Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Recent Discoveries and Advances Published by Interpreter, Part 1

If you aren't following the journal Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, you may have missed some discoveries and advances in understanding our scriptures that could be helpful for your own spiritual and intellectual journey. I will disclose my bias as a co-editor of the journal, where I have the privilege in this volunteer role of working with some remarkable authors as their articles go through our peer review process. It's great to work with the many bright people who submit articles to the Interpreter Foundation for consideration in the journal. It has been a delight to learn of their insights and discoveries as they dig deep into many aspects of our faith and our scriptures. Here are just a few of many recent highlights. 


"An Ishmael Buried Near Nahom" by Neal Rappleye

Background

One of the most intriguing Book of Mormon evidences from the Arabian Peninsula involves the episode during Lehi's journey in which Ishmael dies and was then buried in a place that was called Nahom, as described in 1 Nephi 16:34. The discovery of three altars bearing the NHM name, apparently related to Yemen's Nihm tribe near that region was active, indicates that a name related to Nahom was prominent in Lehi's era, providing hard evidence from the right time and roughly the right place in favor of the plausibility of an unusual place name in the Book of Mormon. Much has been written about that and also discussed here, with a plausible candidate for the place Nahom being in the region of Wadi Jawf, not far from Sanaa. From Wadi Jawf, it is possible to make the abrupt turn in direction from generally south-southeast to nearly due east, as Nephi describes, and travel without having to cross the deadly Empty Quarter or to face impossible mountains or other impassable obstacles to reach at least one and apparently both of the leading candidates for Bountiful in southern Oman. See, for example, Warren Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah: 'Truth Shall Spring out of the Earth,'” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2006): 8–25, 110–13; https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1401&context=jbms. Also see Warren P. Aston and Michaela K. Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Comp., 1994); Warren P. Aston, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing, 2015); and George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness: 81 New, Documented Evidences that the Book of Mormon is a True History (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, Inc., 2003). For videos, see Lehi in Arabia, DVD, directed by Chad Aston (Brisbane, Australia: Aston Productions, 2015), available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgDNCG-7x98, and Journey of Faith, DVD, directed by Peter Johnson (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship, 2006), available at https://journeyoffaithfilms.com/videos/watch-journey-of-faith.

The New Publication

Thanks to Neal Rappleye, we now have what may be another find of interest, one of 400 carved funerary stelae from Wadi Jawf. With detailed scholarship and a good deal of caution, Neal Rappleye explores the possible significance of an ancient inscription from Yemen indicating that someone named Ishmael (equivalent to the carved y s1mʿʾl in Epigraphic South Arabian) was buried, possibly in the region of the candidate for Nahom, in what may have been Lehi's day. We don't know if it was the same Ishmael of the Book of Mormon, of course, but as Rappleye gently suggests, "circumstantial evidence suggests that such is a possibility worth considering." However, there are questions about the provenance (not the authenticity) of the stela since it was part of a group of looted items that were recovered, so the exact site where it was found is not known, though it seems we can say that it was made for an Ishmael "buried somewhere within or near the Wadi Jawf, ca. 6th century BC." It is possible that it was associated with the ancient lands of the Nihm tribe, as is the case for other items in the collection. The dating of the stela and nature of the name are also compatible with the Book of Mormon account:

The stela is paleographically dated to 6th–5th centuries BC, but Mounir Arbach and his co-authors consider it stylistically among “a few coarse examples” of the incised face elements stela type “known for the 7th–6th centuries BC.”

The name Yasmaʿʾīl is the South Arabian form of the name Ishmael, even though the two names may look somewhat different in translation. The inscribed y s1mʿʾl is exactly how the Hebrew name yšmʿʾl (ישמעאל) — typically rendered as “Ishmael” in English — would be spelled in Epigraphic South Arabian. In fact, the two names have the exact same etymology, meaning “God has heard/hearkened,” or “may God hear,” and in The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, the Old South Arabian y s1mʿʾl is listed as an equivalent to the Hebrew name yšmʿʾl (Ishmael). Thus, this stela indicates that a man named the equivalent of Ishmael was buried in or near the Wadi Jawf around the 6th century BC, about the same time period Ishmael was buried at Nahom, according to the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 16:34).

The name “Ishmael” (Yasmaʿʾil) in Old South Arabian script.
The name “Ishmael” (Yasmaʿʾil) in Old South Arabian script.

Rappleye also explains why the name most likely has Hebrew rather than Arabic origins. 

Scholars examining the collection of stelae propose that they were made either for foreigners from the north passing through the area or for the members of the lower ranks of society. In either case, this could fit the case of Lehi's family, traveling as nomads without the gold and silver Lehi once had in Jerusalem. 

Rappleye's conclusion is intriguing but also appropriately cautious:

At the very least, it seems reasonable to suggest that if the Ishmael of the Book of Mormon was buried with some sort of identifying marker, it probably would [Page 39]have looked something like the Yasmaʿʾil stela — a crudely carved stela typical of foreigners traveling through the area, who lacked substantial time or resources to afford a more extravagantly carved and engraved burial stone.

Although a firmer conclusion eludes us, the very fact that an Ishmael was buried in close proximity to the Nihm tribal region around the very time the Book of Mormon indicates that a man named Ishmael was buried at Nahom is rather remarkable. Such a fact certainly does not weaken the case for the Book of Mormon’s historicity.

Please don't think or say that "scholars have found the grave marker of Ishmael in the Book of Mormon at Nahom." But what that they have found, and what scholars have concluded about the collection of Wadi Jawf funerary stelae in general, at least modestly demonstrates the plausibility of the Book of Mormon claim that a Hebrew man named Ishmael was buried at a place called Nahom near Wadi Jawf. Wadi Jawf, as Warren Aston has reported (see his books In the Footsteps of Lehi  and more recently Lehi and Sariah in Arabia), appears to be just about the only region where one can turn nearly due east from the main trails leading south through Yemen and not only have a chance of surviving, but, with a little guidance from the Liahona to chose the right final wadi, be on a path that could lead directly to a plausible candidate for Bountiful such as a Khor Kharfot at Wadi Sayq (or nearby Khor Rori, another leading candidate that some prefer). 

Don't make too much of Rappleye's fascinating find, but it does merit attention and is one more interesting work of genuine scholarship advancing our appreciation of the plausibility of Lehi's Trail in the Book of Mormon. Rappleye's careful work helps strengthen the general case for Nahom as one of the "four pillars" of Lehi's Trail, as Warren Aston put it, places in Nephi's account with strong candidates for specific Book of Mormon locations in Arabia that were completely unknown in Joseph Smith's day. These include: 1) the River of Laman in the Valley of Lemuel,  2) the place called Nahom, 3) Bountiful, and most recently identified, 4) the place Shazer, as Warren Aston reported in 2020 in another must-read publication at Interpreter. 

 

"The People of Canaan: A New Reading of Moses 7" by Adam Stokes

Given the mission and scope of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, it is natural that our authors tend to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This paper was a welcome exception from a man who has great interest in and respect for the Book of Moses, even though his own church does not accept it as scripture. Stokes was formerly with the Community of Christ, but is now a member of the Church of Jesus Christ with the Elijah Message, an organization that traces its roots to David Whitmer. Taking on the sensitive issue of race in the Book of Moses, Stokes brings out some clear and important points that we often miss when reading passages in Moses 7 that seem to reflect old racial stereotypes. What made this article especially interesting to me is that its author is black, though I didn't know that until after the paper had been accepted and I received the photo now published at the end of the article and also on our "About the Author" page for Adam Stokes

Here is the abstract for this important article:

Moses 7 is one of the most famous passages in all of Restoration scripture. It is also one of the most problematic in regard to its description of the people of Canaan as black (v. 8) and as a people who were not preached to by the patriarch Enoch (v. 12). Later there is also a mention of “the seed of Cain,” who also are said to be black (v. 22). This article examines the history of interpretation of Moses 7 and proposes an alternative understanding based on a close reading of the text. In contrast to traditional views, it argues that the reason for Enoch’s not preaching to the people of Canaan stems not from any sins the people had committed or from divine disfavor but from the racial prejudice of the other sons of Adam, the “residue of the people” (vv. 20, 22) who ironically are the only ones mentioned as “cursed” in the text (v. 20). In looking at the implications of this passage for the present-day Restoration, this article notes parallels between Enoch’s hesitancy and various attitudes toward black priesthood ordination throughout the Restoration traditions, including the Community of Christ where the same type of hesitancy existed. This article argues that, rather than being indicative of divine disfavor toward persons of African descent, this tendency is a response to the racist attitudes of particular eras, whether the period of the Old Testament patriarchs or the post-bellum American South. Nevertheless, God can be seen as working through and within particular contexts and cultures to spread the gospel to all of Adam’s children irrespective of race.

