Vaccine conspiracies, a common ground for cults

I am not a social scientist, and the following post is my opinion only.

One of my latest reading interests is polygamy. The only reason for this is because Amazon happened to be advertising Sam Brower’s Prophet’s Prey on a day when I happened to be browsing for reading materials about strict religious sects. I was probably looking for information about Quiverful, but found the FLDS instead. It seemed like a good match and so I bit. After reading Prophet’s Prey, I had to know more. It turns out there is a whole world of criticism of polygamy on the web, and one of my very favorite shows is Polygamy: What love is this? hosted by Doris Hanson who escaped from a coercive polygamist sect and later founded the Christian (not Mormon) Shield and Refuge Ministries. I love her grace, beauty, honesty and fearlessness in addressing the rampant abuse that is described by her frequent guests who often have personal experience with polygamist cults in the western US.

Perhaps the most notorious of these polygamist cults is the FLDS, run by the incarcerated, pedophile prophet Warren Jeffs. In her book Escape, Carolyn Jessop describes the cult’s fairly rapid descent from one-man rule in the 80’s to absolute tyranny under the prophet by the early 2000’s. As with many cults who must advise their followers to avoid medical care in order to escape scrutiny, this is common practice in polygamist groups  like the FLDS. Its followers are essentially living outside of the law by practicing bigamy in states where it is a criminal offense. Not surprisingly, Carolyn Jessop recounts a time when orders came from the prophet Rulon Jeffs to avoid vaccinations and all medical care for their children, with very few exceptions for obvious life-threatening emergencies.

Avoiding hospitals was obvious. You don’t want the healthcare personnel to start asking questions about parentage, birth certificates (many birth certificates are forged in polygamst families), social security numbers and the like. Avoiding vaccination wasn’t quite as obvious, so the prophet fabricated a story of conspiracy by the gentile government and pharmaceutical companies to harm children through vaccination. Nothing new.

That might prompt you to ask, well, if their vaccination rates are low, then how about their rates of infectious disease? I don’t think anyone knows.

When the YFZ ranch was raided in Texas in 2008, over 400 children were removed from the cult. They were subsequently returned simply because the confusion and chaos was too great. Social workers couldn’t  figure out who belonged to who for the courts, and logistically, finding foster families for all those children was near impossible. There were pregnant girl children who were taken into custody, yet cult members, some who were even mothers of these very same girls, publicly denied on Larry King that they had ever seen such a thing happen in their community. No underage marriage. No child rape. It never happened. It’s a perfect example of the kind of gaslighting that cults frequently engage in. I will briefly talk about gaslighting again, below.

Given such secrecy and general confusion, there is really no one who has access to these groups to track the health statistics of children raised in the cult. Guests on Polygamy: What love is this? (full video below, skip to 4:55) have described a common tradition of burying infants who don’t survive birth or the newborn stage and unaccounted-for disappearances of infants and small children. Brent Jeffs, in his book Lost Boy, estimates that about 1 family in 5 loses at least one child. Ultimately, we just don’t have the data.

Dr. Paul Offit’s latest book Bad Faith discusses disturbing cases of child medical neglect in cults and religious sects. While adults are at liberty to reject medical care for themselves, even life-saving treatment, making the choice to reject lifesaving treatment for their children is much more controversial. Indeed, parents have been jailed for such neglect, even when it is done on the grounds of “religion.” Yet, some families have successfully petitioned to use “alternative treatments” for their children even in cases where life threatening cancers are highly treatable with conventional medicine, and almost certainly deadly without evidence-based treatment.

Vaccine refusal is not against the law. Vaccine refusal by itself is not medical neglect by any current standards that I am aware of. However, vaccine refusal is a red flag and many pediatricians now are unwilling to be complicit in a parent’s choices to refuse vaccines. I have mixed feelings about this, because it means many of these children will slip through the cracks of our healthcare system which, being far from perfect, has successfully prevented the premature deaths of many children through vaccination and other preventive care.

The thing that worries me most, though, is this abusive cult mentality that arises with conspiratorial thinking. The FLDS and these other cults rely on a narrative that outsiders (“gentiles” to the FLDS) are malign forces that will soon act against them. The same goes with the anti-vaccine movement when it acts either with standalone cultish behaviors, or when the vaccine-conspiracy narrative serves as a proxy for an actual cult (like the FLDS and others) to describe the evil intent of outsiders.

The cult’s faithful are portrayed as victims, while outsiders, critics, and those within the cult who begin to express doubt are seen as the offenders. This justifies withdrawal from society, abuse of nonconforming members, and further secretive behaviors.

