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Home > Nuclear Disarmament > Writings of Howard W. Hallman: Moral Case Against Nuclear Weapons

Moral Case Against Nuclear Weapons
by Howard W. Hallman

There is a view that nation states are impersonal entities for which standards of morality do not apply. This is false because a state is not an abstraction but rather a human collective governed by human beings. Although some leaders choose to act contrary to highest moral principles, they still have to take the consequences of their actions. Therefore, it is important to understand moral reasons for ridding the world of nuclear weapons. They derive from religion, science and ethics, and observance of a de facto, 60+ year taboo on the use of nuclear weapons.

Religious Opposition

Throughout the nuclear weapons era the overwhelming majority of religious opinion on Earth has opposed further use.

Christian. The Roman Catholic Church, the largest of Christian denominations, has long opposed the use of nuclear weapons in war. Pope John Paul II repeatedly called for their banishment. He did say in a 1982 address at the United Nations in the context of the Cold War, “In current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable.” But his address was titled, “Negotiation: The Only Realistic Solution to the Threat of War.”

Twenty-three years later at the 2005 Review Conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Vatican representative to the United Nations, indicated:

When the Holy See expressed its limited acceptance of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, it was with the clearly stated condition that deterrence was only a step on the way towards progressive nuclear disarmament. The Holy See has never countenanced nuclear deterrence as a permanent measure, nor does it today when it is evident that nuclear deterrence drives the development of ever newer nuclear arms, thus preventing genuine nuclear disarmament.

The Holy See again emphasizes that the peace we seek in the 21st century cannot be attained by relying on nuclear weapons.

In the United States when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops took up this issue in their 1983 report, The Challenge of Peace, they followed the Pope’s leadership in calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons and also in accepting nuclear deterrence as an interim measure. However, the just war criteria they used provide hardly any possibility for permitting actual use of nuclear weapons. For instance, they stated:

Retaliatory action whether nuclear or conventional which would indiscriminately take many wholly innocent lives, lives of people who are in no way responsible for reckless actions of their governments, must also be condemned. This condemnation, in our judgment, applies even to the retaliatory use of weapons striking enemy cities after our own have already been struck. No Christian can rightly carry out orders or policies deliberately aimed at killing non-combatants.

To us the logic of this statement completely undermines the legitimacy of the doctrine of mutual self-destruction (MAD) which was and still is the basis of U.S. deterrence policy.

In 2002 Fr. Drew Christiansen, speaking for the Catholic bishops at a congressional hearing, reaffirmed their position on nuclear deterrence but reiterated that the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons is their policy goal and stated:

It is long past time for the United States to commit itself never to use nuclear weapons first, to reject unequivocally proposals to use nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear threats, and to reinforce the fragile barrier against nuclear use.

United Methodist bishops took up this issue in 1987 and completely rejected the idea of nuclear deterrence. In their pastoral letter, which was part of their report, In Defense of Creation, they stated:

Therefore, we say a clear and unconditional No to nuclear war and to any use of nuclear weapons. We conclude that nuclear deterrence is a position that cannot receive the church’s blessing.

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the official governing body, has accepted the bishops’ findings and has stated:

We reaffirm the finding that nuclear weapons, whether used or threatened, are grossly evil and morally wrong. As an instrument of mass destruction, nuclear weapons slaughter the innocent and ravage the environment. When used as instruments of deterrence, nuclear weapons hold innocent people hostage for political and military purposes. Therefore, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence is morally corrupt and spiritually bankrupt.

Most Protestant denominations in the United States condemn the use of nuclear weapons and call for their elimination, though some offer limited acceptance to nuclear deterrence. The historic peace churches – Mennonite, Brethren, Quaker – favor elimination of all nuclear weapons on Earth.

On the global scene the World Council of Churches (WCC) brings together 349 churches, denominations and church fellowships in more than 110 countries and territories throughout the world. WCC represents over 560 million Christians and including most of the world's Orthodox churches, scores of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed churches, as well as many United and Independent churches. Among its numerous statements opposing nuclear weapons is one from its Sixth Assembly in 1983, rejecting the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and unequivocally declaring

that the production and deployment as well as the use of nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and that such activities must be condemned on ethical and theological grounds.

A 2007 statement of the WCC Executive Committee on “Nuclear Proliferation and the Emerging Context

reaffirms the churches' consistent call for the abolition of nuclear weapons, a call that is more urgent than ever considering the pressure being placed upon nuclear weapons control mechanisms.

