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April 20, 2020, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. People protest stay-at-home orders

Screenshot by: CNN's Miguel Marquez / Twitter

Religious beliefs are not a sufficient reason to seek vaccine exemption

82% of American Catholics have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while only 57% of Evangelical Protestants did the same. Why?

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The global society as a whole is increasingly oriented towards science-based medicine. Ever since the Enlightenment, the West has begun to steer in the direction of science, a process causing significant tensions among those drawing their social position from religious legitimization and their followers.

Historically, the abortion debate is probably the best example of how medicine got twisted into religious debates, leading to the medical procedure of pregnancy termination being rendered illegal in many countries where religious organizations hold significant political influence.

Another example of how medical procedures are being drawn into religious debates takes place at the very moment concerning vaccination against COVID-19. As vaccination is being made mandatory in various countries (although the requirement is mostly limited to medical professionals and certain other groups) or required from international tourists, there has been increasing numbers of people seeking exemptions supported by their religious beliefs.

Merely a year after COVID-19 vaccination efforts began, emerging data has connected the proportion of people vaccinated within certain communities with their religious beliefs. According to a recent survey, conducted in the United States by Pew Research Center, a staggering 82% of American Catholics have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine while only 57% of Evangelical Protestants did the same.

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Pope Francis encouraged Catholics to take COVID-19 vaccine

Picture by: Ashwin Vaswani / unsplash

To make the picture even more difficult to comprehend, we can add in the fact that the societies of Israel and Bhutan have higher levels of vaccination (70 and 76 percent, respectively) than American protestants. As roughly 75% of people in both countries declare themselves to be religious, it is quite safe to assume that neither Judaism or Buddhism impacts vaccine acceptance the way Evangelical Protestantism does.

Catholicism and Buddhism have one thing in common – both these religions have a single leader who is allowed to provide instructions to believers. Both the Pope, who is the head of the Catholic Church, and the Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of Buddhists, have encouraged followers to take vaccines against COVID-19.

The Dalai Lama has received the coronavirus vaccine and urged others eligible to “take this injection” claiming that “this is very very helpful, very good”. Similarly, the Pope got vaccinated and encouraged people to do so also – he said that “getting vaccinated is a simple yet profound way to care for each other”. The Vatican also issued a statement in which Catholics were told that “it is morally acceptable to receive the COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process”.

While vaccine acceptance among Buddhists and Catholics can be explained by the fact both these religions have a single leader who has encouraged believers to get vaccinated, Judaism is – like Evangelical Protestantism – a decentralized religion in which there are many factions and various rabbis offering slightly different interpretations of the Torah. Yet, despite this lack of central authority, vaccine acceptance in Israel (where most of the population is Jewish) resembles rather that of other centralized religions than it is likewise decentralized Evangelical Protestants.

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"His Holiness the Dalai Lama Receives COVID-19 Vaccine"

Screenshot: Dalai Lama's YouTube Channel

Apparently, the answer to the obvious question – why do Evangelical Protestants have the lowest vaccination rate of all four religious groups mentioned? – is that the beliefs of Evangelical Protestants are connected with the anti-vaccination movement. In fact, a huge proportion of Evangelical Protestants claim that they will not accept a vaccine against coronavirus because it goes against their religious beliefs.

Their argument is three-fold.

Firstly, Evangelical Protestants cite the belief that the human body is a holy temple and as such, cannot be contaminated. Secondly, they believe that aborted fetal cells have been used in the production of the vaccine, and finally, it is the core belief of Evangelical Protestantism, that God decides what happens – therefore getting vaccinated is completely unnecessary.

On the first point, they support their claim by quoting an extract from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where the evangelist states: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”. This sentence when taken alone might support their claims that vaccines may be considered as to ‘contaminate’ the body. However, this quotation is being used entirely out of context. St Paul says that it is the Church as a whole which is God’s temple – therefore Pauls’s warning is not about the believers physical bodies being contaminated, but the effect of their actions on the community.

Moreover, three chapters later when Paul does refer to ‘the body as a temple of the holy spirit’ he does not suggest in any way that the Holy Spirit cannot dwell in a body that has been physically polluted by medicine or other substances – he means instead that people should keep themselves clean of sin.

The second argument Evangelical Protestants are putting forward as to why getting vaccinated goes against their religious beliefs is the claim that cells from aborted fetuses are in the vaccine. Anti-abortion is one of modern Christianity’s core political involvements. It springs from one of the ten commandments – ‘do not kill’- and in the 20th century rendered various factions of Christianity becoming involved in the ‘protecting the unborn life’ agenda, therefore spawning a variety of ‘pro-life’ movements against abortion. Evangelical Protestantism was a huge part of it – and now Protestants claim that accepting a vaccine containing aborted fetal cells would mean going against their goal of ‘protecting unborn life.

This argument is also false. Cell lines grown from these coming originally from a fetus aborted in the Netherlands in 1973 - and that abortion had nothing to do with medical research - have been used in testing for mRNA and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines. Such cells are also used in the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. However, none of the vaccines contains any aborted fetal cells - this is simply not true - and so this argument seems to be far-fetched at the very best.

The third argument of Evangelical Protestants is that they believe God decides what happens. This argument comes in different shapes and forms, but effectively permits believers not to take any action – be that because they do not believe in any form of healing/curing except for the Holy Spirit (resulting in them saying they do not need to or wish to get vaccinated as they are in God’s hands), or because they believe that the pandemic is God’s punishment so they, who are not as sinful as others, have no need to protect themselves. Once again, this belief is a wild interpretation of Scripture (drawing, for example, from the story of the plagues launched by God on Egypt).

