Religious talk in Malaysia run the risk of degenerating into entrenchment

  • Contradictheory
  • Sunday, 15 Feb 2015

FOR ONLINE ONLY: Painful choice: Some parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children against diseases such as measles because of the mistaken belief that vaccines can cause autism in children. Photo: AFP

Most conversations about religion in this country have a high risk of degenerating into entrenchment. But instead of digging in, we need to find a way to stand up, walk over to and get into the other side, and say, ‘Let’s work this out, we’re in this together’.

I would like to wish readers Happy Chinese New Year, as the Year of the Goat begins on Thursday.

At least, I think I can do so, because it’s not yet been deemed incorrect for Muslims to do so.

In December, Isma (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia) said Muslims could not wish Christians Merry Christmas, and more recently, the Prime Minister was rebuked for wearing Indian clothing and a flower garland at a Thaipusam event.

Unsurprisingly, in both cases, there was a heated debate, with people seemingly taking one side or another.

At no point did anybody step forward and say, “You know, I thought one thing, but after reading and understanding the informed debate on both sides, I have now changed my mind.”

This ability to put forward one’s side forcefully without regard for opposing facts or opinions was also a feature in the United States after a recent outbreak of measles in Disneyland.

The debate revolved around the fact that a significant number of those infected had not received measles vaccinations, which some blamed on the “anti-vaxxers” (depending on your beliefs, they may also be called “vaccine choice” or “vaccine aware”).

At the forefront is the concern that vaccination is somehow linked to autism (even though the medical paper that originally proposed this idea has long since been debunked and retracted).

Another common idea is that vaccinations interfere with the natural course of things, and that if children ate the right foods in a healthy environment, they would be more resistant to diseases and render moot the point of vaccinations.

This resistance has been appearing in Malaysia too. In the last few years, local newspapers have highlighted concerns by Malaysians about vaccines.

I myself am beginning to see some parents proudly proclaiming on their Facebook accounts that their offspring are not vaccinated, heralding the transition of an idea from fringe lunacy into the zeitgeist.

There are grave concerns from professionals about the impact that anti-vaccination will have.

Vaccinations have already saved lives. The World Health Organisation claims that between 2000 and 2013, measles vaccinations prevented an estimated 15.6 million deaths.

Furthermore, the lives saved include those who were not vaccinated or cannot be vaccinated.

Some people are still susceptible to a disease even after vaccination, others have immune systems too weak to receive vaccination, and there are some who just don’t want to be vaccinated.

However, if enough of a community is vaccinated, these people at risk may still be safe, because so few of the general population are at risk of being infected in the first place.

How many need to be vaccinated depends on how infectious the disease is, with 85% to 95% being commonly accepted numbers.

But if enough people don’t get vaccinated, you raise the risk of infection.

Apart from the recent US Disneyland outbreak, there have been measles outbreaks in Britain in 2008 and 2009, and an outbreak in Malaysia in 2011, all blamed on the non-vaccination of children.

Given these facts, it is obvious that parents who still don’t vaccinate their children need to know the truth.

But it’s not that easy to convince them.

A 2013 study in America tried to establish the best way of informing parents of the myths and to encourage them to vaccinate (

Its conclusion was surprising: None of the parents said they were more likely to vaccinate their children however the information was presented.

Even worse, those most opposed also said they were less likely to vaccinate, even though they understood that there was ample proof that vaccinations do not cause autism.

And when highly sceptical parents were told stories about or shown photos of infants dying from vaccinable diseases, these parents actually increased their belief that vaccines had dangerous side effects.

In other words, it looks like proving to people what they believe is wrong may set them further against you.

This phenomenon is known as the Backfire Effect, and many characteristics were effectively demonstrated and documented in a book titled When Prophecy Fails (1956).

In 1954, a group of psychologists from Chicago had found out that a local housewife had persuaded others that aliens would arrive on a certain date to rescue the true believers and then destroy the Earth after that.

The psychologists felt this was an ideal opportunity to observe the group’s reactions as the prophecy failed.

The psychologists infiltrated the group and documented what happened on that fateful night.

At midnight, when no spaceship arrived, there was intense discomfort.

Four hours later, the housewife who made the initial prediction announced good news, saying “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction”.

It seems people have to come to their own conclusions on their own terms.

Rather than be given contradictory facts on a silver platter, they have to go out and hunt for the truth.

That means a willingness to honestly challenge one’s own assumptions, which is not most people’s first instinct.

Most importantly, this Backfire Effect works both ways.

While I was researching the efficacy of vaccines, I came across a website that analysed statistics and concluded that vaccinations do not reduce the mortality rate.

My immediate reaction was to reject this, but I also realised that I was doing so without giving it due consideration.

I was a victim of the same biases that I am accusing the anti-vaxxers of having.

Where does that leave us in resolving our differences about religion?

I must confess I’m not sure. Most conversations about religion in this country have a high risk of degenerating into entrenchment. But instead of digging in, we need to find a way to stand up, walk over to and get into the other side, and say, “Let’s work this out, we’re in this together”.

¦ Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

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