United States Department of Energy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear Cacodoxy?

By Chris Ferrero for the Orthodox Peace Fellowship


Nuclear weapons are experiencing a renaissance in the public consciousness. The blockbuster film Oppenheimer won Best Picture at the 2024 Academy Awards in March. In April, investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen’s book Nuclear War: A Scenario climbed onto the New York Times Bestseller List. This renaissance is helping re-awaken opposition to the Bomb and its associated horrors, but moral aversion to nuclear weapons is not as universal as one might expect. In fact, many people view potential use of nuclear weapons as a moral good, and a quasi-religious belief in nuclear deterrence prevails across borders. Recent political science research and unfolding world events suggest that it is high time to re-examine nuclear ethics. One can take for granted that most people generally prefer to avoid nuclear war. But are there scenarios in which the use of these weapons could be morally justified? Is possession and the attendant threat of their use a moral means for a nation to defend itself or achieve its political objectives? While popular phenomena like Oppenheimer and Nuclear War: A Scenario remind us of the categorical horror that these weapons can manifest, does such horror translate into categorical moral opposition to the existence of nuclear weapons? If not, why not?

United States Department of Energy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Castle Romeo United States Department of Energy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Many nuclear deterrence advocates suggest that nuclear weapons are moral because they keep the peace. But it is very hard to prove that nuclear deterrence works. Foreign leaders do not admit that they have refrained from a particular action because they feared nuclear retaliation. The reliability of nuclear deterrence is inferred from a small historical sample size (approaching 80 years of human history) and assumptions about human rationality. Sometimes, data is manipulated to support the claims of nuclear deterrence. I have repeatedly witnessed deterrence professionals in the United States look with reverence at a graph purporting to show how global war deaths radically declined after the advent of nuclear weapons in 1945. The assembled either do not know or do not care that a Johns Hopkins University study proves this Department of Defense graph to be misleading. (The graph uses uneven time intervals to visually inflate pre-1945 war deaths; the advent of nuclear deterrence does not correlate with a massive decline in human deaths from war.) The assembled faithful treat the graph as an icon for their own sort of orthodox faith: Deterrence works. Nuclear weapons are good for America and good for humanity. 

In Russia, Dima Adamsky has chronicled another form of nuclear orthodoxy which presumes to root itself in the Orthodox Christian faith. His 2019 book Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy explains in staggering detail how the Moscow Patriarchate has allied itself with the Russian nuclear establishment since the 1990s. A central talking point of Russian nuclear orthodoxy, as Adamsky coins it, is that God has blessed Holy Russia with nuclear weapons through the intercession of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. An historical coincidence and crime against the Russian church have been turned upside down. Soviet authorities expropriated church property at Sarov, including Seraphim’s monastery, and incorporated it into the closed nuclear city of Arzamas-16. This served as the main hub for the development of the Russian atomic bomb. A retrospective look at Seraphim’s prophecies has led the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to conclude that Seraphim foretold this blessed event. He has thus been named the patron saint of the Russian Federation’s nuclear forces. 

ROC practice has gone as far as consecrating nuclear weapons and missiles. This practice was paused after an ROC ecclesial committee objected in 2020, stating that indiscriminate weapons cannot be consecrated. But this pushback has not been enough to reverse the momentum of Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy, which Patriarch Kirill continues to promote in the context of his war against a supposedly satanic Liberal West and ecclesial and political independence for Ukraine. As recently as October 2023, Kirill bestowed a Church honor on a Sarov-based nuclear physicist. At the award ceremony, the Patriarch repeated that Soviet scientists "created weapons under the protection of St. Seraphim of Sarov…Thanks to this power, Russia has remained independent and free." 

To be fair, Patriarch Kirill does not seem eager for nuclear war. He and other advocates of Russian nuclear orthodoxy emphasize the weapons’ defensive nature and state their hope that they need not ever be used. This is a commonly invoked talking point and moral get-out-of-jail-free card among nuclear deterrence advocates. But it belies an insidious truth about nuclear weapons: they can create moral hazard by allowing possessors to pursue reckless behavior with a reduced fear of consequences. This supposed shield bestowed upon Russia through Seraphim’s intercession is not defending Orthodox Christian civilization at this moment in history; it is wreaking havoc in it by allowing Russia to pursue a war against Ukraine in the name of Russkiy-Mir with a significantly reduced fear of direct and decisive NATO intervention. A nuclear shield that has the power to wipe out much of Creation is enabling imperial aggression by Orthodox Christians against Orthodox Christians in the name of Orthodox Christianity. While I am neither Orthodox nor a theologian, I am rather confident that this state of affairs would be better characterized as Russian nuclear cacodoxy.

This cacodoxy has grown all the more frightening in the weeks since the March 2024 release of the Decree of the 25th World Russian People’s Council, which affirms that the war in Ukraine is a holy war and that Russia is acting as a Restrainer in a battle with biblical and civilizational significance. This framing evokes the “last resort” justifications typically raised in discussions of potential nuclear use. After all, if God and civilization are on the line, is anything off limits? Orthodox thought leaders have decried the WRPC decree as egregious and heretical. Father Cyril Hovorun sees the WRPC decree as another manifestation of the Russian tribalism at the root of Russkiy-Mir

As a scholar of nuclear norms, I find this combination of Russian tribalism and metaphysical framing deeply worrying. It is especially intense and baldly imperial, and its overt appropriation of Christianity should be a major concern not just to the Orthodox, but to all Christians. Yet the prospect of a political in-group (or tribe) justifying nuclear use is not unique. Moral justification of nuclear weapons is not just a Russian phenomenon. The literature on the morality of nuclear weapons and deterrence shows that in-group considerations morally incentivize nuclear use or at least render people ambivalent. Thomas E. Doyle argues in his 2021 book Nuclear Ethics in the 21st Century: Survival, Order, and Justice that primary moral regard for one’s in-group is a chief impediment to a more just nuclear order. He notes that “in just war theory, the national self-defense requirement is a statist application of deontological ethics, and it directs presidents or prime ministers to prioritize state security above all else.” In other words, the intrinsic moral value of the state and in-group exceeds the intrinsic moral value of the human being and Creation in general. Doyle then identifies the “core premise” of his book as follows: “It is a cardinal error of moral reasoning to weigh the intrinsic survival right of any one state or people over another and of any one state/people or collection of states/peoples over humanity generally.” 