As none of these arguments for vaccine exemption on the grounds of religious beliefs is even remotely supported by doctrine, the question remains: why are some religious groups using their beliefs as an excuse to avoid the jab?

The most accurate and reasonable explanation for this is anti-intellectualism.

People refuse to take the COVID-19 vaccine because of fear. Fear, in itself, is understandable and even logical – no one wants to be injected with some recently researched substance. Yet, most of us would then calculate the lesser of two evils and decide to take the vaccine, as endless evidence shows that this decision, although not completely free of consequences (in most cases side effects of vaccination are mild or none, but there are rare occurrences of more serious side effects) protects us from severe illness and limits the chance that we will be responsible for spreading the virus to more vulnerable groups. To reach that conclusion one has to be able to compare different scenarios and, crucially, must believe in data provided by scientists and public institutions.

Various misinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories funnelled by social media and mostly right-wing propaganda outlets aims at creating suspicion and mistrust of science and, more broadly, all elites. These vary from exaggerating the side effects of vaccines or playing down risks caused by COVID-19 (most often example is by comparing it to a common flu) but some go quite far, as to claim that vaccines contain microchips by which Bill Gates is capable of controlling the vaccinated or, that COVID-19 is a lab-designed illness while vaccines are going to cause ‘depopulation’ of planet Earth.

All these claims create confusion and thus, impede one’s ability to reason coherently and correctly. Also, those who decide not to take the vaccine because of this confusion, become personally invested in spreading the above mentioned falsehoods, as persuading others enforces their beliefs and feeling of being ‘in the right’.

Moreover, the fact that vaccinations are becoming obligatory in some places (for example, Austria was the first European country to introduce compulsory vaccinations for adults, in the UK medical staff is expected to be fully vaccinated by February 3, 2022) magnifies those people’s discontent – in their eyes the global elite is forcing them to do something, which results in increasing their feeling of being inferior and hence, the need to fight back.

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Even though religious beliefs against getting the vaccine are not valid, people still seek exemptions on those grounds because they are most likely to be granted them. As freedom of religion and conscience are a crucial element of civil liberties, governments are more likely to grant exemptions on grounds of religious beliefs (in order not to discriminate against religious groups) than on the grounds of individual fear or whim.

One way to interpret this is that religious argumentation supports specific political views, in this case populism with its mistrust and prejudice towards the elites. Refusing vaccination would be logical for populist movements, which in many cases had already been linked to extremist religious groups. This can stem from anti-regulatory stances – people believing that mandatory vaccines are a big pharma’s sale technique to steal money. Religion is a perfect way of accessing new groups for these political movements.

However, another interpretation is that this might be entirely the other way around: its politics that is being used as means of expressing particular religious beliefs. If we stop being sceptical and do not question these groups of people with the use of logic and scientific reasoning we might end up with a subsection of society whose religious beliefs are purely and genuinely against vaccination because they for a fact believe – and beliefs do not need to logically justified – that vaccines are irreconcilable with their religious views.

This leads to a great, unanswered question of whether we should accept this fact, even though we might not entirely understand it and suffer the consequences and price it entails, or should we aim to break their resistance.

The problem is, that these two are not mutually exclusive. Targeting those who cite religious views to avoid something they are afraid of or are not willing to do the work to understand, societies would have to infringe the rights of a – arguably tiny – group of people whose claims regarding exemption on religious grounds would be substantiated.

The closest example we have to the mental exercise resolving this issue is the case of smoking in secluded public indoor areas. For decades, smoking had been legal in places unimaginable now – onboard planes, the London underground, in offices, etc. Bars and restaurants were places where it was generally legal to smoke cigarettes until around 2005 when New York City and then several European countries began banning all indoor smoking, and, by now, it is pretty much a standard in the West.

The reason for this ban originates from the fact that a person smoking indoors not only endangers their own health (and we do assume that adults are, to a certain extent, harming their own bodies with alcohol or tobacco) but also the health of those around them as the toxic substances get into the human body through passive smoking, and therefore have detrimental effects on others around that are not even smoking.

Vaccines are the flip side to the smoking coin: we arrive at exactly the same effect (protecting not only one person but also those all around them) by asking people to do something instead of asking them not to do something.

Arguably, even as banning smoking in public areas was at the time met with significant opposition, it was still significantly easier to do than making vaccinations obligatory for everyone. It is so because our ethics – and those of which historically derived from religion – are based on bans and not on sharing responsibility.

History of religion, however, offers a particular solution – those seeking exemption from vaccination because of their religious beliefs should be aware that each religion emphasizes the cost and consequences of following its path.

Those exempt from vaccination should be all but happy to pay the price if their beliefs are that important to them. The consequences might include limitations on freedom such as not being able to travel, not being able to work in some parts of the economy, being excluded from dining in restaurants, etc.

These limitations are reasonable, as they will decrease the risk that an unvaccinated individual will have towards others around them – and if only those willing to pay the price of their beliefs would be able to claim exemption on religious grounds, the number of opportunists citing religion to satisfy their whim would become significantly smaller.

Written by:

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Marsi Hadjieva

Writer in Politics & Society section

Warsaw, Poland

Born in 2006 in Warsaw, Poland, Marsi Hadjieva is a high school student interested in social sciences, economy, biology and environment-related issues. For Harbingers’ Magazine, she writes about variety of topics covering the realm of social sciences. Marsi speaks fluent English, Polish and Bulgarian (she holds a Bulgarian citizenship) and has an advanced command in Spanish.

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