There are four main arguments made in this paper:

  1. Moses 7 both reflects and challenges the prevailing understanding of race and ethnic prejudice in the ancient [Page 163]world (yes, concepts of race and prejudice, though vastly different than ours, did exist in antiquity).
  2. The “people of Canaan” of Moses 7 are never mentioned as being cursed in the text. Rather their blackness is the result of God cursing something else (i.e., the land).
  3. The only people mentioned as cursed in Moses 7 are the “residue of the people” (vv. 20, 22, 28) which, as the text itself notes, does not include the “seed of Cain” (7:20, 22). In contrast to the prevailing reading of Moses 7, the text implies condemnation not of the seed of Cain/people of Canaan but of this “residue of the people” due to both their hatred of the people of Canaan and their general rejection of the gospel message preached by Enoch.
  4. Enoch’s rationale for not preaching repentance to the people of Canaan in Moses 7 is not due to any personal animosity toward them or from the view that they are cursed. In other words, his rationale, as the text explains, is different from common interpretations and readings in the Latter-day Saint tradition.

Stokes's reading of Moses 7 leads to a surprising conclusion that may be controversial but needs to be considered in light of the detailed analysis Stokes provides: "Moses 7, far from being a racially problematic text, presents a progressive racial message in which God himself condemns the prejudice and cruelty of the other sons of Adam. It is this cruelty, in conjunction with their rejection of the gospel, that results in the 'residue of the people' being cursed, a curse from which the people of Canaan themselves are spared." There's much to ponder in the work from this intriguing author, and I hope you'll read it carefully. 

 

"The Inclusive, Anti-Discrimination Message of the Book of Mormon" by David M. Belnap

This is one of the most extensive and data-heavy articles ever published by Interpreter. It took a lot of work to go through a lengthy review and editorial process that began and was essentially finished before I came onboard in mid-2020, but I'm very proud of what David Belnap has accomplished and of Allen Wyatt as the lone editor then for guiding it through the process. To get a feel for the significance of this paper, I'll quote what Adam Stokes said about it in his paper discussed immediately above:

I find it necessary to provide a point of comparison here between my reading of Moses 7 and David Belnap’s excellent analysis of the depiction of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon. In his recent article for Interpreter, “The Inclusive, Anti-Discrimination Message of the Book of Mormon,” Belnap takes a radically different approach to the sacred text focusing not on the presentation of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon — the standard default position for Book of Mormon exegetes — but that of the Lamanites.

Belnap persuasively and effectively argues that while the negative statements about the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon have been highlighted both by the book’s advocates and opponents, the text ultimately and primarily presents them in a highly positive light. As such, the Book of Mormon ultimately promotes a radical egalitarian and anti-racist ethic which elevates the “dark,” blackened Lamanites over and above their “pure” and “white” Nephite counterparts [note that Belnap and others provide plausible reasons for recognizing the troubling language in the Book of Mormon about the "blackness" or darkness of the Lamanites as metaphorical, not descriptions of racial differences, though there are other possibilities]. He notes that in the majority of instances that the Lamanites are mentioned in the Book of Mormon it is either as equal or better than the Nephites and that in many cases the Lamanites are presented as spiritually superior to the Nephites.

Belnap provides a massive amount of data to show that the Book of Mormon overwhelming denies the racist message that some see in the Book of Mormon:

Counter to the racist impression, more than three thousand Book of Mormon verses directly or indirectly impart an inclusive, anti-discriminatory message (Table 1). People today may perceive the cursing [of the Lamanites] as a racist declaration or a license to discriminate, but righteous Book of Mormon people did not. Wicked behavior of the cursed group was excused, but that of the non-cursed, recordkeeping group was severely criticized. Several times the cursed people were righteous examples or were more righteous than the non-cursed people. People of the two nations were considered brethren. Love of all was preached and practiced. Kind acts occurred between nations and within each nation, including outreach to the other nation and help to the poor within a nation, and some selfless people lost their lives or put their lives at risk. Although often at war, the two nations had significant peaceful interactions. Unkind actions and attitudes toward other groups were identified as evil, including exploitations, class distinctions, persecutions, and attitudes of superiority. War was tragic and caused by wickedness. Intermingled in these messages are messages especially relevant for today. God loves and invites all people. God is fair to all. Prophecies extend his blessings worldwide to modern Jews, other Israelites, descendants of Book of Mormon people, and all other people (Gentiles). The promised blessings will be fulfilled if people choose to follow the Lord. Those who fight against the Lord will incur his wrath, regardless of ethnicity or heritage. Anti-Semitism is condemned. Conspiracies are extremely wicked. The book contains a powerful example of redemption from discriminatory attitudes.

After discussing numerous issues related to alleged racism in the Book of Mormon and its message of inclusion, Belnap writes:

Instead of highlighting how a few verses were interpreted as reflecting 1800s attitudes, a better focus is on the inclusive messages that are in more than half of the book’s verses:

  • God loves all people and his message is for all people on earth (Table 4).
  • God will treat all people fairly (Table 4).
  • God favors personal righteousness, not lineage (Table 4).
  • Every group (Nephites, Lamanites, Jaredites, Jews, and Gentiles) has had times of righteousness and times of wickedness.
  • All groups need to repent (tables 5–6, 20–22).
  • The aim is spiritual beauty and cleanliness, not physical attractiveness (Table 3).
  • The Gentiles have persecuted Lehite descendants and Jews. The Gentiles’ need to repent is particularly emphasized (tables 21–22).
  • All people (Lehites, Jews, and Gentiles) are promised blessings and happiness if they follow the Lord (tables 4, 17–19).
  • Anti-Semitism is evil (Table 21).
  • Slavery is evil (Mosiah 2:13; Alma 27:9).
  • Righteous Nephites viewed the Lamanites as brothers, and vice versa (tables 11, 13).
  • Righteous Nephites reached out to the Lamanites, and vice versa (Table 12).
  • Righteous people were kind to others. Sometimes these acts cost unselfish people their lives or put their lives at risk (Table 13).
  • Unkind actions against others are condemned (Table 14).
  • Persecution or oppression of others is wickedness (Table 15).
  • Attitudes of superiority are condemned (Table 15).
  • Class distinctions are evil (Table 15).
  • Exploitation of vulnerable people is evil (Table 16).
  • Although defensive war may be necessary, war is started by wickedness (Table 23).
  • Conspiracies, which in our day are involved in some discriminatory actions or crimes, are extremely evil (Table 24).
  • The wicked punish the wicked (Mormon 4:5).
  • On no occasion do righteous Nephites seek to destroy Lamanites or vice versa (Table 23).
  • People can learn from despised people. Multiple times Lamanites, who were scorned periodically by the Nephites, are examples of righteousness (Table 8), even when “unconverted” (Table 9).
  • Christ taught us to focus on fixing ourselves and not others (3 Nephi 14:3–5; Matthew 7:3–5). The Nephite record does that by focusing on Nephite faults and de-emphasizing Lamanite ones (tables 5–7, 9–10).

Righteous people in the Book of Mormon cared about others. Whatever the differences truly were between the Nephites and Lamanites, those people gave us much to learn from in our day of unrelenting discrimination.

As Belnap ably shows, the Book of Mormon as a whole has a consistent message that is needed in our day. The few passages that cause concern need to be considered in light of Belnap's work and the scholarship he discusses (e.g., works of Ethan Sproat and Brant Gardner) on interpreting those verses, but stay tuned for more coming soon on another important insight from modern scholarship that may advance our understanding of some challenging Book of Mormon passages in light of ancient culture in the Americas. An article that I'm looking forward to will be published soon, so stay tuned. 

