Herd Heroism in an Age of Rebels: The Cultural Roots of the Anti-Vaxxer Movement

Collect all the evidence that vaccines cause autism and endanger children, and you will have a very, very thin file.

Collect all the evidence that there’s an appeal to believing that vaccines cause autism and endanger children, though, and you will have more than a file. You will have the work of an entire culture.

Just look around. Whole fields of marketing and spiritual counseling argue that there’s something inherently corrupt about modern society. There’s a cultural industry dedicated to encouraging us to break the rules, to “think different“; conforming to a big system is evil, rebellion is virtuous. Meanwhile, a whole library of religious traditions tell us that a better life can be found among the chosen, the saved, or the elect who obey a different set of rules from society at large.

When it comes to anti-vaxxers, critics don’t usually talk about culture or politics. Instead, they focus on the science, or on science outreach. (Collect all the writing detailing or examining the appeal of the anti-vaxxer stance, and you’d have another very thin file). But what could be more modern, and more conformist, than the government-recommended schedule of vaccines? The medical system is huge. It’s hierarchical. It’s powerful. It creates rules that apply to the entire population, and it works best when everyone participates.


Immunity is one of those elusive social goods that only works if (nearly) everyone opts in. When a population is thoroughly vaccinated, even the stray unimmunized child will be safe. No one is around to get her sick. There’s no cost for opting out, until enough people do so that the population is peppered with unvaccinated dissenters, and, bam: measles outbreak at Disneyland. It’s not just the children of anti-vaxxers who are falling sick, either. Low vaccination rates endanger kids too poor, too young, or too immunocompromised to have received the full suite of immunizations.

Today, children are falling ill from diseases that seem like relics of the 1950s. National attention is starting to pivot toward those parents who lodge conscientious objections against modern medicine. Lawmakers in North Carolina recently introduced legislation to make vaccines mandatory, with no exemption for religious objectors, such as Christian Scientists. (After backlash, the proposal’s bipartisan sponsors withdrew the legislation). Other states are following suit.

Meanwhile, the culture at large continues to idolize its principled renegades. Two recent releases—one a nonfiction book, the other a feature film—highlight our culture’s weird disconnect between semi-spiritual libertarian fantasies and the grim realities in which those rebel dreams, once enacted, can leave us mired.

‘Bad faith,’ sloppy analysis

In 2010, sixteen year-old Neal Beagley died from a bladder obstruction. Doctors can fix these kinds of blockages easily. But Beagley, a member of the Followers of Christ Church, in Oregon, had avoided medical treatment, in accordance with his church’s beliefs—and the wishes of his parents. “This is who we are,” his mother, Marci Beagley, told investigators. “This is what we do.”

Why do people like the Beagleys do what they do? That’s the question behind Bad Faith (Basic, 2015), Paul Offit’s new book about parents who seek to exempt their children from medical care on religious grounds.

A doctor, a vaccine educator, and a professor of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania, Offit has made his name rebutting anti-vaccination activists, most notably in his 2010 book Deadly Choices. As such, he is a practiced observer of postmodernity’s strangest class of conscientious objectors: those who, in the name of well being, exempt themselves from the most effective medical system in history.

It’s no surprise that Offit would eventually find his way to religion. Very, very few religious people avoid medicine entirely, but those who do so form a subculture large enough to merit national attention. One study mentioned in Bad Faith identified 172 deaths of children whose parents had withheld lifesaving medical treatments on religious grounds between 1975 and 1995. One of the authors of the study described the toll as “Jonestown in slow motion.”

It’s not just Christian Scientists. Small church movements around the country reject modern medicine, generally substituting some kind of faith healing. Constitutional law gives the state opportunities to intervene on behalf of children in these households. As Offit chronicles, though, states often do not.

To his credit, Offit doesn’t spin off into condemnations of religion, writ large. Instead, he digs into the New Testament, where he finds plenty of faith healings, but also plenty of calls to care for children, and nothing to imply that modern medicine would be corrupting. Ergo, religion must not be the problem, bad religion must be the problem.

Offit understands bad religion as a product of social coercion, mental illness, or clumsy interpretations of scripture. No doubt, he’s partly right: coercion happens. The line between religious fervor and mental illness is not always so easy to define. People interpret scripture in deadly ways.

Unfortunately, Offit is unable to look beyond his clumsy parceling of religion into good faith and bad faith. When it comes to religious objections to medical treatment, there are two other, more disturbing possibilities that Offit doesn’t seem equipped to even consider. The first is that there’s something legitimately frightening about the medical system for many Americans—a fear that’s absorbed into religious ideologies. Certainly, distrust of doctors can seem epidemic, and anti-vaccination activists play on fears of shadowy pharmaceutical cabals and deadly chemicals, some of which is rooted in legitimate fears.

A second possibility is that there’s something appealing about opting out of medical care—something that can feel noble and empowering, even if it can have deadly consequences. It wouldn’t be the first time that American Protestantism was drawn to the idea of a small, chosen elect, set apart from corrupting society.

Should we be surprised that these ideas might inspire a brand of medical libertarianism? Or that state governments across the country rarely move to ensure medical care for the children of objectors, even though courts regularly permit those kinds of policy interventions?

Toward the end of the book Offit does pause to reflect on the link between libertarian ideals and our culture of medical objectors. But, in a two hundred-page investigation of the American religious fringe, libertarianism merits only one paragraph. Offit is more interested in bad faith, it seems, than in questionable politics.

