Pastor Warren compares pro-choice views with anti-vaxers ( touts the benefit of religion in helping us making sacrifices for society

September 27, 2021 • 11:30 am

In her weekly New York Times column, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren makes two arguments. It’s not as bad as her other columns, as there’s actually some material for thought here, but, as usual, she winds up making bad arguments, and then touting the benefits of believing in God. Click to read:

Warren makes two arguments. The first is to point out what seems like hypocrisy when one considers “pro choice” people who don’t oppose abortion with “anti vaccine” people who object to getting shots. In both cases, says Warren, one is being asked to curtail one’s personal freedom (“my body, my choice”) for the benefit of society as a whole—or so she says. The implication is that this is doublethink:

At a protest against vaccine mandates, a hospital worker told New York’s Livingston County newspaper: “If you want it? Great. If you don’t? Great.” She continued: “Choice is where we stand. If you want it, we’re not against it. That’s your choice.” Those I know who have refused to get vaccinated or wear masks have echoed this same idea. They assure me that they aren’t telling anyone else what to do but that this is a matter of personal choice. They are doing what they think is best for themselves and their families.

“My body, my choice,” the rallying cry of the pro-choice movement, has been adopted by those opposing mask and vaccine mandates. People who are pro-choice have voiced outrage that their phrase is being co-opted, which in turn thrills those on the right who are using it.

In Vogue, Molly Jong-Fast said that the phrase, when used by conservatives who oppose vaccine mandates, shows that “for Republicans, it’s a case of government regulation for thee but not for me.” Of course, critics would accuse her of the same hypocrisy for being pro-choice but also favoring vaccine mandates.

What’s useful here is the inspiration to think about her premise: how far must we curtail our freedoms to help society What’s not useful—and she does say that “the complexities of abortion and Covid prevention are different”—is that the situations are not at all comparable in the nature of the “freedoms” curtailed. Unmasked and unvaccnated, you might be endangering strangers you come in contact with, and the masking will last only the duration of the pandemic. Shots are even less onerous, and protect more people than do masks.

Pregnant, you do not endanger society as a whole—unless, and this may be true of Warren—one thinks an abortion is committing murder. Further, you are bringing an unwanted child into the world who will require years of care, as reader Mike pointed out yesterday.

I’m pretty much in favor of unrestricted abortions, as I don’t see it as the equivalent of murder. Further, I also favor the termination of the lives of already-born infants who have invariably fatal conditions like anencephaly and will suffer horribly until the inevitable end. (Peter Singer has been demonized for holding this view.)

But you can think on your own about whether there is any “hypocrisy” in favoring vaccine mandates and also being pro-choice. It is food for thought.

The other argument is that only Christianity (she singles it out, but would probably add “religion in general”) gives us a moral basis for making self-sacrifice for the good of society.

Christian ethics call people to ideas of freedom that are not primarily understood as the absence of restraint, but instead as the ability to live well, justly and righteously. In Galatians, after an extended meditation on liberation, Paul says: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Freedom, for him, had a purpose and end, a “telos.” We are freed not to do whatever we feel is best for us individually, but instead to love our neighbors.

. . . .Over the past year as we’ve asked people to go into lockdown, cancel their travel plans or family gatherings, close or curtail their retail businesses, wear masks and get vaccinated, we are asking them to assume some level of financial and personal risk for the greater good — for strangers, for the elderly, for the immunocompromised, for the medical community. We can and should enact legislation like paid family leave, no-cost health care and other measures to support mothers, just as we support economic relief for those affected by Covid prevention. But we cannot deny that even if we seek to lessen the load, we are asking people to bear a burden.

How do you call a society committed to personal freedom and happiness to bear the burdens of others? Most of us intuitively grasp that there’s more to life than living for oneself and one’s own happiness or comfort. But we lack a positive vision for the purpose of individual liberty.

Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Catholic theologian, gave us the gorgeous and helpful phrase “arduous good.”

. . . . Consumer capitalism is not going to teach us about how to pursue arduous goods, nor is technological progress, nor is either American political party. Theoretically, religious communities are places that train us toward ends other than individual autonomy. They point us to something bigger and higher than ourselves, calling us to love God and our neighbors. However, this is unfortunately not always the case. Many religious communities have lost their ability to articulate an alternative to the sovereignty of personal choice and individual autonomy.

