Nov. 18-21, American Academy of Religion, Boston, USA

Sleepwalking into Extinction: Elaine Scarry’s S.O.S. to Scholars of Religion

Elaine Scarry believes that nuclear war is the most probable path to human extinction, a graver threat than climate change. Readers of her new 600-page book, Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom, are likely to agree. But Scarry is astonished that so few people are talking about these questions. We have a machinery of death in which a single U.S. submarine can – by intention, accident or hacking – exterminate all life in Europe or Asia or one of the other continents, but few citizens seem to mind.
This forum brings Elaine Scarry into conversation with scholars of religion to discuss why our species may be sleepwalking into a thermonuclear extinction. Scarry is haunted by the question of why it is hard to take seriously our preparations for the killing of billions. What makes the possibility of thermonuclear annihilation difficult to fix our attention on in a sustained way? Why is the matter easy to put out of our minds, to forget?
One piece of the puzzle, Scarry argues, is that the “thermonuclear monarchy” recasts us all as small children rather than sovereign citizens. But the mystery of human passivity in the face of possible imminent extinction runs deeper than that, and Scarry believes that the academic study of religion may hold some of the keys to understanding and overcoming that passivity. Together we can seek to answer the question: What would it take to make nuclear weapons policy a focal point for democratic deliberation and popular protest in the era of President Trump and beyond?
This roundtable will be a space in which to think ethnographically about different religious groups — their theologies, ethics, eschatologies, etc. — and what shapes them into (not) caring about the threat of nuclear catastrophe. The session will also take up philosophical and theological questions such as: What if anything do we owe to potential future generations? How do we assess the nature of the loss if all of human civilization were to be obliterated – would it matter, and if so, why? How might we respond to those who assert that humanity deserves to be annihilated, that our extinction would be a good thing?
Elaine Scarry’s study of torture and war, The Body in Pain, brought her international recognition. Her writings about the September 11th, 2001 attacks and the subsequent suppression of human rights led both Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines to list Scarry as one of the top 100 global public intellectuals. In Thermonuclear Monarchy, Scarry demonstrates that today’s weapons of mass destruction are fundamentally incompatible with democracy. Whether through war, accident, terrorism or hacking, these weapons may one day annihilate us all.
Six scholars with diverse specialties will converse with Elaine Scarry before opening the floor to audience voices.