Jewish. There are strong voices within the Jewish community which condemn the nuclear arms race and the possible use of nuclear weapons.

Recently Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, applauded the commitment that President Obama made in his Prague speech to a world free of nuclear weapons. He commented:

Since its earliest days, the Jewish tradition has warned of the dangers of militarism and warfare. From the prophets' dreams of the time when nations would beat their swords into plowshares to today’s aspirations of a nuclear-weapons-free world, we have sought to avoid armed conflict and not yield to despair in the search for universal peace.

We welcome the President’s commitment to reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. By reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, negotiating a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and negotiating a treaty to verifiably end the production of fissile materials, as advocated by President Obama, we can reduce the nuclear danger that every global citizen faces today.

The nuclear threats from Iran, North Korea, and terrorists can only be overcome through international cooperation. We call upon Congressional leaders and those worldwide to join together to ensure the fulfillment of these long-overdue initiatives and the achievement of a safer future without nuclear weapons.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow from the Shalom Center, observing an anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, observed:

Today the whole earth is threatened by nuclear weapons, by the onrushing climate crisis of global scorching, and possibly by other tools of overweening arrogance. It is the same arrogance involved in the collapse of Eden's garden of delight….

Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons should become a major goal of U.S. policy--and that requires radical reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. After all, the U.S. and British bombs sparked the Soviet bomb; that sparked the French and Chinese bombs; the Chinese bomb sparked India's bomb; and India's sparked Pakistan's. Israel's fear of large Arab-state armies sparked the Israeli bomb, and Israel's bomb has sparked some wishes for a bomb in some nearby Arab and Muslim nations. Only the United States can reverse the nuclear chain reaction that has fueled global nuclear proliferation.

Indeed, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty requires the U.S. and other nuclear powers to do so -- yet Washington has ignored and violated that part of the treaty, even as it furiously presses Iran to refrain from weaponizing its nuclear materials.

If the U.S. seriously wants to forestall an Iranian bomb, it should be exploring how to create a nuclear-free Middle East, connected to a multilateral regional peace treaty that protects Israel and frees Palestine.

Islam. “An Islamic Perspective on the Nuclear Weapons Danger” is presented in the Muslim-Christian Study and Action Guide on the Nuclear Weapons Danger (pp. 21-27). From an analysis of ethics and war in Islam, the authors, Jamal Badawi and Muzammil H. Siddiqi, provide “six powerful reasons for Muslims to oppose the production, deployment, and use of nuclear weapons.”

  1. They represent a serious threat to peace, while peace is a central theme of Islam.
  2. They are brutal and merciless, and thus violate the Qur’anic description of the message of the Prophet Muhammad (p) as “mercy to all the worlds.”
  3. They are contrary to Islam’s promotion of human fellowship.
  4. Nuclear weapons do not fall within the scope of legitimate self-defense.
  5. Nuclear weapons research and production waste a huge amount of resources.
  6. While the argument for nuclear deterrence is not un-Islamic in principle, and while such deterrence apparently did work during the Cold War, there is no guarantee that it will work in the future. Nor is there any guarantee that nuclear weapons will not fall into the hands of non-actors.

They added:

Considering all of these points, we must conclude that it is harâm (forbidden) to deploy nuclear weapons. The sharî’ah of Allah could never approve such weapons. According to the principles of Islamic law, there should be a universal ban on their development and possession. No criteria exist that allow some states to maintain nuclear weapons while others are denied them.

Iran’s Islamic leaders join in the condemnation of nuclear weapons according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 31, 2003. The writer, Robert Collier, reported:

Led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation's "supreme leader," Iranian clerics have repeatedly declared that Islam forbids the development and use of all weapons of mass destruction.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its fundamental religious and legal beliefs, would never resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction," Khamenei said recently. "In contrast to the propaganda of our enemies, fundamentally we are against any production of weapons of mass destruction in any form."….

Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, one of the highest-ranking clerics in Iran, said in an interview: "There is complete consensus on this issue. It is self- evident in Islam that it is prohibited to have nuclear bombs. It is eternal law, because the basic function of these weapons is to kill innocent people. This cannot be reversed."

Buddhism. Buddhism is a religion derived from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as The Buddha, who lived in the Indian subcontinent in the fifth century, BCE. Over the centuries other teachings developed along with different branches of Buddhism. Today Buddhists in various lands are speaking out against nuclear weapons.

