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Religion as an obstacle to vaccination: New Atheists continue to propagate a myth

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Professor Jerry Coyne has written a rather silly post entitled, Muslim anti-vaxers slow eradication of polio, in which he chronicles what he refers to as “Muslim opposition” to oral polio vaccination in Asia and Africa.

Coyne begins his provocative article with the claim that “There’s always been some religious opposition to vaccination.” He goes on to assert that Edward Jenner often faced opposition from churches which declared smallpox vaccination to be a “delusion of Satan” and a “violence to the law of nature.” In a perfunctory attempt to be fair, he notes in passing that “some religious people, like the pro-science New England preacher Cotton Mather, did promote smallpox vaccination.” [Note to Professor Coyne: Cotton Mather, who died in 1728, couldn't possibly have promoted vaccination, as it hadn't yet been invented in the Western world. Mather was a strong proponent of variolation, not vaccination.]

After describing the eradication of smallpox in 1979 as “a triumph of science against the forces of faith and woo,” Coyne praises the recent efforts of the Gates Foundation and the Bloomberg Philanthropies to eradicate polio from the planet within the next six years, but notes that “some Muslims, especially fundamentalist Muslims like the Taliban, are opposed to polio vaccination on religious grounds,” citing a letter in Emerging Infectious Diseases which states that “Religious opposition by Muslim fundamentalists is a major factor in the failure of immunization programs against polio in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.” However, another source Coyne cites – an editorial in The Express Tribune of Pakistan – actually suggests that much of the so-called “religious” opposition to vaccination is primarily political, and that it is grounded in paranoia about the CIA and the United States:

There are few more dangerous jobs in Pakistan than being a polio vaccinator. In the last three months alone, 18 workers and one policeman, protecting the workers, have been killed in separate incidents around the country… Extensive media campaigns around the country have done little to allay suspicions that the vaccines are nothing more than a Western plot to sterilise our children.

The CIA did not help matters when it recruited Dr Shakil Afridi to carry out hepatitis vaccinations to collect DNA in the search for Osama bin Laden, as this affects the general perception of people carrying out vaccinations.

These killings should also serve as a reminder that the Taliban will continue to murder at will, and that they will target anyone who they do not approve of. There is only one lasting solution to this and that is to militarily defeat the Taliban once and for all.

Coyne acerbically comments:

I’d prefer religious defeat (i.e., the disappearance of Islam), but that won’t happen anytime soon. In the meantime, it’s pretty clear that without religion, we’d have no polio. Religion not only poisons everything, but infects everything as well.

If Professor Coyne believes that Islam is opposed to polio vaccinations, then he evidently needs to do some more reading. I wonder if he has read the following report (The Guardian, 4 November 2011) chronicling the efforts of leading Muslim scholars in Pakistan to dispel popular myths about polio vaccinations, and to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated:

Now religious scholars have joined the campaign to dismantle the myths and battle the resurgence of polio. A campaign led by National Research and Development Foundation (NRDF) in partnership with Unicef has brought together more than 5,000 of them, working on provincial and district levels, to tackle the issue. The group comprises of scholars belonging to the Deobandi sect, a school of thought followed by the majority of population in the tribal belt.

In Fata, clerics helped resolve 8,120 vaccine refusal cases during a week-long campaign in March this year. Another 160 religious scholars from Swat have issued a Fatwa in favour of the vaccinations. A campaign, starting this month, will be led by Shia scholars as it expands to the Parachinar valley, where the majority of the population are Shia Muslims.

Professor Coyne might also like to read what Jonas Salk (pictured above), the inventor of the world’s first polio vaccine, had to say about religion. Salk’s friend Herb Meyer has written an interesting article entitled, Jonas Salk on the ID-Evolution Debate, regarding an interesting conversation he had with him on the subject, about twenty years ago:

Back in the early 1990s, Jonas and I would meet for dinner about once a month. His willingness to sit and chat with me, and to answer my questions about science, was among the greatest privileges of my life. At dinner one evening at a restaurant in La Jolla he liked to frequent, I told Jonas that I’d been reading some books and articles about Intelligent Design, and asked if he’d been following the debate. He nodded, so I plunged ahead and asked which side he was on. I was startled by the vehemence of his response. Jonas started to shake his head from side to side, slammed his knife and fork onto the table, and let fly:

“Why do I have to choose? Why must it be one or the other? Of course evolution is real. DNA mutates, and that makes evolution one of the most powerful forces in nature. But who set evolution into motion? Can’t God have done that? I can’t stand it when the ideologues take over on something like this. Don’t ever let yourself be caught in one of these “either/or” debates, because when you finally figure it out – it’s usually a bit of both.”

