A few months ago, I started characterizing the anti-vaxxer fanatics as being members of the “anti-vaccine religion.” It wasn’t an important point to me, because as I constantly stress, the only thing that matters is scientific evidence – the vast bulk of which supports the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
In fact, I know a lot of pro-vaccine people, many of whom are leaders in pointing out the flaws of the anti-vaccine religion, are themselves religious. I am an atheist, but I do not decide who are my friends on social media or real life, based on their religious beliefs. Since almost every major religion in the world supports vaccination, and in almost every case, strongly so, it’s clear that organized religion and vaccines are not in conflict.
For me, “anti-vaccine religion” was a throwaway line almost tongue-in-cheek, because, from my standpoint, the group acts as if it were a religious cult. In fact, some people I know, who loathe the anti-vaccine zealots, do classify them as a cult. Anyway, of all the things I represent, my obvious pejorative use of religion ranked near the bottom of my “care” list.
Yep. For example, his constant desire to label anti-vaxx as a religion, without any argument for why it constitutes a religion. He supposedly has a background in medicine. Yet he also thinks he's an expert in the anthropology/psychology of religion. Nope.
— Daniel Goldman (AC2YB) (@alc_anthro) April 2, 2018
Now that Daniel Goldman has thrown down the gauntlet, I guess I’m going to have to fully explain my impeccable (or not) logic. Because from any perspective, the anti-vaccine religion functions like a religion, in some ways, an organized one. Let me explain.
What constitutes a religion?
First of all, Goldman states, without any evidence whatsoever, that I think I am “an expert in anthropology/psychology of religion.” Well, first, I never claimed that. And second, despite my being an atheist, I have not used this website to discuss atheism. There are many more websites that talk about atheism, and that’s really not a focus of my life.
Furthermore, Goldman has no clue what my educational and intellectual background is. What if the study of religion has been an intellectual focus of mine for most of my life? What if I have a significant educational background in religious studies? But as I’ve said a thousand times, the appeal to authority means approximately nothing to me – it’s only facts, logic, and evidence that matters.
Defining religion is complicated, and, despite Goldman’s implications, there’s really no consensus on what constitutes an organized religion. Using the Wikipedia article on religion (see Note 1), we might be able to come to a checklist of what comprises a religion:
- Sacred texts or mythology
I know this is an imperfect list, and if any religious “scholar” wants to argue with this list, you’re missing the point. This is about the anti-vaccine religion and how it meets the basic standards of being a religion. It’s not about being a religious scholar, it’s making a point about how the anti-vaxxers lack evidence to support their beliefs.
Let’s look at this list from my point-of-view of the anti-vaccine religion.
Anti-vaccine religion – faith
Although there may be a religion here or there that does not rely on faith, it is a fundamental concept. And how do we define faith? It is a belief in something not based on proof or evidence.
And that is the central tenet of the anti-vaccine religion. They have faith in their beliefs that vaccines cause autism, that HPV vaccines are dangerous, or that vaccines contain a dangerous amount of aluminum. These faith-based myths have been shown to be demonstrably false, again and again.
Having faith that a mythical person existed who brings the world some mysterious message is fine, as long as you admit it’s faith. Most religions are upfront that you must accept what is being said on faith, although they surround the message with the appearance of factual evidence.
But again, this is about vaccines. Using the pseudoscientific method preferred by the anti-vaccine religion, they tend to cherry-pick any evidence that supports their established faith. It’s like someone telling me that some miracle spring in France will cure cancer because you have to have faith in it. But, being a scientist, I have to ask for the evidence. The person then replies that over 250 people have been cured, while ignoring the millions who haven’t (see Note 2).
Real science looks at all the evidence, giving more weight to both quality and quantity, then develops a conclusion. It’s not a magical method – it is rational, logical, and unbiased. Real science is completely open-minded – if there was a solid, robust, published body of evidence that showed a causal link between vaccines and autism, I would stand up and take notice. But there isn’t any such evidence – in fact, there is a solid, robust, published body of evidence that rejects the hypothesis that vaccines are linked to autism.
The whole point being made here is that anti-vaccine religion rejects facts and evidence to maintain their faith in their belief that vaccines are both unsafe and useless. And it’s not only scientific facts that they reject but also historical ones. They continue to reject historical facts about how vaccines changed healthcare across the world. Every single time, we see a substantial and immediate decline in vaccine-preventable diseases within just a couple of years of implementation of vaccination programs.
The anti-vaccine religion, using the height of arrogance and denialism, has even claimed that vaccines had nothing to do with the eradication of smallpox. That stands in face of all the evidence that we have in our hands. And they have to rely upon magical beliefs and special pleading to make these arguments about smallpox.
Modern religions require faith because it’s hard to bring forth evidence that might support the basic tenets of their religion. And frankly, the evidence they do have also require faith. And that’s the total opposite of the science of vaccines.
