2.1. Hans Jonas and the Imperative of Responsibility
Applying Jonas’ complex theoretical constructs to the idea of an artificial religion such as the Atomic Priesthood allows for a discussion of the ethical imperatives that arise when nuclear technology and religion merge. Hans Jonas was born in the West German town Mönchengladbach in 1903 and came from a liberal, Jewish family with a middle-class background (Biographical information according to: Wiese 2007, 1ff
; Jonas 2003
; Müller 2016
; Nielsen-Sikora 2021
). In 1921, he studied philosophy for a brief period in Freiburg with the famous founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, and the then-unknown Martin Heidegger, who would later serve as his Doktorvater
(PhD advisor) and have a decisive and lasting influence on his thought (See: Wolin 2015
; Cf.: Jacob 1996
; Elm 2021
). The growing sense of being an outsider and the experience of antisemitism in German society during the Weimar Republic led Jonas to embrace Zionism (See: Hotam 2008
). After a brief stint in agricultural training in preparation for emigration to Palestine, Jonas returned to Freiburg and in 1924 followed Heidegger to the University of Marburg, where the latter had been appointed as a professor, and worked on his dissertation, Der Begriff der Gnosis
, which was the starting point of his lifelong interest in Gnosticism. After completing his PhD in 1928, Jonas joined the sociologist Karl Mannheim at the University of Heidelberg, but his academic career was thrown into disarray by the rise to power of the National Socialists in 1933, which prompted him to leave Germany. He went to the UK before settling in Mandatory Palestine in 1935 (See: Wiese 2007, p. 9
). Jonas spent the next decade lecturing at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, even though he never received a fixed appointment, and when the effects of the Second World War were felt in Mandatory Palestine, he joined the British army, acting in various roles and, among other things, taking part in the military campaign for the liberation of Italy. After the declaration of independence, he served in the Israeli army until 1949. Frustrated by a lack of clear prospects for an academic career, Jonas left for Canada, where he taught in Ottawa at various institutions. During these years, Jonas first delved into philosophical questions concerning biology and technology (Nielsen-Sikora 2021, 11f
). In 1954, he was appointed professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. Having secured a permanent appointment, Jonas further developed his philosophical interests with his unique mixture of Jewish philosophy, Gnosticism, Heideggerianism, and Kantian ethics. In 1979, he published his magnum opus, The Imperative of Responsibility
. He died in 1993.
The year of publication was not coincidental, as Jonas’ inquiry into ethics for the technological age was the result of a growing awareness of the possible negative consequences of technological progress during and after the Second World War. The postwar intellectual landscape in the German-speaking world, especially in the Federal Republic of Germany, was wrestling with, on the one hand, the legacy of the Second World War and the Holocaust and, on the other hand, with the dawn of the nuclear age and its potential for global destruction, especially in the context of the global devastation of the Second World War (Hahnemann 2013
; Stölken-Fitschen 1995
). Next to Jonas’ The Imperative of Responsibility
, Günther Anders’ The Outdatedness of Human Beings
from 1956, Karl Jaspers’ The Atomic Bomb and the Future of Mankind
from 1957, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Physicists
from 1962—to name just the most important works—offered the most penetrating investigation of the philosophical and ethical conundrums brought up by the technological revolution during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Second World War (See: Anders 1987a
; Jaspers 1957
; Dürrenmatt 1962
; Cf.: Hahnemann 2013
). As such, they seem to be well suited to address the ethical ramifications of the Atomic Priesthood. These intellectuals were critical observers of the rise of the nuclear age. They saw a zeitgeist that proposed technological solutions to problems caused by technological development. As witnesses to the technophilic hubris that captured much of the Western public in the decades following the Second World War, Jonas and Anders, as observers and critics of the nuclear age, became the philosophical expression of the societal growth of skepticism. Their critique of nuclear power and its ramification might seem milquetoast or sophistical, but when confronted with the notion of the Atomic Priesthood, Jonas and Anders offered compelling answers that traditional ethics were inadequate to provide.