 

"Personal Relative Pronoun Usage in the Book of Mormon: An Important Authorship Diagnostic" by Stanford Carmack

Stanford Carmack and Royal Skousen have published a series of works exploring the language of the Book of Mormon as originally dictated. One of the most puzzling discoveries, driven by data and not any apologetic agenda, is that much of what we assumed was Joseph's own bad grammar actually turns out to be legitimate Early Modern English, with many elements that predate the English of the King James Bible. What that means is that the details of the English in the Book of Mormon, as dictated, cannot be simply explained as Joseph imitating what he found in the Bible. And in many cases, it doesn't seem possible to explain it as an artifact of Joseph's own language or New England dialect in his day. Why it should be this way is still a mystery, but it's an important issue worthy of recognition, and one that may raise the bar for those arguing that Joseph Smith is the fabricator of the Book of Mormon. 

Some of Carmack's many works on this topic, including quite a few at Interpreter, explore complex or highly technical topics and may be difficult for many of us appreciate, but this one deals with an issue that most of us can easily grasp, even if we aren't familiar with some of the terminology. Carmack explores the use or "personal relative pronouns" in the Book of Mormon and other works. Personal relative pronouns (PRPs) are pronouns that relate one clause to another. As an example, consider the sentence, "The author that wrote the paper was a fine scholar." After mentioning the author, we can then refer to the author again in a new clause with a PRP such as "that" or "who." There is also third possibility that is less commonly used in modern English, the PRP "which," which was more frequently used in the Early Modern English era (roughly 1470 to 1700). But all three choices ("that," "who"/"whom"/"whose," and "which") need to be considered as Carmack compares the Book of Mormon to Joseph's early writings, the KJV Bible, other "pseudo-biblical" literature that deliberately sought to imitate the KJV Bible, and Early Modern English literature. 

Carmack first considers how Joseph himself used PRPs in his early writings (10 letters and his 1832 personal history). The data here should be easy to grasp (click to enlarge): Joseph predominantly used "who(m)" but also had a modest share of "that" in his language, with "which" being rather rare as a PRP. The Book of Mormon reverses the "who"/"that" balance, strongly preferring the use of "which" as a PRP, quite unlike Joseph.  The choice of PRP is something we don't tend to think about consciously, just saying what feels natural at the time. Such unconscious choices of minor words can be something that is hard to notice and hard to fake when seeking to imitate a style.

PRP Usage in the Book of Mormon vs. Joseph's Early Writings

Carmack then compares the Book of Mormon to the Bible, where large differences again emerge. The KJV Bible uses the PRP "that" 86% of the time, followed by "which" 10% of the time and "who(m)" just 4% of the time. 

Considering the antecedent for PRPs can add additional information related to the syntax of a text. Based on analysis of some major databases, Carmack observed that PRPs most frequently occur after the words "he" and "they," and also noted that the PRPs used with them may differ. After "they," the PRP of choice in the Book of Mormon is "which," occurring 69% of the time, while after "he" it is "that" 90% of the time. The "he" + PRP pattern in the Book of Mormon is quite similar to the Bible's, while "that" + PRP are sharply different, with the Bible preferring "he that" 79% of the time vs. 68% "he which" in the Book of Mormon. But the choices for "he" and "they" + PRP in the Book of Mormon closely matched several Early Modern English texts, while not matching pseudo-biblical texts. 

Carmack's conclusion has startling implications:

The statistical argument for each scenario outlined above is compelling — whether we look at all PRP usage, a subset involving high-frequency antecedents, or just contexts involving the subject pronouns he and they. We can tell with exceptionally high confidence that the Book of Mormon’s PRP patterns were not derived from Joseph Smith’s own patterns, from the King James Bible, or from attempting to imitate biblical and/or archaic style. We can also tell that the patterns do match a less-common pattern that prevailed during the middle portion of the early modern period, but not in the 18th century — a pattern with an overall preference of personal which over that or who(m).

In the case involving more antecedents than just he and they, a simple examination of the dramatic differences shown here or an application of standard chi-square tests of the raw numbers (see the appendix) indicate that the Book of Mormon’s PRP pattern would not have been achieved by closely following the patterns of the King James Bible, pseudo-archaic works, or Joseph’s own dialectal profile, which at times was biblically influenced. The large differences in PRP usage between the Book of Mormon and the King James Bible and pseudo-archaic works indicate a different authorial preference for these sets of texts — a preference that is mostly nonconscious, as shown by an inability of pseudo-archaic authors to sustain archaic/biblical usage over long stretches. The Book of Mormon is not a match with the usage in Joseph’s personal writings, as his own patterns fit comfortably in the late modern period, as do most contemporary pseudo-archaic works.

This point has been made in other contexts, including various iterations of stylometric analysis, but the force of the data is difficult to deny, even though it is based on only a single linguistic feature. (These PRP comparisons are in effect a kind of focused, precise stylometry.) Furthermore, the data lead us clearly away from Joseph as author or English-language translator and toward a specific time period — the only time when we find textual matching with the Book of Mormon’s archaic PRP distribution rates: the early modern era, and primarily the second half of the 1500s and the first decade of the 1600s. 

This is puzzling. Why it should be that way is a mystery, and Carmack states he does not wish to speculate, but points out that the important thing is that the data weigh strongly against the common assumption that the Book of Mormon simply reflects Joseph's own wording. We know Joseph edited portions of the text, sometimes taking out the awkward grammar he had dictated to make it more clear or proper, so he was not averse to using his own language when he felt it was needed. But if Carmack is correct, it seems that what he dictated cannot be assumed to simply be his own wording. 

This is a controversial position, but one that seems based on a growing body of detailed data. There are other popular views on the nature of the translation and the influence of his own wording, and I look forward to the replies of other scholars in exploring alternate theories. The debate, if focused on the data, will be fascinating. 

No publication should ever be assumed to be the final, definitive word. There's always more to learn and new data to consider. Our goal at Interpreter is to advance scholarship and faith by publishing what we hope are meaningful, solid works related to the scriptures, Church history, and other gospel topics for others to consider and, in many cases, respond to with new advances. Whether an article offers the ultimate answer or just some great questions and issues for further thought, we hope they will be helpful to readers and will remind all of us of the need to keep learning and growing in our faith and study. 

I'll share some more thoughts from recent publications in another upcoming post or two. If you have a favorite recent publication, let me know what you liked and why in the comments below.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Let's Have Some Compassion for Our Untouchables

If you grew up in a nation with a formal caste system, would you let society dictate how you treated others, especially the shunned and shamed untouchables? Would you deplore them based on what others told you to do, or would you have compassion for the downtrodden? If you grew up in the South after the civil war, when former slaves who had recently been freed found guns pointed at them if they attempted to vote and were not allowed to enjoy many of the blessings of the freedom they had supposedly gained, would you dare speak out for their rights? Would you treat them with compassion and kindness, or shun them as many did? If you were raised in Germany in the 1930s, would you look at Jews as the source of society's greatest problems, or would you have the wisdom and charity to ignore propaganda and social pressure and instead love others in spite of their differences? I believe most of us will sincerely think that in those settings, we would have been different from the sheep around us and would have the courage to stand up for the rights of others and respect them as fellow humans. However, in the rush of real events, when one senses the possibly high price of courage and feels the surging power of peer pressure and political force, we might fail to see that we were standing before a decisive opportunity to deploy our noble intentions and face the unknown consequences of defiance.

Power seekers throughout history have found scapegoats to be valuable tools for their own gain, and the Book of Mormon gives us several case studies to ponder as corrupt men used anger and blaming of others to obtain power, including Amalickiah, King Noah, and others. Stirring up senseless anger and fear has been a tool to justify expanded power and personal agendas time after time in world history. I feel that a new caste of deplorable untouchables is being created in our midst, the caste of the unvaccinated who are shamed and blamed for many social ills, and are being systemically punished and discriminated against. We are fortunately nowhere near to the level of persecution and abuse that many groups have faced throughout history, but the shaming, exclusion, and now firing of the unvaccinated is an alarming step. Though I am vaccinated and generally encourage vaccination and thus disagree with at least some of the unvaccinated, I feel we need to stand for their rights of medical privacy, of personal choice, and body sovereignty, especially in light of what "the science" is actually teaching us (see my Nov 21, 2021 update below for more details on this).

