Vaccine ‘scepticism’ is not about religion

A picture of a red-brick mosque with a white dome above it with a yellow sign in the foreground reading "NHS: Covid-19 Vaccination Centre. Follow the signs". A man in a long light-blue robe and a white 'topi' hat is walking through the car park.
A Birmingham mosque being used as a Covid vaccination centre.

Sneering scientists won’t win over anti-vaxxers by Giles Fraser (UnHerd)

This article is sub-headed “Public intellectuals risk alienating religious believers” and the author is a vicar in an inner London Anglican church with, as he says, a large ethnic minority population among its parishioners. Some of his fellow clergy have noted that conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccine have been circulating in their communities, among them claims that it is some sort of conspiracy to wipe out the “Black race” or that it marks recipients with ‘666’ (the mark of the Beast in the New Testament). He and they have been making every effort to reassure their flocks that the vaccine is safe, but accuses scientists who are also known secularists or Humanists of ridiculing people of faith:

Take Professor Alice Roberts, the Professor of the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, who is also the President of Humanists UK. At the same time as Bishop Karowei and others were pleading with their communities not to see science as a threat, she was doing her level best to ridicule people of faith.

Without any consideration for whether now is an appropriate time to go on the offensive, Professor Roberts, displaying that jocular, superior tone so beloved by professional religion haters, took to social media to sneer about the resurrection, the virgin birth and so on. It “all seems a bit … makey-uppy,” she proclaimed.

I followed the link and it was clear that the discussion had nothing to do with Covid-19, the vaccine or any theories about it on the radio; she was talking about Christian beliefs on Twitter and the target was not an inner-city church with high levels of deprivation but Anglicans in Oxford. So, this exchange would have had no impact on Christians or anyone else not privy to that particular discussion. He cites a few other examples of other recent utterances by atheist scientists of forthright dismissal of religious beliefs such as the soul. Indeed most of his article is about the fact that many public scientists are atheists and hold contemptuous attitudes towards religion or even religious people; he does not make any effort to link this to their stance on Covid-19 or vaccines, at least not on public forums like the BBC or other mainstream news sources. He tells us that a National Secular Society member said about “religious attitudes towards Covid-19” in a forum post on their website, “some of these fanatics are obstinate, some are deluded or exploitative”, which is absolutely true of some cranks who have stirred up groundless fears about the vaccine or baseless doubts about the virus itself. Just because these people are usually hostile to religion does not mean they can’t be right about something.

In my observation, mainstream religious leaders of most if not all religions have sought to encourage people to follow government and scientific advice about the virus, to observe the lockdown and to accept the vaccine if there is no medical reason for them not to. Mosques have suspended communal daily and Friday prayers during both the major lockdowns, something that would have been unthinkable previously (although it has happened during previous times where there was an infectious disease spreading in the community) and some have been used as Covid testing or vaccination centres. I have seen scores of posts on social media from Muslims who have recently lost family to the virus begging people not to put their lives or other peoples’ at risk or to believe lies about the virus.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theories and denialism spread among both religious and secular alike; the principal agitators against lockdowns, in favour of opening up schools and businesses when many scientists believe the time is not right, and against the belief that the virus is a serious health threat are not religious leaders but columnists and radio broadcasts, many of whom are not known for having strong religious beliefs if any. People believe a lot of it because they do not want to believe that they are in danger or that harsh measures are necessary (much as with action on climate change: people do not want to believe that changes to their lifestyle are necessary), not because their religion tells them to. In other cases they are long-established beliefs which have been common in certain minorities for years (e.g. that vaccines are intended for sterilisation or for spying, which in some cases have their roots in real incidents) and have nothing to do with religion even though many who believe them are also religious.

He accuses the scientists of using the virus as another opportunity to wage a culture war, but this seems to be the intention of his article: it’s another variant on the “these educated metropolitans can’t resist showing their contempt for ordinary people”. It’s true that many atheists regard people who hold religious beliefs of any sort as credulous fools who will believe any crank with any ludicrous theory, but Covid or vaccine scepticism has nothing to do with religion or religious belief; it feeds off common logical fallacies and cognitive biases which are independent of religion. Rather than furnish us with some irrelevant examples of recent expressions of atheism, Fraser should have tried to disprove the link between religious belief and Covid denialism and anti-vaxery, which is quite easy to do, rather than suggest that “religious believers” need to be won over from it. We don’t.

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