I, John, Saw, or MAKE RELIGION LIVE! | Harriss on Cat’s Cradle

Cooper Harriss


The company line on Cat’s Cradle concerns Vonnegut’s invention of a religion—Bokononism—to satirize his contemporary vagaries of knowledge and authority. See the cat? See the cradle? Religion is a lie, the story goes; it’s not true but an invented dimension of human cultures. Like the lies we tell our children, religion arouses fear, provides comfort, establishes meaning, and fortifies boundaries between people and their cultures. Such a reading provides the knowing wink offered to a fellow adult or an older child who might know better, the wink that says “we both know this isn’t true but it can be effective in asserting control over the individual to whom we lie.” As a high school or even college-level reading—often segregated from Vonnegut’s other work—this may hold some kind of acceptable currency (you can purchase term papers online that discuss this very topic—veritable canonization of its topicality by market forces!). What one notices through a more systematic reading of Vonnegut’s early novels, which is to say, of course, what I have noticed, is that Cat’s Cradle really offers just one more stab at the ethics of myth and science, another attempt at coming to terms with what we know, what we don’t know, what we cannot know, and what we pretend to know. It remains, in a genre (the novel) that packages narrative fiction (lies, after a fashion) to reckon certain human truths, a further installment in Vonnegut’s early concern with writers, readers, and what they owe one another.

Thus far these reckonings include the secularism of Player Piano’s machines, inform the futuristic Church of God the Utterly Indifferent in The Sirens of Titan, and become a question of the ethics of irony and fiction in Mother Night. Arriving now at Bokononism, sorting through the “religion” of Cat’s Cradle interests me far less than the context in which it continues Vonnegut’s negotiation of this cluster of problems we’ve traced thus far: truth and lie, fact and fiction, science and religion, the list continues. Put differently, I find Vonnegut sufficiently contrarian to say that I read him as fascinated by the enduring cultural logic of religious systems that, even in the face of their (and the humans who invent and foster them) annihilation at the hands of technologies (and their science), believe them to have nothing to offer a scientific age. If there’s satire here, if the joke has to be on religion or science, it strikes me that it’s on “sinful” science as a destructive force, not religion, which proves generative in Cat’s Cradle.

Put differently yet again, Cat’s Cradle was accepted by the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago—a university (and, in full disclosure, my doctoral alma mater) that once declined to award Queen Elizabeth II an honorary degree because she showed no evidence of scholarly achievement—as an MA thesis. Let me emphasize that the department permitted a novel to stand as the thesis. Novels, we have noted over and again in recent months, are not true; they are fiction. John reinforces this point in chapter 4, citing the opening lines of The Books of Bokonon: “All of the true things I’m about to tell you are shameless lies.” Yet in this case (and admittedly Vonnegut’s renown surely played into the decision to accept it as a thesis) Cat’s Cradle serves a kind of generic double duty. Thus I want to think about Bokononism not as an “invented” religion that satirizes religion in the atomic age but as a literary production that examines (and takes seriously) the history of religions and particularly their scriptures in an age that risks either forgetting them or rendering them equally useless through fundamentalist literalism. This is not to deny Cat’s Cradle’s status as a satirical novel. There Vonnegut wrote; he could do no other. It is to say, however, that within such a satirical mode, Vonnegut’s clear and abiding fascination with religion and the stuff of religions (myth, doctrine, scripture) becomes even more evocative as a satirical lens for the absurdity of unleashing technology that can destroy the world.


J. Robert Oppenheimer clearly recognized the metaphysics behind his nuclear physics. He developed the codename “Trinity” for the first artificial nuclear explosion in June of 1945, a name he claimed to derive from John Donne’s “Trinity” sonnet (“Batter my heart three-person’d God”), a poem focused on the disparity of divine and human power: “That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” The famous words attributed (in fact, self-attributed) to Oppenheimer upon witnessing the Trinity explosion—“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”—come from the Bhagavad Gita, from Hindu scripture. His pronouncement of this specific line from the Gita, however, was in fact preceded in Oppenheimer’s (and others’) telling of the story by another line from that same text: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” There’s a great deal to say about this that I simply can’t unpack with any adequacy here, but what I want to emphasize about Oppenheimer as the developer of “the bomb” is the way he mythologizes his own pursuits—appealing to doctrine (the Trinity) as well as myth and even scripture through the Gita as a kind of gesture to something more than such physics can pronounce.

