Defusing the Neuron Bomb

“...Jesus said to him: Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.  And when he entered into the boat, his disciples followed him:  And behold a great tempest arose in the sea, so that the boat was covered with waves, but he was asleep.  And they came to him, and awaked him, saying: Lord, save us, we perish.  And Jesus saith to them: Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith?”

-- Matthew 8:21-26

In a gruesome yet quite real sense, the dead buried the dead on that terrible morning of 9/11/2001.  Once the suicidal killers had slammed jetliners into the World Trade Center, few bodies would ever be recovered for a decent burial.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we grieve for the thousands of unfortunate innocents who lost their lives that day.  But, as Abraham Lincoln might have added, what remains is for us the living to dedicate ourselves, that these dead shall not have died in vain, to the great task remaining before us.

The task we face, I humbly propose, is nothing less than the transformation of religion.  In particular, the religions of the world must be persuaded to give up their supremacist pretensions and their apocalyptic nightmares.  For, while it may be perfectly true that in the past nationalism, Nazism and communism inspired world wars, today, only one ideology has that power, and it is wielded by many hands.  Thomas Friedman, The New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning international affairs columnist, believes the conflict amounts to World War III:

"We're not fighting to eradicate 'terrorism,'" he says, "We're fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism...  The future of the world may well be decided by how we fight this war [1]."

In fact, as Karen Armstrong, Mark Juergensmeyer and other scholars have been trying to tell us, fanatics on all sides have been building up to a "cosmic war" against modern civilization for the last several decades.  In 1980, religious terrorists were considered nothing more than a few scattered nuts.  By 2001, according to the U.S. State Department, more than half of the world's most dangerous terrorist groups were religious organizations [2].

We've long known that religion can overwhelm the natural instincts of people to live and procreate.  From the celibate Shakers to the suicidal Jim Jones cult to the desperate Palestinian "martyrs," humans have demonstrated again and again that religion can trump even the survival instinct.  That's bad enough.  But it's the "Apocalypse Now" crowd that we really need to fear.  The ones who believe that "a battle is being fought this day between the children of darkness and the children of light.”  These self-appointed "soldiers of God" have a terrible new weapon in their hands: the neuron bomb.

You may remember the neutron bomb.  This was a cold-war invention of the Pentagon's, a stripped-down hydrogen bomb intended to kill people without harming structures.  A neutron bomb detonates when extremely high pressure causes atoms of heavy hydrogen to fuse into helium, scattering a shower of deadly high-speed neutrons.  The neuron bomb is somewhat analogous, although its effects are much more difficult to predict.

In the neuron bomb, the immense pressures of modernity cause religious ideology to fuse into murderous belief.  As illustrated below, the critical belief is that "God's enemies" must be defeated or destroyed.

The Neuron Bomb: A schematic


Arming Device:  Belief that God's enemies must be defeated or destroyed     


Concealment: Can be implanted in any human mind     


Cost: Practically nothing     


Explosive Materials: Anything at hand     


Destructive Potential: Unlimited

Acting on such beliefs, religious terrorists have piled up a remarkable compendium of accomplishments: Buddhist cultists killed a dozen and injured more than 5,000 people when they released nerve gas in the Tokyosubway in March 1995.  A month later, under the influence of the apocalyptic Turner Diaries, Timothy McVeigh set off a truck bomb that killed 168 children and adults at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.  In 1998, militants launched suicide attacks on the American embassies in East Africa, killing hundreds.  In 2000, suicide bombers crippled the Navy destroyer USS Cole, taking the lives of 17 U.S. sailors.

And these are just the headliners.  No major religion goes unrepresented in the list or horrors.  Innocent blood has been shed in every quarter by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, and others.  For most of America, though, it took a savage attack on the World Trade Center to sear this fact into our consciousness.  And frankly, we ain't seen nothin' yet.

