Echo Chambers and the Vaccination Debate

I first became familiar with the term “echo chamber” when I was visiting the sciencebasedmedicine.org site a year ago. An “echo chamber”, I learned, is composed of people who insulate and isolate themselves from world perspectives that differ from their own, and surround themselves with people who echo their own beliefs and opinions. I discovered on the sciencebasedmedicine.org site that people who accuse others of belonging to an “echo chamber” are often living in their own echo chamber.

And, really, who can blame anyone for wanting to surround themselves with people who think and believe as they do, and share their opinions about stuff? An echo chamber is a comfortable place to live. When we live in an echo chamber we get a lot of kudos and pats on the back and thumbs up for espousing our beliefs – our little egos are given free rein to grow and prosper, to puff up and expand. We can feel really good about ourselves because everyone else agrees with us and thinks we are cool.

It takes courage to leave our echo chambers – to peek out of our little caves and venture forth into the Big World of Ideas. It takes courage to allow others to question our most cherished beliefs, and to allow ourselves to question them, as well.

Right now I’m seeing two major echo chambers when it comes to the vaccination debate. In one chamber there are the anti-vaccination folk who can rattle off statistics and personal anecdotes about the dire effects of vaccinations on one’s health, and the ineffectiveness of some vaccines – such as the flu vaccine – in stopping disease. In the other echo chamber there are folk who can rattle off statistics and personal anecdotes about how the use of vaccines has dramatically stopped the spread of diseases such as polio and small pox, and has helped to eradicate some diseases entirely.

From my perspective – sitting by myself outside the chambers and listening to all the echoes coming out of them – it’s all kind of fascinating.  From my perspective, the people involved in these debates – whether they’re pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination – are actually a lot more closely connected with each other in the way they view the world than they may think they are.  Both groups see a material world that has danger in it – that can be capricious and random and scary. The people in both groups are motivated by a fear of getting sick – the anti-vaccination people are afraid the vaccines will make them and their loved ones unhealthy, and the pro-vaccination people are afraid that NOT taking the vaccines will make them and their loved ones unhealthy.

As I see it, there are no bad guys here – there are just people who want to help keep their loved ones safe, and are doing what they think is the right thing to do to help make that happen.

Because I’ve always identified myself as a Christian Scientist – and a lot of people think of Christian Scientists as “the ones who don’t go to doctors” – I’ve often been asked if I had my children vaccinated. The answer is yes. This is not something of which I’m either ashamed or proud. It’s not something I’d brag about in the pro-vaccination echo chamber, and not something I’d feel guilty to admit in the anti-vaccination echo chamber.  (I’ve also had vaccinations myself – right after my oldest son was born I was vaccinated for rubella; I went in for a tetanus shot once when I fell kiester-first through a hole in the porch and snagged my legs on rusty nails as I was going down – I still crack up every time I think about that adventure – I am such a doof; and several years ago I voluntarily went to the doctor and got the pertussis vaccination to help alleviate the fears of the people around me when I began working at a high school during a time when pertussis was running rampant through my state. [As a youngster I had mumps, measles, and chicken pox – I was quickly healed of all of them – and a titer test later confirmed I carried the antibodies.])

When I took my sons in to be vaccinated I had to sign consent forms that listed a lot of possible side effects to the vaccinations, and I remember feeling frightened by what I read there. I did not sign those forms glibly – my sons are the most precious people in the world to me. As a Christian Scientist I used my understanding of God – of Love – to know that those vaccinations had no power to hurt my sons – that they were held safe in the arms of Love. My sons, I reasoned, are the perfect, whole, untouched, unaltered, unmarred, complete reflections of Life and Love – never for a moment separated from all that is good. As ideas of God, their real spiritual being is always safe, and never for a moment separated from the consciousness of Truth.

I’d taken the sons in to be vaccinated because my husband had requested that I get them vaccinated, and because it seemed the responsible thing for me to do for the other people in my community who don’t share with me the same perspective about the reality of Spirit, and the unreality of matter. It felt, to me, that NOT taking my sons in for vaccinations would have been, in a way, like forcing my beliefs on other people.

But I have to admit to harboring some respect for the people who consciously withstand the peer pressure and refuse to follow the herd into whatever echo chamber is loudest. It ain’t easy to stand alone for what you think is right.

And this reminds me of a dream I had years ago.  In this dream I was maybe 12 or 13 years old – and there was this ominous, oppressive feeling to the atmosphere. The sky was dark and roiling with purple storm clouds. A bus filled with my classmates and their families pulled up. All the popular kids were either on that bus, or getting onto it. In the dream I realized that everyone was getting on the bus to go get exterminated – that people were voluntarily going off to get shot or something to save mankind.  And everyone was laughing and congratulating each other for their self-sacrifice, and patting each other on the back. And I really wanted to get on that bus, too, and be with the other popular people. But my Dad (who is not a CS, by the way) came running out of the house and down to the bus stop to stop me from getting on the bus. “No,” he yelled to me, “You can’t get on that bus! We’re going skiing in Sun Valley next week!”