Unfortunately, many of us have been lied to about the alleged need to compel the untouchable caste to accept vaccinations. It's time to recognize the lies and stand up with compassion for others and respect for their rights, even if they are different in their views and choices. When you look at the stories you are not being told, it should also be clear that current government mandates and policies can no longer be assumed to be made in good faith. In fact, it's critical that you understand why. But first, please take a moment to consider the humanity of those being targeted.

Right after the announcement of the new federal vaccine mandate that puts the jobs of many Americans at risk, I had some surprising conversations with friends and relatives who fear its impact. One single mother who works from home and only from home for a healthcare-related company is being required to vaccinate. When President Biden gave his September speech that announced the plan for vaccine mandates, signalling a ramped-up divisiveness by telling the unvaccinated that "we are losing patience with you," her employer soon announced that she would need to be vaccinated or have weekly COVID testing. This mother with a very challenging life and overwhelming duties chose weekly testing, which involved having to drive one hour each week at her own expense to pick up a test kit. That was bad enough, but with the mandate now officially in place through OSHA, she has been told by her employer that now she must be vaccinated or be fired. She previously had a religious exemption, but now she is  told that that won't help any more. The language of the mandate appears to make exemptions possible and should not apply to those working remotely, but it seems that many companies are choosing to go the extra mile, perhaps to seem as faithful as possible in light of the fearsome penalties for non-compliance with the dictate. I guess they are just embracing the spirit of the law: expel the untouchables, even if they are among the heroes who have been risking their lives to help COVID patients, put out fires, stop criminals, or serve in many other urgently needed and understaffed areas that cannot afford losing large numbers of employees. To protect Americans, for our social good, we need to expel these people now or force them to buckle. The judicial stay issued a few days ago isn't making much of a difference, and the Biden Administration is essentially ignoring the court order, telling corporations to move ahead with compulsory vaccination.

In reality, her reason for not wanting the vaccine may be more based on personal medical reasons than her religious beliefs. She is highly allergic to many materials. The last time she had an injection, the adjuvants (compounds added with a medication to make it more effective or preserve it) gave her a severe reaction that took weeks to overcome. But she's had to change doctors and is not sure her current hard-to-reach doctor will support seeking a medical exemption. She'll try to get the exemption, but fears she will be fired. With the children she's caring for and the stress her life already has, the impact of the mandate seems rather cruel. Why cause her so much trouble and risk when she works from home and cannot possibly be putting others in the workplace at risk? It's senseless. Please understand, the logic behind this is not based on science, as we'll see, but pure politics. For this mother and for many thousands in similar situations, I hope you will recognize the unjust discrimination against her and feel a sense of compassion.

She and many others with concerns about the vaccine now have their jobs at risk. The reasons the vaccine hesitant have vary widely. For some, it's medical, such as concern about long-term adverse effects or allergic reactions, a concern shared by some college students I know. For others, it may be more religious, such as concerns about the essential role that fetal cells played in the development of a new drug or religious concerns about taking experimental materials into one's body as expressed by Victory Boyd, fired by the NFL after being hired to sing the National Anthem. Some object because of a distrust of government, a factor which I sense may be especially true among the many young black Americans who are vaccine hesitant (no, vaccine hesitancy is not unique to white Republicans). 

I'm currently reading  Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment by James H, Jone, 2nd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993, first edition 1991), whose opening pages note the role the Center for Disease Control (yes, our beloved CDC) played after they were split off from the Public Health Service and took over running and justifying the horrific Tuskegee Experiment. Can we fairly blame the lack of trust in our government among many black Americans (or Americans of any color) who have heard about this decades-long experiment in which effective treatments for syphilis were deliberately and callously withheld from over 300 black men who thought they were getting treatment for their disease, all in an alleged "scientific" effort to watch the gruesome late stage effects of syphilis? 

If someone has personal reasons for not trusting government and especially the CDC, go ahead and post all the lectures to them that you want about how this time everything's totally transparent and truthful, but let's have some respect for the feelings and concerns of those who know something about the Tuskegee Experiment or have other reasons for doubting the often contradictory and sometimes clearly questionable official information they are given (e.g., see this frank op-ed from two medical scholars published at MSN.com or this observation with reasonable support from Chicago-based Wirepoints). Some of you have been telling my black friends that America is systemically racist, but now you're trying to tell them that they really need to trust the white folks running the CDC and the NIH and accept their "experimental drug" (as many see it and as it has been called from authoritative sources)? Can you have enough compassion to recognize that they might have genuine concerns? Do their feelings and even informed decisions not matter? If black lives matter, what about black sovereignty over one's body, black medical privacy, black personal choice, and black concerns about the overreach of an untrustworthy government?

I have several highly educated friends working for Silicon Valley giants. One of them who works from home now has his job at risk. The company, apparently showing its political faithfulness by going beyond the actual written requirements of the mandate, is requiring even remote employees to be vaccinated well before the mandate's requirement. As a matter of principle, my friend feels such a demand is not only contrary to logic and science, but is a violation of his personal privacy and, in my words, demeaning to him as an employee. He refuses to make his employment subject to accepting what could be an endless list of intrusions into his body as others declare what medications he must take. He works from home. His company knows he's vaccinated. But because he won't bow before an unconstitutional decree and disclose official proof of his medical status, his job is at risk. I applaud this man's courage. To even stand up and object politely was an act of amazing courage. I hope we can appreciate and sympathize with this kind of courage. It's a courage this country needs more than ever right now.

There seems to be fear that showing any kind of leniency toward the non-compliant could result in federal scrutiny with unbearable risk. This law, by the way, does not come from elected representatives in Congress as the Constitution seems to require, or, more properly, from elective representatives of the states since this should be a state or local issue, not a federal one. Rather, it comes from the decree dictated by one very powerful leader -- perhaps from President Biden himself, for all we know.

The Bad Faith and Lack of Science Behind the Mandate

We just had some of the most exciting news related to the COVID pandemic, the announcement of two different drugs that appear to have very high potential for treating COVID patients.  I am not talking about certain unmentionable, low-profit FDA-approved medications for other human diseases that some nations and some doctors in the US are using for COVID (sometimes prescribed in the US as well as "off-label" medications [but see my 11/19/21 update below if you are convinced that one such drug has strong studies supporting its use]). No, nothing that shady. I'm talking about nice, shiny new proprietary medications from two of the superstars of Big Pharma, Pfizer and Merck, so doctors won't be too afraid to prescribe these and pharmacies won't have to improperly practice medicine by declining to fill valid prescriptions for drugs the CDC doesn't like us to use. In short, the need for constant dread is about to wane, for not only are most Americans vaccinated with millions more having the still-ignored advantage of natural immunity, but now we are about to receive medications that can greatly reduce the harm of COVID. The latest news came within hours of the mandate as Pfizer reported its medication that can reduce the harm of COVID by 89% (see Bloomberg's Nov. 5, 2021 report and NPR's story). 

On top of this, we have already learned from the CDC that the vaccines don't stop transmission of the disease, for the vaccinated can still get the disease (though it's somewhat less likely than for the unvaccinated) and when they do, while the harm to them is reduced, they can still have the same viral load as others, making them able to transmit the disease to vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. The benefit of the vaccine is real, but it's personal: it reduces the harm to the individual. My body, my choice -- and I chose the vaccine. What right do I have to treat the unvaccinated as untouchables? [On the failure of the vaccines to significantly reduce transmission of the disease, see my Nov 21, 2021 update below and the excerpts from an important new study.] To the degree that the vaccine is effective, it protects the vaccinated, and if it's not really effective, why force others to take it? But the efficacy at the moment is not quite in the glowing 100% range we heard a few months ago. According to an Oct. 17 article from CNN which appears to accurately summarize some findings from a recent study, if you got Johnson and Johnson vaccine in February, the efficacy of your vaccination is now around 3%. It's higher for other vaccines, but the moral high ground for looking down on the unvaccinated seems to have eroded down to a small dirt clod for at least some of the vaccinated. But don't panic, there's that good news I mentioned about treatments for COVID.

Importantly, with effective drugs that can mitigate the harm of COVID, we can now expect a greatly reduced risk for vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. The vaccine still makes sense, but the mandate does not. We are not facing an existential threat that forces us to surrender individual rights. We do not need to create a new caste system to promote separation from and anger toward the deplorables among us who refuse to comply. Their body, their choice. If they are making a mistake in refusing the vaccine, the harm is theirs. If we who chose to be vaccinated end up facing some unexpected long-term ailments, the harm will be ours. Whichever of these two groups faces the greatest problems in the end, I hope all of us will be compassionate and help make sure that others are treated well. How appalling it is to see so many people online expressing glee when an untouchable passes away, or wishing COVID or worse upon others.

