One thing that will never stop surprising me is the degree to which anti-vaccination campaigns have spread their message. Dozens of different versions, each ignoring a different combination of inconvenient facts about how vaccines work and what illnesses they don’t cause, all circulate around the Internet, ensnaring people of every political persuasion. I can understand the mistrust of the medical establishment, whose record is far from clean. I can understand the societal memory loss that has made vaccines seem unnecessary now that smallpox, polio, diphtheria, measles, and mumps epidemics are no longer the stuff of every Westerner’s childhood. I can understand the Hobbesian choices imposed by the lack of universal healthcare access in the United States.
I have a lot more trouble understanding the confusion about the societal role of vaccines in protecting the unvaccinated, because religions use that principle all the time to police their own.
Most religious environments in the West and elsewhere take a hard line against QUILTBAGs, atheists, apostates, and miscellaneous heretics. They issue commandments and injunctions against leaving the faith, even for a similar one. They fill their discourse with accusations that nonbelievers in particular and non-members in general are morally bankrupt, untrustworthy, nihilistic, depressed, or even criminal. They build elaborate mythologies about how sexual orientation and consent don’t exist and gay people are the same kind of thing as pedophiles and violent rapists, or at least that their liaisons cannot possibly earn the divine imprimatur that straight relationships get by default. They imply that those who consent to sex before marriage, consent to sex but not pregnancy, and/or refuse to consent to sex after marriage are victims of moral decay and worthy of ostracism, opprobrium, and even violence. They cast aspersions on those whose interest in their religion is less than the community standard, or who refuse its rites.
The effect of all of this is far more than to drive out of religious communities those who cannot or will not conform and to encourage entirely too many murders and suicides. Nor is that extreme response the goal of these communities’ ongoing campaign to make basic decency a reward for conformity. The targets of this cruel practice are not those designated with modern-day scarlet letters and sent on their way, but the onlookers. The intensity of this ostracism is a calculated display to terrify other would-be nonconformists into going into hiding. Whether the “correction” encourages people to reevaluate their beliefs and “decide” that the majority was right all along or to regard their deviance as a deadly, shameful secret, the effect is the same. Religious societies compel people to go through the motions and to lie about their beliefs and allegiances, and use fear to keep them silent. For every homeless gay teenager made so by parents whose religions broke their moral compasses, there are dozens who see that happen and put more of themselves in the dreaded closet, just in case.
The true, horrifying genius of it all is the next stage. Terrified of what happens when people like them are found, deviants of every stripe do their best to disappear. Sometimes, that means parroting religious segments or bigoted rhetoric, so that refusal to do so does not raise eyebrows. Sometimes, that means feigning ignorance and horror when a fellow atheist or QUILTBAG accidentally blows their cover. Sometimes, that means not standing up for those the community has decided will be the next round of examples, as a matter of self-preservation. All of the time, it means that community members who discover that they are outside the norm, they are alone. Every possible fellow traveler is a fictional monster, someone exiled for their deviance, or trying as hard as possible not to spoil their disguise, and investigating the matter in almost any capacity is an open letter to the inquisition.
That is how these communities create pockets and towns and whole little realms where the idea that it’s even possible for someone to fail to conform in this or that way is utterly foreign, and where people who have those seeds of difference in them either live in denial or think themselves the sole member of their kind, unique in the world. This is how they make sure that people outside the desired norms have no tools with which to understand who and what they are. That is how these communities make sure that apostates and atheists and QUILTBAGs and every other kind of human they seek to expunge never find any kind of solace or empathy and never hear the most important and most beautiful words every language has to offer:
You are not alone.
That is how the world’s nests of cruelty and deception give themselves herd immunity.
That is why I play the defender. That is why I write this blog. That is why atheist literature exists. That is why QUILTBAG characters in media are so important. That is why the narrative of “coming out” takes such primacy in both atheist and QUILTBAG circles. That is why the Internet has been so extraordinarily corrosive to religious erasure of nonconforming identities. That is why repressive societies start and finish with cutting off ties to the outside and especially to media that show that nonconformity is possible.