A Sacrament of Progress

If you are a human alive in the world today, you have probably had occasion to think about the Covid-19 vaccines. Perhaps you were first in line to get your shots. Perhaps you are waiting for them to reach your corner of the planet. Perhaps you have grave doubts about them. Perhaps you are facing judgment for your choices, perhaps having to decide between keeping your job and following your heart.

I want to discuss the rapidly-evolving science and remaining unknown risks of Covid-19 vaccines, but first I want to propose a hypothesis for exactly why this has become such an emotionally-charged topic. Charles Eisenstein has done an excellent job of outlining the dangerous mob morality at work – the same phenomenon that has led to some of the darkest episodes in human history – but that leaves the question of why vaccines? Why has society not divided to this degree over smoking, or alcohol, or climate change, or gun rights? Why has this medical decision created a level of discord matched only by religious divides?

I offer this hypothesis: Vaccination is a sacrament of the religion of Progress.

I have written previously about the religion of Progress, and the basic premise is as follows: Human identities are fundamentally composed of stories and beliefs. The idea that we can reject religious belief in favor of “objective” modern science is therefore false. To the extent that modern science informs beliefs about the nature of existence, collective worldviews, and morality, it inevitably takes on the role of a religion. The religion of Progress comprises all beliefs, values, stories, and rituals based around the concept that advancing human technology defines a linear trajectory from a dark, primitive, disease-ridden past to a bright, modern, safe future in which humans have mastery over the vagaries of nature and ultimately over all of planet Earth.

Over the past century or so, humans around the globe – but especially in the “developed” world – have increasingly become believers in Progress. A cancer patient of today feels the same hope and admiration for an oncologist and the latest chemotherapy as their counterpart 500 years ago would have felt for a village healer and the prescribed herbal tinctures. The fact that the oncologist probably boasts a higher patient survival rate has no bearing on the narrative and ultimately religious dimensions of the experience on a personal level. We all have hopes, dreams, and fears – and whether we seek answers from shamans, priests, or scientific experts we are still ultimately all believers.

Vaccination is a method of preventing infectious disease by training the human immune system to recognize pathogens prior to exposure. It has proven extremely effective against deadly diseases like smallpox and polio. Thanks to vaccination, a bite from a rabid dog or bat is no longer a sentence to a miserable death but rather carries almost no risk if treated promptly.

The human immune system is extremely complex, and is still not completely understood. It is faced with the daunting task of identifying and destroying pathogenic microbes while steering clear of reactions with the millions of molecules that comprise our cells and that appear in our bodies as a result of the foods we eat and the air we breathe. Immunity is not merely a matter of developing antibodies. It is a matter of maintaining ratios of neutralizing to non-neutralizing antibodies, avoiding cross-reactivity, storing disease signatures in memory cells, activating T-cells, B-cells, and macrophages, and much more. Furthermore, there is a very high level of immune system diversity in the human population. Most people, upon being stung by a bee, will develop antibodies that recognize bee venom and reduce inflammation from future stings. A few people will instead develop large numbers of reactive antibodies that set off a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction upon future stings. There is no clear way to predict in advance which people will develop such an allergy.

The history of vaccine development is one of trial and error – mostly error. Vaccine candidates may not work, or immunity may be short-lived, or they may generate nasty side effects in some people, or in some cases they can even provide negative protection – rendering an illness more deadly rather than preventing infection. This is referred to as Vaccine-Associated Disease Enhancement (VADE) or Antibody-Dependent Enhancement (ADE). Sometimes vaccines appear to work but then cause problems months or years down the road. For this reason, vaccine development is typically a long, slow process – and even then vaccines are not uncommonly withdrawn or updated following unanticipated problems.

Vaccines are, at their most basic level, a medical intervention. Like surgery or antibiotics or cancer drugs, they can save lives, but if applied unnecessarily or without sufficient testing they can cause harm. They can interact with each other and with other medications in unpredictable ways, and they can potentially have effects on long – even evolutionary – timescales that are impossible to predict in advance.

