Religion And Vaccination

Can you stand one more diatribe about vaccination refuseniks?

I receive the Sightings newsletter from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. (I couldn’t find a URL). A recent essay–authored by Laurie Zoloth, a scholar of religion and bioethics–addressed the (mis)use of religion by those wishing to evade vaccination.

She dubbed it “The Great Defiance.”

Zoloth served on a panel that had been convened to review and evaluate exemption requests. After reviewing dozens of such requests, she noted “patterns emerging which revealed much about the way these Americans thought about themselves and their faith.”

Zoloth began with a history of religious and legal authorities’ approaches to vaccination.

 In 1905, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the US Supreme Court upheld a Cambridge City Council law mandating vaccination for citizens. 1922, it upheld a similar law for childhood vaccination. Cases about religious refusals for vaccines followed the same logic. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2017 decision in Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center which addresses a religious objection to a flu vaccine for a healthcare worker, rejected the claim that any subjective opinion was protected. As scholar David DeCosse notes, the court ruled against Fallon, establishing three criteria for religious objections. To be “religious” the claims had to address “fundamental and ultimate” questions, consist of a comprehensive belief-system and “not an isolated teaching,” and have “formal and external signs” like clergy, services, or rituals.

Zoloth then ticked off the positions of major American religious traditions, and found that– across the board–they were firmly committed to vaccination.

In Judaism, she found unprecedented agreement. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist rabbis; Chassidic, Haredi, and Modern Orthodox from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic tradition, agree that “the Torah obligation to preserve our lives and the lives of others requires us to vaccinate for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available.”

Pope Francis was equally unequivocal: “Vaccination is a simple but profound way of promoting the common good and caring for each other, especially the most vulnerable.”

Leaders of the Protestant denominations, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and finally, Christian Scientists, either pulled away from previous hesitancy or actively supported vaccination for their congregants. Both Sunni and Shi‘a imams, Buddhist monks and Hindu leadership wrote in support of vaccination. Only one prominent religion—the Nation of Islam—opposed vaccination.

Why, then, are people characterizing their refusal to be vaccinated  “religious”?

Zoloth writes that “claim after claim” was taken verbatim from the internet, warning of the spiritual danger of vaccines, and displaying “a serious misunderstanding of basic biology.”

A frequent “religious” objection was that COVID vaccines were tested in cultures made from cell lines that included fetal tissue gathered years previously– evidently oblivious to the fact that common drugs like Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol, Tums, Motrin, Benadryl, Sudafed, Preparation H, Claritin, and Prilosec, were similarly tested.

Zoloth concluded with three very potent observations.

First, we live in a society where intuition and feelings have replaced reason as the justification for moral action, where earnestness and sincerity are the stand-in for authenticity, and authenticity has replaced what we mean by “true.” ….When one turns away from central texts, leadership, or traditions to make individual claims about religion—then faith, turned inward, becomes nothing more than a personal preference.

The second problem is that religions, like states and markets, have a polity, and all polities have authority. What is striking about religious refusals of vaccination is how so many reject religious authority as well. When the Pope or the local minister told their followers to get vaccinated, many were prepared to turn to the internet to find an online cleric who would testify to their position. It was often the only testimony they would accept, for religion in this case, like the pandemic itself, had devolved into a set of completely individual, self-involved activities.

The final problem also emerges from within religions themselves: that stubborn insistence in so many faiths on loving the neighbor. Religion is profoundly other-regarding, and the outworking of this principle came to have a precisely defined place in the public square, and it was to live as though your neighbor’s life was as holy as your own. In concrete terms, it meant at least getting vaccinated if you were to live in the world we shared, and certainly, if you were to provide healthcare in a morally responsible way. Yet in example after example, in the America in which we have come to live, this obligation to the other was not mentioned in the letters we scholars were asked to read. At the center of the argument was the self…religious conscience had become entirely privatized, an opinion about what made them unhappy, as if the enormity of their responsibility to the whole of the social world simply did not matter.

We’ve really lost our way.


  1. This, “individual claims about religion.”

    It’s not religion’s fault that people are ignorant.

    The same people blame the government for failing while working for the government and sending elected officials to work for the government. While they are there, they use their positions to drain the government of resources for their donors. They also weaken the government, so it’s ineffectual to help their donors.

    It’s quite absurd – almost comical—an absurd comedy. Monty Python comes to mind.

    I watch the same otherwise ordinary people rally around the flag and the MIC in fear while Putin reclaims a secure position along his border. These same ordinary people have been silent when the US military sets up one military base after another along Russia’s western border for decades while Russia issues one warning after another.

    The same people say nothing when warned about the concentration of corporate power and then go berserk when prices increase, and our media calls it inflation. No, it’s price control.

    Maybe, the problem isn’t religion, social media, or government, but ignorance. 😉

  2. Good morning Todd!

    I think I’ve mentioned a lot of this issue before in my comments. About loving your neighbor and loving god? If you are showing actual love for your neighbor, that form of love is holy! And, really all forms of Love are holy!

    Todd is right about ignorance, and most of that ignorance is the willful type! Willful ignorance, is just a way for people to live in an alternate reality. But, I would have to say, during the second World war, the Catholic Church could have stopped much of the fighting, because Catholics were slaughtering catholics. And not only that, Protestants were slaughtering protestants. More recently, Muslims slaughter Muslims. And most religions slaughter their fellow believers!

    These huge organized religions create zealotry or fervor that gets people riled! And when you have churches blessing weapons of war, and all sides claim that God is on their side, that’s ignorant. This absolutely goes against scriptural teachings.

    When interpreting scripture, if those scholars find an updated or new understanding, that should reflect in the teachings of religion. But, they refuse! They keep teaching outdated and false dogma as actual scriptural truth.