. . . But as a culture, we desperately need religious communities that do not parrot the predictable ethical arguments of the right or the left. We need a rooted and robust call to love our neighbors, our families and the marginalized, the needy, the weak and the afflicted among us.

But the arguments she makes apply to secular humanism even more than to Christianity. After all, it is conservative Christians who “parrot the predictable ethical arguments of the Right” against abortion because it’s seen as murder, usually because the fetus is ensouled.  Secular humanists have a diversity of views on abortion, and often considered ones. They don’t need the buttressing of ancient scripture and authority to arrive at a position.

As for “a rooted and robust call to love our neighbors, our families, and the marginalized, the needy, the weak, and the afflicted among us,” what about that comes from religion? Was it Christianity that gave us income taxes, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the other institutionalized forms of our sacrifices for those needier than we?  And wasn’t it Jesus who said this (Luke 14:25-27)?:

25 Many people were traveling with Jesus. He said to them, 26 “If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life! 27 Whoever will not carry the cross that is given to them when they follow me cannot be my follower.

But let me admit that yes, studies have shown that Christians give more to charity than do nonbelievers. What I don’t know is whether how much of Christian charity goes to tithes or Christian organizations.  And countering that, let me say once again that the countries of Northern Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, are largely atheistic societies whose members give much more per capita to help their societies than do Americans. That’s one reason taxes are so high, and why state does what private organizations must take over in America.

No, what we don’t need is more love of God to spur us on to be more socially conscious. We need governments like those of Denmark and Sweden.

I wonder how longer the NYT will allow Warren to continue spoon-feeding us pabulum. At least she has a bit of a point in this week’s column. But surely there are pastors or theologians out there who can give us more food for thought, even if they’re victims of the God Delusion.

31 thoughts on “Pastor Warren compares pro-choice views with anti-vaxers ( touts the benefit of religion in helping us making sacrifices for society

  1. How do you call a society committed to personal freedom and happiness to bear the burdens of others?

    Has she never heard of the tragedy of the commons? The prisoner’s dilemma? There’s lots of philosophy out there discussing how accepting some regulation on our own short term conduct can have a net beneficial result not just to “society,” but to us ourselves in the long term. And none of it requires or originates in any faith in God.

    1. I agree. I think Sam Harris said something to the effect of “rational selfishness and rational altruism are indistinguishable from each other when one thinks things through”. Or maybe it just sounded like something he would say.

  2. “Christian ethics call people to ideas of freedom that are not primarily understood as the absence of restraint, but instead as the ability to live well, justly and righteously.”

    I’d argue that most ‘ethics’ are independent of religion. They arise from the ‘rules’ our community infers. After all ‘ethics’ existed before Christianity… Christianity merely rebadged them for ‘own’ use. Which could explain why our community ethics have moved on and are now sometimes at odds with religious thought.

  3. Unless you live in a country that makes abortion murder under the law — and we are not there yet, comparing the choice of abortion to vaccination is just stupid. You can choose not to pay your taxes or not drive a car according to the laws but you will likely get arrested. It cripples your freedom for the benefit of the society?

    The fact of abortion should be a personal decision between a female and her doctor, just like the decision to have some other type of medical surgery. It should never include the politicians or lawyers and certainly not a pack of males in the society. For any woman to give up this right to men is a fools journey or said another way, a religious wrong. Under most religion the woman loses many rights so to say religion is the way is a delusion.

  4. But let me admit that yes, studies have shown that Christians give more to charity than do nonbelievers.

    Not the main topic of this post, but I’d be really curious to see how these studies take into account to different giving styles. Anecdata ahoy – when I was in public accounting I saw A LOT of tax returns and people’s charitable contributions. And among that set, religious folks did not give as much as the presumably secular people giving to ADL, SPLC, etc. Fun note, SDA employers often just took tithes right out of people’s paychecks. Neato!

    1. Also worth pointing out that many such studies rely on self-reporting. When asked, Christians usually exaggerate the amount they give to charity, just as they exaggerate how often they attend church.