All religions have a need for sacraments: ritual actions that serve to affirm belief, to ward off harm, and to distinguish believers from nonbelievers. In Christian traditions, the most significant of these are baptism at birth and the Eucharist – the Holy Communion. Without much thought or intention, vaccination seems to have taken on a sacramental role within the nascent religion of Progress. If prayers to God failed to stop children from dying of smallpox and polio, but vaccination succeeded, then it makes sense that the rite of vaccination would take on a sacred value. Vaccination was a way to partake directly not of the blood of Christ, but of the potion of human Progress, to baptize a child into this new faith with wards of protection against the evil diseases of the past.

Certainly vaccines did (and do) save lives, but as the religion of Progress has blossomed they have taken on a psychological – almost mystical – importance that dwarfs their medical value. Even before Covid-19, those who refused vaccines for themselves or their children were viewed not merely as unhealthy or irresponsible – like smokers or drug addicts – but as heretics deserving of the harshest condemnation. Vaccines began to acquire a special status as beyond reproach. They are perhaps the only product on the market for which manufacturers are granted immunity from liability. Researchers are discouraged from investigating potential vaccine harms, and any problematic results are rapidly debunked, denounced, or retracted. Doctors are discouraged from associating medical diagnoses with vaccination, and people who believe they or their children have been injured by vaccines are ignored, gaslighted, and – if they gain too much attention – censored.

The sacramental status of vaccines is problematic because it creates an environment in which truth-seeking science is discouraged and evidence of harm is suppressed. This is analogous, in a sense, to the manner in which rampant abuse of children by Catholic priests was suppressed for decades; those who had been abused dared not speak up against men regarded as holy in their wider community, and those within the church dared not speak out lest they fracture the faith of their followers. As we pass the peak of industrial civilization overshoot and move into decline in the face of hard resource limits, believers in Progress are clinging ever harder to their sacraments, ramping up rhetoric against “anti-vaxxers” as contemptible enemies.

Enter SARS-CoV-2. A novel and highly contagious virus that causes respiratory and vascular illness (Covid-19) that can be deadly, particularly in the elderly and immunocompromised. A century ago, the virus would have been viewed as a minor ordeal in comparison with World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. In the era of Progress, however, death from infectious disease is a relic of the evil, pre-technological past and must be prevented at all costs. Within the already-fragile religion of Progress, this created a crisis of faith, and so we had to Do Something.

Over the past year and a half, we have done a lot of somethings – lockdowns, social distancing, business closures, mask mandates – few of which had any clear impact on viral transmission despite endless expert assurances to the contrary. We willingly accepted disruptions and sacrifices that would have been unthinkable a year prior, all in the name of stopping a virus that killed around one out of 300 people it infected.

From the first day of lockdown it was a foregone conclusion that our ticket out of this mess – our return to normalcy – would be a vaccine. The virus would bow down beneath the gods of Progress – the holy trinity of Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J. The world cheered when the first injections were approved after nine short months, and folks and whole nations jostled for their place in line. When it became clear that far from everyone wished to share in this particular sacrament, an enormous propaganda machine sprang into action, promising lottery tickets, donuts, ice cream cones, appealing to our sense of morality, criticizing objections as political or uninformed, and seeking to make vaccination mandatory for travel, for employment, for recreation.

Conspicuously missing from all of the media coverage is any mention of the real reasons why most dissenters are avoiding this vaccine. Limited testing, novel vaccine technology, declining efficacy, and reports of severe adverse effects and deaths leaking out, whispered between friends and posted anonymously by nurses and doctors in fear for their jobs. I will grant that it is possible to make an argument that everyone ought to accept a personal risk for the good of the whole, but this must be done openly, with a solid understanding of risks and benefits, and with a guarantee of support for anyone suffering harm from that choice. It cannot be done coercively, while attacking straw man objections and shoving the most important concerns under the rug.