Clearly certain parallels beyond the simply functional ones come into play between Oppenheimer and Vonnegut’s depiction of Dr. Felix Hoenikker. At Alamogordo, in what must be (or parallel) the Trinity test (which also took place at Alamogordo), one of the scientists present turns to Hoenikker and says, “Science has now known sin.” Hoenikker’s response, “What is sin?,” might at first glance seem to complicate the parallel, but the question also invokes Pilate’s query of Jesus—“What is truth?”—in John 18:38 (notably the question is unique to John’s gospel and surely a quip worthy of Vonnegut himself). Similarly, Newt’s description of his father’s actions on August 6, 1945 (the day of the bombing of Hiroshima) reflect a scientist turning to myth, to the rhymes and play of his childhood, witnessed in a grotesque close-up by young Newt: “He went down on his knees on the carpet next to me, and he showed me his teeth, and he waved that tangle of string in my face. ‘See? See? See?’ he asked. ‘Cat’s Cradle. See the cat’s cradle? See where the nice pussycat sleeps? Meow. Meow.’” Hoenikker, of course, eventually ushers in the destruction of the world through ice-nine, not the bomb, and considering the question of sin and world destruction, it’s also worth pointing out that ice-nine is essentially hereditary, “imputed” to his children. There’s a way that Vonnegut rewrites the history of science as a scriptural narrative. I’m less concerned here with the relative Bokononist virtues of this narrative—this novel—as a scripture and more fascinated by the use of recognizable generic conventions (supported by evidence from The Books of Bokonon) that recast the eschaton. A conscious sense of authorship made problematic by time and events. If humanity is annihilated, how do we read the text? In a similar mode to Moses writing the narrative of his own death? The short chapters that span episodes rather than contain them sound, read, and feel biblical. Human-made eschatologies are no less eschatological. See the cat? See the cradle?


One of my favorite anecdotes of the postwar era is the American theologian and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1958 eulogy on Jonathan Edwards, given on the bicentennial of Edwards’s death. Noting that most know Edwards for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” for the image of a spider suspended above the fiery pit of Hell, Niebuhr jokes that most might think that Edwards would have little to say to citizens of an atomic age. He disagrees, however: “We have a mythology of our own. We see before us in social, if not in personal terms, the real possibility of a future hell. Of a state of existence in which surviving souls, condemned to live, crawl about scrofulously amid the radiations of insidious poison, among emanations of noxious gases, on a planet unfit for habitation on which they must nevertheless inhabit.” Edwards’s vision of Hell found new purchase in the viability and seeming proximity of postatomic hellscape.

I want to argue that this is the emerging role of religion in Vonnegut’s early novels, and that Cat’s Cradle gives us a powerful example of this vision. A professed nonbeliever, Vonnegut recognizes that if we’re going to stand a prayer of a chance in the world he sees emerging (and to which he, too, contributed), we need to take a significant look at the risks and rewards of religion as an abiding cultural force. We need to take it seriously—not as easily dismissed fairy tales or fundamentalist claptrap but as a grounding form of human expression, as obeisance to destructive powers far greater than humanity’s own, as humble devotion to those metaphysics that belie physics. While perhaps not true, humankind abandons such truths at its own peril. Second, and probably more important: Vonnegut recognizes the danger of over-easy mythologization of science and technologies in either childish fairy tales or their own form of fundamentalist claptrap. By returning to the emergence of a new religion in this context, he offers a sense of how to think about a subject few treat critically and how to imagine the perils of failing to do so amid powers we neither understand nor control.