By Andrew Brown
Religious belief can motivate suspicion of the Covid-19 vaccine in many different ways, experts told the Religion Media Centre yesterday.
Although nothing can disrupt the paranoid beliefs of hardcore conspiracists, in which the Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is somehow introducing microchips into the vaccine or — possibly at the same time — spreading the disease through 5G towers so that everyone will have to take the vaccine, there are many people who entertain such ideas for their entertainment value, according to Dr David Robertson of the Open University.
And the route into such beliefs often comes from religious worldviews, especially those held by people looking at the world from its margins.
Dr Muhammad Munir, a virologist who works with the Covid-19 virus, said that although it would be technically possible to engineer some vaccines so that an individual recipient could be identified, and so kept under surveillance, he could not see why anyone would bother when there are so many cheaper, simpler, and more effective methods of surveillance already available.
Among Christians, the worry tends to be that the vaccine is part of a plan to drive them further to the margins. Dr Eric Stoddart, of St Andrews University, pointed out that Rodney Howard-Browne, a prominent evangelical based in Florida, was telling his congregation as early as April this year that “there are going to be false vaccines that are going to kill off many people” because the World Health Organisation is a tool for world domination.
Howard-Browne is one of the “prosperity gospellers” who prayed with Donald Trump in 2017; according to Dr Stoddart, he is building on the established stories of pre-millennial Christianity. In those myths, the world is approaching its end, and the return of Jesus. This period — ours — will be marked by terrible sufferings, and the rise of the antichrist. Only the elect will be saved.
Since the failure of the world to come to a predicted end at the turn of the millennium, the pre-millennial stories have rather lost popularity to the teachings of the prosperity gospel, which promises that the elect will be rewarded with riches and prosperity in this life, without first undergoing the inconvenience of being raptured to heaven.
The belief that the world is controlled by malign spiritual powers is central to apocalyptic Christianity. St Paul himself wrote: “We war against principalities and powers.”
Paul Bickley, of the think tank Theos, asked whether there was not a link between a belief that Satan was the ruler of this world, and that the rulers of this world were in fact satanic.
Dr Stoddart said that in Britain you could see among Conservative evangelicals the belief that the government was anti-Christian and that there was a concerted effort to push out of public life anyone who believed in traditional Christian sexual morality.
That belief will only have been strengthened by the abrupt resignation of Janet Daby MP from the Labour front bench on Monday, after she had expressed sympathy for Pentecostal Christian registrars who felt they could not in conscience register a same-sex marriage.
“Once you see the establishment as anti-Christian, you can also come to see the science as part of an agenda: ‘Unreliable scientists with a far-left agenda’ is something I have heard,” Dr Stoddart said.
When these beliefs are held by BAME people, they are doubly marginalised, said Dr Robertson.
But the wide range of reasons why people might be vulnerable to antivax propaganda was important to bear in mind, said Janette Ballard, who had worked for the BBC countering fake news. Religion was potentially a force for increasing scientific knowledge and vaccine take-up. The same diversity of opinions that make all false beliefs hard to eradicate means that some believers can always be reached.