Meanwhile, as pressure against the alleged risk of the unvaccinated seems to be escalating, the government-allied media (GAM) seems to be working overtime to ignore, downplay, or suppress vital news about the scandalous crisis on our southern border, where hundreds of thousands of people have been encouraged to walk into the US without any requirement for vaccination and often without COVID testing, resulting in many thousands of COVID-positive people not just crossing the border but actively being flown to many cities around the country (see, for example, an Oct. 18 New York Post report). How is it that the same government that claims it just wants to save us from harm will force its citizens to be fired if they won't submit to a vaccine mandate, while not requiring the same of non-citizens who enter illegally? But if you get your news from CNN, for example, you won't hear much about the border crisis. (My search shows that "crisis" was last used to describe some challenges on the border on Sept. 20, and very little has been said about the obvious COVID risk. A Google search at CNN.com for "COVID border crisis" leads with a CNN "fact check" saying that there's no solid evidence that immigrants are causing COVID spikes and the real problem is unvaccinated citizens, not the immigrants, whose unvaccinated status is rarely mentioned.) But NBCNews.com did run a story in August noting that between 18%-25% of  immigrants tested were COVID positive. If the government is acting in good faith to protect us from a disease so dangerous that it requires spending away much of our future, giving politicians and unelected medical bureaucrats vast new powers, and taking away individual choice with intrusive mandates, why are tens of thousands of COVID-positive people entering our cities not a cause for urgent action that demands much higher priority? The neglect of the border utterly contradicts the claims used to justify the mandates. What we see at play here is something very ugly and political that further undermines trust in government. It's not about following the science.

If we need a mandate, perhaps what we need now is a mandate for compassion: 

  • compassion to rescue the many jobs at unnecessary risk, 
  • compassion for those who have genuine, unanswered questions about the long-term effects of the vaccines on cancer or reproductive health, areas where years more of study may be needed,
  • compassion for those who value their privacy, especially medical privacy (the language of the mandate raises some concerns about this), and don't want to trust their medical records with untrustworthy corporations,
  • compassion for those of any color worried about the apparent untrustworthiness of many parts of our government such as the history of medical abuse related to the Tuskegee Experiment, 
  • compassion for those who have sincere medical or scientific concerns about the vaccines,
  • compassion for those who don't want their employability to require subscribing to whatever medication or booster a central official decrees they must take, regardless of individual circumstances, and
  • compassion, not mocking, for those who value personal liberty.

Actually, we already do have a commandment that seems to sum all this up and is far more benign than any political mandate: "love one another." May we love one another, including the unvaccinated, and in compassion stand up for their rights, their jobs, and freedom of choice, even if we disagree with the choices they make. Ditto for those who are overweight, alcoholic, smokers, or engage in a variety of other risky lifestyle choices like, say, my personal vice of scuba diving (yes, I'm coming out!). We may disagree with the choices they have made, choices which can fill our hospitals and strain our medical system year after year, especially for those who have COVID, but let us not address the problem by requiring companies to fire the overweight or promoting coercion of any kind.

Lat's drop the mandate, stand in support for those it may harm, and choose instead the greatest commandment of all to address the core problems in this nation. Those problems, by the way, do not include inadequate autocratic power in the hands of a few. But failure to respect those with different views, needs, and choices is a problem we all need to work on. "Love one another" -- may this be our domestic and foreign policy, along with "teach correct principles, and let people govern themselves."

If divide and conquer is the stratagem here, after companies with more than 100 employees buckle and comply as the many millions of the rest of us sit back quietly, the next step could be a mandate for all other companies as well, and then will come vaccine mandates for the children, something already in the works in some regions. I know some good people who are anxious to have their children vaccinated, but I hope all of us can recognize the right of parents to say no, regardless of how safe and effective the vaccines may be. For those who are already or soon will be facing pressure to vaccinate your children, you may wish to read the Wall Street Journal's Nov. 9 op-ed, "Forced Covid Vaccination for Kids Is Unlawful" by Jenin Younes (free registration required). Whatever you choose, at least recognize that it is not irresponsible for parents to decline a vaccine for their children for which we don't yet have the many years of safety testing and experience that is typical of other vaccines. Let's stand with empathy for the rights of workers whose jobs are at risk and for the parents who will be pressured if not demonized for a reasonable decision. 


Update, Nov. 19, 2021: Above I referred to a medication that some doctors are prescribing for COVID as an off-label prescription (a common practice where a physician believes an existing FDA-approved medication may be useful for a patient if used in a non-standard way). The drug referred to, ivermectin, has been the subject of much controversy and bad science or bad faith on both sides of the debate. But based on the most comprehensive and clear-headed meta-analysis of nearly all of the studies involving its treatment of COVID, skepticism toward that drug appears justified after all, even though I was previously persuaded by some significant medical authorities and their analysis of many studies. It turns out that even after removing all the studies with obvious serious flows, there are studies that point to a definite positive effect. But new information suggests that this positive effect may be almost entirely explained by -- can you guess? -- worms! No kidding. Please see Scott Alexander's "Ivermectin: Much More Than You Wanted To Know," Astral Codex Ten, Nov. 16, 2021, https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/ivermectin-much-more-than-you-wanted. 

The higher-quality studies pointing to a positive effect of ivermectin comes from regions where people are more likely to be afflicted with parasitic worms, which make COVID even more damaging. The anti-parasitic benefits of the drug could handily explain the benefits. When worms are taken into account, ivermectin may no longer offer statistically significant improvements in patients. There's still more to study and learn here, but I think it's reasonable to conclude that the drug may not be the way to go, at least not by itself. The new therapeutics might be much better. 

It would have been great if our medical institutions had done the kind of clear thinking and explaining we see from Scott Alexander instead of mocking the use of the drug and threatening doctors who prescribed it, actions which only exacerbated mistrust (especially given that the studies as a whole seem to weigh in favor in a cheap drug -- until the parasitic effect is considered, which had not yet been done as far as I can tell).

Alexander's article also tries to explain the reasons why some of us are distrustful of the Medical Elite. His analogy to alien conquerors asking us to accept brain implants to spare us from an alien disease is quite funny and interesting, though it may miss the depth of intelligent reasons for such distrust. Would like to see a version of his analogy that incorporates a parallel to the border crisis, for example.

By the way, kudos to Geoff B. at Millennial Star for calling attention to the compelling scientific evidence for the benefit of natural immunity in "Lancet: natural immunity 'equal to' vaccination for COVID safety," Nov. 18, 2021. How can the attempted vaccine mandate completely ignore natural immunity and still be assumed by anyone to just "follow the science" and be in good faith? Something's fishy. Science is real, and so is natural immunity. 

As Geoff B. properly points out, the First Presidency statement of Aug. 12, 2021 considers natural immunity when it speaks of the importance of "immunizing a very high percentage of the population." Immunization is broader than vaccination alone and includes natural immunity. Further, the statement also shows good scientific knowledge in speaking of the personal  benefits of vaccination in reducing the severity of disease: "To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated." Well said. Let's be careful not to read that as an endorsement of vaccine mandates or the need to pressure people into vaccination to presumably stop the spread, which the vaccines don't seem to be doing well. But the personal benefit is clear. I add my voice in urging vaccination of adults (who don't have medical issues that might make vaccination problematic and who haven't already had COVID).

Update, Nov. 21, 2021: New Information on the Effect of the Vaccines on Transmission

As we watch strange trends across the globe, such as 100% Gibraltar having a spike in COVID cases or highly vaccinated states in the US sometimes having much more severe spikes in cases than less vaccinated states, many have begun to question the basic belief that vaccines surely must greatly reduce transmission of COVID. We've also had reports about CDC data showing that the vaccinated, when infected, can have the same viral load as the unvaccinated. That created a stir, though I'll admit I thought that something was wrong in the CDC study that it would give such an unexpected result, which seems to be contrary to what vaccines are supposed to do. But now a number of scientists are concluding that the vaccines, while effective in reducing personal harm, do not prevent the spread of the disease. 