It is worth noting that prior to 2020, no coronavirus vaccine had been approved. Multiple attempts to create a vaccine for the closely-related SARS virus resulted in vaccine-associated disease enhancement (VADE) in animal trials – rendering vaccinated animals worse off than unvaccinated animals following infection. In some cases the vaccines worked initially but later caused severe issues. Scientists involved in developing Covid-19 vaccines were aware of this problem and sought to avoid it by specifically targeting antibodies against part of the spike protein, but their success is far from guaranteed. The religion of Progress demanded a worldwide vaccine rollout posthaste, but our collective sacramental trust in the goodness of vaccination in no way protects us against a confrontation with hard-knock reality should this experiment fail.

As I write this, in late August of 2021, the Covid-19 vaccines still appear to provide protection against severe illness, as evidenced by hospital censuses, but:

  • Covid-19 vaccines no longer provide strong protection against infection and transmission of the Delta variant.
  • Covid-19 cases are surging in some of the most vaccinated parts of the world, including Israel, Hawaii, Iceland, and Gibraltar.
  • Vaccine-induced immunity appears to wane rapidly after as little as five months, with Israel already recommending booster shots.
  • The incidence of severe adverse reactions – including deaths – following vaccinations appears to be 1-2 orders of magnitude higher than for most vaccines.
  • Natural immunity appears to be equally effective and longer-lasting than vaccine-induced immunity.
  • Molecular modeling suggests that vaccine-induced neutralizing antibodies might actually facilitate infection by the Delta variant, meaning that we may be seeing the beginning of antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE).

Despite clear emerging evidence of vaccine failure, an ongoing rise in infections is being blamed solely on unvaccinated people, and pressure to accept the injections is steadily mounting. Never mind that vaccine passports make no logical sense when vaccinated people are also spreading the virus. Never mind that the risk/benefit assessment of vaccination for children and young adults may well be negative, even without considering longer-term risks.

The best possible outcome of our vaccination campaign at this point would be to blunt the end of a historically-minor pandemic, preventing illness and saving lives. The worst possible outcomes would rank among the largest mistakes ever made by humankind, right up there with profligate burning of fossil fuels and deployment of nuclear weapons. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that a new variant or waning immunity could trigger VADE with the result that vaccinated people are more vulnerable to Covid-19 and the death rate rises from 0.3% to 3%, or 10%, or 30%. Or our leaky vaccines could drive viral evolution to create a disease that is more harmful to vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike.

Nothing is certain with regard to the future of Covid-19 or the vaccines, but what is certain to me is that we are in the grip of a collective insanity driven by the last desperate gasps of the religion of Progress in the face of resource limits and impending decline. I do not wish for the vaccines to cause harm to those I love, but I do in a sense hope that they fail just enough to break the power of the sacrament, to deal a mortal blow to the religion of Progress.

We live in a time when technological progress is stuttering to a halt, when the latest gadgets are buggier and shorter-lived than the older ones and when standards of living are declining for a majority of people. In the years ahead we will have less oil, less money, more climate disruptions, and more human migrations. The religion of Progress would have us pursue massive buildouts of alternative energy, electric cars, nuclear power, geoengineering, artificial meat, and energy-intensive cryptocurrency. It would have us seek to consume our way out of this predicament that we consumed our way into. That is, quite simply, impossible, and the longer we follow that path, the more difficult the inevitable transition will become.

When the stranglehold of Progress is finally broken perhaps we will be able to focus on living more simply, to accept death when it comes in lieu of ever-more-complex and energy-intensive medical interventions, to build bioregional agrarian communities, to place a real value on owning less stuff, using less energy, leaving lighter footprints on the Earth. I am hopeful that we can get there eventually, but I suspect that the months and years immediately ahead will be tumultuous. May we all find love and support amidst the fear and chaos.

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16 Responses to A Sacrament of Progress

  1. Tim says:

    I came across your blog via the Ecosophia covid open post. It’s well thought out and argued, though I may be biased as I hold the same viewpoints as you. In any case, we are in for troubled times and I pray they aren’t too troubled for all concerned.

  2. Shannon says:

    Thank you for sharing, Mark.
    Insightful as always.

  3. C says:

    Dear Mark, Thank you, both this post and your others over at JMG’s open posts. I very much appreciate your calm and thoughtful tone, along with your arguments and information.

