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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