The best known Buddhist leader is The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. In his Message for the New Millennium He said:

This past century in some ways has been a century of war and bloodshed. It has seen a year by year increase in defense spending by most countries in the world. If we are to change this trend we must seriously consider the concept of non-violence, which is a physical expression of compassion. In order to make non-violence a reality we must first work on internal disarmament and then proceed to work on external disarmament. By internal disarmament I mean ridding ourselves of all the negative emotions that result in violence. External disarmament will also have to be done gradually, step by step. We must first work on the total abolishment of nuclear weapons and gradually work up to total demilitarization throughout the world.

Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a Buddhist organization with 12 million members around the world who “embrace Nichiren Buddhism, a dynamic philosophy grounded in the realities of daily life.” “Peace, according to Soka Gakkai Buddhists, begins with individual peace and happiness, and spreads as enlightened individuals become active in the cause of peace at the local, national, and international level.” Since 1957 the Tokyo-based SGI has been campaigning for nuclear abolition and is now stepping up its efforts in support of a Nuclear Weapons Convention to outlaw nuclear weapons entirely.

Science & Ethics

The development of nuclear weapons was a major scientific and engineering achievement, converting ideas of theoretical physics into “practical” application. The scientific community has also produced some of the strongest opposition to the nuclear arms race as scientists entered the political world to express their ethical concerns over the dangers of nuclear weapons.

In the United States some of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs were deeply concerned about the consequences of their achievement. This led to the formation of two organizations in 1945, not long after atomic bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One was the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), established by scientists “who felt that scientists, engineers and other innovators had an ethical obligation to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on critical national decisions. Their first projects focused on controlling nuclear weapons and research on civilian nuclear power, issues that remain prominent to FAS today.”

The second initiative was The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, formed primarily by scientists from the University of Chicago where some of the research of the Manhattan Project had occurred. Knowing the horrible effects of these new weapons, they devoted themselves to warning the public about the consequences of using them. The Bulletin is particularly known for its Doomsday Clock, evoking “both the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero).”

On the world scene this concern was addressed by the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, issued on July 9, 1995 by Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and nine other prominent scientists and appealing “as human beings to human beings”. They were alarmed by “the tragic situation which confronts humanity” because of “the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction”. “No doubt in an H-bomb war great cities would be obliterated.” But also because of diffusion of lethal radio-active particles “a war with H-bombs might possibly put an end to the human race. It is feared that if many H-bombs are used there will be universal death, sudden only for a minority, but for the majority a slow torture of disease and disintegration.”

Therefore the signers invited the scientists of the world and the general public to subscribe to the following resolution:

In view of the fact that in any future world war nuclear weapons will certainly be employed, and that such weapons threaten the continued existence of mankind, we urge the governments of the world to realize, and to acknowledge publicly, that their purpose cannot be furthered by a world war, and we urge them, consequently, to find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them.

This manifesto was subsequently signed by thousands of scientists from around the world. It was the inspiration for forming the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1957. In 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Pugwash issued its own Hiroshima Declaration. Noting that even though nuclear weapons haven’t been used since the first ones, the Declaration indicated:

A close review of this history offers little bases for complacency that a nuclearly armed world will succeed in refraining indefinitely from using these weapons again.

On the contrary, there can be no real safety against nuclear destruction until the weapons themselves have been destroyed, their possession forsworn, their production prohibited, their ingredients made inaccessible to those who might seek to evade the prohibition. Indeed, real safety will require still more. Because the knowledge of how to construct nuclear weapons cannot be erased from human memory, and because, in the extremity of war, nations that previously foreswore them may race to produce them anew, it will be necessary to eliminate war itself as a means of resolving disputes among nations.

Ten years later Sir Joseph Rotblat, who had resigned for reason of conscience from the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb, signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, and was a founder of Pugwash, wrote the 2005 NPT Review Conference this message:

Morality is at the core of the nuclear issue: are we going to base our world on a culture of peace or on a culture of violence? Nuclear weapons are fundamentally immoral: their action is indiscriminate, affecting civilians as well as military, innocents and aggressors alike, killing people alive now and generations as yet unborn. And the consequence of their use might be to bring the human race to an end. All this makes nuclear weapons unacceptable instruments for maintaining peace in the world.

Others in the global scientific community have organized to express their concerns over nuclear weapons and environmental issues. In the United States Physicians for Social Responsibility formed in 1961, initially to lead “the campaign to end atmospheric nuclear testing by documenting the presence of Strontium 90, a byproduct of atomic testing, in children's teeth.” It has evolved into a “medical and public health voice for policies to prevent nuclear war and proliferation and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and toxic degradation of the environment.”

