Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

What religions actually state about vaccines

©New York Times, 2010.

©New York Times, 2010.

Yesterday, I wrote an article about a father who is suing the New York Department of Education to force a school to allow his unvaccinated son into school. The basis of his lawsuit is that vaccination is against his religious beliefs. He is a Roman Catholic, and as far as I could find, the Catholic Church strongly supports vaccination, even making it a moral and ethical issue by clearly stating that “there would seem to be no proper grounds for refusing immunization against dangerous contagious diseases…” In other words, not only is the Catholic Church not opposed to vaccination, it seems to indicate that it would immoral to not vaccinate.

In a comment on Facebook to my blog post, someone pointed me to a fascinating systematic review of the dogma of several religions with respect to vaccines and specific components of vaccines. The article was published in the highly respected and peer-reviewed medical journal, Vaccine, one of the top journals for vaccine research. The piece was penned by John D Grabenstein, a religious expert on vaccines who happens to be employed by Merck, a major manufacturer of vaccines. I don’t usually point out these potential conflicts of interest, because I firmly reject the Big Pharma Shill Gambit, which is a form of poisoning the well, that is discrediting someone by making a nefarious link between a researcher and a pharmaceutical company. Moreover, Grabenstein’s article is a review about religious beliefs, peer reviewed by others, and not making some claims that vaccines stop cancer. Of course, Gardasil, made by Merck, does stop cancer, but that has nothing to do with Grabenstein or this article.*

Since the article sits behind a pay-wall (complaint #47 about these scientific article pay-walls–how are we to intelligently discuss real science, if the articles cost us $25 or more to access). Well, I got access to the article, so I thought I would summarize religious beliefs about vaccination. If you run across someone claiming that their religion is against vaccinations, you can check here, although, admittedly, the article only covers mainstream religions. 