  4. Wendy says:

    I found this from reading the comments in ecosophia blog of JMG. This is well thought out and well written. I’ll be reading it to my husband tonight. Thank you.

  5. PumpkinScone says:

    Mark honestly I almost cried when I read this. I have been shouting this very idea for years, and I just put something up on the ecosophia open post along the same lines. I’m so happy that someone else can see this.

    Childhood vaccination has always been analogous to circumcision, a religious childhood initiation involving harm to the flesh. The way people talk about it like it’s a gift from a God, and the absolute demonisation that is directed at those who question with a name that ends all discussion. Never mind the long history of corruption, lack of long term studies, or even a glance at a control group. It’s amazing when I awoke from the religion of progress that I saw this as clear as day. Vaccines have always had questionable benefits, and what started out as a few has now become ridiculously over the top. I started out thinking ‘well they have saved millions’ but after delving deeper and deeper I have come to even question that, and at what cost? There is a very high temporal association between increasing autoimmune disorders and increasing vaccination that will never be studied because it is claimed it unethical to have a control group.

    As you say the current push to vaccinate adults is trying to keep them as believers. I experienced it first hand when my wife got the whooping cough shot and had an awful reaction, and the doctor said it was because she was scared of the needle. I realised then that the person I was talking to was no different to a priest, and the whole illusion collapsed.

  6. Glen says:

    I also came here from Ecophasia. Very interesting insight, particularly the tie-in to the mythology of progress. I first became aware of this myth years ago reading JMG’s Archdruid Report. I agree that the so-called “vaccine” might well serve the function of a sacrament with the purpose of holding onto a faith that is rapidly loosing validity. I wonder if people can be led out of the insanity by providing a better-working mythology. For someone holding onto the myth of progress, what does an alternative myth look like? How can it be formulated or framed?

    This really might be a fruitful line of thought. The pro-vax people seem totally impervious to science, facts or reason, so this approach may work better. I’m sure you understand that a myth isn’t right or wrong, the value of mythology is its utility, not its correctness. We need a myth that the pro-vaxxers will find useful.

    I found JMG’s reply to your comment cryptic. What do you think it means? “there may also be something transpersonal and archetypal moving through these events, taking the fanatic faith in progress as its vehicle. ”

    Maybe I’m being naive in thinking we can invent a new myth to solve the immediate problems (symptoms).

    • Mark says:

      Hi Glen,

      Thanks for these thoughts. Yes, we do need a myth that can replace Progress. It can’t simply reframe Progress, however, and so I think for better or worse it will be necessary for Progress believers to go through the grieving process of the death of their guiding mythology before they can adopt a new one.

      But that is something that I need to give thought to, because I think we need to collectively begin the process of creating that new mythology, and I would like to contribute to that process. When the religion of Communism collapsed in the USSR, it seems that people either gravitated toward the mythology of Progress or else to the mythology of Orthodox Christianity. I expect that traditional theological religions will gain followers as Progress collapses, but at the same time those myths feel a bit old and tired and (I would expect) unattractive to a majority of Progress believers. So we will need something new, something perhaps grounded in the wonder and mystery of quantum physics, of astronomy, of the endless interplay of energy and matter, of the cycles and patterns of nature.

      As for JMG’s comment, I also don’t know what to make of that. I find the concept of archetypes to be marginally useful; archetypes can be helpful to understand emergent large-scale psychological phenomena, but they appear from my perspective to become tautological when they are considered to be the cause of those phenomena.


  7. El says:

    Much appreciation for this essay, which says exactly what I’ve been saying about vaccinations and offers some explanation as to why we might have gotten here.

    I’ve been saying for years and years that vaccines are valuable medical interventions that have their place , but that they are being overused and creating new problems. This, of course, gets me labelled as an “anti-vaxxer”, because any questioning of ever-more vaccination is essentially heresy.

    I think you are onto something about them being akin to a sacrament in the religion of progress. Going a bit further, I think it also may also be tied into the human tendency to want to re-enact one’s greatest historical triumphs. The elimination of smallpox, by way of example, was a great triumph of modern medicine, and a great triumph of vaccination in particular. (In fact, even the word, vaccine, comes from the French word for cow, vache, due to the use of the cowpox virus in the early development of smallpox vaccination – the very language hearkens back to that great accomplishment.)