In 1980 physicians in the United States and the Soviet Union jointly organized International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) “to conduct meticulous scientific research based on data collected by Japanese colleagues who had studied the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And they drew upon their knowledge of the medical effects of burn, blast, and radiation injuries. The doctors sounded a medical warning to humanity: that nuclear war would be the final epidemic; that there would be no cure and no meaningful medical response.” By now there are 62 affiliated national units of IPPNW.

Faculty and students at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) formed the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1969, subsequently becoming a national alliance working for a healthy environment and a safer world.

This is a sample of organizations of scientists and physicians who are deeply concerned about the dangers that nuclear weapons pose for the world. At the same time, of course, hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers continue work in nuclear weapons programs of different countries. Yet, while not unanimous, scientists continue to raise moral and ethical issues about nuclear weapons.

60+ Year Taboo

The first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the second on Nagasaki in August 9, 1945. Since then the only nuclear weapons explosions have been tests, approximately 2,000 of them. Beyond the first two bombs, no nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. August 2009 marked 64 years without any further use of a nuclear weapon to attack a specific target. In this sense there is a de facto, 60+ year taboo on the use of nuclear weapons.

The practice of taboo is ancient in human culture. It can be defined as “a strong social prohibition (or ban) relating to any area of human activity or social custom declared as sacred and forbidden; breaking of the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society.” A taboo can apply to such matters as dietary restrictions, kinds of sexual activities (such as incest), use of derogatory language, discussion of certain topics. In a broader sense it can apply to prohibited conduct, such as, torture, in sports deliberately stomping on an opponent who is down, defiling sacred places. Such prohibitions are internalized, enforced by opinion of peers, and sometimes made into laws. Though they may not be universally observed, they are nonetheless considered taboo.

The question for us is: does more than 60 years of non-use establish a custom in international relations that morally prohibits – makes taboo -- the use of nuclear weapons? Should a head of a nuclear weapons state ask, first, whether there is a true military utility in using a nuclear weapon that cannot be achieved by other means? And then second, would I as a moral person be willing to break the more than sixty year pattern of non-use?

A major factor in this situation is world opinion, as Lawrence S. Wittner has demonstrated in answering “What Has Prevented Nuclear War?

Admiral Noel Gayler touched on this when he explained why as commander-in-chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific region in the 1970s he concluded that nuclear weapons had no practical use.

Furthermore, with respect to the Asian continent as a whole, we have to face the fact that there is a political consideration of overwhelming importance. The only use of nuclear weapons has been against an Asiatic people. . . .[It] is my belief that the use of a nuclear weapon against any Asian people, for any purpose whatsoever, would polarize Asia against us. It would clearly not be worth the candle.

General Colin Powell also dealt with this issue when answering a question in 2002 about whether conflict between India and Pakistan might result in the use of nuclear weapons. He noted:

In my conversations with both sides, especially with the Pakistani side, I have made it clear that this really can't be in anyone's mind. I mean, the thought of nuclear conflict in the year 2002 -- with what that would mean with respect to loss of life, what that would mean with respect to the condemnation, the worldwide condemnation that would come down on whatever nation chose to take that course of action -- would be such that I can see very little military, political, or any other kind of justification for the use of nuclear weapons.

This reasoning also applies to initiative use of nuclear weapons by the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, and Israel. It would also apply to North Korea and Iran if they obtain operational nuclear weapons.

Some would rebut that the leadership of some of these wouldn’t care about world opinion, but they can’t escape it. Leaders of the United States, UK, and France with Christian majorities would face strong religious opposition to using nuclear weapons. Iran as an Islamic Republic would have to deal with strong prohibitions within Islam against using weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan with an Islam majority would have the same consideration, and so would India with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians all concerned with the sacredness of human life. Israel, which came into existence in part because of global revulsion against the Holocaust, would have to consider whether it could actually use a weapon of holocaustic dimension. Nor would leaders of Russia, China, and North Korea with roots in atheistic communism be exempt from the force of global opinion, particularly in a world community with so many economic interconnections.

Although retaliatory use of nuclear weapons after a nuclear attack might be easier to justify in the minds of national leaders, we should note that the Catholic Church, which accepts nuclear deterrence, rejects retaliation because of the horrible effects on human life, even of one’s enemies. This view opposing retaliation is shared by moral philosophers. Religious bodies opposing all uses of nuclear weapons are against both initiative and retaliatory use.

In sum, the de facto, 60+ year taboo against the use of nuclear weapons is a strong reason for restraining any use of them and working together for their total elimination.

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