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English: Incidence of Measles in USA around ti...

English: Incidence of Measles in USA around time of introduction of Measles immunisation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, August 29, 2013}

A Texas megachurch that encouraged its congregants to resist vaccination has been hit with an outbreak of measles. Divine retribution? I’m thinking they don’t see it that way.

A measles outbreak in Tarrant County has been traced to unvaccinated members of Eagle Mountain International Church. Eagle Mountain’s senior pastor has criticized vaccinations and encouraged church members not to take them. Seems like an odd coincidence to me.

Fortunately, the good pastor appears to have had a change of heart. According to Eagle Mountain’s website, the church is now offering immunization clinics. When it comes to getting vaccinated, she now says “I would encourage you to do that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that. Go do it.”

But then she adds “If you’ve got this covered in your household by faith and it crosses your heart of faith then don’t go do it . The main thing is stay in faith no matter what you do.” That’s dangerous, life-threatening nonsense. Just 10 days before, she told her congregants to resist vaccination, citing concerns “with very young children who have family history of autism and with bundling too many immunizations at one time.”

Let me say this as clearly as possible. If we know anything at all, we know that vaccines do not cause autism. We know this because we’ve looked at it over and over. No proper scientific study has shown a link, when any of them easily could have. There is no evidence of any connection. None. What we have is evidence of a belief in a connection. That is a very different thing.

For better or worse, human beings are wired to believe things. For some, the wiring is particularly strong. Human beings are also wired for empathy. When a mother of an autistic child “knows” that vaccines caused her son’s autism and pours her heart out on national TV, how can you dispute her claim without sounding like an insensitive jerk?

And yet, somebody has to. Measles, mumps and rubella are not harmless. Measles can lead to encephalitis (brain swelling) and death. Mumps can too, along with sterility and miscarriages. Rubella can cause birth defects if contracted during pregnancy. Measles kills about one out of every thousand people, and according to the Center for Disease control it will kill 100,000 children this year alone. This is not something we should be handling with kid gloves.

Clearly this isn’t a Christian issue. Most Christians, as far as I know, vaccinate themselves and their children. New York City has reported a measles epidemic centered in its Orthodox Jewish communities, which as a Jew breaks my heart to hear. Nor is it a question of hyper-religiosity. Plenty of anti-vaxers are not religious. The murderous Jenny McCarthy, for example, calls herself a “recovering Catholic”. There is something else at work here, something that can infect anyone.

There seems to be a desire in some people to raise unquestioning belief to some ultimate moral value. It can happen to anyone, including good, kind people with prestigious jobs, degrees from good schools, and prominent positions in the community. The desire to believe, to trust emotion and certainty over anything else, seems to be part of the human condition. Then again, so are violence and bigotry. The question is what we do about them.

The vaccine against the disease of uncritical belief is skepticism and critical thinking. If the inoculation takes hold, it means that when it comes to what you believe, you don’t care how certain people are, how charismatic, how trustworthy, how sincere, or how famous. You just care about the evidence. That kind of thinking is the only way humanity has found to discover how the natural world actually works. Including vaccines.

Science and reason by themselves aren’t enough to make a meaningful life. I get that. But neither is a meaningful life possible by ignoring them. Sometimes, it can be fatal.