Religion is one of the most overt themes of Hiroshima. Of the book’s six central characters, two are priests (one Jesuit, one Methodist), and one later becomes a nun. Moreover, most of the characters in the book turn to religion for comfort in times of need: confronted with the mind-boggling destruction of the bombing, they use faith to answer profound questions about the meaning of the day’s destruction. Upfront, it’s important to notice that Hiroshima spends much more time discussing Christianity—a religion imported to Japan from the Western world—than it does discussing either Buddhism or Shinto, the country’s two major religions. Perhaps Hersey, or his editor, William Shawn, believed that Hersey’s American audience would identify with Christian characters more strongly than with Shinto or Buddhist worshippers. Or perhaps Hersey had an easier time getting in contact with Christians living in Japan, since they might be more likely to speak English and have connections to the United States. But even if Hiroshima’s take on religion has an obvious Western, Christian bias, it poses general, open-ended religious questions that transcend any specific religion: What can religion do to alleviate suffering? Can religion “explain” a disaster as unspeakably horrible as the Hiroshima bombing?
On a literal, practical level, Hiroshima shows that religion inspires people to provide comfort and safety for their fellow people. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing on August 6, 1945, the priests spring into action: Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge and his peers free people from the wreckages of their homes, gather food and water for those too weak to find them on their own, and comfort the wounded. Religious figures act as important leaders and organizers in times of crisis: because they’ve spent their entire adult lives learning how to prioritize the needs of other people, they quickly organize themselves in order to help those in need.
But of course, religion doesn’t just attend to people’s practical, material needs—first and foremost, the purpose of religion is to provide for people’s spiritual needs. In particular, priests must quell people’s uncertainty about the meaning of the universe and their fear of pain and death. Here, Hiroshima provides a more ambiguous interpretation of the power of religion. In the hospital, after sustaining a nasty injury in the bombing, a woman named Toshiko Sasaki asks a priest, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, “If your God is so good and kind, how can he let people suffer like this?” As Hersey paints the scene, Kleinsorge replies to Sasaki by explaining “all the reasons for everything.” It’s difficult to interpret Kleinsorge’s response, since Hersey doesn’t repeat what Kleinsorge tells Sasaki; he leaves it to the reader’s imagination. One could argue that Hersey is suggesting that no religion can provide a satisfactory answer to Sasaki’s question—that, in the face of unimaginable destruction, religion cannot repair people’s pain and suffering. However, Kleinsorge’s comfort and support do inspire Sasaki to live a long, rewarding life; she converts to Catholicism and becomes a highly respected nun. Yet even later in life, Sasaki continues to struggle to understand the tragedy of Hiroshima. Thus, even if religion can’t provide definitive answers to life’s profound questions, perhaps it can still inspire people to lead more fulfilling lives that replace being mired in unanswerable questions with serving others. In all, Hiroshima suggests that religion can be an important force for good—not because it provides neat, tidy answers to moral and spiritual problems, but because it inspires people to invest themselves in moral and spiritual matters and live for the betterment of other people.
Religion Quotes in Hiroshima
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
[Fathers Schiffer and LaSalle] thanked God for the care they had received. Thousands of people had nobody to help them.
Father Kleinsorge has thought back to how queasy he had once been at the sight of pain, how someone else's cut finger used to make him turn faint. Yet there in the park he was so benumbed that immediately after leaving this horrible sight he stopped on a path by one of the pools and discussed with-a lightly wounded man whether it would be safe to eat the fat, two-foot carp that floated dead on the surface of the water.
"My child," Father Kleinsorge said, "man is not now in the condition God intended. He has fallen from grace through sin." And he went on to explain all the reasons for everything.