The Intellectual Church and Antivaxxer Obscurantism

September 22, 2021
By Amb. Patrick Theros

I will be the first to admit that the Orthodox Church has flaws and weaknesses which it needs to address. However, from its beginnings it has championed intellectual discussion, a reverence for knowledge, and a requirement that the faithful think for themselves. Obscurantism, a term that first appeared in the 16th century to justify persecution of Jews, deliberately restricts knowledge while employing civilized and articulate language to sell its falsehoods in respected publications. Alas, in the 21st century the ignorant mob has found a voice and swells the antivaxxer Obscurants’ cleverly twisted arguments. Anyone who values intelligent discussion should recoil from Twitter over the last few days. The Twitter vitriol directed at Archbishop Elpidophoros, the ranking Greek Orthodox prelate in North America, left me aghast. And those are only the postings that Twitter did not remove because of their obscenities and threats of violence. This does not get the civil Obscurant anti-vaxxers off the hook. Their cleverness and wordsmithing in support of a cause that kills people in the service of their egos has, amplified by modern social media, unleashed demoniac forces.

Already one can hear the guffaws of cocktail party intellectuals at the assertion that the Orthodox Church insists that we use our brains. This is the Church that developed the original doctrines of Christianity through careful study and discussion by the best scholars of the most advanced civilization of the time, the Roman Empire. This is the Church that bestowed sainthood on the best doctors of their time who, out of jealousy, were denounced as magicians by the antivaxxers of their time. For those who still care to read a book, I recommend The Great Church in Captivity by Stephen Runciman, perhaps the greatest modern historian of the Crusades, which describes the intellectual – rather than dogmatic – difference between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity. The Orthodox Church is ‘apophatic’ or decision-driven while the West is ‘cataphatic’ or rules-driven. In short, the Church guides but does not issue orders. Salvation requires personal thought-out decisions, not blindly obeying rules. We alone decide and each of us alone must then make our own “good defense before the fearsome judgment seat of God.”

One should not confuse the fanatic antivaxxers with people reluctant to be vaccinated out of fear, fear of the needle (they have lots of company), fear of the unknown, fears induced by the anti-vaxxer social media lies, and a very real fear that their anti-vaxxer friends and neighbors will attack them. The antivaxxer Obscurants, however, exploit those fears.

The antivaxxers demonizing the Archbishop have wrapped themselves in the mantle of Christianity, claiming that God speaks to them, endowing them with a wisdom superior to that of the Church hierarchy. In classic Obscurant fashion, the antivaxxers have taken a true statement, that vaccines have been tested against fetal tissue used in research and added a lie: that vaccines contain “tissue of aborted babies” to horrify their audiences. Were the Obscurant antivaxxers not hypocrites, they would also reject taking Tylenol and denounce vaccines for polio, chickenpox, rubella, shingles, rabies, and hepatitis A, all developed using fetal tissue. To be honest, Obscurant antivaxxers should also demand that we should stop experimental treatments for spinal cord injury, macular degeneration, Down syndrome, malformation of organs, the causes of miscarriages or sudden infant death syndrome, strokes and Parkinson’s Disease. As to their assertion of moral and dogmatic certainty, antivaxxers who cite the use of fetal tissue to buttress their argument and vilify the Archbishop need a quick refresher course in the Orthodox doctrine of ‘οικονομία’ (badly translated as ‘economy’) which requires the believer to use his brains and decide if, for example, saving thousands of lives outweighs an action taken by another person that by itself might be sinful. If they reject οικονομία they certainly cannot claim any Orthodox Christian knowledge. Even in the more militantly anti-abortion Roman Catholic Church, Catholic ethicists, the vast majority of bishops, and the formal teaching authority of Church, the Magisterium, agree that, even if fetal tissue came from an aborted child, established Catholic moral principles justify use of these vaccines.

Politically motivated antivaxxers oppose vaccinations as a cynical political ploy. Susan Glaser writing in last week’s New Yorker made a valid point: “This… (the rising death rate in under-vaccinated pro-Trump counties) … is not a tragic mistake but a calculated choice by many Republicans who have made vaccine resistance synonymous with resistance to Biden and the Democrats.” Were it not so tragic, the fact that his audience booed Trump at an August rally in Alabama when he urged them to vaccinate would have been hilarious.

Other Obscurant antivaxxers are pseudoscientists engaged in an ego trip. They claim authority but limit their scientific research to reading online articles written by other antivaxxers. Few, if any, have actually conducted scientific research in laboratories or research centers. When asked why every government of every country on the face of the earth, every national health service and every acknowledged research laboratory advocates vaccination to defeat COVID19, they respond by accusing them all of being in the pay of Big Pharma or engaged in a nefarious mind-control exercise to enslave everyone on earth. Their arguments make QAnon resemble a peer-reviewed article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

To conclude, missionary antivaxxers and their Obscurantist enablers remind me of a B-grade horror movie with zombies scouring the earth for victims to join the ranks of the undead.


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