While this post is specifically about supposed “religious” objections to vaccines - particularly the Covid vaccine - much of this argument applies to religious exemptions to most laws, particularly civil rights laws. There are some exceptions, such as conscientious objection to war, but they are far more rare than Fundies and Evangelicals would have you believe. Most boil down to “I don’t want to,” not to anything truly religious, and many are even straight-up bigotry toward minorities. These are not religious objections, but social objections. They come down, not to what the believer genuinely believes God requires of him, but his objection to society requiring his cooperation. It is a belief in a lack of responsibility toward others, and a belief in one’s entitlement to do what one likes, despite the damage to others.
So let’s dive in.
1. What is a TRULY religious objection?
Fair disclosure: I am a religious person. I consider myself devout, although I have become unwelcome in organized religion because of my failure to adhere to certain orthodoxies, namely support for Trump and the GOP, rejection of racial and gender hierarchies, rejection of nationalism, rejection of social darwinism, rejection of a literal hell, full acceptance of LGBTQ people, and so on. So I come to this discussion as a religious person from a religious point of view.
As I see it, a legitimate, honest, religious objection to a law will have to fit into the following two categories:
The law requires me to do something that I believe God says is a sin.
The law requires me to refrain from doing something I believe God commands.
Furthermore, the specific command of God involved must be directed at ME, not at OTHER PEOPLE. So, if I believe that God doesn’t like black and white people mixing, that is not a command that God has given ME, but one that seems, somehow, magically, to apply in practice to black people. Hmm. (Before you dismiss that, take a look at the case I linked. Religion was used as an excuse to refuse to serve African Americans. Which is part of the point of this post.)
So, a good test here is, does the burden of my “religious” belief fall entirely on ME? Or does it fall on other people? That is the crux of the issue. Religious beliefs can legitimately burden the believer (some people don’t get to eat bacon), but cannot be used as a weapon to burden other people. More on this later.
But let’s go one deeper for now.
The overwhelming majority of “religious” exemption claims have nothing to do with religion.
When it comes to vaccines, I dare you to ask the person what sin they think they would be committing by getting a vaccine. You will never get an actual response. Never. Not one fucking time. Because it isn’t really about religion and never has been.
Follow up question, in case you DO get something that sounds like a legitimate response: so, do you believe getting ALL vaccines is a sin? Because chances are, said person has already vaccinated their kids and themselves in other ways. Like with the tetanus shot, for example.
At this point, let me address a new “religious” objection that is popping up. It is total shit, but it sounds fine until you actually question it.
“But what about the fact that vaccines are tested using embryonic stem cells? Since I believe abortion is murder, it would be a sin to get a vaccine that used them.”
Sounds legit, right? Except that literally every drug that might be used during pregnancy has been tested using embryonic cells. Every. Single. One. Why? Well, before you give a drug to a bunch of pregnant women (which, well, hasn’t gone well in the past) you might check whether it crosses the placenta (most drugs do) and whether it has a negative affect - which is done using embryonic cells first, because it is a low-risk way to screen for bad results. This is standard practice. So, if this is really your belief, then you need to stop using pretty much all modern drugs, from Tylenol to Ibuprofen to heart medication to...well, pretty much everything. Just stop using modern medicine altogether.
At this point, surely you can see what bullshit this is. If there truly was a consistent belief, there would be the attempt to figure out which medications were “tainted” and stop using them. Which would be followed by a widespread refusal to get medical treatment. Instead, as we see clearly every single time, the only focus is vaccines. Which seems to indicate that it isn’t really the embryonic cells that are the issue, but the desire to avoid getting vaccinated that is driving this. (And, as is pretty obvious, it isn’t evidence driving this but deliberate misinformation by people who made and make a hell of a lot of money selling antivax paranoia.)
Also, let me just put this out here: The Pope has said (and not just this one, but previous Popes) that the Catholic Church does not consider it a sin to use medications and vaccines that involve cell lines from the past. Whatever sin it might have been (if you consider it one) to do the abortion or use the embryo in the past, it is not an ongoing sin, because use of cell lines causes no further damage.
This, by the way, is the ONLY case where I have ever heard an actual sin cited as the “religious” objection to vaccines.
2. Do religions actually forbid vaccines?
Short answer: NO. NO. NO. And NO.
I actually looked up some of the religions that I thought were the most likely to forbid vaccines. And I was surprised at what I found.