Good advice, from a great man.

I’ll leave it to readers to judge what Salk would have thought of Coyne’s shrill assertion that “Religion not only poisons everything, but infects everything as well.”

Coyne also unjustly belittles the role of Edward Jenner in the elimination of smallpox, writing:

Developing the vaccine was a convoluted story (it originated in many places, including ancient India and China, and Jenner was not the “inventor”), and getting rid of the disease is a monumental achievement of the human intellect, science, and the sweat and toil of dedicated field workers.

While Jenner was not the first person in history to invent a smallpox vaccine, he certainly was the first person to invent a vaccine in the West, and after inventing it in 1796, he fought tirelessly for its acceptance by the scientific community of his day. Jenner was a man of vision: throughout his life, he championed a vigorous crusade to have smallpox eradicated worldwide – a goal which was eventually realized in 1979, 156 years after his death. As far back as 1801, Jenner authored a pamphlet which ended with these prophetic words: “… the annihilation of the Small Pox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be the final result of this practice.” An online article on the great doctor’s legacy at the Jenner Museum Website asserts that “Dr Edward Jenner’s work saved more lives than any other man on earth,” and concludes with the following words:

Edward Jenner’s Inquiry can be identified as the origin of one of the most important branches of modern medicine. All that is known about disease prevention by vaccination, our understanding of allergy, autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis), transplantation and AIDS follows from this fundamental work by Edward Jenner.

Jenner is acknowledged as the Father of Immunology – the science of our body’s defence against invading bugs and chemicals.

So what did Jenner think about religion? It turns out that he was the son of an Anglican vicar.

An article by the medical historian Dr. James J. Walsh, in his 1907 classic, Makers of Modern Medicine, quotes two observations by Jenner’s biographer, Dr. Baron, on Jenner’s attitudes to religion:

One of the most remarkable features in Jenner’s character, when treating of questions of a moral or scientific nature, was a devout expression of his consciousness of the omnipresence of the Deity. He believed that this great truth was too much overlooked in our systems of education; that it ought to be constantly impressed upon the youthful heart, and that the obligations which it implied, as well as the inward truth and purity which it required, should be rendered more familiar to all….

As he approached nearer to his own end, his conversations with myself were generally more or less tinged with such views as occur to the serious mind when contemplating the handiwork of the Creator. In all the confusion and disorder which appears in the physical world, and in all the anomalies and errors which deface the moral, he saw convincing demonstration that He who formed all things out of nothing still wields and guides the machinery of his mighty creation.

I don’t think that Edward Jenner would be too impressed with the assertions of a 21st century biologist who has personally benefited from the vaccine he invented, that “Religion not only poisons everything, but infects everything as well.”

Readers who want to read more about hoary old atheist myths relating to Christian opposition to vaccination might like to have a look at an article entitled, Pope Leo XII and the Vaccination Ban, as well as this French article upon which much of its research is based. Information on Cotton Mather’s role in combating the Boston smallpox epidemic of 1721 can be found here.

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6 Responses to Religion as an obstacle to vaccination: New Atheists continue to propagate a myth

  1. I think James Phipps deserves some recognition for his part in the development of vaccines!

    On 14 May 1796, Jenner tested his hypothesis by inoculating James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy who was the son of Jenner’s gardener. He scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom,[21] whose hide now hangs on the wall of the St George’s medical school library (now in Tooting). Phipps was the 17th case described in Jenner’s first paper[22] on vaccination.
    Jenner inoculated Phipps in both arms that day, subsequently producing in Phipps a fever and some uneasiness, but no full-blown infection. Later, he injected Phipps with variolous material, the routine method of immunization at that time. No disease followed. The boy was later challenged with variolous material and again showed no sign of infection.

    Not sure medical ethics would permit such methods today! But we’re grateful for Jenner’s sacrifice (shades of Abraham and Isaac).

  2. 2

    Yes backward muslims might be frustrating things but wait a minute.
    by the way i read somewhere Benjamin fRanklin opposed aggressively vaccination when he was quite young.