So I didn’t get on the bus. I watched it pull away, loaded with my friends. It felt bad. At first. But hey, I got over it. I mean, I had Sun Valley to look forward to, right?

The chemist, the botanist, the druggist, the doctor, and the nurse equip the medicine with their faith, and the beliefs which are in the majority rule. When the general belief endorses the inanimate drug as doing this or that, individual dissent or faith, unless it rests on Science, is but a belief held by a minority, and such a belief is governed by the majority. – Mary Baker Eddy

An Incident in a Discussion Forum (okay, this is me being cranky)

Asking people about their opinions is a very good way of making friends. Telling them about your own opinions can also work, but not always quite as well. – Douglas Adams

 She arrived in the middle of a discussion upon international politics. “Look at India,” one of the ladies was saying. “Yes, but look at Japan,” urged the other with intense vehemence. Barbara was introduced to the ladies, of course, but she never heard their names. They were already labeled, much more legibly in her retentive memory, as Mrs. Japan and Mrs. India. She was rather crushed at the farsightedness of the two ladies— what did they see when they looked at Japan and India like that? Did their bird’s-eye view take in the whole of these Asiatic countries at a glance? Were India and Japan open before their eyes like a child’s picture book? – D.E. Stevenson

The following was originally a chapter in The Madcap Christian Scientist: All Things New, but I took it out because the voice in this chapter doesn’t fit in with the rest of the book. In this chapter you see me being cranky and a little ticked off. It ain’t pretty…

Have you ever looked back on a period in your life and smiled with amusement and a certain amount of affection for the person you were? That’s how I feel when I look back on the person I was five years ago – during the period when I was spending a lot of my free time on a religion discussion board. I was cute, wasn’t I? – idealistic, naïve, really believing that everyone was on the discussion board for the same reason I was – to learn about other people’s beliefs, share their own, and exchange ideas and thoughts about religion, science, metaphysics, philosophy, literature, music, art.

I learned an awful lot from that discussion board – some of it was awesome, and some of it not so much. I learned there were a lot of people in the world with kind hearts and open minds and good humor. I also learned that there are an awful lot of people who want everyone else to think and believe exactly what they think and believe – and I learned that I wasn’t one of them.

I saw bigotry.

If there’s one thing that toasts my cookies it is bigotry.

At first I found myself mostly coming to the defense of the atheists on the discussion board, who, initially, seemed to be the major target of bigotry. They were told they were going to hell. They were told they were all lacking any kind of moral compass. They were compared to Pol Pot and Stalin. It was all ridiculous and hateful, and I could not let the bigotry slide by without responding to it.

Then for a time the bigotry seemed to be mostly directed towards the “believers”. Those who believe in God were called ignorant, uneducated, unintelligent, superstitious scaredy cats, and blamed for the murders committed during The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials. Which… yeah… I’m sitting here now, just shaking my head, as I remember the nonsense.

There were a lot of generalizations made – every atheist was lumped together into one group – as if they all believed, felt, and thought the same about everything; and every Christian was lumped together into another monolithic group. Finger-pointing and blame-laying was rampant. As a Christian Scientist, I was told by many of the Christians that I was going to hell because I didn’t believe in hell, or in a devil, or that Jesus was God. And as someone who identified as a Christian, a number of atheists seemed inclined to assume I held the same beliefs about God that they had learned when they were youngsters attending Christian Sunday Schools – and then judged me for the beliefs that they wrongly attributed to me.

It could all be a little exasperating.

For the first few years the humor, friendship, and intellectual stimulation I got from the discussion forum outweighed the exasperation. I met some really good friends there – people I still continue to call my friends – people who became familiar with my spiritual perspective about life in a way that many of my offline friends never did.

But after several years my interest in the discussion board began to wane. More and more I found myself in these weird dialogues with people who presumed to know what was in my head and heart without giving me the opportunity to tell them myself. More and more I found myself in the unsatisfying position of being treated like a student whose job it was to quietly sit and listen while others threw their great wisdom and knowledge at me. I found myself getting lectured to and preached at a lot, and I do not particularly enjoy being the target of lectures and preaching. Dialogues became one-sided monologues; the exchange of ideas turned into a one-way sermon – people telling me what I should believe, think, and feel, and then getting really agitated with me if I dared to question or voice a thought of my own.

