‘Oppenheimer,’ Science and Religion

COMMENTARY: The Academy Award-nominated film serves as a cautionary tale for students of science today.

The movie's first promotional poster featuring Cillian Murphy released June 2022.
The movie's first promotional poster featuring Cillian Murphy released June 2022. (photo: Universal Pictures)

The scene of the Trinity nuclear bomb test, from Christopher’s Nolan’s film Oppenheimer, has already become a memorable moment in film history. After the laboratory personnel wait in harrowing suspense during a final countdown, the darkness of the New Mexico desert is suddenly illuminated by the fearsome explosion of the plutonium bomb.

As J. Robert Oppenheimer gazes in awe at the terrible power which has been unleashed, he quotes the Hindu sacred text: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds...” Shortly before, when asked to give a name to the atomic test, the director of Los Alamos Laboratory responds by making use of the poet John Donne’s invocation of the Christian God: “Batter my heart, three-person’d god.”

Such religious language was a significant way by which the famed physicist sought to understand the terrifying power which the new technology had introduced to the world. Oppenheimer recognizes that science is not enough to grasp the new reality which he had helped bring about. And so, among the many other noteworthy aspects of the film, Oppenheimer allows us to reflect anew on the relationship between science, religion, and ethics. Indeed, apart from the skilled direction, acting, and cinematography, the movie stands out for grappling with some of the most profound moral dilemmas of our time. Even if viewers decide to skip the scenes with mature content — a possibility made easier with the current technologies — the film gives us much to ponder.

Kai Bird, the author of the biography upon which the movie is based, rightly expresses his hope that the movie might lead to a greater conversation about “the need in our society for scientists as public intellectuals.” The film indeed ends with occasions for the title character’s vindication in the eyes of society at large. The physicist David Hill persuasively defends the integrity of his famed colleague in a Senate hearing, and President Lyndon Johnson presents Oppenheimer with the Enrico Fermi Award as a further stamp of approval.

But what about the movie’s frank account of Oppenheimer’s own self-questioning and of the perils of scientific research? The film — reflecting the biographical portrait offered by Bird — shows us a man strongly ambivalent about his own actions. As the scientist comments, during a flashback to a conversation with Albert Einstein, “we were worried that we'd start a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world ...” The movie closes with Oppenheimer confessing to his fellow renowned scientist that those fears have become a reality.

These final words express the qualms of conscience that plague the movie’s protagonist as he comes to recognize the horrific consequences which scientific advances have made possible. It’s hard not to see Nolan’s narrative as an interrogation that cuts to the heart of our notions of science and progress. It would not be overreaching to see this critique as an invitation to reevaluate the relationship of science with other key realms of knowledge, religion included.

In any case, the movie’s plot certainly serves as a cautionary tale for students of science today. Such young persons today are easily tempted toward that same euphoria present in a packed classroom of Berkeley students in the movie. The pupils eagerly listen to the young Oppenheimer as he suggests to them the astounding possibilities of quantum energy. The film deftly shifts from the exhilaration of scientific discovery to the passion of political ferment. As Oppenheimer comments to his colleague Ernest Lawrence, “You embrace the revolution in physics, can’t you see it everywhere else? Picasso, Stravinsky, Freud, Marx ...”

In this thirst for epochal change, religion is conspicuously absent. Apart from those scattered references that inspire Oppenheimer’s philosophy of life, the subject remains on the margins as the promise of scientific discovery gradually leads to the creation of the deadliest weapon ever engendered by man. In the end, the physicist’s ethical concerns are unable to control or direct the grand march of scientific progress and military buildup. And so for all his intellectual brilliance, the movie depicts Oppenheimer to be a man in profound crisis.

The movie manifests such angst in an incisive way when Harry Truman announces to his country the news of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The American president’s voice proclaims victory over the radio, and the staff at Los Alamos laboratory erupts in cheers, while Oppenheimer announces to them, “I’m proud of what you accomplished …” Suddenly, light fills the room and the director of the laboratory is confronted by a horrific vision of the human destruction caused by his work.

This forceful panging of conscience points to the physicist’s awareness of a truth, which goes beyond science, politics, and pragmatic calculations. It shows us the existence of another realm of truth, morality, by which science and technology might be oriented towards authentic human development.

From this perspective, we might see the dropping of the atomic bomb not as climax, but as a wake-up call to reverse the centuries-long process by which reason has become narrowed to what is “scientific.” All too often, as in the trajectory described in the movie, moral truths — along with the religious wisdom that has served as such a vital repository of such truths — are ignored as an objective source of knowledge.

Such an exclusion of religious considerations from the realm of truth, as Pope Benedict XVI commented in Regensburg in 2006, is an unacceptable limitation of reason and can never allow for that authentic dialogue of cultures so profoundly needed today. As Benedict noted, “listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.”

In a world in which science and technology continue to have such a decisive role in our educational system, and in our society as a whole, Christopher Nolan’s penetrating film provides us with some compelling points for reflection.

Do we really have the luxury to ignore religious traditions and the vital contributions which they can make toward the moral well-being of society?

We can only hope that the tragic events recounted in Nolan’s film might inspire a new generation of leaders who recognize the enormous potential of science and technology, and yet are better able to harmonize these advances with a broader vision of the truth. Only in this way might the intense drama of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s conscience, so powerfully expressed in the film, find a fitting resolution.

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