The Theology of Biological Warfare

By Kraemer, Paul | The World and I, May 2001 | Go to article overview

The Theology of Biological Warfare


Kraemer, Paul, The World and I


Paul Kraemer is an emeritus scientist with the Biological Sciences Division of Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has authored more than ninety papers on microbiology and related fields (E-mail: kraemerl1:Our cartoon of a microbiology laboratory reflects the ultimate in nonchalance. Of course, the punch lines of the two scientists might apply equally well in a nuclear bomb facility. For instance, when J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the first nuclear explosion at Trinity site in July 1945, it is reported that he compared it to a demonstration of the power of Vishnu. This is the Hindu god who transformed himself into the "Destroyer of Worlds" in chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita. Oppenheimer was evidently quite taken with the ancient Hindu scriptures. He could read the Gita in the original Sanskrit and discuss the religious issues at length. According to his friend Charles Critchfield, he also loved to make dramatic or startling statements, a tendency that was to get him into trouble later. At any rate, in this Gita version of the Hindu religion, God does everything, good and evil, creates and destroys, with no Devil or Satan needed. Periodically, when God so elects, he destroys most of mankind and then has room to create new people, sort of like selecting "erase disk and restart" on your computer.

Regardless of what Oppenheimer really believed, since 1945 the possibility of a nuclear holocaust has been thoroughly examined using theological models in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This tradition is rich in apocalyptic and millennial prophesies and generally invokes a force of evil separate from God: Satan, the Devil, the Antichrist, or the "Beast." The end of the world, including dangers due to nuclear weapons, has been a theme of theologians ranging from serious academic scholars to the lunatic fringe. The popularity of the subject is suggested by finding that the Barnes and Noble bookstore currently lists 1,588 titles under the key word eschatology (end-of-the-world theology) on its Web site.

Worldwide, nuclear matters have evidently caused theologians, politicians, and nearly everybody else to overlook the increasing danger of biological warfare. Unfortunately there are good reasons to suggest that a general disaster of apocalyptic magnitude will more likely be biological in nature. The prevention of and defense against biological warfare are more difficult than the nuclear problem. Biological agents have been used in warfare for centuries, but nobody has ever won a war using natural pathogens such as anthrax or smallpox. Today, however, the technology is in place and publicly available to create genetically engineered pathogens that are capable of massive destruction of humanity. The problems posed by this threat are inherently more difficult than those associated with nuclear warfare.

Leaving aside theological aspects for the moment, a direct cause of this new danger is recent rapid technological developments, particularly in genomics (information derived directly or indirectly from genetic sequence data). This field is moving so fast and yielding so many biological insights daily that it is difficult for even scientists working in the field to fully comprehend its potential. However, our cartoon, which portrays a microbiology laboratory in the imminent future, includes facilities for using genomics relevant to biological warfare research.

The incubator labeled "genetically enhanced pathogens" contains the products of that research. Are not natural pathogens like anthrax and plague bad enough? That depends. Bad enough for a terrorist who wants to kill a few hundred or even a few thousand people. In fact, the Army (Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) and the National Institutes of Health, at least publicly, have trivialized the larger problem by focusing only on this aspect. It is certainly true, for instance, that a handful of smallpox cases in New York City would cause a problem. …

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