As Jonas stated in The Imperative of Responsibility
, traditional ethics have not kept up with the speed of technological development, and their focus on the motives or actions of individuals are inadequate for dealing with the trans-generational technological threat. Jonas wrote succinctly, “The danger comes from the over-dimensioning of the natural-scientific-technical-industrial civilization” (“Die Gefahr geht aus von der Überdimensionierung der naturwissenschaftlich-technisch-industriellen Zivilisation.”; Jonas 2003, p. 251
). The societal acceptance of technological over-dimensioning is based on the two false promises of technology: first, almightiness, i.e., the promise that all desires are attainable through technology and that all risks are controllable through technology, and second, innocence, i.e., the separation of actions and consequences from responsibility (Tibaldeo 2015, p. 227
). In the face of this over-dimensioning, Jonas offered an updated version of Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that the effects of your actions are compatible with the permanence of an authentically human life on earth”1
(Jonas 1979, p. 36
Faulting Kant for not taking into account “real consequences [italics original]” (reale Folgen
), Jonas argued for the addition of a “time horizon” (Zeithorizont
) to moral calculations (Jonas 2003, p. 37
). Such a temporal perspective closes a gap in Kant’s imperative by which it becomes truly imperative. The morality of one’s actions are no longer tied to universalizability but are contingent on one’s embedding into a collective whole, i.e., humanity (Hirsch Hadorn 2000, p. 231
). For Jonas, each individual is responsible for humanity as a whole and for its future on planet earth.
In the face of an uncertain future and the effects of technology, Jonas proposed a “heuristics of fear” (Heuristik der Furcht), meaning that in our ethical considerations for the future, we should pay more attention to our fears than to our desires (Jonas 1979, p. 64
). In other words, when facing the unknowable future consequences of our actions today, it is better to err on the side of caution. Based on this “uncertainty, which threatens to make the ethical insight ineffectual for the long-range responsibility toward the future” (“diese Ungewißheit nun aber, welche die ethische Einsicht für die hier gemeinte Zukunftsverantwortung unwirksam zu machen droht”), Jonas calls this principle the “prevalence of the bad over the good prognosis” (“Vorrang der schlechten vor der guten Prognose”; Jonas 1979, p. 70
). Combining a focus on the collective (i.e., humanity) with considerations of the future, Jonas held that the true categorical imperative creates an “ontological responsibility”, namely to ensure “that humans exist” (“das es Menschen gibt”) now and in the future (Jonas 1979, 91f
). In fact, our responsibility is non-reciprocal, as we must act according to our ontological obligation and not for our own advantage. Actions that put the survival of humanity at risk are therefore morally wrong, even if the risk is low. Furthermore, Jonas argues for the congruence of being and nature, meaning that (human) existence is ontologically tied to its surrounding environment (Niggemeier 2002, 97ff
). We as humans are not only responsible for the existence of mankind but also for preserving the possibility of assuming the ontological duty of said responsibility (Tibaldeo 2015, p. 230
). In other words, preserving the freedom to be responsible (or not) in the future must guide us in our present actions.
2.2. What Is the Atomic Priesthood?
Proposed solutions to the problem of the post-closure marking of nuclear-waste storage sites are not lacking, and the interdisciplinary field of nuclear semiotics was dedicated to finding them. The 1984 special issue of the German journal Zeitschrift für Semiotik
on nuclear semiotics remains one of the most comprehensive discussions of the issue (Zeitschrift für Semiotik 1984
). However, these questions are not purely academic. State and private actors in charge of storing nuclear waste have also sought to address the issue.
In 1980, a private company, the Bechtel group, which is in charge of several nuclear facilities in the US, commissioned a Human Interference Task Force that was to investigate long-term solutions to the post-closure marking of nuclear-waste storage sites (Human Interference Task Force 1984
). In 1993, the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Livermore, California, compiled a nearly 350-page report titled Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico (Trauth et al. 1993
). In 2004, the US Department of Energy prepared the Permanent Markers Implementation Plan for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
(Waste Isolation Pilot Plant 2004
), focusing mostly on warning signs in different languages.
