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Sheep, goats and vaccines — How religion creates a permission structure for anti-vaxxers

Sheep and Goats

The stunning and terrifying interviews CNN conducted with anti-vaxxers at a recent Trump rally in Alabama illuminate the role religion plays in accepting disinformation and justifying immoral action. Rally video shows former President Trump timidly recommending vaccinations — and receiving boos in response. One supporter said, “I’m not fully convinced of that . . . I don’t think he did” get the vaccine — even though Trump said he did. Here’s the video, shown on Anderson Cooper’s show.

“My own doctor tried to get me to get the shot,” said one woman, as though in disbelief that a medical professional would recommend such a thing. She preferred to instead believe the internet, specifically a person CNN called a “discredited conspiracy theorist who pushes dangerous misinformation about vaccines.”

This Trump supporter is not vaccine hesitant because she belongs to a group that has suffered historical medical injustices — medical apartheid, as one scholar put it. She’s not vaccine hesitant because she has a legitimate medical condition that has compromised her immune system, as was the case with the Florida teacher unable to get the vaccine because she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. This Trump groupie is not even vaccine hesitant; she’s anti-vaxx. And she’s that way because she put her mouth over a fire hose of disinformation. She’s gorged on lies fed to her by a politically motivated right-wing media empire:

I watch Prophets of God and Newsmax and maybe a little Fox [News], that’s about it. . . . I’ve turned away from news because I want to listen to what God’s saying, what he’s fixin’ to do, that’s all I’m concerned about. I think it is a time where God is separating the sheep from the goats. 

That’s a reference to Matthew 25, wherein Jesus returns to Earth with his angels and, like a shepherd, separates the people of the Earth into two camps, goats and sheep. One he blesses with the Kingdom of Heaven and the other he curses “with the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” She continues, “I’m a goat ’cause I ain’t a sheep. I’m not doing what they tell me to do. I’m fighting against it.”

The entire internet has been laughing at this woman because, as the band Cake explains over and over in its 1998 song: “Sheep go to heaven. Goats go to hell.” She got her bible wrong.

Funny though it may be to see the supremely pious get their holy book completely backward, it’s to be expected. Studies consistently show that atheists and agnostics know more about the bible than Christians — it’s often one of the reasons we’re atheists. Most Christians don’t so much read and study the bible, as credit their personal desires and whims to the so-called holy book because doing so gives their erroneous and ignorant views a divine sanction.

This is one of the most potent and dangerous aspects of religion. Like many other ideas and ideologies, religion is often a permission structure. But unlike those other ideologies, religion is a divine permission structure, handed down from heaven. That holy writ conveniently overrides our innate morality and justifies nearly anything, from risking the lives of our fellow humans during a pandemic to flying planes into buildings. This permission structure can be especially problematic when religion and political identity coalesce into the toxic identity we know as Christian nationalism, a permission structure that gave the Jan. 6 insurrectionists their sense of righteous entitlement.

Religion and Christian nationalism providing moral permission for immoral acts is not new, but now we’ve got a lot of data backing it up. Writing in Salon, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist who has published widely on this topic, explains that in America, staunch atheists display significantly higher morality than the most devout Christians. Writes Zuckerman:

The global pandemic and the rapidly warming of our planet — these dire phenomena are, above all, deeply moral matters in that they both entail care for the well-being of others and a desire to alleviate misery and suffering.



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Now, while most people assume that such a morality is grounded in religious faith, and while it is certainly true that all religions contain plenty of moral ideals, in our nation today, it is actually the most secular among us who are exhibiting a greater moral orientation — in the face of deadly threats — than the most devout among us, who are exhibiting the least.

Atheists don’t have a permission structure to justify immoral, hurtful or bigoted behavior. Certainly, we don’t have an unassailable divine permission structure. We have a set of moral precepts that are continually re-evaluated and through which we run our potential actions. It’s a different calculus. Allowing others to die a preventable death by not getting vaccinated is immoral, and atheists don’t have to check that conclusion against a 2,000-year-old book.

The Alabama believer has guzzled disinformation and simply doesn’t want to get the shot. But she’s pitched that preference as following her god’s will. The sharp increase in people claiming religious exemptions from vaccine requirements — exemptions that should never have existed in the first place — is more evidence of this. There’s no newfound biblical text on vaccines, no new scroll discovered that talks about shots in arms. The authors of the bible could never even conceive of such life-saving science and technology. People don’t want to get jabbed, so they’re claiming that their god doesn’t want them to get the shot. It’s yet another abuse of religious freedom.

CNN interviewed these people in Alabama, a state that made headlines last month when a doctor there wrote of her heartrending sorrow and anguish day after day seeing the unvaccinated realize the price of preferring disinformation to facts — but realizing it too late. “One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late,” she wrote. It’s a heartbreaking story and reminds us to summon empathy for people we may be angry at, for they are at least partially victims of the disinformation plaguing our society.

The Alabama Trump supporter on CNN was wrong not only about her bible, but about who she is. She’s a sheep, to be repeatedly fleeced until she’s slaughtered by the very disinformation that has poisoned her mind. During the interview, she wore a bright crucifix hanging over a shirt with an American flag over letters that read, “I TOLD YOU SO.” I don’t wish this awful fate on anyone, but those may well be the last words this Alabama sheep hears.

If you’re eligible to get vaccinated, please do so today. It’s the moral thing to do.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew L. Seidel is a constitutional attorney, the Director of Strategic Response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and an author. His first book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American hits shelves in May 2019. When not fighting for the First Amendment, Andrew writes for ThinkProgress, Religion News Service, Rewire News and elsewhere. Andrew joined FFRF as a constitutional consultant in 2011. Photo by Chris Line.

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