As a member of a state bioterrorism committee, I learned early on: It's just a hop, skip and a jump from anthrax mailings to intentional epidemic.  The potential for biogenic devastation today ranks second only to the threat of nuclear war.  A U.S. government simulation, carried out in 2000, showed that a deliberate release of the plague in Denver would overwhelm the hospitals and spread within weeks not only to other states but as far away as Japan and the United Kingdom.  To be sure, lines of defense have since been drawn up, but an attacker with access to sophisticated agents may easily breach them.  An attack on a transportation hub like Chicago's O'Hare International Airport could spread deadly infection around the world in 24 hours, and no one would be the wiser until the victims started dropping [3].

Who would do a thing like that?  The answer, regrettably, is that any number of radical religious groups, convinced they have God on their side, just might.  Other experts fear, with good reason, the possibility of a truck bomb armed with a nuke.  In particular, they worry that some fanatical governmental party might hand over a ready-to-use warhead to terrorists, who would then work out the smuggling and detonation scheme [4].

Unlike the cold war stability brought on by MAD - the doctrine of mutual assured destruction - in this situation we cannot count on knowing whom to blame.  We cannot negotiate treaties with them.  We cannot count on their will to live.  There is simply no limit to what some people will do in God's name.

"Fundamentalism is not going away," Armstrong warns.  "In some places it is either going from strength to strength or becoming more extreme...Fundamentalism is an embattled faith; it anticipates imminent annihilation [5]."

The neuron bomb requires no team of brilliant physicists, no crash program and no big budget.  It is simply requires the collision of true believers, each possessed by the mystical belief that God wants them to destroy others.  And yet, like the scientists at Los Alamos, we have no assurance that if the neuron bomb reaches critical mass its chain reaction can ever be stopped.

A recent tragedy in Indiademonstrates the point.  Outsiders may be excused for thinking that the conflict between Pakistan and India is all about Kashmiri territory, but at root it's about religion.  In February 2002, a party of Hindus activists boarding a train in the northwestern town of Ayodhya traded insults with Muslim merchants on the platform.  Someone set fire to the train as it left the station, and 58 Hindus aboard died, including women and children.  Soon, enraged mobs descended on Muslim neighborhoods and set them ablaze.  Within days, nearly a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were dead.  Many Muslim children died in the flames.  Reports say police stood by while Hindu rioters jeered.  One resident was quoted on a jingoistic site called as saying, "The Muslim's started this ... We'll now finish it even if every single Gujarati dies [6]."

What led to such horrific violence?  Ayodhya is home to the ruins of a 500-year-old mosque.  In 1992, it was destroyed by raging mobs of Hindus, who claim Muslims built it on the birthplace of their god, Ram.  Today, they continue to agitate for the right to build a Hindu temple there.  Who can hope to settle a dispute like that?

As the atrocities literally burned themselves out, an Indian novelist sadly reflected on the ruins.  "It is one of the ironies of India's muddled march into the 21st century," wrote Shashi Tharoor in a New York Times opinion piece, "that it has a technologically inspired vision of the future yet appears shackled to the dogmas of the past [7]."

And writing in the British newspaper The Guardian, novelist Salman Rushdie was even more blunt:

"The political discourse matters, and explains a good deal.  But there's something beneath it, something we don't want to look in the face: namely, that in India, as elsewhere in our darkening world, religion is the poison in the blood.  Where religion intervenes, mere innocence is no excuse.  Yet we go on skating around this issue, speaking of religion in the fashionable language of "respect"....So India's problem turns out to be the world's problem.  What happened in India has happened in God's name.  The problem's name is God [8]."

India's problem may indeed become the world's problem.  The unrelenting and unsparing fanaticism of a minority of Hindus and Muslims has marched India and Pakistan - together, more than a billion people -- ever closer to nuclear catastrophe.  Combined, the two nations have an estimated 100 nuclear warheads.  They have no early warning system and are so close to each other that if one side believes the other has launched, it has only a minute or so to retaliate or lose its military assets to pulverizing attack.  A few minutes of warfare could cause as many deaths as World War II.  Tens of millions would die, and many more millions would be left sick and destitute.  The fallout from such a nightmare conflict, both literal and metaphorical, would indeed be the world's problem.

Yet it is not merely the action of a few loose but deadly cannons that have brought nearly one-fifth of humanity to the brink.  The very existence of Pakistan as a nation separate from India is due entirely to the unwillingness of religionists on both sides to accept a unified secular state.  For years, the militants have been encouraged, supported, supplied and cheered on by the political leadership of both countries.  And while atom bombs would do the killing, the neuron bomb would be the trigger.