Proposed solutions include the inscription of mathematical formulas in precious metals and living, self-generating sign matter (e.g., cats that react with discoloration when exposed to atomic radiation), a relay system of warning signs that are continuously updated with new languages, an artificial moon, and thorned landscapes (See: Sebeok 1984b
; Sonntag 1990
; Lem 1990
; Voigt 1990
; Bastidi and Fabbri 1990
; Cf.: Madsen 2010
). Others have argued that, given the outlandish nature of these proposals, the best way to safeguard nuclear-waste storages is not to communicate at all, instead burying the sites and erasing any surficial trace of them. In the 1993 report Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
, two of the four assigned interdisciplinary teams tasked with finding solutions for the post-closure of nuclear-waste storage recommended not marking the sites so as to not draw attention to them. The other two teams recommended a mix of language and warning signs (Trauth et al. 1993
One proposal, from the noted semiotician Thomas A. Sebeok, who was a member of the 1980s Human Interference Task Force, was not included in the final report for the Bechtel group. In his own report, titled Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia
, Sebeok proposed the founding of an Atomic Priesthood, an artificially created religion with the sole purpose of securing the storage sites. Sebeok noted that the quality of information decays over time, and therefore he deemed it necessary to update all relevant information every three generations in order to adjust to linguistic and cultural change (Sebeok 1984a, p. 26
). However, Sebeok deemed this relay system insufficient by itself, and he thought it necessary to add “moral reasons, with perhaps the veiled threat that to ignore the mandate would be tantamount to inviting some sort of supernatural retribution” in order to counter the informational entropy that could lead to incomprehensibility (Sebeok 1984a, p. 27
). This threat could be “launched and artificially passed on into the short-term and long-term future with the supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, in particular a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend” (Sebeok 1984a, p. 24
Even though Sebeok chose the name “Atomic Priesthood” for “dramatic purposes” and actually envisioned it as “a commission of knowledgeable physicists, experts in radiation sickness, anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, semioticians, and whatever additional expertise may be called for now and in the future”, functionally, the parallels to an elite religious caste are conspicuous (Sebeok 1984a, p. 24
). This is not accidental, as the Atomic Priesthood models an elite caste whose designated role comprises preserving knowledge and ensuring the integrity of a dogmatic core and its accompanying scripture. This caste of experts would be the sole carrier of the true purpose of the storage site and would create a mythology with the purpose of deceiving the broader public:
“The legend-and-ritual, as now envisaged, would be tantamount to laying a ‘false trail’, meaning that the uninitiated will be steered away from the hazard site for reasons other than the scientific knowledge of the possibility of radiation and its implications; essentially, the reason would be accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently”.
The rational base of the Atomic Priesthood is thus slowly—or accumulatively—transformed into superstitious beliefs. The Atomic Priesthood would start without any metaphysical foundation or eschatological outlook, although the development of both over time cannot be ruled out, but rather with its function as a religion. Eschatological or messianic components as well as a belief in an afterlife associated with a supreme being—typical aspects of religion—are not part of the original setup, even though the Atomic Priesthood may add them. “A ritual annually renewed can be foreseen, with the legend retold year-by-year with, presumably, slight variations,” wrote Sebeok (Sebeok 1984a, p. 24
). The aim is twofold: first, to offer the adherents of the religion of the Atomic Priesthood fodder for internal contemplation, and second, to instigate public camaraderie (Cf.: Maloney et al. 2010, p. 445
). Following this understanding of religion by its function vis-à-vis society, the institutional setup and its ties to scriptural and oral transmission of knowledge are designed to create a priestly elite. This structure around the elite serves to enforce legitimation of the priesthood and to establish and secure a consensus on the taboo of entering nuclear-waste storage sites—or however the sites will be known in the future. As noted by American sociologist Richard N. Bellah, in most of the historical civilizations, religion has acted as a “legitimation and reinforcement of the existing social order” (Bellah 1964, p. 368
). To fulfill its purpose and to preserve its legitimacy and the role of the priestly elite, the Atomic Priesthood must enlarge its original task. While responsible for creating a religious taboo around nuclear-waste storage sites, over time, self-preservation will become increasingly important. In its role as the sole bearer of truth and the only preserver of the integrity of the storage sites, the Atomic Priesthood will struggle to fend off usurpers—apostates, heretics, and schismatics—and will need to develop “innovations in dogma and practices” to keep up with the inevitable change of its surroundings (See: Maloney et al. 2010, p. 442
Taking the cue from Sebeok, for the purpose of this article, we can define the Atomic Priesthood as an elite religious caste who would be in charge of the continuous supervision of nuclear waste storage sites, the launch of a surrounding ethical system, and the adaptation of the folkloristic devices. Since the Atomic Priesthood would be designed with these specific purposes in mind, its design as a religion is based on functional considerations. Its mythological shell would be built around a metaphysical void that could initially be filled with nuclear physics. This functional approach, based on the premises that the preservation of knowledge and erecting a taboo regarding nuclear-waste storage sites, is the main purpose of the Atomic Priesthood; it does not, however, address the motivation of humans to subscribe to this new religion. This remains a blind spot for the project, and top-down measures for enforcing adherence to the Atomic Priesthood seem to be the most fitting approach, given that deceit forms the kernel of the whole endeavor.