Anti-vaccine religion – sacred texts
I’m probably going to stretch the limits of this definition, but anyone thinks this is an academic article about religion needs to probably re-read some of my prior posts. Anyway, the anti-vaxxers love to cherry-pick very poorly done articles, generally published in predatory journals, and promote them as if they are gospel.
On the other hand, the anti-vaxxers love to dismiss published scientific research as faith-based. These claims can be as wild as “we don’t know if they did the research” to “we can’t see the actual patients” to “these studies are fraudulent.” These are precisely the kind of arguments used by the anti-evolution religion (which courts have determined are a religion). In other words, instead of accepting published facts, that vaccines do not cause autism, they just want to believe it based on a handful of widely criticized (and often retracted) articles.
Anti-vaccine religion – clergy
Although the anti-vaccine religion may not be a formally organized one, it certainly has all of the appearances of one. And it has its own clergy.
The pope of the anti-vaccine religion has got to be our favorite cunning fraud, Mr. Andrew Wakefield. Anyone who reads this blog knows all about him, but for those of you who don’t, here’s a brief summary. Wakefield alleged a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism which has had the effect of suppressing vaccination rates in many countries. His claims were based on a retracted paper published in the Lancet, a respected medical journal who seemed to have forgotten how to do proper peer review back in the late 1990’s.
Since then, Wakefield continues to promote himself and his religion to everyone. Donald Trump. A fraudumentary. It’s almost impossible to keep up with his nonsense. Maybe he really isn’t the pope, but my guess if you say anti-vaccine to anyone, Wakefield’s name would come up first.
Of course, there are many other individuals in this world. There’s JB Handley, whose blog on Medium was recently suspended and deleted, is one of the high priests of the vaccines cause autism myth. Of course, he’s a strong supporter of Wakefield.
Then there are the high priest and priestess of aluminum, an adjuvant used to stimulate the immune response, that tries to convince us that it causes autism and other neurological disorders – the oft-retracted Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic. Of course, the evidence that aluminum has any effect on the brain is rather limited and contradicted by other evidence. And then there’s the whole point that from a toxicological standpoint, the amount of aluminum injected in all of the vaccines given to children is a tiny percentage compared to all of the aluminum consumed and inhaled during a lifetime.
I could spend 10 hours listing out all of the anti-vaccine crackpots, but you all know them. Sherri Tenpenny, who denies the germ theory of disease, probably one of the foundations of modern medicine and public health, is one of the evangelicals who believe in any anti-vaccine myth presented to her.
The other high priestess of the anti-vaccine religion is Kelly Brogan, who, although trained as a psychiatrist, promotes all kinds of pseudoscience like homeopathy, acupuncture, and many others. She has become quite popular in the anti-vaccine religion, pushing such discredited ideas such as vaccines cause SIDS.
I can’t forget about James Lyons-Weiler, who fashions himself as a scientist, but, according to the loquacious Orac,
Also note that he was the director of a bioinformatics core. Core directors don’t exist to do their own research, not usually. Cores exist to serve the faculty of a university by providing expertise and research tools to them for a discounted price in order to assist them doing their research. That means a core director is paid to support other people’s research, not to do his own.
When I did a search of his research publications, he rarely was the first or last author on publications, which are indicators of who did or lead the research. And, much more importantly, he has only recently started publishing articles about vaccines, despite his notable lack of background in any scientific area of vaccines, such as epidemiology, immunology, virology, or public health. But because he has a Ph.D. after his name, the acolytes of the anti-vaccine religion default to the appeal to authority and promote him as some expert in vaccines. He isn’t.
- The anti-vaccine religion rejects scientific literature and accepts, on faith, beliefs that are unsupported by anything.
- They accept any publications published by their favorite anti-vaccine “researchers” irrespective of any critical analysis. Many of these sacred documents of the religion rarely stand up to any scrutiny.
- They have a whole list of clergy, up through Wakefield.
I’m not taking this very seriously, as you can imagine. “Anti-vaccine religion” was nothing more than an easy way to characterize those fanatics. But, the point shouldn’t be lost – if you accept false facts based on faith, if you only cherry-pick the sacred texts that support those beliefs, and if you believe in the authority of the clergy of the anti-vaccine religion, then it’s hard to say characterize it as anything but a religion.
But in the end, I don’t care whether you agree or not. If you’re an anti-vaxxer, bring evidence, bring substantial evidence, of your claims, or you’re just genuflecting at the altar of another religion.
- I know there are tropes that float about the internet that Wikipedia is not a good source. And in general, I would agree. However, if you choose a well-written, well-sourced article, like the one on religion, it can be considered a relatively good piece of scholarship.
- Without going into detail, yeah, this was a conversation that I had with someone close to me during a visit to Lourdes. It was frustrating.