In the Middle Eastnot long ago, majorities of both the Palestinians and the Israelis hungered for peace.  Yet, peace has been sabotaged again and again by fanatics on both sides (though political double-dealing and diplomatic bungling have surely played a role as well).  The Arab-Israeli conflict, so complex in its origins and machinations, is for all that reducible to this grim fact: there are people on both sides who believe that God does not want them to accept the others as their neighbors, and who will go to any length to prevent peace from breaking out.

Similarly, though we may not like to admit it, in Americathere are radical Christians who will never give up until they take over the government, tear up the Constitution, and establish a theocracy.  As Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times observes,

"...militia members and Al Queda members are remarkably similar.  Both are galvanized by religious extremism.  (America's militias overlap with the Christian Identity movement, which preaches that Jews are the children of Satan and that people of color are sub-human), both see theUnited States government as utterly evil, and both are empowered by the information revolution that enables them to create networks, recruit disciples and trade recipes for bio- and chemical weapons [9]."

The IdentityChurchmilitias are hardly the only homegrown loonies we have to worry about.  Listen to the chilling words of the Rev. R.J. Rushdoony, founder of the Christian Reconstruction Movement:

"The world and men must be brought into captivity to Christ, under the dominion of theKingdomofGodand the law of that kingdom...To deny [this] mandate is to deny Christ and to surrender the world to the devil [10]."

So, how do you deal with the neuron bomb?

Let's consider again Tom Friedman's declaration at the beginning of this essay.  Namely, if this is World War III, and if it's about religious ideology, should we fight to establish a New World Order of religion?  Kill "them" before they kill us?  Many Americans seem ready to do it.  And there are some points in favor of this idea.  The right of self-defense is after all universally recognized.  And the results aren't always bad.  Out of the 20th century's terrible wars, humanity has progressed toward an uneasy global consensus for a better world.

As political scientist Francis Fukuyama has shown, representative democracy is now the universal political standard against which all other forms of governance are measured and found wanting [11].  In 1776 there was exactly one democracy on earth.  Today, there are, nominally, more than 100 [12].  Out of the same struggles, the free market has emerged as the global economic system.  A patchwork of postwar treaties has evolved into the World Trade Organization, embracing 69 countries, which represent the bulk of the world's wealth, in a free-trade compact.

For better or worse, there is even something of an emerging worldwide culture whose emblems are jeans, cell phones, pop music, and fast food.  But let's face it: one great human institution remains implacably divided and divisive: religion.  So, if our parents and grandparents fought to make the world safe for democracy and the free market, shouldn't we (or so the argument goes) employ our might to make the world safe for our Judeo-Christian heritage as well?

There are at least three problems with this idea.  One is obvious: it goes against the grain of democratic principles to impose religion on anyone.  The second should be obvious: force alone will not solve the problem.  If military might could stop zealots, then Chechen barracks and Tel Aviv cafes would be safe.  No one has been more ruthless than the Russians or more security conscious than the Israelis.  And yet the Chechen and Palestinian bombers come.

That's not to dismiss the importance of armed forces and law enforcement.  But even the United States government, with the most powerful armed forces in the world, admits that it cannot hope to stop all terrorist attacks against it [13].  The threat is only going to get worse.  At present, terrorists reportedly use the Internet to communicate.  In the near future, the wireless Internet will allow them to plant a bioterror device or a bomb [14] in an airport, leave the country, and then use the Internet to activate it.  Technology has made conspiracy easy and genocide cheap.  A "war on terrorism" alone just won't answer.

The third?  Well, maybe the best way to describe the third problem is to quote the immortal words of Walt Kelly's Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and they are us.”  The problem we confront is inherent in religion.  There is no neat dividing line between conventional and radical belief.  Just ask Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican's official protector of doctrine.  In "Dominus Iesus," published in August 2000, he declared:

"With the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by Him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity.  This truth of faith ... rules out, in a radical way ...the belief that 'one religion is as good as another.'"

