides for the possibility of acquiring enrichment and reprocessing technology for civilian purposes.  Unfortunately, those provisions are the fatal flaw in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a treaty written several decades ago by naive enthusiasts of nuclear power. The goal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty was to make civilian nuclear power available to all humanity, while restricting the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities.  Once a country has enrichment or reprocessing technology, however, it is not far from being able to build nuclear weapons. 

The 1950s vision of civilian nuclear electricity, “power too cheap to meter” we were told, is bankrupt today.8  By way of example, there are currently 104 civilian nuclear power plants in the United States, generating more electricity by nuclear power than any other nation.  And yet this still accounts for only 20 percent of our total US electric power.  The civilian nuclear power industry in the United States is dying.  There have been no new licenses to build nuclear power plants now for 29 years.  The last commercial reactor to come online took 34 years to complete construction.9  Many of these plants are soon to be decommissioned and we don’t really know what that means or the actual cost of doing so. The electricity is quite expensive.  Moreover, the commercial nuclear energy industry exists in the United States today because of massive government subsidies and government protection.10   The free market would not have built these expensive, toxic dumps. 

The big worry is safety and waste disposal.  While there has not been a catastrophic nuclear accident in the United States, the industry has been plagued with numerous safety problems too long to list.11  The disposal of nuclear waste continues to be the number one problem.12  Currently, the United States has about 40,000 tons of spent fuel rods awaiting long-term disposal.  These hot highly radioactive rods are stored in pools of water at the reactor sites and need to be continuously cooled.  Just to be clear here, the half-life of plutonium, one of the by-products of nuclear reactors, is 24,000 years.  Plutonium is one of the most toxic substances ever created, so humans need to discover a way to isolate plutonium from the human and natural environment for up to 100,000 years.  Again, science and religion intersect.  What are our obligations to the planet and future generations?  Science may give us the technology and inform us of the benefits and dangers, but by itself it cannot tell us whether these long-term risks are worth the short-term benefits.

Still petroleum and natural gas will not last forever.  Global demand is increasing, production is peaking, and supplies appear to be dwindling.  And with the threats of global climate change resulting from the burning of these fossil fuels, many scientists and even environmentalists are suggesting that we take a new look at nuclear power technology.  The Chinese, for instance, are developing a new, small-scale, “fool-proof” graphite reactor design and planning to mass-produce these.13  There are many efforts in the United States to restart the nuclear power industry, but still no consensus, no new construction, and no longterm solution to the waste disposal.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Iran received significant assistance from the United States and Europe in developing civilian nuclear power.  The Shah had plans to construct 23 nuclear power stations.  Iran spent many billions of dollars in contracts with Western companies to build these plants.  In 1976, U.S. President Ford authorized helping Iran build fuel reprocessing facilities without any thought of the proliferation issues; other U.S. plans existed to help Iran build a uranium enrichment facility.  All of these agreements ended with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  Western governments broke contracts with Iran and kept billions of dollars.14

Obviously, one of the differences between then and now is the lack of trust.  The United States and Europeans believe that Iran’s real goal is to obtain nuclear weapons and that Iran has set up a massive program, partly clandestinely, to obtain highly enriched uranium necessary for nuclear weapons.  Iran sees the United States as hypocritical and harboring designs on overthrowing the Iranian government (again) and dominating the region and its oil resources.

On August 9, 2005, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. The fatwa was referenced in an official statement at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, though the text of it has not been released.  This position is consistent with other statements from Iranian leaders.  Khamenei has been quoted in the press as saying "The Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its fundamental religious and legal beliefs, would never resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction. In contrast to the propaganda of our enemies, fundamentally we are against any production of weapons of mass destruction in any form."15  I can only applaud the declared intentions of your Supreme Leader and hope they are sincere.

Of course, I speak here today as a citizen of the United States, the country that has more nuclear weapons than any other country in the world and the only country to actually use them.  I am ashamed of this.  Reason and faith tell me that these weapons are an abomination; they offend God and humanity.  The United States also has obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and should, I believe, give a full accounting of its own nuclear weapons, their deployment around the world, and a plan to decrease those weapons and withdraw them from deployment outside of United States, for instance from the Persian Gulf today.16    If the United States continues to see strategic utility in possessing, improving, and deploying these weapons, then in the long run there will be no reason for other countries not to also want to obtain them. 

I am not here to chastise Iran or lecture its leaders.  As a citizen of the United States, I can hardly criticize Iran on this point, even if its intentions are to obtain nuclear weapons.  An Iranian bomb will hardly change the balance of power in the world.  An Iranian nuclear first strike on Israel, for instance, would result in a massive retaliation by Israel; therefore any rational leader should be deterred from using these weapons. The big danger today, in any case, is more that a terrorist group will obtain a bomb.17  In the current climate, even a nuclear terrorist strike against Israel, a bomb delivered clandestinely with no return address, might well result in a massive “retaliation”.  A nuclear terrorist attack on a US, European, or Russian city would also generate some kind of response, though not likely as indiscriminately as the probable Israeli “retaliation”.  The problem, of course, is that one may not know precisely who was responsible for the initial attack.   We must strive to make sure that this nightmare never comes to be.  A little bit of sober strategic realism might go a long way to reducing tensions. 