A new study, S. V. Subramanian and Akhil Kumar, "Increases in COVID-19 are unrelated to levels of vaccination across 68 countries and 2947 counties in the United States," European Journal of Epidemiology (Sept. 2021), https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10654-021-00808-7, examined 68 countries and 2,947 counties in the US and found that higher vaccination rates are not associated with fewer COVID cases. To me, this is a stunning reversal of "common knowledge" about what vaccines are supposed to do. Here are some of the findings of that study:

At the country-level, there appears to be no discernable relationship between percentage of population fully vaccinated and new COVID-19 cases in the last 7 days (Fig. 1). In fact, the trend line suggests a marginally positive association such that countries with higher percentage of population fully vaccinated have higher COVID-19 cases per 1 million people. Notably, Israel with over 60% of their population fully vaccinated had the highest COVID-19 cases per 1 million people in the last 7 days. The lack of a meaningful association between percentage population fully vaccinated and new COVID-19 cases is further exemplified, for instance, by comparison of Iceland and Portugal. Both countries have over 75% of their population fully vaccinated and have more COVID-19 cases per 1 million people than countries such as Vietnam and South Africa that have around 10% of their population fully vaccinated.

Across the US counties too, the median new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the last 7 days is largely similar across the categories of percent population fully vaccinated (Fig. 2). Notably there is also substantial county variation in new COVID-19 cases within categories of percentage population fully vaccinated. There also appears to be no significant signaling of COVID-19 cases decreasing with higher percentages of population fully vaccinated (Fig. 3).

Now there are many complex factors that could confound results and obscure a positive effect from the vaccines. But such a signal, if it exists, probably cannot be very strong to be so difficult to observe, and if not clear and strong, what is the social justification for vaccination? Please recognize that there is still  a strong reason for adults, especially those who are elderly or with compromised health, to be vaccinated, but the reason is personal, not social. If the vaccinated are roughly just as likely to spread the disease as the unvaccinated, or perhaps even marginally more likely as the data for countries might suggest (likely to be a random fluke in the data, IMHO), then there simply is not a valid reason to discriminate against the unvaccinated in any way, especially in light of the arrival of effective therapeutics for COVID.


 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Institutional Bullying and the Question of Religious Exemption from Vaccine Mandates

I received a call this week from a father with two children facing intimidation and bullying from the universities they are attending. As is common these days, those who have concerns about the COVID vaccine and are hesitant to be vaccinated are treated as second-class citizens, with corporations, universities, and other institutions treating them as second-class citizens if not pariahs to be ousted. At the two universities in question, the vaccine hesitant are easily identified and are pressured or bullied by other students and intimidated by the university. Sincere religious concerns do not count for much. 

Religious exemption requests are based on the idea enshrined in the Constitution that American citizens should have freedom to practice their religion. Of course, where the boundaries of those freedoms are is a complex and thorny issue. But an important aspect of that liberty is codified into law in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination of employees on the basis of religion. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" for the sincere religious beliefs of workers unless that would cause undue hardship. Similar principles have been put into state laws and are part of the official policies of many universities. See, for example, the Religious Accommodations Policy of the University of North Carolina

But what does this have to do with COVID? No major religious organization, as far as I know, has come out against COVID vaccination. The leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have encouraged us to protect ourselves and others by being vaccinated. (For the record, my wife and I are vaccinated and we think it's a good idea to get vaccinated, especially if they do not already have natural immunity and are in a high-risk category or closely associate with those at high risk.) So how can there be a sincere religious objection to the COVID vaccine? 

Two Possible Grounds for Religious Objections

The two university students in question have concerns about the use of fetal cells in the R&D and development that led to these new vaccines. The vaccines do not contain fetal cells, but fetal cells were used in the development and commercialization of the vaccines that are available in the US. Many people who share an opposition to unnecessary abortion and strongly believe in the sanctity of human life do not necessarily object to the use of modern fetal cell lines that have been cultured from fetal cells taken in the 1970s, especially when those fetal cells are not physically part of the product. But there are arguments both ways. I think we need to understand that a person can have a sincere concern about any new medical product that was invented or developed through the use of abortion, even if the abortion occurred long ago.  If aborted cells were an integral part of the development and introduction of a new product, I can see why it might be viewed as tainted and objectionable to use, or especially repugnant to take into one's body. 

As reported by the State of Michigan in their fact sheet on fetal cells and COVID vaccines (PDF), the “Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) COVID-19 vaccine used a fetal cell line to produce and manufacture their vaccine.” While the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine did not use a fetal cell line to manufacture their vaccine, “a fetal cell line was used in a very early phase to confirm efficacy prior to production and manufacturing.” All three vaccines are thus subject to potential religious concerns about the use of fetal cells for the development of a new drug.  

But fetal cell use is not the only reason a religious person might have a sincere religious concern about the COVID vaccines or any experimental drug or drug that has not had the normal years of long-term safety testing. As I discussed in my Sept. 10, 2021 post on the Emmy Award-winning singer, Victory Boyd, whose contract with the NFL was terminated when she refused vaccination on religious grounds, Ms. Boyd based her request for a religious exemption on the biblical concept of the sanctity of her body and the desire to not take potentially harmful (or not completely tested) substances into her body. Here is her statement:

“The Bible admonishes Christians to appreciate their bodies as being sacred and a temple of the Holy Spirit and to not participate in things that can defile the body or render the body dysfunctional.

“I am in prayer to make sure that the Lord guides me into the right decision concerning receiving an unproven injection with artificial properties that can potentially have a long-term effect on my reproductive health.

“If I want to take the vaccine, the decision will be between myself, my doctor, and my God. At this point, the Spirit of God is leading me to take a stand for freedom of choice.”

Sadly, the "my body, my choice" argument only seems to work if it's being used to justify destroying someone else's very vulnerable prenatal body. When it comes to actually protecting your own body from unwanted substances, many institutions insist that compliance is the only option with no effort at all to make reasonable accommodations for one's sincere concerns. But that doesn't mean a person with those concerns should be silenced, shamed, or booted from the company or university. Even if we disagree with the religious concerns, I think we need to stand with those who are asking for their religious views and rights to be respected.

As Latter-day Saints with our own health code, we are taught to have concerns about taking harmful substances into our body. Tobacco, alcohol, and harmful drugs are on the list. But what about drugs where the safety status has not been fully resolved due to the lack of long-term studies on such issues as reproductive health or cancer? The two students in question both wish to be parents one day and have sincere concerns about the long-term impact of the vaccines on reproductive health. What is the impact on pregnancy or on fetal development or mutations? What we know so far from extensive safety testing in the past 18 months is that the vaccines are safe. But no matter how awesome your short-term testing is, no matter how close your rats and mice are to humans, there are some human health issues that cannot be fully settled with one or two years of testing. Most vaccines go through 10 to 15 years of development and testing before being rolled out for widespread use. There is a sincere reason why someone might feel short-term testing is not enough time to take a substance that could affect them for the rest of their life. It's a reasonable basis for a religious exemption and a reasonable basis for a scientific objection. I'm not saying we have to agree with it or that the argument is compelling, but it is a position that a reasonable person can take. 

There may be further grounds for religious exemption requests besides the two considered here, but please understand that those having religious objections may have more than one basis for their concerns. 

As healthy young people with very little risk to COVID, both of these students wonder why they should be compelled to take a substance into their bodies that may bring genuine risk (though risk that at the moment seems quite rare) yet offers very little benefit for them while in their youth. Given their health and age, having COVID is very unlikely to send them to the hospital to use up limited resources for others. Their vaccinated peers have very little to fear from them if the vaccines are effective. Compelling them to take a medication that may bring risk but offers little benefit seems unfair. Giving them time to wait for long-term safety results doesn't seem unreasonable. 

Aspirin, Tylenol, Ex-Lax and the Hypocrisy Test

One of the children of the father who called me had already expressed the desire for a religious exemption to the university, which apparently claims that it will make reasonable accommodations to sincere religious belief. In response, the university provided an intimidating form to "test" the sincerity of that belief by giving a long list of popular over-the-counter products that allegedly also have used fetal cells. The form requires students seeking a religious exemption to vow that they do not and will not use such products.