The Grand Finale – the defining moment when I realized I no longer had any interest in serious participation on the discussion board – came for me on a thread titled “Repeal the child abuse for Christian Scientists in Washington State law”. For four pages (100 posts) I read comments, written by my friends (people whose atheism or Christianity I had defended time and again on the forum) about the lunatic Christian Scientists who are “neither Christian nor scientists” (pretty original, right?). For four pages I read comments from people attacking a “strawman” – indignantly pontificating on how wrong it is to legally allow Christian Scientists to abuse their children – when there never was a law or lobby that supported child abuse by Christian Scientists. And then I saw where one of my forum friends had written this: “I just took issue with the thought that the faith healers could be unaware that their ‘healings’ have zero positive effect… I think the fact that the alleged Christian Science lobby feels the need to protect themselves from prosecution tells me that they must know the reality of their faith… He seems to be saying that Christian Scientists aren’t True Christians. The Christian Science people seem to think they are Christians, based on my scanty reading of what they believe.”

SCANTY READING?!!! Oh, for Pete’s sake! I’d been sharing my experiences as a Christian Scientist on that forum for almost seven years – shared wonderful healings I’d had in Christian Science, shared my thoughts about “Christianity” – but my friend hadn’t, apparently, learned anything about my way of life or beliefs from what I’d written on there. It came to me, then, that the only reason some of these people had ever considered me their friend was because I had been a good audience – willing to listen to THEM – but that they hadn’t really been interested in anything I’d had to say.

I wrote a response:

Christian Scientist from Washington State here. I’m sure you are all completely right about me. I mean, you must be, right? I should be, like, locked-up for the good of society. Interned in a camp maybe. I should never have been allowed to marry – and certainly not to a nice, decent liberal man raised by his decent God-loving Methodist parents. I should never have been allowed to have children, and certainly never been allowed to raise them – it’s a miracle that they survived to adulthood and turned out to be such intelligent, healthy, whole, well-adjusted young men, considering their mom was a Christian Scientist. I should not be allowed to share in the rights of citizenship of this land – it’s far too good for the likes of me. I should certainly never have been allowed to vote – and never been allowed to participate in the democratic process. I should never have been allowed to be elected delegate to our state Democratic convention, and should never have been allowed to write letters and donate in support of environmental causes, the ACLU, gay rights, Habitat for Humanity, atheists, Amnesty International, and yes, universal health care (I don’t believe anyone should be denied the health care they feel they need just because they’re poor – health care should be considered a basic human right). I am, of course, just a cardboard cutout of a person – like every other Christian Scientist in the world.

As you know – seeing as how I’ve been on here for ALMOST SEVEN YEARS sharing my beliefs, thoughts, and feelings with you – I am a despicable, ignorant, uneducated, illiterate human being. I should probably be lined up with my fellow CSists against a wall and shot, as was once suggested on a local talk show.

Am I Christian? Nope, probably not (according to the current accepted definition of a “Christian”). Like my fellow CSists, I do not believe Jesus was god. Do not believe in a literal place of hell or heaven. Do not believe in Original Sin. Do not believe the story of Adam and Eve should be taken literally. Do not believe the world was, literally, created in seven days and seven nights. Do not believe in creationism. Do not believe dinosaurs and humans roamed the world at the same time. And, like those familiar with quantum physics, I DO believe matter is pretty much nothing . So shoot me.

My children , by the way, were vaccinated (edit: the topic of vaccinations is probably worth a whole ‘nother blog post), and were taken by me to doctors, when the need arose – which wasn’t often – they were mostly healthy. They also were raised by their parents – as I was raised by mine – to not be quick to make judgments on others, to try to approach the world without bigotry, and to question political and religious dogma, and those in authority (including the medical profession – you do all know that traditional medical practice is the third-leading cause of death in this country according to the JAMA, right? – it shouldn’t be surprising that thinking people might sometimes look for alternatives to it).

Okay. I’m pretty much done here. I’ve been yammering away on this forum for seven years. And apparently no one was listening.

Karen

Weirdly, I got nine out of ten “yes” votes for that post. :) Most gratifying personally, though, was the response that came right after my post from my atheist friend, Conley. I think when I first came onto the forum Conley had had some pre-conceived notions about me as a Christian Scientist, but, like any true critical thinker, Conley had listened and observed and been willing to learn and shift his thinking. I liked and respected him. Following my post, Conley wrote: “Damned well said, Karen. And I was happy to note that you listed about half my favorite causes–which is what I’d have guessed of you. Best regards. -Conley”

I guess it’s because of people like Conley that I still sometimes pop in on the discussion forum. As for the “others” – the close-minded, arrogant, sermonizing, judgmental know-it-alls from the right and the left, the up and the down – both religious and non-religious –  who don’t really want to hear what other people have to say – I guess I just feel really bad for them. They are missing out, ain’t they?

