Eighteenth-Century to Today
The vaccination debate continues to rage today as measles and whooping cough are re-appearing in America and parents fight for the right to withhold vaccination from their children. Although this historical perspective does not reveal any easy answers to the current debate, it does allow for some interesting comparisons. Setting aside the religious concerns with inoculation, one of the major arguments against inoculation was that it could actually spread the infection. Anti-inoculators argued that the risks of spreading disease outweighed the benefits of inoculation, referring to the idea of doing what is best for the greater good. They eventually conceded that inoculation may save an individual from smallpox, but maintained that if you harm your neighbor in the process, then inoculation is not lawful.
Today “the greater good” is still an important facet of the debate, except now it’s the rallying cry of vaccination supporters. Vaccination of the majority of the population creates a phenomenon referred to as “herd immunity.” Vaccination is not guaranteed to work every time, and some people, such as infants or the elderly, are too weak to be safely vaccinated. However, if the majority of the population is vaccinated, the vaccinated individuals create a buffer of immunity to keep the virus from spreading (see figure). Supporters of inoculation during the current debate argue that vaccination is a civic duty for the greater good. We must accept the tiny risks accompanying vaccination in order to create herd immunity.
In contrast to the eighteenth-century when inoculation was criticized because it harmed the neighbor, vaccinations are perceived by some today as a service to your community.
Religion and Science
The inoculation debate also reveals a sharp contrast in the use of religious language between the eighteenth century and today. As this project has shown, at the time of the Boston smallpox epidemic, nearly everyone believed in a sovereign God, and they fit scientific inquiry into the context of their faith. Cotton Mather’s writings show a clear effort to reconcile scientific evidence and medical advancement with the traditional puritan rhetoric. Although Mather’s reputation labels him as religious fanatic for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials, it should be noted that many respected doctors and scientists at the time also framed their arguments in the context of a sovereign God. Because they began citing empirical evidence and modern concepts of medicine, the pamphlets at this time are seen as a precursor to the enlightenment. As scientific inquiry developed, a greater emphasis in society was placed on empirical evidence and seeking knowledge with man at the center.
Today there is a sharp line drawn between science and religion. A scientist would never praise God’s sovereignty in a peer-reviewed journal article, intelligent design theory is regarded as pseudoscience, and, on the other hand, many Christians are wary of aspects of scientific inquiry. The puritan’s position against inoculation out of a trust in God’s providence seems almost laughable in modern society, yet the principles of God’s sovereignty in the natural world are still held as truth by many today. The enlightenment led to huge advances in society, but the papers from this debate show that losing the idea of God in creation was not necessary for this development. Perhaps this debate should be viewed not just as a transition to advancement in scientific understanding, but evidence that religion and science do not have to be so diametrically opposed today.
Click the links below to read more analysis of the results of the study: