Some people are attempting to avoid mandatory vaccination by requesting an exemption on religious grounds. These mandates range from those set by employers to those set by governments. While those more cynical than I might think that many people are trying to use the religious exemption tactic in bad faith, this matter is philosophically interesting. As always, I will endeavor to consistently apply principles that I have argued for in other essays.
As a general point, if a religious exemption is being seriously considered to a mandate, then it is worth considering whether the mandate is justified at all. While not all mandates have the force of law, they presumably do involve a coercive element—otherwise there would not be any need for an exemption. In the case of employer mandates, the coercive element can extend up to firing the employee for a failure to comply with the mandate. My general principles governing such coercive elements include the critical requirement that the coercion be warranted and that what is being coerced is both effective and ethically acceptable. If a person’s religious objection would warrant exempting them from the mandate, then this would seem to indicate that the mandate fails to meet these conditions. Put a bit crudely, allowing an exemption would be like saying “this is important enough to warrant compelling people unless they have strong beliefs about not complying.” This would also apply to what people call philosophical objections as well. But this characterization can be seen as unfair and perhaps even something of a straw man. So, let us turn to a better justification for exemption.
As I have argued in other essays, I usually follow the principle of harm when it comes to public policy and large-scale decision making. On this view, a mandate would be warranted on utilitarian grounds: if the mandate does more good than evil, it would be morally acceptable. This approach does allow for exceptions by considering the relative harm each individual would suffer (if any) under a mandate.
For most people, a vaccination mandate does not cause any harm. After all, most people voluntarily got the shots and some people really wanted them. But there are people for whom the vaccination presents a medical risk—the harm they would suffer would be significant. Hence, exempting them makes medical and moral sense: the goal is to protect public health and hurting people would go against this goal. But what about people requesting a religious exemption?
A sarcastic reply would be to run the problem of evil: if God does exist and does not want us to get vaccinated, then God would simply not allow this to occur. He could easily do this without interfering with our free will in many ways. He could send an angel to hold a press conference to make His view clear. Or He could do some minor miracles, like true believers finding that the needle simply will not pierce their skin. Or, perhaps, just not allowing COVID to exist in the first place. Being omnipotent and omniscient solving the mandate problem would be simple for Him. As such, one should infer that either God does not care about vaccine mandates or that God does not exist. If God does not care about vaccine mandates, then it would be hard to justify a religious exemption. Unless one believes in another god. If God does not exist, then it would also be hard to justify a religious exemption, except in terms of how people feel about their made-up beliefs. There are, of course, the usual stock replies to the problem of evil that can be deployed here. Also, as I suggested, one could focus on how people feel about their beliefs (made up or note).
On this view, the truth of the beliefs is irrelevant; what matters is the severity of the harm that would be suffered by the person if they were forced to get vaccinated. On this view, the person requesting the exemption would need to show that they would be harmed enough by complying that this harm would exceed the good created by getting the vaccination. This would be a bit of a challenge, since not being vaccinated puts a person and those they encounter at risk for serious illness and even death. One might even make the odd argument that if a person is truly a sincere believer in a religion that has an afterlife, then whatever harm they might suffer here should not matter to them if they follow God’s will. So, if Bill refuses the vaccine because of his religious views, gets fired and then dies on the street, then he would presumably gain an eternal reward. Roughly put, if a person’s faith is so strong that being forced to comply would be a serious harm, then it would also seem strong enough that they would not care about mundane matters like employment when their salvation is at stake. This can, of course, be countered by various arguments which I will leave as an exercise for the faithful.
As a closing point, even if a person were to suffer significant harm from being forced to comply to a mandate, this does not entail that they should be exempted from it. To use a common example from law, a person who profits handsomely selling tainted food and dangerous goods would be harmed by mandates restricting the sale of such products, but this would not warrant his exemption from these mandates.