    This seems a anti-religious thing.
    This is time to remind Mr Coyne(who is jewish and a immigrant people to us) thart the whole modern world of medicine, machine, and fun is the result of the sudden Protestant reformation bringing up the morality and intelligence of the common people in those countries.
    Especially in the english world where the most protestant, Puritan/Evangelical, peoples were in double digit percentages.
    It is amongst the Puritan/Evangelical English and Scottish people influence that raised this civilization to number in human history and where it counted.
    This also shown by the controlled experiment between the Puritan north and Anglican South in the USA.
    It was entirely, with Gods blessing, the result of religious motivation upon society.
    Everyone else is of no relevance and just grew up in this civilization.
    Thats the real history of the right faith affecting mankinds advancement.
    The right faith is a great vaccination against unhappiness and disease and the old ancient world.
    Everyone should get a born again shot to make everything better!

  3. The silly thing about this argument by Coyne, is that it has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with a very paranoid mindset that has emerged in the middle east towards all things Western.

    I’m sure any reasonable person could see how easy it could be to be convinced that vaccines carried secret ingredients to poison or sterilize your population after all the stories we have been told about secret CIA experiments. Especially considering the ongoing war against terrorism which many Muslims see to be a war against Islam.

    Yet Coyne wants this to be about religion in general? He is just as paranoid of a generalist making sweeping and silly claims about entire people groups as these Muslims he mentions are.

  4. Yes, even if there was a vaccination against atheism, the religious nuts would not allow it to be given to their children!

  5. OT: Watch William Lane Craig in Calgary LIVE!
    Tonight — 7:30 p.m. MST

    “Is the Physical World All There Is?”: William Lane Craig
    http://wlc.livemegavideo.com/

  6. Coyne is based on Andrew Dickson White and his “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Andrew Dickson White was based on false news reports to say that clergy opposed the vaccine smallpox in the plague of Montreal, 1885.No, I am able to assert that there is not even a trace of opposition to vaccination, anesthesia or lightning rod.Of course it is wrong to say that Pope Leo XII condemned the vaccine. But the reality is more fascinating. Both the Catholic clergy as many monarchs as “Carlos IV of Spain” actively promoted the vaccination (and before the cinchona bark for malaria), while Cromwell was left to die by not testing the bark Jesuit …
    In response to a Large Outbreak of smallpox in the Spanish colonies, King Charles IV Francisco Xavier de Balmis Appointed to lead an expedition That Would Jenner’s vaccine to introduce These colonies. In 1798, King Charles IV STATEMENTS The Civilian Population That Should Be vaccined. A Year Later, a copy of Edward Jenner’s book WAS Sent to King Charles IV by an Italian physician, weitere historical Attracting Attention to the prevention of smallpox. All These events culminate in the Issuance of a royal edict Announcing the Widespread Availability of the smallpox vaccine in Spain in 1800. THIS Vaccination Campaigns Be Supervised by the Catholic Clergy and immunization registries That Be Kept by Priests. I advise you to read this wonderful article:
    The Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to Bring Smallpox Vaccination to the New World and Asia in the 19th Century
    http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/
    http://www.catholicsocialscien
    The Catholic Clergy Gave Their support to the Vaccination
    campaign. In New Spain the expedition and feted in WAS WELCOMED
    cities like Guadalajara and Oaxaca by Their bishops. The bishop of
    Oaxaca Encouraged the Clergy to support the Vaccination Campaign
    Preaching That Should none of Them feel no obligation to do so, thinking
    I Had the care of souls and Not That of teddies; Such a view Would show
    His ignorance, A Lack of charity, and a failure to Understand That He Who
    Is Able to save a fellow human being and do not does so commits a
    crime.The bishop of Puebla wrote a pastoral letter encouraging historical
    flock to get Vaccinate, Himself and I assisted in the formation of a
    Vaccination board. …

    The Influence of Korean Catholic Church on the Introduction of Smallpox Vaccination by Cheong Yak-yong : A Hypothesis.
    If he did, it was also done in the context of Western culture imported by Korean Catholic Church. Considering the above facts we can suggest the higher possibility of the introduction of smallpox vaccination through Catholic groups with Cheong Yak-yong. Of course other routes could have been available, but its possibility seems to be comparatively low.

    http://www.koreamed.org/Search.....;RID=78501
    It is sometimes asserted that the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century condemned the use of chloroform in childbirth, but permits its use today. It is then claimed that the Church will one day permit Abortion.

    If you consult medical books, you will often see a similar assertion regarding chloroform. Usually the books are less specific, but have phrases such as: ‘The Church’ or ‘religion’ or ‘the clergy’ opposed the use of chloroform in childbirth.

    http://www.churchinhistory.org.....roform.htm

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