Trinity and the atomic bomb: In New Mexico where the religion ghosts dwell


July 16 was the 70th anniversary of a world-changing event; the testing of the world’s first atomic bomb in a New Mexico desert. It would be less than a month before two such bombs would be released in the skies over Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

If any event had grave moral consequences, it was this one. But the silence of any kind of faith-based element to this anniversary in the media is profound.

There are, of course, some bizarre God-connections to this event. The site of  the test was called “Trinity” supposedly after a John Donne sonnet, although no one really knows the origin of the name. It seems odd that a core Christian doctrine about the nature of God is attached to something connected with mass death.

Hinduism gets a role here too. When the main bombs went off in Japan, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the California physicist known as the “father of the atomic bomb” for his work on the Manhattan Project, spouted Vishnu’s famous quote from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Yet, in the coverage I scanned that ran on the day of the anniversary, there was more about "atomic tourists" noting the anniversary than anything about religion. There were pieces on the “downwinders;” people who lived in small towns in south central New Mexico that were down wind from the atomic blast at the White Sands Missile Range. These were people who, this story from Al Jazeera English points out, were lied to by the government as to the nature of the blast. Naturally, they took no precautions and during the past 70 years, hundreds of people have died from bizarre cancers. Their claims are finally getting a needed hearing seven decades after the fact.

One Catholic website noted that many the unseen victims of the Trinity bomb were mainly Catholics.

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., July 16, 2015 ( -- Seventy years after a nuclear bomb was detonated in Los Alamos, New Mexico, residents in the nearby Hispanic, largely Catholic town of Tularosa are seeking compensation for what they suffered.
The bomb, detonated in the Jornada del Muerto desert at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945 -- a major Marian feast day on the Catholic liturgical calendar honoring Our Lady of Mt. Carmel -- was part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, the research team tasked with creating the atomic bombs that were eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Many of the 30,000 residents of Tularosa, who didn't find out about the test site until well after the fact, are said to have developed rare forms of cancer following the blast, and are now seeking compensation as well as an acknowledgment from the federal government of the harms they suffered.

One major misstep there! In the lead, she confuses Los Alamos, the northern New Mexico city where the bomb was designed with the desert towns in another part of the state -- 160 miles to the south -- near where it was released.

Here's another religion angle: The bomb that hit Nagasaki fell into a heavily Catholic district. As for the targets of the bombs, Nagasaki had been the center of Catholicism in Japan since the 16th century. Nagasaki was a last-minute choice; the original target, Kokura, was obscured by clouds.

I'd like to hear more about what went on in the minds of the bomb's makers during this event and whether the passage of 70 years has made nuclear warfare more or less morally permissible. For example, tmatt and I have a friend -- a retired Episcopal bishop -- who as a young priest used to hear the confessions of scientists in the hydrogen-bomb era in Los Alamos. Priests cannot discuss the details of confessions, of course, but they can talk about the issues that ere involved. Are there retired priests left from the '50s, at least?

During the 70th anniversary of the bombings next month, the focus -- as it should be -- will be more on the victims in Japan than the bomb's makers in New Mexico. Will faith be mentioned at all in the commemorations? Or, like the spirits of some 200,000 people who died from these blasts, the religion ghosts may remain a mysterious element in this major story.

Please respect our Commenting Policy