Only villains speak of the greater good

I have no evidence that Veronica Roth, the creator of the wildly popular Divergent books, ever thinks about vaccines. She’s 25 years old, and she’s not a parent. But the second cinematic installment of her young adult trilogy, Insurgent, released in March, offers an unintentional primer to exactly the kind of faith-tinged libertarianism that Offit is unable, or unwilling, to plumb.

Insurgent opens with a brief lecture from the leader of a post-apocalyptic Chicago. Her face magnified by futuristic projectors, the dictatorial Jeanine (Kate Winslet) argues that her community must protect the social fabric at all costs.

In this shattered world, a Harry Potter and Hunger Games mashup, everyone lives in one of five groups or “factions.” Each faction is devoted to a virtue—kindness, protection, fairness, intelligence, and selflessness. In order to choose a faction, teenagers must submit to a high-tech sorting hat: they receive special injections, after which a machine reads their minds and tells them where they belong.

A few aren’t a good fit for any faction—they are, to put it mildly, screwed—and an even smaller number fit into too many factions to be assigned to just one. These are the divergents, and where some see the makings of übermenschen, others see an interruption to orderly society. Our hero, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), is a divergent. Cue the rebellion.

As dystopias go, it’s all fairly innocuous. Society needs people to fit in a bit; some people don’t; there’s friction. But what could have been an interesting take on the tension between the individual and the state becomes, in the hands of Hollywood (and what are series like Divergent and the Hunger Games but treatments for Hollywood scripts?), a straightforward renegade fantasy.

The filmmakers see no real need to dig into the miseries of the faction system. The very fact that it’s conformist—with a familiar visual language of stoic citizens in perfect rows, dressed alike—seems to be enough to trigger our suspicion. In Insurgent, the bad guys are easy to spot because only they talk about the good of society as a whole. “You may find it hard to believe, but I am serving the greater good,” Jeanine tells an imprisoned Tris midway through the film.

The heroes, by contrast, talk about themselves. They diverge. Forced to live on the margins, they form a ragtag outfit bent on saving society. Roth is a devout Christian, and Tris, the divergent, plays the now-familiar role of a chosen one—leader of the elect—who can only find her fulfillment outside the social order.

Much of this, of course, is classic teens-rebelling-against-archetypal-parental-figures material. But it’s not just teens for whom this kind of social-order-smashing destiny seems to hold a certain appeal. The notion of being chosen; of stepping out of society’s governing order, and there finding a more authentic expression of the self has, of course, a powerful cultural heritage. You see it in Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and you see it in the sort of anti-authoritarian Christianity that animates so many of Offit’s subjects. Who among us doesn’t harbor fantasies of being too much for our boxes; of being, in short, divergent?

These kinds of self-actualized libertarian fantasies make for good entertainment, but Insurgent’s fun spills over into real life all too easily. Characters rebelling against an invasive, unpleasant medical injection that’s implemented for the good of society as a whole… It sounds just a little too familiar.

We need white sheep too

In On Immunity, the essayist Eula Biss points out that avoidance of vaccination can be motivated as much by fear as by a sense of privilege—the feeling that what applies to my child is, somehow, different from what applies to everyone else’s. There’s a logic to this idea that’s deeply appealing (particularly, Biss argues, for the educated, wealthier parents who form one of the key anti-vaxxer demographics).

The heroes of our fictions are defined by their exceptional characteristics, and by their exceptional invulnerability. No matter how many bad guys try to shoot Tris Prior in Insurgent, they always seem to miss. No matter how many other children rely on the medical-industrial complex for their well-being, my children will not.

Few parents today have seen pertussis or measles firsthand. As Eula Biss points out, it’s easier to oppose vaccines when you have no real concept of the diseases they’re intended to prevent. Similarly, few of us probably have much of a concept of what happens when, say, Neal Beagley refuses treatment for a bladder obstruction. The answer—that backed-up urine ruptures the kidneys and enters the abdomen and the lungs—feels almost medieval. How could any teenager be permitted to undergo that experience?

There’s a paradox here, which is that our commitment to individualism often flourishes in the shelter of the fruits of collective action. We have little concept of unmedicated pain or infant pertussis, because so many people have opted into a medical system that makes those experiences rare. More generally, as Americans, we have little notion of what life without a social safety net actually looks like—at least until we head into the developing world.

Similarly, fringe religious movements thrive, in part, because they stay on the fringe. It’s easier to live out your utopia when you don’t also have to maintain the infrastructure of a nation state, too. If we were all members of the Followers of Christ Church, for example, the country probably wouldn’t run so smoothly. (Israel, which offered special legal exemptions to its tiny ultra-Orthodox minority decades ago, is struggling with these questions today, as its ultra-Orthodox community grows to a significant chunk of the population.)

Independent thinking is essential for a democracy, as are the rights of independent-minded communities. Still, even independent thinkers have to recognize their debts to the herd. The slippery reality, of course, is that being sheeplike isn’t always bad. Some social goods depend on everyone standing in line and submitting to a common experience. Joining the herd may be discomfiting and depersonalizing, even socialistic. With something like immunization, though, that cooperation saves lives every year. But that’s a kind of heroism—patient, diffuse, and conformist—that we probably won’t be seeing in feature films anytime soon.