Jehovah’s Witnesses: (Who forbid blood transfusions.) No, Jehovah’s Witnesses are fine with vaccines. (I have a number of JW clients...all vaccinated.)
Jains: (Who believe in the sanctity of ALL animal life.) Nope. Jains are okay with vaccines and antibiotics.
Amish: (Because electricity, yo.) Nope, Amish have no theological objection to vaccines.
Christian Science: (Who eschew medicine in general.) Actually, no, they do not object. In fact, they are concerned with living in peace with the rest of society.
In fact, about all I could find as far as official theological objections are coming from specific churches within the greater Fundamentalist/Evangelical movement. And in each case, the objection is social and political, not religious in the sense of considering vaccines a sin. The objection is to other people (government, scientists, liberals, etc.) having the nerve to tell THEM what to do. And that leads into...
3. What is the REAL objection here?
This breaks down into two categories, in my experience. The first is based on false beliefs. The second is based on an entitlement complex: the right to endanger and harm others without consequence.
This would be a post in and of itself. The bottom line always seems to lead back to a certain Andrew Wakefield, who fabricated data to “prove” that MMR vaccines cause autism. Which is a total fucking lie. He fucking lied about it, and lost his medical license as a result. (He should be in prison for life in my opinion.) That millions of people continue to believe his lies is infuriating to me. (And unfortunately, that includes my mother, who went off the medical deep end during my teens, and continues to follow Joseph Mercola and other charlatans to this day. I absolutely refuse to discuss “alternative medicine” bullshit with my parents for that reason.)
Many of those claiming “religious” objections to vaccines are in reality basing it on their belief in these lies, that vaccines are harmful, that the underlying diseases aren’t serious, and that they should thus have the right to refuse vaccines.
Guess what? Believing lies is NOT a valid basis for a religious objection. There is nothing religious about it. It is a denial of reality, not a belief in sin.
A secondary version of this applies to those who are vaccine skeptics, but who haven’t actually fully bought into the lies. These people are those I would consider more in the “bad at math” category. These are the ones who are certain that they will be in the extremely small percentage who have a reaction to a vaccine, but not in the far larger percentage who would be harmed by the disease itself. In reality, the percentage of serious reactions (most of which are treatable, by the way) to Covid vaccines is extremely small. Whereas 1 in 500 Americans has died of Covid. Included in the 500 are Americans who have not been infected (including my entire family) and those who have been vaccinated (all except my youngest, who will be vaccinated when it is approved), the actual death rate is a LOT higher. (Current estimates seem to run about 1.15% - more than 1 in 100. And of those who are infected (and unvaccinated), a high percentage will have “long Covid” - symptoms that last months or more. Vaccines reduce the likelihood of long Covid too.
This is why I consider antivaxxers in this category to be bad at math. It’s kind of like being terrified of dying in a terrorist attack but not in a car accident. (Or perhaps better, a person who won’t get in an airplane, but who refuses to wear a seatbelt in a car.)
But let’s think about this. Is there anything religious about that? (I mean, other than badly deluded beliefs, which are endemic to Fundies of all religions.) This isn’t a religious belief, it is a social belief. It is a choice to believe the lies of charlatans over the evidence of tens of thousands of scientists and public health experts who have devoted their lives to understanding and studying pathogens and how to stop them.
Giving preferential treatment to people who believe lies has no place in public health policy. Period.
Entitlement and sociopathy
This is, unfortunately, all too common. The main benefit of the vaccine isn’t to protect one’s self. (Although it does that too.) The benefit is to protect those who are vulnerable to Covid. Vaccines significantly reduce the spread. They do this in two ways. First of all, despite what antivaxxers say, you actually are substantially less likely to be infected with Covid if you are vaccinated. Furthermore, even if you do get a breakthrough infection, you will likely be less contagious and for a shorter period of time. Even though vaccinated individuals can occasionally spread infection, the current spread is overwhelmingly between unvaccinated persons.
My experience, however, has been that antivaxxers do not believe they have ANY obligation to protect others.
“I don’t think government should tell me what to do.”
But not just government, of course. They are furious when businesses (say, cruise ships, airlines, restaurants, concerts) require vaccines. “Nobody tells me what to do.”
