Nuclear Madness

Religion and the Psychology of the Nuclear Age

By Ira Chernus

Paperback : 9780791405048, 336 pages, February 1991
Hardcover : 9780791405031, 336 pages, February 1991

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Table of contents



Part I. Psychic Numbing and Nuclear Imagery

1. Numbing, Imagery, and the Schizoid Strategy

2. Numbing and Imagery as Social Fantasy

3. The Neurosis of Modernity

4. Disarmament and the Modern Ego

5. The Theory of Psychic Numbing Reconsidered

Part II. Nuclear Madness

6. Nuclear Madness: A Model

7. Nuclear Madness: The Cold War Era

8. Nuclear Madness: Deterrence, Détente, and Disarmament

Part III. Madness and Transformation

9. The Meaning of the End of the World

10. The Myth of Nuclear Origins

11. The Hell and Renaissance of Madness

12. Madness and Peace





This book builds on Robert Jay Lifton's theory of psychic numbing, and takes madness as a guiding metaphor. It shows that public perceptions of the Bomb are a kaleidoscope of ever-changing ideas and images. Recent changes in public awareness only signal new symptoms of this public madness, symptoms unwittingly fostered by the antinuclear movement. Since the newest nuclear images follow the same psychological pattern as their predecessors, they are likely to lead us deeper into nuclear madness.

Chernus offers new interpretations of four major theorists int the psychology of religion—Paul Tillich, R. D. Laing, Mircea Eliade, and James Hillman—to trace the roots of nuclear madness back to the onset of modernity, when the West gained technological mastery at the price of losing religious imagination and ontological security. The author develops an interpretation of Lifton's own thought as an ontological and religious psychology. Drawing on the work of Eliade and Hillman, he goes on to suggest that madness reflects a repressed desire to transform life by opening up the floodgates of imagination. A conscious cultivation of the play of imagination can lead the way through madness to sanity and peace. But, imagination can only respond to the nuclear threat if it is acted out in a new brand of peace activism that blends pragmatic politics with psychological and religious transformation.

Ira Chernus is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is co-author of A Shuddering Dawn: Religious Studies and the Nuclear Age with Edward Tabor Linenthal, also published by SUNY Press.


"Chernus has energetically and imaginatively answered the challenge to scholars of religion to make the nuclear age a central focus of their research and reflection. Chernus's work does that, and has the additional benefit of demonstrating the need to do that in a way that integrates social science approaches with more traditional phenomenology of religion approaches. " —H. John McDargh, Boston College