The hypocrisy test apparently was developed at the healthcare company, Conway Medical, per Tristates Public Radio, WIUM. Here's their form (click to enlarge):


The same list is now being used in many parts of the country, including at some universities. This hypocrisy test, in my opinion, might not really be based on a good-faith desire to confirm the sincerity of a student's religious views, for it feels like it is intended to intimidate students and mock their belief. It's a little like saying, "Oh, you refuse to drink alcohol due to religious beliefs? According to science, you're a hypocrite.  We've seen you drinking orange juice and eating bananas, both of which can contain around 0.2% ethanol. We've seen you eating hamburgers with baked buns known to have over 1% ethanol. It's amazing you can even walk straight right now. You obviously don't have a sincere religious belief against alcohol. Now drink up!" 

This alcohol-related mocking is only a little like the mockery of the university's hypocrisy test, because my alcohol hypocrisy test is actually much more logical. Alcohol occurs naturally in many foods, enough so that parents perhaps really should be cautious about giving young children lots of fruit juice. See Eva Gorgus, Maike Hittinger, and Dieter Schrenk, "Estimates of Ethanol Exposure in Children from Food not Labeled as Alcohol-Containing," Journal of Analytical Toxicology, vol. 40, no. 7 (Sept. 2016): 537–542. But there's still a significant difference between most alcohol-rich foods and the alcohol content of beer, wine, or liquor. 

Importantly, whether my religious acceptance of the Word of Wisdom's prohibition of alcohol is logical or scientific does not determine the sincerity of my religious belief. My religious beliefs related to what I eat or drink is based on revelation and to some degree religious tradition in interpreting that revelation. I personally avoid low-alcohol beer, even if its alcohol content might actually be less than that of my favorite fresh-baked bread. Our response to the Word of Wisdom may seem illogical or contradictory when explored by secular observers. But guess what? It's religion. It's a matter of faith and sometimes a matter of tradition. It's not supposed to make perfect sense to outside secular observers. Religion of all kinds abounds with elements that require faith and may seem contradictory, superstitious, or unreasonable to outsiders, especially those looking for reasons to criticize. Whether it's the nature of the Trinity or the refusal to eat cheeseburgers based on an interpretation of a verse in the Torah, there are things that are puzzling to those outside the believer's faith. Whether a student has taken Tylenol is not a fair gauge of the sincerity of religious belief.

Further, the university's hypocrisy test is actually deceptive and unreasonable. It is deceptive because nearly all of the products on the list were developed and marketed without the use of fetal cells, often long before fetal cells were even available for testing. Aspirin, which was first marketed by Bayer in 1899 but has a history that goes much further back in time. Ex-Lax was first produced in 1906. Tums was introduced to the market in 1928 but employs compounds known to be safe long before that. Preparation H dates to around 1935. Ibuprofen was discovered in 1961. Now that aspirin is on the market, if some lab or manufacturer decides to test it with fetal cells, I don't need to reject aspirin if my religious belief and conscience leads me to reject products that relied on abortion for their development and commercialization. Products that were developed and commercialized independent of an aborted child are what some people object to. Taking an existing product that did not rely on the cells of an aborted fetus for its development and commercialization and then later testing it with fetal cells may be unfortunate, but need not require the believer to reject that product.

If some lab decides to test the safety of lettuce using fetal cells, that would be unfortunate, but it does not turn pro-lifers objecting to fetal cell use in vaccines into hypocrites if they are caught eating salad. Lettuce salad, like most of the products on the hypocrisy test list, was an established product long before fetal cells were available for testing.

A Better Sincerity Test

If the universities really want to know if these students have sincere objections to the vaccines based on pro-life views or the Word of Wisdom or some other matter of faith and conscience, the right gauge is not whether or not they have ever used aspirin, Tylenol, Ex-Lax, etc., or consumed fresh-baked bread or orange juice. The hypocrisy test is great as a secular tool to belittle the beliefs of others, but if you want to know how sincere those students are, a better tool might be to simply observe what they have been doing already. In spite of being publicly shamed as vaccine hesitant rebels, facing sustained harassment from fellow students motivated by statements and policies from the university without respect for the medical privacy and personal beliefs of the students, these students continue to maintain their position and to implore the university for the right to control what is taken into their bodies and to avoid an injection of a substance that, unlike aspirin or Tylenol, relied on the cells of an aborted fetus for its very existence (i.e., its development and commercialization). Being willing to face that kind of pressure and discrimination and now to risk being expelled from the university for their beliefs seems like an indicator of sincerity, even if we don't share or agree with the position they take. 

The "Scientific Exemption": It's Not Just Religion We Need to Respect

For the two university students in question, the objection to the vaccine is not just based on religious concerns, though I think they should be respected in spite of my not fully agreeing with them. Besides the religious concerns, there is also a scientific or health-based objection, and they may be including a request for a "scientific exemption" in their requests to the university. 
 
Their concern is that they are young, healthy people with almost zero risk from COVID. The decision to receive the vaccination makes a long-lasting change in their bodies and while the evidence so far points to a high level of safety, there are significant unanswered questions. A particular concern is about long-term impact on their reproductive health. These concerns are swiftly dismissed by advocated of vaccine mandates based on "extensive" testing in the past 18 months or so. But have we really had enough time to understand the effect on the human reproductive system and on children born to those who have received the vaccine? Do we understand the long-term effect on cancer? How can we have solid answers in such a short time?
 
If concerns about reproductive issues have been fully assessed already, why did the NIH just award five institutions grants “to explore potential links between COVID-19 vaccination and menstrual change”? See the NIH post, "COVID-19 Vaccines and the Menstrual CycleNIH encourages researchers to investigate reported changes in menstruation after COVID-19 vaccination." Here there are enough concerns that have been raised for the NIH to launch a study related to reproductive health.  Note that these grants in no way suggest there are any reasons to believe that the vaccine might have any adverse impact on fertility or on children born to vaccinated parents, and I personally don't know of any data suggesting the least real concern so far. But if understanding the effect on menstruation requires more time and money, could their be other aspects of reproductive health that will require even more time? Ditto for the long-term effect on cancer or other ailments.  It is not unscientific to ask questions about such effects and to seek more data before taking injections that can impact my body for decades to come with effects that are not yet clear.  I may not agree, but a person can have sound scientific reasons for at least wanting more data before committing to vaccination. There is a reasonable basis for a good-faith request for a "scientific exemption" from the vaccine mandate based on the principle of stewardship over one's body, back to "my body, my choice."

Finally, Let's Not Forget Natural Immunity

One of the most puzzling things about the vaccine mandates sweeping this country is the uniform neglect of natural immunity. Why should those who have already had COVID need to be vaccinated as a condition of employment or continuing at a university?

While I am vaccinated and think it's a good idea for most people, I also recognize the scientifically demonstrated principle of natural immunity and feel that those who have already lived through COVID should be given recognition for their natural antibodies. There should also be recognition that adverse reactions, though typically mild, are more likely for those that have already had COVID and is something that might reasonably be weighed in a person's personal decision about vaccination.

A few days ago, I met a young mom who was required by her employer to get the vaccine in spite of having had COVID. She objected and asked for an exemption based on already having antibodies. Request denied. So she buckled. For her, the adverse reaction to the vaccine was much worse than COVID. COVID was like having a cold for her, but the vaccine caused intense pain and fatigue that kept her ill for about a week. Unfortunately, even after a month she said feels she's only 75% back to normal. 

Meanwhile, a close friend of that woman had COVID and struggled with the complication of myocarditis. Now he's been forced by his employer to receive the vaccination, even though it is known that young men like him may be at some risk of myocarditis from the vaccine (again, the vaccines are generally safe and I still encourage vaccination, but also encourage respect for individual concerns). He's asked for an exemption based on medical risk and the fact that he already has natural antibodies. Request denied, even though his doctor is on his side (so I was told, but maybe she had the story wrong). He's deeply worried about his health and does not want the vaccination, but may have to leave his high-paying job in the financial industry. Shouldn't there be respect for people's health and for their concerns? Shouldn't there be reasonable accommodations for reasonable health-based and scientific objections, as well as religious objections? Concerns about myocarditis, especially in males, are not based on mere rumors and fake news, but are leading Europe to take significant steps. See the Oct. 8, 2021 CNBC report, "Nordic countries are restricting the use of Moderna’s Covid vaccine. Here’s why," and the earlier July 9, 2021 Reuters story, "EU finds potential link between heart inflammation and mRNA COVID shots." These concerns are generally minor and don't affect everyone, but they can affect some. The CDC is also aware of some reports of myocarditis, but still encourages vaccination. But we must not forget that there are always risks with any drug, and these need to be weighed against the benefits.