2.3. The Entanglement of Religion and Nuclear Technology
It has been argued that the longevity of nuclear waste does not fit into the ethical paradigm developed by Jonas and that radioactive contamination caused by nuclear waste would not threaten the existence of humanity in the distant future (Löfquist 2008, 195ff
). A potential threat against only of a small number of people, nuclear waste does not have the potential to permanently endanger human life that Jonas originally named as a prerequisite for applying the heuristics of fear. Therefore, the ethical framework is judged to be an inadequate tool for dealing with this kind of issue, and the “uncompromising version of the precautionary principle” that Jonas adopted does not apply to nuclear waste as long as the existence of humanity is not at risk (Löfquist 2008, p. 195
But is the potential damage of nuclear-waste storage to humanity as a whole so negligible that Jonas’ ethical framework loses its relevance? Jonas himself did not shy away from testing his theory on the technological advancements of his day. He focused particularly on advancements in medicine and biotechnology and published a range of essays on the practical implications of his theory of responsibility.
Jonas was also concerned with the harm of nuclear energy and nuclear bombs, even though he did not pay as much attention to this issue as to medical and biotechnological questions. Alert to the dangers of nuclear fission, he had a more favorable, albeit cautious, opinion of nuclear fusion. Regarding nuclear waste, Jonas noted:
“Nuclear fission, already practiced, is subject to the passionately debated problem of radioactive threats to the environment, especially the many thousands of years of its waste—an unprecedented consequence of human activity, for which no satisfactory technical solution is yet in sight”2
Jonas did not elaborate further on the issue; however, by taking Jonas’ short remark cited above at face value, one can conclude that the problem of nuclear-waste storage falls into the ethical framework of Jonas’ principle of responsibility. As Jonas remarked, no satisfactory technical solution is yet in sight, but expectations of future technological progress cannot substitute responsible conduct in the present (See: Jonas 1979, p. 218
). The mere invention of the notion of an Atomic Priesthood indicates that—as Jonas remarked—no technical solution to the problem of nuclear waste is known; the search for solutions outside the technological realm turns to religion. Sebeok’s Atomic Priesthood enlists religion out of the necessity to find a remedy. Both the longevity of nuclear waste and material and the idea of unlimited energy and its potential for complete destruction cause nuclear technology to take on a religious association (Musch 2016, p. 630
). The utopian and dystopian potentials of nuclear technology point to the religious dimension of human existence. The entanglement of technology and religion that becomes apparent here not only demonstrates how technology turns to religion when confronted with a problem with no technical solution but also that some features of nuclear technology can lend themselves to religious forms (See: Alexander 2020
). The association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons means that there is a possible scenario in which the durability of nuclear-waste storage sites leaves the seeds of mass destruction for future generations to harvest.