    Actually, something being Kosher or Halal, is a commandment in the Torah or the Tevrat. It means an animal is not strangled and it’s blood is poured out according to Mosaic law requirements. Actually, Jehovah’s witnesses believe the very same thing. That is why they abstain from anything containing blood. It’s because of that commandment/Law in the Pentateuch. The major christian religions don’t believe that. They don’t abstain from blood. They eat blood sausage and eat blood pudding, they strangle birds and let them rot before eating, and of course, the medical issues concerning blood transfusions. But that only affects the individual. When you willingly infect your fellow man or your neighbor, how can you love him or her. That goes against basic scriptural dogma.

  3. I love the fact that Evangelical Christian denominations haven’t spoken up to encourage their followers to get the vaccine. Could it be that political influence means more to them than God?

  4. Todd summarizes the human condition with regard to its utter lack of ability to govern complex societies with a Cross Magnon brain. Religion is used, by those “refuseniks” as their only excuse and reason to “act out” against things they don’t understand, or worse, refuse to learn.

    Therein lies the rub. When science discovered that vaccination against terrible disease worked, the ignorant bought into that because there was no alternative. Science ruled. Today, we have political “discourse” that denies things for the sake of gaining votes and power.

    Humans have once again perverted facts and truths for some agenda invented by discordant and irresponsible media that feeds the ignorant the B.S. they want to hear. Why do they want to hear it? Because they’re too lazy to learn the facts. I saw these folks coming through my classrooms from 1994 -2007. And here they are pretending to be adults. But, it’s only about 25% who make life so miserable for everyone else. It was the same in my classes: There were 25% who simply weren’t reachable.

  5. Absolutely Vern!

    I’m thinking you need to write an epic novel (maybe a trilogy?) about this whole deal. Truth is stranger than fiction no doubt. I’ll be first in line to read it, lol! It seems to me that certain individuals in the political realm are trying to infuse more and more religious teachings into secular government. Kind of like creating a state-sponsored church. Hitler did that with many of the Protestant religions, he combined them into the church of Germany or something like that, whatever it was. One of their ornamental medals, actually quite a few of their medals contained the cross and the swastika right in the center of the cross.

    When the Christian church became emperor Constantine’s lackey, that’s around the time the church was exerting it’s authority over all of secular society. We can call that the dark ages! And, judging by how rapidly the Evangelical Wing wants to burn and bann books, also limit free speech is because they want to return to the ignorance of the dark ages. A bunch of intellectual Ludites!

  6. Wow. There’s that same theme again: “ First, we live in a society where intuition and feelings have replaced reason as the justification for moral action, where earnestness and sincerity are the stand-in for authenticity, and authenticity has replaced what we mean by “true.””

    A government of any democratic republic had better think hard about how the 1st Amendment works in all situations but especially where people expressing things can be proven to be untrue and harmful because of amplification. A good place to start would be to put more qualifications on immunity granted by Section 230.

    I read recently that Russia had shut down Twitter in their county and it immediately led to a drop off in extremist-right-wing propaganda targeted at the US. Perhaps it’s also time for NATO countries to ban the use of social media companies based in their countries inside other countries known to be rogue states. I’m lookin’ at you Facebook and Parler.

  7. It’s another example of people “doing their own research”, which really means finding some crackpot Facebook site that backs up the position they want to be true. It’s getting to the point when I hear that phrase that my eyes are rolling so far back in my head that I’m afraid they’ll never face forward again.

  8. I always assumed that the Era of Enlightenment was a permanent transformation of our species. Why would we ever return to ignorance especially when the growth in knowledge defined our times? But then, why would free people return to authoritarianism?

  9. “Maybe, the problem isn’t religion, social media, or government, but ignorance. “

    “Todd is right about ignorance, and most of that ignorance is the willful type! “

    When Dr. Howard Zinn published in 1980 “A Peoples’s History of the United States,” it was revolutionary … and controversial.

    Historians lauded Dr. Zinn for his deep research into original source documents. Some politicians, though, objected to conclusions drawn by Dr.,Zinn, and moved to have Dr. Zinn’s book banned. Example politicians who took this action were governors of Arkansas and Indiana.

    Denial of citizens’ access to books that would enhance knowledge outside the norms favored by their governors, leads to another type of ignorance to which citizens may strongly object.

    What is the name of the type of ignorance that is imposed by government on its people?

    What is the name of that type of government?

  10. Not that it is an issue, for me, but I would not have thought that that list of medication was similarly tested.
    A “misunderstanding of basic biology,” is no surprise, to me, anyway, as love of ignorance can be another
    name for the religious crazies.
    Well, just go back to Sheila’s 2/28/22 posting about facts becoming irrelevant. “What I FEEL is the truth, nothing more,”
    as George Carlin used to say, is a “special kind of stupid!”
    Let us not loose sight of how vaccination became a divisive issue, in the first place: It stems from Trumpian manipulation!
    Not that he didn’t have a finger on a particular, rotten to the core, American (Human?) selfishness, that he’d been nurturing
    for his own purposes for some years. But, like his escalator “throw away” line about the wall, that met with such applause,
    the “deplorables” loved this bs, as well.
    Religion teaches “blind faith,” teaches not to question, love ignorance, which even St.Augustine championed, as I have read.
    To paraphrase Voltaire (“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities,”) those who made
    you belive absurdities, yesterday, can do it all over again, today.!

  11. The word faith means that you believe without evidence.
    All religious debates boil down to faith vs evidence.
    Our political debates are now faith vs faith.
    This is theocracy through religious education.
    The evidence is showing it right now.
    Bible banging is based on faith, not evidence.
    Evolutionary psychology is a good basis for morality.
    Cooperators live longer.

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