what people think I do

 

 

 

Satyagraha, Ahimsa, and a Rule for Motives and Acts

Creeds, doctrines, and human hypotheses do not express Christian Science; much less can they demonstrate it. – Mary Baker Eddy

To seek Truth through belief in a human doctrine is not to understand the infinite. We must not seek the immutable and immortal through the finite, mutable, and mortal, and so depend upon belief instead of demonstration… – Mary Baker Eddy

        The way to extract error from mortal mind is to pour in truth through flood-tides of Love. – Mary Baker Eddy

***

Mahatma Gandhi, that great leader of non-violent resistance, said, “I have discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.”

According to Wikipedia “Satyagraha” ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyagraha) means “soul force” or “truth force” and can be loosely translated as “insistence on truth.”  “Satyagraha” was a term created and used by Mahatma Gandhi in his non-violent struggle against foreign control of India.  “Ahimsa” – the Hindu belief that all living things are connected and that we should treat all life with kindness and non-violence – is fundamental to Satyagraha.  Gandhi believed we are all morally interdependent on each other – we depend on each other to do the “right thing” – that it is imperative for us to cultivate what is decent in each other.

Recently, as I was pondering A Rule for Motives and Acts for members of the Christian Science Mother Church, it struck me how similar it is to the idea of “Satyagraha” –

A Rule for Motives and Acts (Article VIII, Section 1 of the Manual for the Mother Church): “Neither animosity nor mere personal attachment should impel the motives or acts of the members of The Mother Church. In Science, divine Love alone governs man; and a Christian Scientists reflects the sweet amenities of Love, in rebuking sin, in true brotherliness, charitableness, and forgiveness. The members of the Church should daily watch and pray to be delivered from all evil, from prophesying, judging, condemning, counseling, influencing, or being influenced erroneously.”

First Readers of the Christian Science branch churches read this rule from the podium the first Sunday of every month.  When I’ve served as First Reader in our branch church, and read this rule out loud to the congregation, there’s been a part of me that cringes inside a little. I’m a little embarrassed.  A little awkward. And hugely humbled.  I mean… well, who am I to be reading this rule to the congregation? I know with certainty that there have been times when I have not lived up to this rule.  Have I always been loyal to God, Love, Truth – the Principle of Christian Science – rather than to persons? Have I always had the courage and humility to “rebuke sin” – not in a way that personalizes it – but in the manner of Gandhi, weaning “from error by patience and compassion” and with self-suffering, or – as Mary Baker Eddy puts it – extracting error from mortal mind and pouring in truth “through flood-tides of Love“? Have I always been charitable and forgiving? Have I always refrained from “judging, condemning, counseling, influencing, or being influenced erroneously”?

Yowza.

We don’t have a lot of doctrine, dogma, or creed in the Christian Science church.  There are not a whole lot of detailed rules, really, about how we should eat, dress, stand, sit, wear our hair, or address one another, and there are no rules that separate men and women in any way, or create a church class system and hierarchy.  We are pretty much free agents when it comes to that stuff – free to follow our own conscience and understanding.

In the textbook for Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy writes, “The time for thinkers has come. Truth, independent of doctrines and time-honored systems, knocks at the portal of humanity.” A little later she writes, “Our Master (Jesus) taught no mere theory, doctrine, or belief. It was the divine Principle of all real being which he taught and practised. His proof of Christianity was no form or system of religion and worship, but Christian Science, working out the harmony of Life and Love.” Eddy writes, “Surely it is not enough to cleave to barren and desultory dogmas, derived from the traditions of the elders…”

So. Yeah. Which brings us back to A Rule for Motives and Acts. All the other stuff that one sometimes finds in humanly-organized religion – the dress codes, the class system, the distinction between genders, the rules about food – all of that pretty much seems meaningless when put next to the idea that “divine Love alone governs man,” doesn’t it?

Do Christian Scientists have a doctrine at all? Well, there is this: “This is the doctrine of Christian Science: that divine Love cannot be deprived of its manifestation, or object; that joy cannot be turned into sorrow, for sorrow is not the master of joy; that good can never produce evil; that matter can never produce mind nor life result in death. The perfect man – governed by God, his perfect Principle – is sinless and eternal.” (from Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy)

Perfect Principle and perfect man.  Perpetual, uninterrupted joy.  Unconditional, unending Love – shining on everyone, without distinction. Endless Life. That’s a goal worthy of our time and energies, yes?

The hour has struck when proof and demonstration, instead of opinion and dogma, are summoned to the support of Christianity, “making wise the simple.” – Mary Baker Eddy