Nuclear Test Grable: 25 May 1953, Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie. United States Department of Energy

Experimental surveys published in top peer-reviewed political science journals over the last decade show that a substantial share of Westerners has no categorical aversion to using nuclear weapons if it serves the national (in-group) interest. Participants show themselves to be consequentialist moral thinkers who prioritize the in-group when faced with tradeoffs. For example, one study finds that a majority of American participants would be willing to make first use of nuclear weapons against Iran at a cost of 2 million dead Iranian civilians if doing so ended a war that Iran had started and saved 20,000 American soldiers’ lives. A follow-up survey experiment testing British, French, and Israeli citizens alongside Americans showed a similar willingness to use nuclear weapons to forestall a notional terrorist attack emanating from Libya. Military utility and “compatriot partiality” outweigh any general or categorical aversion to nuclear weapons and civilian deaths in the moral calculus of most study participants.  Yet another study finds that in addition to thinking consequentially, study participants believe that in-group loyalty and retribution are moral goods and that possessing nuclear weapons is a positive form of moral signaling insofar as it represents a willingness to go to the greatest lengths imaginable to protect the in-group. 

Notably, none of these studies involve a scenario in which two nuclear-armed states fight a nuclear war. There is a tomorrow in each scenario – not Armageddon. The propensity to think consequentially suggests that fewer people would be inclined to support actions that sparked Armageddon. Nonetheless, the findings are striking and in many ways frightening. It seems clear that many Westerners have few qualms about at least maintaining the option to use nuclear weapons. In other words, possession and its implied threat does not register as a moral quandary for most people. Moreover, the moral appetite for retribution on behalf of the in-group suggests that should a Great Power adversary start a nuclear war, a majority might favor retributive strikes that contribute to global Armageddon rather than turn the other cheek to spare Creation and broader humanity. Perhaps most strikingly, despite the typical framing of nuclear weapons as defensive/deterrent weapons of last resort, many people are perfectly willing to make first use of nuclear weapons if doing so helps the in-group more efficiently achieve its political-military objectives. 

These studies do not account for the religious identity of the participants. But putting an Abrahamic lens over the question does not render much greater clarity. One must look back twenty years for an extensive scholarly work on Abrahamic attitudes toward nuclear weapons. Hashmi and Lee’s 2004 edited volume Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Religious and Secular Perspectives includes several essays from the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish points of view. A key takeaway is that while the use of nuclear weapons is almost universally abhorred, religious thought leaders often demur on outlawing possession for deterrence. It seems that even religious elites are susceptible to moral ambivalence when the fate of the in-group could be at stake. 

The Hashmi and Lee volume does not give an adequate voice to Roman Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity; its Christian contributors are mostly Protestant. In 2014, the Holy See released Time for Abolition, a document definitively delegitimizing nuclear deterrence. Formal elite Roman Catholic opinion is thus very clear (though it is less clear how much this teaching has been internalized by the laity over the last decade). There has been less clarity from the Phanar and the Orthodox Christian world more broadly. Kirill may be winning the nuclear narrative battle within Orthodoxy simply because no one else is participating. This does not augur well for how outsiders view Orthodox Christianity or how future generations of Orthodox may view the significance of their faith in matters of major war. 

Though Orthodox Christians constitute a small portion of the world’s population, they may be key players in determining the future of nuclear norms. The world’s largest nuclear state is waging an imperial war and claims that its nuclear weapons are divine providence. Millions of Orthodox reside in NATO and NATO-aspirant countries. What do Orthodox Christians think about the morality of nuclear weapons? In my research so far (formal peer-reviewed findings forthcoming), it seems that Orthodox Christians are more likely to categorically reject nuclear weapons if they are Oriental Orthodox and non-European. Orthodox Christians who live and have been socialized in the European milieu of Great Power rivalry seem more likely than their non-European religious brethren to hesitate on categorical opposition to nuclear weapons. These preliminary findings appear consistent with the extant literature; political in-group identity and socialization seem to color one’s ethical perspective. Nonetheless, I would like to pull further on this thread. Are nuclear weapons moral, or have some of us invested our hope for ultimate security in a form of cacodoxy?

If you are an Orthodox Christian interested in sharing your thoughts, I invite you to contact me by email ([email protected]). Additionally, if you are willing to be contacted directly to participate in a confidential, scientific online survey, please provide your contact information using this sign-up form. 


Note: Sign up for participation ends June 15th


Chris Ferrero is Associate Professor of intelligence and security studies at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. He earned his PhD in political science at the University of Virginia. His research program on nuclear norms emphasizes how religious identity can influence nuclear use, proliferation, and disarmament outcomes. He has presented on this topic at United States Strategic Command, the Arab Nuclear Forum, and the International Orthodox Theological Association (Volos 2023). His most recent peer-reviewed publication in The Nonproliferation Review examines the potential role of Abrahamic interfaith dialogue in achieving a Middle East Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction-Free Zone.