    Problem is, of course, all the low-hanging vaccination fruit – and the low-hanging fruit in medicine in general and for progress itself – have most likely all already been picked. There is only so much benefit to be had before you reach a point of diminishing returns.

    Have you noticed how new medical interventions no longer have as dramatic an impact on improving mortality as did earlier accomplishments? Basic mid-20th century surgery techniques have saved more lives than the most cutting-edge interventions every will (sure, fancy new surgeries may help some people, but not on the dramatic scale that the development of more-basic modern techniques did). Older drugs like antibiotics and insulin have saved and extended far more lives than the latest expensive designer drugs ever will. And a few, mostly older, vaccines against a handful of the most-virulent diseases have saved more lives than will the vast majority of the ever-growing number of lucrative (but less useful) vaccines constantly being added to the childhood schedule.

    In other words, modern medicine is “past its prime” for dramatic accomplishments, and I think this “fading glory” plays into the current madness. The religion of progress is desperate for another big, dramatic “win” to show “we still got it”.

    Except of course we don’t. Modern science – including modern medicine and some vaccines, sanitation, clean water, adequate food, and various basic safety developments – has eliminated a lot of the things that used to kill us, and greatly extended life spans in first-world countries.

    But there is a limit, and I would argue it was hit a while ago. Science can only make us so safe and no safer. Medicine can reduce the chances of dying young and give one a chance to reach a ripe old age, but not access to immortality. You’re still going to die. Science can do only so much. And it was mostly done a few decades back.

    But “so far and no farther” is anathema to the religion of progress. Things much always get BETTER, not reach a place of “this level of health and longevity is pretty good and probably as good as it will ever get, we’re not going to see another elimination-of-smallpox type accomplishment ever again”.

    And so, the search for another dramatic scientific triumph is underway, and it is focused, unsurprisingly, on vaccines.

    • Mark says:

      Hi El,

      Well said! It seems that Progress has really only become a dominant religion over the past 50 years or so. I think most people alive in the 1970s were grateful for their few important vaccinations against smallpox, polio, and measles, but would have found it odd to think we needed vaccines for chickenpox, flu, hepatitis, etc etc.

      The fact that the trends are moving in opposite directions – i.e. the psychological importance of new vaccines is increasing even as their marginal utility is decreasing – tells me that we are dealing with a religious mentality.

  8. Posi Wid says:

    Really an excellent essay. I came back to re-read it and having just read Ugo Bardi’s latest, I reacted a bit to the reference to pedophilia … and realized that I’d taken that narrative as a given without thinking critically about it at all.


    • Mark says:

      That may not have been the best analogy, but I think it is an apt one. It’s not that priests are more likely to be pedophiles than any other men, but rather that their perceived holiness allowed harms to go unnoticed or to be papered over for too long. And I’m quite sure the same is true of vaccines in the religion of Progress.

  9. Energy Lens says:

    I keep returning and referring others to this essay… and today encountered another article that touches upon this theme:



    `In Eugenics and Other Evils (1922), GK Chesterton observed that “it seems quite natural to our politicians to enforce vaccination; and it would seem to them madness to enforce baptism”. Today the prescience of Chesterton’s remark is clear, as is the convergence in terms of social meaning between vaccination and baptism.

    The growing tendency for ‘the vaccinated’ to treat ‘the unvaccinated’ as other or impure recalls the willingness of an earlier age to deny others simple forms of inclusion on the basis of baptism. Never mind what studies say about the efficacy of Covid vaccination in protecting us from severe illness (which evidence strongly suggests it does) or mitigating further infection (perhaps more debatable). Increasingly, vaccination carries a social meaning as well as a medical one. It’s a ritual infusion — albeit via injection, not anointment — of sacred liquid, whose application confers freedom from spiritual taint.`

    • Mark says:

      I have seen the sacrament/baptism comparison appearing more frequently. I have no idea if folks have been reading my essay or if it just a logical connection that is becoming apparent to more and more people in this time :-).

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