Any number of examples from other denominations and religions could be drawn.  In the column cited at the opening of this chapter, Friedman quoted Rabbi David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem:

"All faiths that come out of the biblical tradition -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- have the tendency to believe that they have the exclusive truth.  When the Taliban wiped out the Buddhist statues, that's what they were saying.  But others have said it too."

And they haven't said it with flowers.  In times of stress and fear, it's not hard to understand why.  Certainty speaks louder than hesitancy.  Faith confers strength.  Fundamentalists outnumber Unitarians, and likely always will.

Of course, not every passionate believer is a militant.  And not all militants are religious.  There are other threatening ideologies in this world.  Fascism and Marxism did terrible damage in the last century to both civilization and the human spirit.  Their dying embers continue to cause suffering in places like Iraq, Zimbabwe and North Korea.  As Slobodan Milosevic proved, nationalists can be a nasty lot, too.  Even environmentalists have spun off their share of militant loons.  And for every religious fanatic, there are many peaceful people who gain great comfort, hope and joy from religion.

Yet I am convinced that civilization cannot survive without a deep renovation of our many faiths.  Battling terrorism is not enough.  Promoting democracy falls short.  Brokering peace won't suffice.

For in the end, there's no fervor like religious fervor.  Only religion can persuade parents to indoctrinate their children with the threat of hellfire.  Only religion can promise its followers the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, a walk in the Gardens of Allah, or a seat at the right hand of God.

Only religion can make a martyr.

And so, on our present course, we confront what Mark Juergensmeyer, perhaps the world's foremost expert on religious violence, calls an "inescapable scenario of hostility," one that will not end "until the mythology is redirected, or until one side or the other has been destroyed [15]."

This looming catastrophe may rightly be viewed as a 21st century Armageddon, the battle of every Army of God against all the rest, with the destruction of secular civilization as its first thrust.  Fortunately, things are not hopeless.  If religion is the problem, it may also be the solution.

Like all human institutions, religion changes, and not just about minor matters.  Consider the relationship of Judaism to Christianity and Islam.  Before World War II, Christendom had racked up a thousand-year history of brutal anti-Semitism, matched by a thousand-year history of comparative tolerance in the Islamic world.  Since then, the two religions have largely swapped positions.

That's not to say that all Christians are warm-hearted and decent toward all Jews, or that all Muslims are hostile, but then, it's hard to generalize about religions, because they shift and divide continually.

Religions can and must learn to live with each other in peace again within a secular world civilization.  In order for that to happen, they will have to undergo an ideological revolution, one that reorients them away from absolutist beliefs about God and His commandments, laws and plans.  Instead, if civilization is to survive, then religions must come to be seen as cultural interpretations of ultimate questions.  Without touching on the existence or nonexistence of God, we may come to see that all cultural interpretations are liable to fault, at least in the eyes of others.  Possibly, this sounds like academic radicalism.  Perhaps it smacks of the sin of relativism.  And, naturally, the grandees of institutional religion may be expected to call down the wrath of God on the head of he who suggests it.

Still, if we can only delegitimize the absolutist claims of various religions, then the idea of tolerance may find far greater appeal among ordinary people.  And there is no better tool for imposing a little humility on religion than science.  The Pope's famous acceptance of evolution -- "We know ... that the truth cannot contradict the truth" -- is a shining example.

Science, however, has failed miserably to persuade more than a handful of Richard Dawkins fans that it is sufficient unto itself.  So, granted that religion will persist in the world's most powerful nation, we may take heart that three-quarters of religious Americans recently polled by the Pew Research Center turned down the statement that theirs was the "one true faith leading to eternal life," in favor of the statement that "many religions can lead to eternal life[16]."

Just as we accept that there's no one right language, we may come to tolerate a multiplicity of religious and secular worldviews.  Even better, we may steer them toward convergence in a shared vision of our future in which we strive toward a new understanding of religion, God and the blessings of having faith * and yet not too much faith.

* As readers of my previous column on Pascal may recall, I use "faith" in a large sense, encompassing both religious and secular expectations of some good in the end.


[1] Thomas L. Friedman, "The Real War," New York Times, Nov. 27, 2001,   Others, such as political scientist Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, made sim

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