It must be the silly season over at Why Evolution Is True. Professor Jerry Coyne has just written a post entitled, Measles back again, thanks to religion, in which he leads off with this bald assertion:
This is one of the more palpable dangers of faith: disease spread by a refusal to accept modern medicine, itself based on the assumption that God will heal you. Except he doesn’t.
To buttress his argument, Coyne points to a single measles outbreak in the United States, “spread by one infectious case and a bunch of kids whose church frowns on vaccination.” The church in question, which does not oppose vaccination of children but lets parents decide for themselves, has an attendance of 1,500 members, which is about 0.002% of the 63 million Americans that attend church on any given Sunday. Moreover, one of the reports cited by Coyne mentioned that after the outbreak occurred, the church responded by setting up two free immunisation clinics for its members here. So much, then, for religious opposition to vaccination in the United States: if this is the best Coyne can come up with, then he really is scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Coyne then went on to lambast Muslims for their opposition to vaccination in Nigeria. But it turns out that the so-called “religious” opposition to vaccination among Muslims in countries like Nigeria and Pakistan is largely political, stemming from paranoia about the CIA and the United States. In 2003, parents in Northern Nigeria boycotted polio vaccinations when imams and local political leaders claimed the program was part of a U.S.-backed sterilization plot. From 2002 to 2006, vaccination rates in the country fell and polio rates increased fivefold. And in Pakistan, according to an editorial in the The Express Tribune (February 28, 2013) many parents are terrified of getting their children vaccinated, because they’ve been exposed to popular rumors that polio vaccines are nothing more than a Western plot to sterilize their children – rumors which only gained added credence when it was revealed that the CIA had recruited a doctor to carry out hepatitis vaccinations to collect DNA in its search for Osama bin Laden. Charles Kenny wrote a sobering report in Bloomberg Businessweek earlier this year, titled, How the CIA Is Hurting the Fight Against Polio (February 4, 2013), in which he called for the CIA to publicly forswear further involvement in childhood vaccination programs. Despite these setbacks, there are signs of hope: a recent report in The Guardian (4 November 2011) chronicled efforts by leading Muslim scholars in Pakistan to dispel popular myths about polio vaccinations, and to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated. Blaming religion for Nigeria’s and Pakistan’s failure to eradicate polio and measles is thus a cheap shot on Coyne’s part.
I also find it odd that Professor Coyne had nothing to say about how efforts to vaccinate children in the Ukraine have stalled in recent years, for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. According to the latest HFA data, in 2010 only 56.1% of Ukrainian children were vaccinated against measles, 57.3% of infants were vaccinated against polio, 52.2% against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis). The causes for the recent upsurge in these diseases in the Ukraine can be traced back to a crisis of confidence in vaccines, complacency about very nasty diseases, and lack of access to health care.
But I was curious to know what Nobel Prize Laureate John Franklin Enders, the man who developed the measles vaccine, had to say about religion. Did he share Coyne’s view that “Religion not only poisons everything, but infects everything as well”? Apparently not. I looked up the Biographical Memoir of John Franklin Enders by Thomas H. Weller and Frederick C. Robbins, published by the National Academy of Sciences in 1991, and here’s what I found:
Playing the piano was for the most part a private matter for Enders, and his interests ranged from Bach to Joplin. One exception, however, was the annual Christmas party he held at his home for his laboratory staff, and which regularly concluded with Enders at the piano, accompanying Christmas carols…
On the evening of September 8, 1985, John Enders died quietly at his summer home in Waterford, Connecticut, as he sat reading T. S. Eliot aloud to his wife and daughter.
Does any reader know of an atheist who plays Christmas carols every year in front of his family and lab staff, and who reads T. S. Eliot aloud to his wife and daughter on his deathbed? I certainly don’t. I’d be willing to bet Professor Coyne that John Franklin Enders, who has been called “The Father of Modern Vaccines,” believed in God and didn’t view religion as a cause of sickness.
Readers might also be interested in checking out the Uncommon Descent post, Religion as an obstacle to vaccination: New Atheists continue to propagate a myth (March 4, 2013), as well as the interest follow-up comment by Alfonso. Enjoy!