2.4. Günther Anders and the Nihilism Syndrome
The German-born Austrian-Jewish philosopher and writer Günther Anders was born Günther Stern in 1902 in Breslau, a son of two noted psychologists. Like Jonas, he studied with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. In 1925, he married his fellow student Hannah Arendt. The two were together until their divorce in 1937. In 1933—like Jonas—he fled Germany, first to Paris and then to the US. After working odd jobs for several years, he secured a position at the New School for Social Research—years before Jonas—but in 1950 returned with his second wife to Europe. He lived in Vienna until his death in 1992. Anders and Jonas met for the first time in 1921 in Freiburg and began a life-long, if at times troubled, friendship (they did not speak for over a decade; Kokorin 2021, p. 217
). Anders’s oeuvre is multifaceted but consistently displays a preoccupation with the consequences of humanity’s capacity for self-annihilation caused by the invention of the nuclear bomb. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant for Anders the arrival of a new age that was in dire need of a new philosophical foundation, a new “philosophical anthropology in the age of technocracy” (“philosophische Anthropologie im Zeitalter der Technokratie”) as he called it in 1980 (Anders 1987b, p. 9
). The result of this search for a new philosophical foundation was his work The Outdatedness of Human Beings (Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen)
, published in 1956 (Anders 1987a
). Anders described the primacy of the nuclear bomb over humanity. Human beings were no longer in charge of their own fate; they had relinquished control over their fate to technology. Crucially for our purposes, Anders introduced the notion of “Promethean shame”, the existential embarrassment of human imperfection in the face of the technological drive towards perfection (Steiner 2013, p. 450
). Similarly, Anders coined the term “Promethean gap,” i.e., the growing distance between imperfect, relatively powerless human beings and increasingly perfect technology, or, as he put it in The Outdatedness of Human Beings
, “the fact of the daily growing a-synchronization of man with his product world, the fact of the day by day widening gap, we call “the Promethean gap”3
(Anders 1987a, p. 16
The human mind is able to engineer and manufacture a bomb capable of annihilating the planet; however, when imagining actual annihilation, one reaches the limits of one’s imagination. Similarly, producing nuclear waste and storing it deep inside the earth is entirely within humanity’s capacity, but imagining the consequences exceeds the human mind. Anders saw the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, when he wrote The Outdatedness of Human Beings
, as an age of mass-nihilism, in which the threat of the atomic bomb turned all humans into nihilists who accept the potential annihilation of humanity, which he called “annihilism” (Anders 1987a, p. 303
). This nihilism syndrome caused blindness toward the waiting apocalypse.
While the issue of nuclear waste and its storage entails a slower threat with ramifications far into the distant future, the inherent logic is the same. We can imagine an Atomic Priesthood, inventing a new religion to keep nuclear-waste storage sites in check, but we cannot bridge the gap between our imagination and the consequences towards which such an invention might lead. Rene Girard wrote that “religion in its broadest sense […] must be another term for that obscurity that surrounds man’s efforts to defend himself by curative and preventative means against his own violence” (Girard 1977, p. 23
). In the light of this remark, the Atomic Priesthood’s role in securing nuclear waste storage sites amounts to defending humanity against its own proclivity to violence and to defusing the potential of its own destruction (See: Musch 2016, p. 631
). Or, to connect it to Anders’ thinking, the Atomic Priesthood counteracts our nihilism and bridges the Promethean gap.
But if we take our cue from Anders’ nihilism syndrome, we can think of the notion of the Atomic Priesthood not only as a means to counteract the nihilism of the nuclear age but also as a symptom. We have discussed above how the Atomic Priesthood might be conceived as a solution and how it utterly fails to provide the safeguards that justified its founding. Anders’s thinking reveals the Atomic Priesthood to be a symptom of the nuclear age. Understanding the Atomic Priesthood as an attempt to bridge the Promethean gap—or to counteract Promethean shame—reveals that nihilist technology lacks the tools to solve the dilemma posed by nuclear-waste storage sites and thus must turn to religion. In addition, one can argue with Anders that the turn to religion, or rather the notion of engineering a religion and the complete ignorance of its effects, exposes the nihilistic void that guided Sebeok and the like. The Atomic Priesthood is a top-down product engineered by a technophilic elite who, when confronted with the negative consequences of technological progress, double down with a potentially more harmful invention. Thus, the Promethean gap drives humanity to more outlandish and extreme measures.