Let’s be honest about what this is. It is sociopathy. It is the belief that one owes zero duty to the safety of others. (On a related note, antivaxxers are statistically likely also to be anti-mask, against any form of gun control, and against Black Lives Matter. Hmm. There might be a trend here…) Sure, there are exceptions. I know a few people who are fine with wearing a mask, distancing, and getting tested before going in public. But they are the exception that proves the rule.
I have friends with medically vulnerable children. I have friends with immune issues. I have friends who are vulnerable for various reasons. And the response they seem to get from antivaxx friends and family is “well, if you are afraid, you can just stay home.” Yeah, because excluding the vulnerable from society is definitely better than mandating that the rest of us take reasonable steps to protect the vulnerable. It is a breathtaking sense of entitlement. And, I might add, ableism. (Discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities.)
But look back at that again. Is there anything religious about that? “You aren’t the boss of me” is NOT a religious belief, but a social belief. And it has no place in public health policy.
Again, for those in the back:
“I Don’t Wanna” is NOT a religious belief, and should not be coddled in our society.
And the corollary:
There is no right to put others at risk. Period.
And that leads to my proposal for public policy.
4. Public Policy
When it comes to vaccines (and indeed to most although not all cases where religious beliefs conflict with the law), I believe that we should generally deny “religious” exemptions.
My home state of California ended religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccines for school children recently. I believe this was the right decision for the reasons stated above. (“Religious” exemptions are not actually based on a belief that vaccines are sinful, but on the basis that people don’t want them - that is, social beliefs; there is no right to put others in harm’s way because of your beliefs.)
I also believe strongly that the burden of religious beliefs should be placed firmly on the believer, not on others.
So, I would, in the case of vaccinations, deny ALL religious exemptions without exception. This should apply to every facet of participation in society. You are not permitted to walk into a crowd shooting your gun randomly (except maybe in Texas), and you are not permitted to spread germs in public randomly either.
In practice, there are limited practical ways to enforce this. Nobody is going to go door to door checking vaccine status. But we should use the tools we have, and the tools that were used in the past (dating back literally 150 years in US law) to mandate vaccines.
The simplest is this: once the vaccine proves safe for children, we make it one of the mandatory vaccines for school. The infrastructure for this is already in place, and we already enforce it. Let’s just do it with Covid too. And yes, this should apply to private and charter schools too. (Colleges are already mandating vaccines, and transmission rates are dropping as a result.)
Likewise, just like we have in past cases (see: Smallpox, Polio, Measles) require proof of vaccination for public carriers. That means trains, planes, and boats.
The same way, large gatherings such as concerts and sporting events - many venues are already doing this, and I bet after the first time one gets sued, more follow suit.
I also agree with President Biden that OSHA has a key role here. You want to work with other humans? You take steps to protect them by getting vaccinated. No religious exemptions. (Kudos to United Airlines for doing this right.) I believe that most large employers will do this soon anyway. (Even Fox News, for fuck’s sake! And the NFL, even for fans!) It’s basic safety. And basic “not wanting employees out sick with preventable Covid. If you want to work, you eventually will have to be vaccinated. Get used to it. Employers will not be interested in indulging your sense of entitlement on vaccines any more than they will your belief that you should not have to show up on time. Employers are also - correctly - demanding actual proof of a religious objection. This isn’t like, say not working on the sabbath, that is easy to see as a legitimate religious belief, let’s just say. And the law only requires a “reasonable accommodation,” which likely does not mean the right to risk harming customers or co-workers. For a comparison, would you want to be served by a fast food worker with active tuberculosis? How about teach your kids? (I had to get a TB test every year I coached violin in our local high schools.) Well, a majority of us don’t want you giving our kids - or us - Covid either. Get your damn shot already.
I would go a bit further for this too. Do you want government benefits (including unemployment)? Get your vaccine. Do you want to get a government contract? All your workers must be vaccinated. Do you want to work around kids? Not only to we do a background check to make sure you aren’t a sex offender, we check your vaccination status. If you want to participate in society, you need to respect the safety of others. Period.