For some fifty years, the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union lived with a similar logic of destruction, known as “Mutual Assured Destruction,” or MAD for short.18   Strategic planners on both sides of the Cold War did the gruesome calculations, involving exchanges of hundreds and even thousands of nuclear weapons, many in the megaton range.  No matter how you did the calculations, first strike or counterforce strike, there was no way either side could really escape the depressing conclusions.  The death toll would need to be calculated in the tens of millions minimally, and potentially much, much higher.  If the nuclear war were large enough, the hypothesized “nuclear winter effect” would wreak havoc on the rest of the planet.  These stark assessments of the strategic situation helped pave the way for arms control and disarmament agreements, detente, and eventually the transformation of the Soviet Union and China, unfortunately less so the United States.  It turns out the concept of mutual assured destruction had a sobering—and perhaps even salutary—effect on the superpowers during the Cold War.

If you are a strategic planner in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, or Egypt, or for that matter simply a citizen in any of these countries, how should you plan for the growing threat of a nuclear terrorist attack and the possible repercussions.  It is perhaps an increasingly realistic threat that a terrorist group may soon have the power, indirectly by attacking Israel, to also cause the destruction of your own armies, cities, wealth, and families.  How does one respond to such a horrific threat?

Of course, one possibility is that Middle Eastern countries could go through the “bomb shelter phase,” as we did in the United States back in the 1950s and 1960s.  School children could practice air raid drills like those I experienced in elementary school.  The anti-Israeli and anti-American rhetoric could be turned up a notch or two.  Middle Eastern countries could also arm themselves to provide a credible retaliatory threat.  Having a strong air force and army equipped with nuclear weapons, however, would not provide any deterrence or security in the event of a nuclear terrorist attack.  Indeed, it would just make one more of a target for retaliation.  There might be some short-term political advantages in conso idating domestic power with an “act tough” strategy.  In politics, it is sadly always useful to have an enemy, a scapegoat to divert attention from domestic problems and to consolidate power.  In the end though, it is just a fact of life that you and your nation may no longer exist on the fateful day that a bomb goes off in Tel Aviv or Washington, D.C.

Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is the logic of the technology itself, a new state in the human condition; it is not something one can opt out of.  Albert Einstein warned us that “The splitting of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.”  MAD has come to the Middle East.

The only other rational option to a MAD strategy for countries in the Middle East, strange and improbable as it may seem at first glance, is to pursue detente with Israel, with the United States, and with its neighbors.  Detente requires diplomatic relationships, setting up communication channels to manage crises, trade and economic cooperation, and educational, cultural, and religious exchanges.  Such activities existed between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War beginning in the 1960s and increasing in the 1970s and 1980s.

This hoped for detente is not likely, so let’s not hold our breath.  Everything has changed, except our ways of thinking, to repeat Einstein’s warning.  Again, I confess that the United States is very much a part of the problem.  The U.S. government has been foolish and short-sighted in the aftermath of the Cold War.  A great opportunity was lost to lead by example, rather than by threat and force.

Friends, I am sorry I have darkened your thoughts with these terrible visions.  Science has brought many wonderful blessings to humanity, but also great dangers.  Similarly, religion can be used to inflame hatred and intolerance or to motivate compassion and peace. 

The dilemma for humanity created by nuclear weapons and their proliferation is a symbol of a growing problem for humanity in the 21st century vis-a-vis many new scientific developments and new technologies.  We live at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species  -- a moment with terrible dangers and great possibilities.  Our scientific, technological, and economic prowess has grown exponentially in the last century; but there is no indication that humans are any wiser, more compassionate, or more moral.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it succinctly, “we have guided missiles and misguided men”.

"Religion”, writes the 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm. The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to degenerate into idolatry."  Niebuhr goes on to say that “Civilization depends upon vigorous pursuit of the highest values by people who are intelligent enough to know that their values are qualified by their interests and corrupted by their prejudices."

Brothers and sisters, I would rather stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you exploring and celebrating the many mysteries of the universe, than go head-to-head with you in an escalating conflict.  The world needs us to combine the best of science with the best of religion.  Let us resolve to use these unspeakable dangers as an impetus to engage each other more, to promote more contacts between our societies, to build bridges of understanding and friendship, to open channels for communication, debate, and cooperation.  May we all live to be better human beings, better countries, more moral, more just, more free, more peaceful, and more prosperous.  A God of Love and Justice, as Christians and Jews so often proclaim, or a God characterized by Compassion and Mercy as Muslims so often proclaim, cannot possibly wish for humans to have or to use these terrible weapons.  This is the responsibility of our generation.  May it also be our gift to the world, for the greater glory of God. 

3. . See also
4.  and
6.  Frank Barnaby, How to Build a Nuclear Bomb: And Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, New York: National Books, 2004.
7.  Israel, India, and Pakistan have not signed the NPT.
13.  “Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom” by Spencer Reiss, WIRED 12.09, September, 2004.
14. , see also's_nuclear_program.  The freezing of Iranian assets in the West and the cancellation of these contracts to build nuclear power plants was part of the response to the taking of hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran.  For a full account of the Iranian Revolution and its consequences, see Kenneth M. Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and American, New York: Random House, 2004.
16.  Technically, the NPT requires reducing nuclear weapons to zero, but this is not a realistic goal.  Any country that has had nuclear weapons could easily hide some number of those weapons or in a matter of days or weeks reconstruct those weapons from stored materials.  There will always be nuclear weapons on the planet somewhere or the prospects that these weapons could be quickly reassembled in the event of a war.
17.   Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, New York: Times Books, 2004.
19.  Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Crisis, 1952.

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