A flurry of media attention to the measles has prompted a debate over the safety of vaccines, the importance of vaccination for public health, and the importance of parental choice in making vaccination decisions.
I’ve noticed that many news stories and opinions provide little substantive information about the debate but instead merely offer soundbites, weak appeals to authority, fear-based tactics, unhelpful public shaming, and the verdict that it is not okay to question vaccination procedures.
I believe that this opposition to questioning is characteristic of a fundamentalist and idolatrous belief in technological progress.
The vaccine debate is often misrepresented as one of science vs. denial. This is a false characterization. In fact, scientific research seems to be the reason why many people are troubled by vaccines. From what I’ve seen and read, vaccine questioners generally do not oppose vaccination on principle but have concerns about how vaccination is implemented. Some concerns have to do with the health risks of the neurotoxic heavy metal adjuvants and other harmful ingredients that are in most vaccines. Other concerns have to do with the priorities of public health policy, the justice of how vaccine injuries are dealt with, the specter of discrimination based on vaccination status, and the rights of parents to make health decisions for their children. Above all, vaccine questioners seem to take a precautionary approach to vaccination, noting that the human immune system is not well understood. Substances once deemed safe industrially and medically (lead, mercury, asbestos, BPA) have shown to be toxic.
I’m not here to try to ferret any conclusions out of the vaccine debate itself. But I am interested in exploring the reasons for closing down public discourse and the conditions in which it is no longer acceptable to ask questions.
Why disallow reasonable inquiry into these controversial issues, many of which are not scientific? Why substitute propaganda and ad hominem attacks for rational discussion? I believe that the reason is religious in nature. Questioning vaccines is seen as a threat to the belief that science and technological progress are the best (or only) way to understand the world and the best (or only) arbiters of what is right and meaningful. Such a stance on knowledge and meaning is a religious stance and, what is more, a fundamentalism because, like all fundamentalisms, it cannot tolerate any dissent or even questioning.
Without the justification “because Science” or “because Progress,” a claim appears unreasonable to a technological fundamentalist, just as without a “because faith/‘God’/Bible says so,” a claim is unreasonable to a Christian fundamentalist. Scientism and fideism are both wrong.
In his 1987 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” Wendell Berry critiques technological fundamentalism. He discusses the negative social, environmental, relational, educational, economic, and practical costs of computers while acknowledging their benefits and his complicity in society’s use of them. Vaccinations, like computers, have both costs and benefits. In Life Is a Miracle, Berry rejects the faith in science to answer all our questions and technology to fix all our problems through, like magic, the manipulation of the natural world. He calls this a modern superstition, a misplaced idolatry.
In a blog post for The Twelve, Scott Hoezee uses a vaccination metaphor as a theological illustration. He recalls a Neal Plantinga sermon in which he compares immunization to Moses’ holding up a bronze snake to cure the Israelites’ snakebites in Numbers 21. Looking at the snake, the representation of the disease itself, cured them—they were visually inoculated.* Jesus, in John 3:14, compares the lifting up of the bronze snake to his own lifting up on the cross, where he died in order to defeat death. His death inoculates us from ultimate death.
That analogy works. But remember what happened to the bronze snake? The Israelites named it and began burning incense to it. They turned it into an idol. It became such a problem that King Hezekiah destroyed it in 2 Kings 18. The analogy with Christ doesn’t work in reverse. Only God—born, crucified, and risen—should be worshipped. We should not put trust in technology to save us. We must never idolize the comfort and security that technology can give.
I think an equally apt analogy is of vaccination to baptism, the sacrament in which a person (often a child) is initiated into God’s covenant and receives God’s promises of salvation. Vaccination, too, is a childhood ritual. It extends the promise of safety, buffering our selves from outside forces. It initiates one into the herd of modern, technological society. “I vaccinate you in the name of Technological Progress, Illusions of Security, and Industrial Corporate Profit.”
Only Jesus, not vaccines, can ultimately inoculate against death and even then we still must die.
I’m not saying that Christians therefore shouldn’t vaccinate or use medical interventions. We certainly should work to prolong lives, but we shouldn’t deny our mortality when we know resurrection awaits. Nor should the fear of death be an ultimate factor in making decisions, as it so often is for both vaccine fundamentalists and vaccine questioners.
In “Thank God for Vaccines” on Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog, which unfortunately sidesteps the main concerns of vaccine questioners, Dr. Emily Gibson makes religious claims in favor of vaccination. She says that “God indeed provides immunity” to disease by a body’s overcoming an illness, sometimes through suffering and threat to life. But God also provides us with “everyday miracles” in vaccines, for which we should be grateful.
From what we know, it seems that vaccines have done a lot of good. But we live in a fallen world, and everything in this very good creation is tainted. Vaccines, too, have risks, downsides, and negative consequences.
Here’s an analogy: many people thank God that humans have oil, coal, and gas because of how easy they’ve made our lives and all the beneficial things they enable. On the other hand, the extraction of fossil fuels, countless oil spills, the pollution from their burning, and the unjust systems they’ve enabled are not things we should be thankful for. Who thinks that we should thank God for the ecological devastation of the Niger Delta or the Alberta Tar Sands, not to mention the cultural devastation to the people indigenous to those areas? Is anyone so perverse as to thank God for climate change? We may eat meat sacrificed to idols, Paul says in Romans and First Corinthians, but the idols remain idols.
In an article in the most recent Books & Culture, “The Fear Syndrome,” D.L. Mayfield affirms the pro-vaccination argument of the book On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. The review is thoughtful, but it too fails to grapple with the concerns of vaccine questioners. Mayfield and Biss claim that non-vaccinators are individuals primarily motivated by irrational fear, clutching for control, only looking out for their own loved ones, causing harm despite their best intentions, who should love their neighbors by vaccinating. There may be truth in these critiques, but the same critiques could just as easily characterize pro-vaccination fundamentalism in support of non-vaccination.
The article contains a very telling sentence: “Community health depends greatly on the concept of ‘herd mentality.’” I assume this is a typo and that the author meant “herd immunity,” but I’m afraid that vaccine fundamentalism truly does operate by disallowing any opposition to the group’s dominant way of thinking. Invoking “herd immunity” becomes just another mantra misused to drown out inquiry.
In the past hundred years, our society’s primary health concerns have shifted from infectious diseases such as polio and tuberculosis to chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and heart disease. We’ve made our environments and bodies inhospitable to pathogens but we’ve also made them inhospitable to health, life, and the conditions for life to thrive. We’ve made our world massively toxic, polluted, impoverished, waste-filled, over-processed, and we’ve hidden our injustices and their costs behind the very technology, ideology, and bureaucracy that have benefitted us so much. It is fundamentalism to refuse to question the bad along with praising the good.
* Coincidentally, a serpent wrapped around a pole, the rod of Asclepius, is a common symbol used by medical professionals.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”