Those of us who have sacrificed throughout this pandemic, who continue to wear masks, who got our vaccines - you know what? - we are fucking sick of antivaxxers. As Leonard Pitts put it:
Well, on behalf of the rest of us, the ones who miss concerts, restaurants and other people's faces, the ones who are sick and tired of living in pandemic times, here's a word of response to you quitters: Goodbye. The difference is, your anger is dumb, and ours is not. Yours is about being coerced to do something you don't want to do. Like that's new. Like you're not already required to get vaccinated to start school or travel to other countries. For that matter, you're also required to mow your lawn, cover your hindparts and, yes, wear a seatbelt. So you're mad at government and your job for doing what they've always done. But the rest of us, we're mad at you. Because this thing could have been over by now, and you're the reason it isn't.
5. What have we learned from all this?
Unfortunately, what we have learned is that certain people - those with specific religious and political beliefs - are both particularly susceptible to believing lies AND have a sociopathic approach to living in a society. We know who these people are. (Hint: white evangelical Trump voters.)
But also, we have learned from past pandemics that the way forward is mandates. People will do the right thing when it gets inconvenient for them to be assholes. As California found, ending the religious exemption led to a significant increase in vaccination rates. Most of these “religious” beliefs just melted away like the morning mist as soon as the antivaxxers had to lift one goddamn finger to bear the cost of their own decisions. Which means they were never actual religious beliefs at all.
That is the bottom line.
Religious exemptions permit people to shift the costs of their behaviors onto others. By denying them, we force people to bear the actual costs for their choices and behaviors.
And, it appears, most of them are unwilling to do that.
Very, very few will be willing to work from home, avoid travel, homeschool their kids, stay away from entertainment, and so on. As soon as they actually experience a bit of inconvenience, it will be shocking how ephemeral their “sincerely held religious beliefs” actually are. Because they are not deeply held beliefs. They are just asshole entitlement.
Let me be quick to distinguish religious exemptions from medical exemptions. There are people who cannot get vaccines for legitimate medical reasons. There are not many of these people, but they do exist. The way to document a medical exemption is to have a doctor specify exactly why you cannot safely get a vaccine. (Mostly, in the case of everything except live-virus vaccines, allergies to ingredients. Which are easy enough to document.) Are there abuses? Of course. Which is why a part of the enforcement needs to be revoking the licenses of doctors who write bogus exemptions. Here in CA, we have found that it is just a handful of charlatans who do this. (See: Mercola, Joseph, who should have lost his license and been imprisoned for the unnecessary deaths he has caused over the years with his toxic advice.) But again, doctors can’t just say “medical exemption.” They have to specify why, and provide evidence.
And also: for medical exemptions, there is no reason not to require regular Covid testing and mandatory masking as the reasonable accommodation.
Our stupid (and racist) healthcare system
I want to note that not all of the unvaccinated are antivaxxers. Because our medical system was set up to exclude black people, we continue to refuse to join the rest of the first world in treating healthcare as necessary infrastructure. This means that uninsured (or underinsured) or low income people are worried about costs. I know people who forego necessary medical treatment because they cannot afford it. That is the reality of living in a cruel and bigoted nation. I happen to know that the Covid vaccine is free to everyone (like all necessary medical treatment should be), but many are unaware of this. (My wife has had patients who didn’t get vaccinated because they thought they couldn’t afford it.) Likewise, not everyone has paid sick leave, and are afraid that if they, like me, have a day of flu-like symptoms after the second shot, they will lose their jobs or at least a day of necessary pay.
So yes, these are structural issues that make it harder to vaccinate certain populations. But we can fix that - and I know of a number of local civic organizations working hard to do that.
[Note here as well: much of the developing world lacks access to sufficient vaccines. This is deeply shameful and also a public health risk to everyone. The US and other rich nations should be giving significant priority to getting vaccines out worldwide. If not for altruistic reasons, at least for selfish ones.]
Why I think that this applies to civil rights laws.
This could be a whole post - it was, actually - but I believe that “religious liberty” exemptions from civil rights laws are equally problematic. And why they exist for the same reason: to give assholes and racists special privileges to abuse and endanger people they consider less worthy than themselves. You don’t want to treat people with different beliefs (and skin color, and sexual orientation, etc.) with respect and dignity? Get the hell out of our society. You are not so special that you are entitled to harm others.
And no, I don’t want to hear about how “intolerant” that is. A tolerant society can only exist if the assholes are kept in check. If my kids are spitting in other peoples’ food and hitting other kids, they would be sent away from the dinner table until they were willing to behave. Same with bigots. You should be excluded from society until you are willing to treat everyone with respect, whether you like their skin color or what they do with their genitals or not.