      1. Absolutely.

        And yes, I’m willing to bet that a huge proportion of believers’ “charitable donations” goes to their own religious organisations.

    2. And of course there’s charity, and then there’s charity. How much of the donations go to helping other people in need is an important metric. Giving more to your cult, I mean club, so the leaders can provide a nicer clubhouse, better proselytize for new members, or fancier digs for the leaders, or a new G6 for the guy at the top, are not things most of us would consider charity. Some are ethically okay, but still not charity. Others are downright unethical.

    3. What of the role of guilt to the religious, under the steady gaze of their god and church. This probably boosted individual status amongst the flock to boot. Incentive enough (the afterlife) I would have thought and to be clear I also don’t have a problem with any of that, simply, do what you like with your dollars as long as it’s not contributing to doing harm.
      It is better to give than to receive as one burly religious rugby number 8 used to say as he smashed his opponent…

    4. You mean in relation to income, or in absolute terms? I just audibled Jonathan Haidt’s The righteous mind, and he claims Christians are also more altruistic/co-operative in experimental settings. (Beware: The replication crisis renders such claims a bit doubtful.) IIRC Robert Putnam’s large study showed church/synagogue members compared to non-members (but not believers to non believers) gave much more of their time to voluntary work.

  5. I would think that your tax situation (bracket and all) has a lot more to do with charity amounts than some religious belief. This is particularly true in the U.S. tax system since Trump screwed it up. For us common folks the standard deduction verses going to schedule A is the difference between no charity and lots of charity. Religion has nothing to do with it.

    1. This is another excellent point. It would be pointless to itemize for many, many people so counting on them to know how much charitable giving they have done would require them to keep track for themselves. I’m guessing most don’t.

      I remember being a young adult and getting into it with my (very religious) mother because I didn’t tithe. I argued that I was a good tipper and that was actually better than tithing because it cut out the middle man. She was not amused.

      1. LOL! Although I fully appreciate that it might not have been too amusing at the moment in which it happened.

        My own (moderately, certainly by US standards!) religious mother is pretty tight-fisted when it comes to day-to-day expenditure, but her church’s overseas charities are a frequent exception. (I freely confess that I don’t know much about the recipients, so it is possible that no religious ties are required. That said, generosity is often used as a recruitment device by religious organisations so I have suspicions that the cash isn’t entirely innocuous in that respect.)

      2. I am sure you know, however many atheist may not, when giving to a church the same IRS rules apply as for any charities such as 501 (c) (3). I’m sure all that giving to the church does not happen without some reward. Such as any amount over $250 requires a written statement from the church listing the amount and stating you got no goods or services of tangible value in exchange for your gift. All of this may not seem all that important but it will if you get audited.

        1. Oh yes, the audit. I had a one client that the IRS decided to audit his charitable contributions specifically. He was quite the small town philanthropist, and I have to tell you it was a nightmare for my staff to scan every scrap or donation receipt – whether from goodwill drop offs or an airplane donation – so the IRS could go through each line with a fine tooth comb. Even thought it was a bit of a nightmare, he was really a best case scenario client. He really did give what he claimed, he kept his receipts and he also kept a spreadsheet that he would reconcile annually. What is surprising to me is how many non profits don’t know about having to issue receipts with that specific language. Was on some boards where we actually implemented it during that time.

  6. As for “a rooted and robust call to love our neighbors, our families, and the marginalized, the needy, the weak, and the afflicted among us,” what about that comes from religion?

    What doesn’t? The pagans left their children out if they displeased them, a Confucian scholar would never say something like that, its true a lot of secular folks have taken up the cult of losers from the Christians, but mostly as a political ploy to impose tyranny. The love of enemies and whatever broken soul washes up on the beach, that’s old fashioned Jesus Christ slave morality. My two cents is that you would get more reward taking in stray dogs and cats than you ever will from human beings.

  7. I keep getting sucked in to reading those pieces because the headlines are often an interesting subject. But then I get part way through when I realize “Ugh, it’s that religious tripe column again.”