  • Hinduism. Hindus advocate for a respect for life, and thus, support technology that allows people to live longer and healthier. None of the four major sects of Hinduism have ever stated a concern with vaccination. Moreover, Hindus venerate cows, and thus do not eat beef, but no Hindu sect has opposed vaccines that are manufactured from bovine components. According to Grabenstein, “vaccination is widely accepted in predominantly Hindu countries.”
  • Buddhism. Around 1022-1063 CE, a written account described how a Buddhist nun used the process called variolation, which is a form of inoculation. In this case, she ground up smallpox scabs then put it in the nose of non-immune individuals, an early form of nasal vaccines I suppose. The 14th Dalai Lama, the current incumbent, was involved in a polio vaccination program. There are no religious texts or doctrine that oppose vaccines, and predominantly Buddhist countries are rather pro-vaccination.
  • Jainism. A small religion with just a small number (around 5-6 million) of adherents in a few countries. The author probably included them because of their strong belief in non-violence, which even makes it difficult for them to take antibiotics, which kill microorganisms. However, they have a strong tradition of allowing violent self-defense to allow humans to survive (like killing animals for food, or vaccines causing the immune system to kill microorganisms), so vaccinations have never been prohibited by the religion. 
  • Judaism. Jews traditionally expect certain actions of its believers to maintain health and that would include vaccination. In addition, Judaism emphasizes the community over the individual in disease prevention, on of the more critical aspects of community wide vaccinations. In fact, Jewish scholars encouraged smallpox variolation in the era before the availability of vaccines. In the 1850s, distinguished Rabbi Yisroel Lipshutz described Edward Jenner as a “righteous gentile,” for his efforts in developing smallpox vaccination. (If I were a distinguished rabbi, I would add Jonas Salk and Paul Offit to righteous gentiles. Well, Salk was Jewish and I am unfamiliar with Offit’s religion, so “righteous gentiles” might not work.) Orthodox Rabbis have set aside Shabbat restrictions on observant Jews to get vaccinate in the not-too-distant past when vaccines were only intermittently available. One myth, debunked many time, is that because vaccines are often made of pork, and consumption of pork is restricted by Jewish dietary law. However, this prohibition of non-Kosher food, like pork, is usually agreed to mean oral consumption only, not when delivered by injection. Grabenstein concludes that, “Based on this review, contemporary Jewish vaccine decliners are more likely to cite concerns about vaccine safety than to invoke a specific religious doctrine that has not been considered by acknowledged Jewish scholars.”
  • Christians. According to Grabenstein, most Christian churches have no specific scriptural or canonical objection to the use of vaccines. He included the following Christian churches in the list: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Amish, Anglican, Baptist, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Congregational, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist (including African Methodist Episcopal), Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Roman Catholics and some other denominations have expressed concerns about the aborted fetal tissues used in manufacturing some vaccines, although this concern has never included a formal restriction, by doctrine, of vaccination.
  • Amish. One of the enduring myths of the vaccine deniers is that Amish communities do not get vaccinated. However, there is no prohibition against vaccines by the Amish church, and vaccination rates vary between different communities. And leaders of communities that get hit by a vaccine preventable disease outbreak are more often accepting of immunization.
  • Christian Scientists (or more formally, Church of Christ, Scientist). Christian Scientists fundamentally believe that diseases are not real, and can be healed with focused prayer from one of their “practitioners.” Ironically, Christian Scientists do not have rules against vaccination, but it’s often recommended that they pray to be rid of any bad effects of the vaccine. Because Christian Scientist “medical practitioners” lack knowledge of many rare vaccine preventable diseases, it can spread through one of their communities fairly quickly. In those cases, traditionally, the church accepts vaccination of their adherents.
  • Dutch Reformed Church. Members of this church have had a tradition of refusing vaccines going as far back as the early vaccinations for smallpox in the early 1800’s. Most of this early vaccine refusal was because of the observed adverse events with the vaccines of that era (yeah, it’s an ongoing issue for vaccine deniers), although it has evolved into formal belief that vaccines interfere with the relationship with their god. Because of this vaccine refusal, there have been paralytic poliomyelitis, measles, congenital rubella syndrome, and mumps outbreaks. In 2013, a major outbreak of measles hit a Dutch Reformed community in the Netherlands, with 1226 reported cases. Of the 1,226 cases, 176 (14.4%) had complications including encephalitis (1 case), pneumonia (90 cases) and otitis media (66 cases) and 82 (6.7%) were admitted to hospital, which should debunk that belief that measles isn’t a serious disease.
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses. This church has instructed its adherents to refuse transfusions of whole blood and the use of certain blood components, such as red blood cells, plasma, and other components–they consider the use of blood to be a violation of the law of their god. During the 1920’s through 40’s, the church was opposed to vaccination based on their doctrine about human blood. However, by the early 1950’s, the church took a neutral stance about vaccinations until the 1990’s when began to acknowledge the clinical value of vaccinations. They seem to strongly endorse the importance of hepatitis vaccinations. 
  • Islam. Muslims are prohibited from consuming pork, much like Jews. And much like Jewish authorities making broad exceptions to their dietary laws for vaccinations because of their lifesaving value. It is based on the “law of necessity” in Islamic jurisprudence: “That which is necessary makes the forbidden permissible” in exceptional circumstances. Numerous Islamic authorities and medical scholars agree that many immunizations are obligatory, when the disease risk is high, far outweighing any risk from the vaccine. As opposed to many churches, Islam seems to endorse vaccines rather than just not be opposed to them.

This covers almost all of the mainstream religions. And aside from the Dutch Reformed Church, there does not appear to be a formal antivaccine doctrine in any of the major religions around the world. When someone makes a claim that their religion is opposed to vaccines, I become suspicious that it is just a smokescreen for a personal refusal of vaccinations, irrespective of actual religious doctrine.

Grabenstein’s meta-review of religious beliefs about vaccines uncover a major problem in the whole “religious exemption” to vaccines scam. If you cherry-picked information about any religion, you could probably make a convincing argument that the religion is opposed to vaccinations. An ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism is very opposed to vaccines, but it is so far out of the mainstream Judaism, that I sincerely doubt any children in the sect would be going to a regular public school. What if a parent makes a claim that they are Jewish, and one rabbi says that vaccines are bad? Are we expecting a school administrator to ascertain the validity of their religion, or whether they actually adhere to that ultra-orthodox sect? Or to spend time investigating whether a parent is representing a “real” religion (in my world view, all religions are equally bogus) or some made-up version of some unknown religion?

One could argue that we don’t let a school administrator make that decision, and that they should just accept the claims of the parent. But that breaks down the system of protecting children through vaccination. If I were making the decision, all exemptions, personal or religious, would be immediately placed in abeyance. Either vaccinate your children (unless there is a very strong case of the necessity of a medical exemption) or find a private school that doesn’t demand vaccinations (if you can find one). The whole idea that antivaccination gangsters are abusing religious exemptions to put their children at harm is repugnant to me on so many levels. 

* If you’re going to make some nonsense personal attack on Grabenstein’s character in the comments here based on his employment at Merck, it better be supported by legal documents or some other evidence, or I will mock you mercilessly. And I will enjoy every minute of the mockery.

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