Take this response by a member of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice to recent calls for restricting religious exemptions for school admission: vermontcoalition

…What’s next? Should all non-vaxxers be forced to wear some sort of visible insignia to identify us to the general public? Should we be segregated from others? Detained somewhere away from the general populace? Hmm, is this starting to sound familiar?…

Self-identifying with a persecuted group (in this case, the most notorious genocide in the western world from the past century) is common among outspoken anti-vaxxers. These parents are perhaps best described as “cognitive minorities” insofar as they can be categorically separated from the larger society. Being a cognitive minority does make life harder. However, it doesn’t necessarily validate your choices. It doesn’t mean that when other people disagree with you, that such disagreement, even contempt, amounts to persecution. In this case, mere belief that vaccines are somehow harmful does not make them harmful, and society’s efforts to contain the known risks posed by unvaccinated clusters of people  is not akin to mass genocide. It’s not even similar. But as Reuben of The Poxes Blog asks, do I really have to say that?

I mentioned gaslighting above, and there is a similar behavior of denial within the anti-vaccine movement. It comes frequently as the statement “I am NOT anti-vaccine” and the recently popular “there is no anti-vaccination movement.” It’s absurd that they say this because clearly there is a social movement, and a well-organized effort to promote vaccine misinformation. They want to deny that they are participants in the harms that result from vaccine refusal, and so they have to deny that they want anything other than freedom of choice for themselves. That argument doesn’t hold up, though, because the constant references to vaccines as “poison” and stoking fears about vaccines does have an effect on other people and it does influence broader social attitudes about vaccines.

People who frequently engage with anti-vaxxers often see more egregious examples of these kinds of mind games, some of which, like gaslighting and victim blaming, are outright abusive. Some anti-vaccine groups ban and excommunicate anyone who joins the group but later decides to vaccinate their children. Although most of these groups are more clique-ish than cultish, there is a fine line between the two, and when anti-vaccine views merge with religious beliefs the situation becomes ripe for the patterns of a true cult to emerge.

Moving on, in my weird little circle of the internet where I talk about vaccines with people whose cognitive reality is different from mine, there’s definitely a preoccupation with feeling oppressed and persecuted. I frequently see references to the holocaust, Jim Crow, and other types of ethnic segregation and genocide. Making fringe lifestyle choices, and being shamed for it doesn’t make you a protected class. Moreover, showing a blatant and disgusting disregard for the impact of your choices on other people, an inescapable reality in the vaccine debate, isn’t a great way to motivate others to sympathize with your cause.

The FLDS suffered a raid by the feds in 1953 and the prophet has since trained his followers to always be prepared for the next raid. Ultimately, the group is preparing for the apocalypse in which the gentiles will be burned from the earth and the chosen ones (righteous FLDS members) will be delivered. People who have escaped the cult almost unanimously describe a childhood where they often practiced hiding from authorities. In the interview I posted above, one of the girls who left the Kingston Group describes having been carefully trained to deal with social workers and police who might show up, and says she became very good at hiding evidence of any kind of wrongdoing, including hiding young children.

The recurring themes on websites like medicalkidnap.com and vaxtruth.org, which describe children being removed from families because of what are represented as benign lifestyle choices, have much in common with the polygamists prepping for the inevitable coming raid and apocalypse. In medical kidnap scare stories, there’s definitely an undercurrent of the same kind of paranoia that enables cult leaders to gain power over their followers. Bizarrely, this kind of prepping and paranoia does, apparently, sometimes lead to the exact situation that the cult fears as happened with the 2008 raid of the YFZ ranch.

CPS kidnapping stories tend to find their way into the mainstream by filtering through more deceptively named organizations like the National Vaccine Information Center– a group that some people fail to view as anti-vaccine because of its careful attempts to represent itself as a neutral organization devoted to choice and transparency. NVIC’s links to these other fringe groups (especially on social media) belie that appearance of neutrality. In the process, they build an illusion of credibility for what are unsubstantiated, fringe ideas that use the same tactics as real, dangerous cults.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on this topic long enough. I’m just disturbed how it isn’t particularly hard to find the intersection of anti-vaccine conspiracies, cult-like religious mentalities and the broader paranoia about government intrusion into the lives of everyday citizens.

In summary, the one thing I fear more than government tyranny is cult tyranny. In the US, it seems that the latter is much easier to accomplish. The people are primed by increasing suspicion of large, powerful entities like governments and corporations, and so they become perfect captives for the little tyrants, like cult leaders, charismatic hucksters, and passionate but exploitative vigilantes.