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How to reach the secular Americans who refuse to get vaccinated

While those unaffiliated with a religion have a high vaccination rate, there are secular holdouts who remain hesitant or are refusers. With no centralized place to reach them, how do we help them get vaccinated?

Recently, in my social circles, I’ve come across something I thought unusual: secular Americans who refuse to get vaccinated. Like many Americans, I assumed the religiously unaffiliated to be more progressive. Statistically, the less religious tend to lean left and left-leaning Americans are more likely to be vaccinated.

But these unaffiliated, unvaccinated women and men defied neat categories. They offered a variety of reasons for not getting the shot, ranging from “It’s a personal decision” to “I refuse to bow to COVID.”

Diana Serlo administers a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in North Huntingdon, Pa. Shane Dunlap, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via Associated Press

Are these the last — and hardest to reach — holdouts when it comes to getting the country vaccinated?

According to both the Public Religion Research Institute and Pew Research Center, 75% of religiously unaffiliated Americans — who are also known as “nones” — are vaccinated. But Pew broke the data down a bit more: According to Pew, 90% of atheists are vaccinated as are 85% of agnostics. Those who described themselves as “nothing in particular” are only 69% vaccinated. The only religious group less vaccinated are white evangelicals.

“The assumption about nones that they’re all a super liberal group is not necessarily accurate,” Natalie Jackson, director of research at Public Religion Research Institute, said. “It’s like any other group we put together to talk about it but they’re not a monolith.”

While they are, on the whole, “more liberal than their religious counterparts on many many measures,” Jackson said, “there are some people, certainly, who are kind of formerly evangelicals or formerly conservative Christian and they’re still conservative but they’ve just kind of lopped off the Christian.”

Jackson added that 14% of the religiously unaffiliated are Republicans, a group that has lower vaccination rates than Democrats.

Mandate to engage

While a survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core showed that 18% of the religiously unaffiliated would be somewhat receptive to religious outreach regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, what about the other 82%? What’s the best way to get them on the vaccine train?

Science, data or logic won’t be as effective, experts said, as interpersonal relationships and trust would be. That “sort of mandates” Americans to engage in personal, individualized conversations addressing these people’s concerns and feelings, Jackson said.

Jackson remarked that we’re past the point where blanket statements about public health will work. Rather, ”If you’re going for persuasion it’s going to be an individual conversation that has to happen,” she said.

“These are conversations that Joe Biden or (Dr. Anthony) Fauci can’t have,” said Nick Fish, president of the American Atheists organization. Such “last mile conversations are much harder and we have to get over our own unease about being willing to engage in these conversations.”

Fish said it’s crucial to “meet people where they’re at.” Atheists often make the mistake of hitting other people over the head with data and science, Fish admitted. But to reach the last vaccine hesitant and refusers, we need to listen with an open heart and compassion.

“The question of the individual rights thing ... is really challenging because it can come across as a value judgment,” said Fish, whose father leans conservative and was initially hesitant to get the vaccine. “But one of the ways to get at that is, ‘Yes, I agree it’s a personal choice. For you, personally, what is stopping you?’”

Establishing trust

Listening plays an important role in building trust and tailoring counterarguments to the individual’s concerns.

“If you’re talking about individual rights, individual liberty, individual choice, you’re talking about moving through the world without fear and this is a way to do it — by taking this shot,” Fish said. “We don’t have to continue these lockdowns or these impositions on your liberty — (the vaccine) is a way out of it.”

As for secular people who “don’t want to bow to COVID,” Fish said that pointing out that the vaccine is a way to beat the virus, not bow to it, could be effective.

If all else fails, you can always turn to the good old fashioned guilt trip, Fish joked. That’s what worked with his father. Around the time of Fish’s birthday, Fish told his parents he wanted his father to get vaccinated so he could go visit them. It worked and his dad got the jab.

But the data suggests that, when it comes to the secular hesitant or refusers, appeals from friends and family members will only go so far.

Among the unaffiliated, Jackson said, “We do get 30% of them saying that a health care provider could encourage them. Friends or family is 15%.”

“I think, in general, what we see with everybody is also true with unaffiliated folks. It’s about establishing trust and being that trusted messenger or providing information and listening to what their individual issues are,” Jackson reflected. “At some point every additional person who gets vaccinated requires an individual touch.”

Bigger problems to solve

Another aspect of meeting people where they are, experts said, is making sure they have easy access to vaccines.

Fish and other experts pointed out that some of the Americans who remain unvaccinated might be doing so not by choice, but due to other obstacles that impede their access to vaccines.

“We do need to reduce barriers still,” Fish said, pointing to the lack of availability of vaccines in rural areas as one example.

Other impediments to getting vaccinated include an inability to take the time off of work to get the shot or to take sick days if one becomes ill in reaction to the vaccine. A lack of transportation or child care also poses obstacles.

These issues point to deeper problems to be resolved, said Nicole Carr, deputy director of the American Humanist Association, such as “the importance of things like all employers being required to offer paid sick leave and reasonable time off — that make for a more equitable society, in general.”

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