There are plenty of good reasons to be vaccinated, and I'm glad (so far, anyway) that I've been vaccinated. But may we have enough compassion and respect for others to recognize that there are genuine religious and scientific concerns that some may have. Today there is popular pressure to shame such individuals, some of whom are likely in our own wards or branches, families, workplaces, or schools. 

May we express our humanity and our tolerance of diversity by standing for their freedom to choose, for their rights to have their religious views reasonably accommodated and their scientific objections to be considered. May we stand against the unreasonable and hateful condemnation of the unvaccinated and sweeping one-size-fits-all vaccine mandates that may be genuinely unnecessary for many. May we resist the manipulative paranoia and fear that is causing some of us vaccinated people to dread and despise those who have sincere reasons for not wanting the vaccination at this time. And may we help keep them from being fired or expelled from universities, especially those who are in critical areas related to health care, law enforcement, manufacturing, and numerous other fields already suffering from a shortage of talent. Reasonable accommodation and kindness is surely the most reasonable thing we can be doing with those who have sincere concerns about these new vaccines.

UPDATE, Oct. 21, 2021: The social argument for vaccine mandates needs more discussion and more science. It's repeated without question as an article of faith, often without consideration of data and the existence of other means of mitigating risks. Those wishing to not be pressured into letting others make decisions about one's body and one's health care may be on even stronger grounds in light of the latest relevant scientific report:  S. V. Subramanian and Akhil Kumar, "Increases in COVID-19 are unrelated to levels of vaccination across 68 countries and 2947 counties in the United States," European Journal of Epidemiology (Sept. 30, 2021), https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-021-00808-7. Analysis of extensive data suggests that high levels of vaccination aren't effective in slowing the spread of the virus. The benefit is the reduced risk to the vaccinated. This seems to greatly weaken the "social good" argument that requires people to "give up their 'precious' freedoms" and let some corporate or political bureaucrat dictate what medical treatment they receive instead of making their own decision. I'm pro-vaccine, but also pro-freedom. There are cases where the social good argument may be compelling, but the data does not seem to come close to supporting that in this case. If vaccination does not greatly reduce the spread of the infection, what's the basis for vaccine mandates and shaming the unvaccinated? It's time we engage in conversation on this topic.

 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Zeal Without Data: Blaming the Church for Utah's Allegedly Low Vaccination Rates

Romans 10:2 speaks of those who "have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge." Psalm 19:2 in the NET (New English Translation) tells us that "It is dangerous to have zeal without knowledge, and the one who acts hastily makes poor choices." Hugh Nibley was fond of the phrase "zeal without knowledge" and once gave a talk at BYU with that title. Zeal without knowledge can refer to those who think they are valiantly following God but acting in ignorance of the truth, which can lead to atrocious results that hurt others and hinder Zion. Nibley urges us to do our own thinking, to use our minds, to constantly seek knowledge, so that we can mature, grow, and do what's right. "Zeal makes us loyal and unflinching, but God wants more than that." Nibley quotes Joseph Smith (Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 80) saying, "Many, having a zeal not according to knowledge," said the Prophet, " . . . have, no doubt, in the heat of enthusiasm, taught and said many things which are derogatory to the genuine character and principles of the Church." 

That problem continues to this day, in spite of he incredible growth of access to information. Highly educated people who think they know what they are talking about can easily act in zeal, driven by their passionate loyalty for misguided causes, sharing information and teachings that are based on ignorance and a lack of accurate data. Nibley warned that if we don't actively seek and obtain good information and use our minds to their full capacity, then "false information flourishes" and we are likely to believe all sorts of preposterous nonsense.

A case in point is the very unfortunate op-ed column by a Latter-day Saint professor, Benjamin Park, in the influential Washington Post explaining why the past conservative politics of the Church is to blame for Utah's allegedly very low vaccination level. The subhead (line below the headline) declares that "LDS leaders stoked a far-right culture for decades. Now it might undermine their authority." Yep, that's the problem, all right. Utah's got some Republicans and it's the Church that foolishly "stoked" that. Now I suppose Utahans are going to be devastated by COVID as a result since those ignorant right-wingers aren't getting vaccinated.

Park jumps in quickly with data showing how behind Utah is: "Less than half of eligible residents of Utah, where members constitute a majority of the population, are fully vaccinated, placing the state in the lower half of the nation." The link he gives is to a Utah vaccine dashboard where Park apparently has taken the percent vaccinated among all Utahans, not the smaller population of "eligible residents." Huh? 

It's well known that Utah has lots of children, and children under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccination. So why isn't Park looking at the eligible population when he claims to be reporting that data? That dashboard page shows Utah's vaccination level is at 51.2% of all residents (might have been just below 50% when Park penned his article in August), but what's the level among the eligible? This isn't hard to find. In fact, the Utah dashboard page that Park linked provides relevant data right next to the number Park was using. The more relevant number is hard to miss: "Percent 12+ Received at Least One Dose" and the value reported is at 72%.  That's a lot better than "less than half." The number who are fully vaccinated is at 63% of the eligible population. You can also see how Utah compares to the rest of the nation -- not bad at all all  -- on the Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Tracker page under the section, "State COVID-19 vaccine rates by age."

If there was any kind of real fact checking going on at the Washington Post, this embarrassing blunder would have been rectified -- but then the story would not come close to fitting the desired narrative, for the real data directly contradict the basis of Park's rant.

Park's error is treated in more detail by A&R Skabelund in the post, "An Attack of Mormon Mania: Embarrassing blunder by WaPo and Benjamin Park on vaccine hesitancy among LDS Church members and what it reveals about our ruling class" at Worthless Thoughts, Sept 21, 2021. They use data from Aug. 18, the week before the Aug. 24 publication of Park's piece, and show just how painfully off this piece was, not just in the reported "less than half" level, but also in the comparison to other states:

The second part of Park’s claim, that Utah was in the “lower half of the nation,” also proves to be wrong. I consulted the Mayo Clinic’s vaccine tracker (also from August 18th) to compare fully vaccinated rates for each state in the three demographic categories provided: under 18, 18-64, and 65+. In the under 18 fully vaccinated rates, Utah is at 14.2% vaccinated, tied for 25th place. For the 18-64 demographic, Utah’s fully vaxxed percentage comes in at 62.3%, at 17th place. And for the 65+ demographic, Utah is at 90.4%, at 20th place.

The older group most likely to have been influenced by the conservative era that Park decries, are the most vaccinated and are in the top 20 states. 

Scholars make mistakes all the time, just like medical experts do. The appropriate scholarly thing is to own up to it and make a retraction.  The appropriate political thing, however, if your purpose is pure politics driven by data-free zeal, is to continue acting with zeal while ignoring the real data because the end justifies the means and "progress" is all that matters. I'm looking forward to seeing whether this particular professor will choose scholarship over politics, now that the blunder has been made known. Here's my wish that he and WaPo will issue a correction that gets at least as much visibility as the error did, though such a thing is rare in the increasingly politicized media. 

The Skabelunds go on to discuss reasons for the lack of scrutiny to facts and data in pieces that attack the Church, and also write much to point out that there are good reasons why intelligent people might be skeptical of the positions our government is taking in the fight against COVID. Some of what they write is similar to the points I made in my recent article, "How to Talk to Concerned Church Members Who Are 'COVID Policy Doubters,'" published Aug. 15 in Meridian Magazine. Please read their full article and consider some of the excellent point they make. It can help us be less divisive and more understanding of those among our ranks who don't yet want the vaccine. Again, I'm vaccinated and encourage people to get it, but I value freedom of choice on this issue.

Park is worried about fundamentalist, evangelical, and right-wing white Americans who seem to be the bogey man for COVID, failing to recognize that the data shows black Americans and some other minorities are among the most vaccine hesitant. And the reasons they have for not being super trustful of the US government should not be ridiculed. Ever heard of the Tuskegee experiment? Park may have accepted the call of the politicians to demonize the vaccine hesitant, but his response is an unfortunate illustration of how some of our own members can harm the cause of Zion by acting in zeal without knowledge, or in this case, zeal without sound data.