  8. Warren’s obvious ploy is to to assume her audience is easily and non critically accepting of her general criticism of ”religious communities” that (god forbid) parrot the predictable ethical arguments of the left or right; a classic example of what Dawkins would label her hubris and arrogance. What exactly is a ”predictable ethical argument embraced by the monolithic labels of left and right. Alas, do not expect critical thinking or original insights from some one so confident in their moral high ground..

  9. How does she account for the fact that significant numbers of COVID-19 anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers are Trumpets that are disproportionately (compared to the general population) Christian?

    1. She’s Anglican, Church of England, at least half of ’em are Never Trumpers and the other half are fundraising at the country club for Biden.

  10. For fun I tried to compare the risk of the most severe consequences of being denied freedom of choice on abortion versus being denied freedom of choice on COVID vaccination. I did this in a hurry with no idea what the numbers would look like at the end. Of course there are tons of errors in both of the guesstimates.

    A woman denied the right to choose an abortion can be killed by the fetus during childbirth, or killed by her son (or less often, her daughter) later in life. In Canada, the number of maternal deaths in child birth is about 50 per year from 1996 to 2010; population size over that time grew from about 28 million to about 33 million, so split the difference and say 30 million total on average, 15.5 million females, of whom say 5 million are of childbearing age (that’s probably too high a proportion). Then the relative risk of death in child birth is 50 divided by 5e6 or 0.00001 per woman per year.

    In Quebec (I just happened to find some numbers for Quebec instead of Canada as a whole; population 8 million, say ~1.5 million are women of childbearing age), there were 27 matricides in total from 1990 to 2005, for a rate of 27 divided by 1.5e6 divided by 15 = 0.0000012 per woman per year.

    Total relative risk of death caused by lack of choice on abortion then is 0.0000112 per woman per year.

    A woman denied the right to choose against vaccination for COVID might die from the vaccine. As of 13 April 2021, the CDC had reports of 6 individuals (all women, all of childbearing age) who suffered severe blood clots after getting the J&J vaccine; 1 of those women died. At that time, about 6.9 million doses of the one-and-done vaccine had been administered; assume that about 3.5 million of those were administered to women, of whom say 2 million were of childbearing age (a higher split because no J&J vaccines had been given to kids or teens at that time).

    So total relative risk of death caused by lack of choice on vaccination is 1 divided by 2e6 or 0.0000005 per woman per year.

    We don’t know whether there’s an equivalent risk of premature death from the J&J vaccine later in life (comparable to the risk of matricide).

    If these are at all close to real, then the risk of death by reproduction is about 20 times higher than the risk of death by vaccination. Seems cool! Almost certainly wrong, but cool. I wonder what Alex Lickerman would say?

    I guess the other point is that both of those risks of death are very small.

    https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2012/aspc-phac/HP10-19-2011-eng.pdf
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_of_Canada#Census_data_by_years
    http://jaapl.org/content/35/3/306
    https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/acip/meetings/downloads/slides-2021-05-12/07-COVID-Shimabukuro-508.pdf

  11. Pastor Warren should wander through the subreddit r/HermanCainAward. Entry after entry of antivaxxers literally dying to avoid doing anything for the common good. Almost all of them are devout Christians.

    Content warning, the sub is grim, depressing, and ghoulish at times.

  12. This article really stuck in my craw the more I thought about it. In a capitalist economy, the workers produce an economic surplus, and all economic activity downstream of that surplus is dependent upon the productive forces of the workers, that is to say it is parasitic upon it. Over the last 50 years, you have had enormous increases in productivity, an enormous increase in the economic pie, and yet workers have shared in virtually zero of that increase, it has all been skimmed off by the 1%. The Bezos, the Buffets, the Gates, etc., have all built their fortune off of that surplus.

    Anyone who understands game theory knows what happens when a game depends upon cooperation to realize a benefit, but one side takes all the benefit. Cooperation breaks down. To further make things worse, everything blew up in 2008, and the response of Obama and his people was to bail out the creditors, and not prosecute any of the wrong doers who contributed to the crisis.

    Now the capitalists have whipped out racism and identity politics as a means to distract from the real issue, which is that working people in America have gotten an unfair deal from their “betters”. What they are entitled to is not “charity”, but their fair share of the economic surplus, and decent health care, housing, and education.

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