As more and more governments, businesses and schools mandate vaccinations, it’s common to see them say they will grant exemptions from getting a COVID-19 vaccine to those who can’t do it for medical reasons or based on religious belief.
Religious belief? I’m confused. I can’t think of a single religion that forbids getting a life-saving vaccine.
Sure, some religions have concerns about how vaccines are made. Muslims object to any vaccines made with pork products, and Hindus have concerns if bovine materials are used. Roman Catholics have moral reservations about vaccines made with the help of aborted fetuses.
But all those groups have told their followers the COVID-19 vaccine is acceptable — Muslims because there are no pork products in it, and Hindus because nothing bovine was used.
For Roman Catholics, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has told members all vaccines for COVID-19 that are medically approved by the relevant health authorities "may be licitly received by Catholics." This even includes any vaccines made with the help of fetal cells, if there is no other choice.
Of course, there are a few smaller Christian denominations that object to vaccines, such as some conservative Christian Reformed groups that believe vaccinations interfere with divine providence, and Christian Science, which believes disease can be cured through prayer. But even members of the Christian Science faith are not told to avoid required vaccinations.
So why are we still talking about religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine if there is no basis for granting one? Maybe it’s because we want to be so careful not to offend, or because governments, business and other groups in Canada are unfamiliar today with what religious groups actually teach.
If they did a bit of research, they’d discover requests for exemptions based on religious grounds actually have more to do with other factors that aren’t based on religion at all.
That’s what John Grabenstein wrote in the journal Vaccine in an article titled "What the world’s religions teach applied to vaccines."
"In multiple cases, ostensibly religious reasons to decline immunization actually reflected concerns about vaccine safety or personal beliefs among a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically based objections per se," he said.
A similar conclusion was reached by Paul Bramadat, director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, Benjamin L. Berger, professor and York University Research Chair in Pluralism and Public Law at Osgoode Hall Law School, and Noni MacDonald, professor of Pediatrics and Dalhousie University and IWK Health Centre in Halifax.
Writing in the Globe and Mail earlier this year, they noted religious objections to vaccinations are a combination of spiritual and social forces in the minds of individuals and communities.
By way of example, they note how some religious people can create a belief system that incorporates traditional theological understandings with things like veganism, reiki, homeopathy, yoga or traditional folk medicines that can then be incorporated into vaccine hesitancy.
They don’t mention politics, but I would add that, too; some who vote certain ways tend to be less open to getting vaccinated — something especially true in the U.S., but also for a few people in Canada. And some religious groups have a longstanding distrust of science that can lead them to avoid getting vaccinated.
"It might be better to think of vaccine hesitancy as a rhizome, with entangled root systems, wide-ranging nodes and above-ground shoots that often change appearances," they write, adding "If we are interested in eradicating or even just pruning this complex organism, we should expect that it looks different in different times and places."
Maybe it’s time for religious leaders to make it clear that faith is not a reason to not get vaccinated, as happened in the U.S. this month in the Mennonite Brethren denomination in that country.
When some members of that group asked for a declaration supporting their request for a religious exemption, the denomination publicly declined. In a statement, it said neither its current or historical practice, theological convictions or confession of faith provide a rationale for granting a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Maybe if more faith groups did that, it would do at least three things.
First, it would maybe persuade a few more people to get vaccinated.
Second, it would help governments, businesses or other groups understand religion is not an acceptable reason for objecting to vaccinations.
Third, it could help reduce the derision and scorn some non-religious people are heaping on religion because of how some use it to object to vaccines — for how faith, in general, is being maligned by the selfish actions of the few who use it as a way to avoid being responsible for the health of their neighbours.
Maybe the last word should go to Pope Francis, who appeared in a public service commercial this month to promote vaccination against COVID-19.
In the commercial, he urges people to get inoculated against the virus, saying vaccinations are a moral responsibility and emblematic of a foundational element of Catholicism: the common good.
"Getting the vaccines that are authorized by the respective authorities is an act of love," he said. "And helping the majority of people to do so is an act of love."
And to that, all people of faith can say "Amen."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.