John, the narrator of Cat's Cradle, began to write a book, titled The Day the World Ended, about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. At that time, he was a Christian, but now he is a Bokononist. Bokononists believe that all of humanity is organized into teams, called karasses, that unknowingly carry out God's will. Bokonon, the founder of the religion, warns that attempts to discover the purpose of one's karass are destined to yield incomplete knowledge.
The Books of Bokonon open with a warning that everything contained within is composed of "shameless lies." John warns that anyone who cannot understand that a useful religion can be built on lies will not appreciate Cat's Cradle. John's other book, now left unfinished, led him to his karass, which includes Angela, Frank, and Newt Hoenikker, the three children of the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Felix Hoenikker, one of the scientists who invented the atomic bomb. Long ago, John wrote to Newt, who was then a medical student at Cornell. In the letter, John asked Newt what he remembered of the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Newt replied to John's letter, stating that he was only six years old that day. He was playing with his toy trucks in his home in Ilium, New York, and his father was playing cat's cradle with a piece of string. Usually, Felix had no interest in games invented by other people. He was once quoted in Time magazine as saying that since there were so many "real games," the made-up ones never interested him.
Rather randomly, a prisoner had mailed a manuscript of a book he had written about the end of the world to Felix; the prisoner wanted technical information about a theoretical bomb that might be able to kill all humanity. Felix never read the book, but he was fascinated with the string tied about the manuscript. He hardly ever took interest in books or people, even his own family, yet that morning he went to Newt to show him how to play cat's cradle. As he approached Newt, Felix looked so huge and ugly that Newt burst into tears and fled the house. Angela has since told Newt many times that his reaction hurt his father's feelings, but Newt thinks he couldn't have hurt him much since Felix took so little interest in people. Felix didn't even remember much about Emily, Newt's mother, after she died.
Newt ran out to sit with Frank, who was 12 years old at the time. Frank was occupied with Mason jars full of bugs, which he shook to make the bugs fight against one another. When Angela, who was 22 at the time, asked him what he was doing, Frank replied that he was "experimenting." She asked Newt why he had run from Felix, and Newt told her that Felix was ugly and frightening. Angela slapped Newt, and, in response, Frank punched her in the stomach. Angela called for Felix. Frank laughed, correctly predicting that Felix would not respond to her call.
When he was working on the bomb, Felix became fascinated with turtles. He quit working on the Manhattan project to investigate this new interest. Angela advised the other people involved with the project to simply remove the turtles from his laboratory if they wanted to direct his attention back to the atomic bomb. When Felix found nothing in his laboratory to "play with and think about" except the atomic bomb research, he promptly began working on it again. The day the bomb was tested, another scientist told Felix that science had finally encountered sin, but Felix merely asked what sin was.
Cat's Cradle opens with a brief introduction to some of the tenets of Bokononism. Each Bokononist believes that he or she belongs to a team that carries out God's will, but Bokononism warns that the individual will never fully understand his or her part in the divine plan. Everything that happens in his or her life is "meant to happen," so the Bokononist feels no pressure to do anything other than live his or her life with the faith that he or she is inevitably doing God's will.
Interestingly enough, the opening lines of The Books of Bokonon declare that Bokononism is based entirely on lies. Nevertheless, we later discover that the citizens of San Lorenzo, the birthplace of Bokononism, are all devout Bokononists. One may wonder how a religion that calls itself a lie can inspire such devotion. However, Vonnegut means to emphasize that religion's main purpose is to make its practitioners feel as if their lives have meaning and purpose. Therefore, "truth" plays no real part in religion; it is the illusion of meaning and purpose that a religion provides that is important. Without this emphasis on truth, Bokononism avoids inspiring the violent religious dogmatism that sometimes characterizes the practitioners of other religions. No Bokononist has any particular truth for which to fight.
In his portrait of Felix Hoenikker, Vonnegut mocks standardized, Western ideas about good, evil, sin, and morality. Generally, an "innocent" person is ignorant of sin. Felix, in many ways, fits this definition. When his colleague commented that science had known sin after the first bomb was tested, Felix betrays ignorance as to even the definition of sin. With such ignorance coincides a necessary inability to acknowledge moral responsibility. Felix felt none for his part in helping to create the atomic bomb.
Felix was so "innocent" that he was completely ignorant of personal and moral obligations. Like a selfish child views its mother, he viewed his wife, and later his daughter, as his caretakers and nothing more. He hardly acknowledged his family because they were not as interesting and fascinating as the "games" he played at the Research Laboratory. Felix was not an abusive father, but he was an extremely indifferent father, and just like his research, his indifference had future effects.
Frank's explanation of his interest in bugs eerily echoes Felix's attitude toward his research. On the day Hiroshima was bombed, Frank was amusing himself by forcing bugs to war against one another in mason jars. He told Angela that he was merely "experimenting." Felix's attitude toward the global conflict of World War II was very much the same. The pawns in Felix's "experimental" war game were millions of soldiers and nations armed with nuclear warheads. Felix regarded these pawns with no more concern than Frank regarded his insects.
Felix's total ignorance, indifference, and "innocence" toward the moral responsibility that accompanied his nuclear weapons research become even clearer in his attitude toward the prisoner's book about the end of the world. The prisoner asked Felix's advice about the type of bomb that could destroy the world because Felix was one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. More interested in playing Cat's Cradle with a piece of string than thinking about the possible applications of his weapons research, Felix did not spare the prisoner's book a second glance. Once the bomb had been created, Felix lost all interest in it. Clearly, Vonnegut does not equate innocence with harmlessness. Innocence such as that found in Felix can be incredibly destructive.