My snake-handling piece in The New Republic, and a note

January 15, 2014 • 11:46 am

Just for the record, The New Republic has republished (with some changes) my website piece on the refusal of a Tennessee grand jury to indict a snake handler despite his blatant violation of the law. My revised piece is called “Snake handler not charged with abusing animals thanks to Tennessee definition of ‘religious freedom’.

While looking for extra links for the NR piece, I found an absolutely stunningly dumb article from the Washington Post: “Mack Wolford’s death a reminder that serpent handler should be lauded for their faith.” WHAT? The author, Ralph Hood, says this:

As a long time student and even admirer of the faith of handlers, I am persuaded that there is a curious bias in America culture. This bias permits high risk behaviors among consenting adults for all kinds of dangerous activities, from car racing to hang gliding to football but excludes religious ritual.  Why should religion be any different?  Among believers, the plain meaning of Mark is clear. The imperative to handle serpents does not include the caveat that one cannot be bitten, maimed or even killed. The tradition documents this fact as does concern over the death of Pastor Wolford.

Yet from the handler’s perspective, the issue is not that one dies.  I have heard it preached on more than one occasion that “nobody gets out of this life alive.” The issue for handlers is not that you die, but how you die.  Dying obedient to the Lord is what is crucial and assures salvation. Handlers believe in an eternal with God and believing in and practicing the Word of God is what assures this. Most handlers die from causes other than serpent bites. But for those, whom God brought to his bosom by a bite, one need not mourn a loss of life, but applaud the handler’s belief that they have gone home to be with their God.

One need not legislate against a practice among consenting adults, comforted by their King James Bible, sincere in their effort to practice all that their God commands, and whose death like the bite of the serpent lacks the sting and futility that outsiders attribute to it. “O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55). ” These words from the King James Bible may ring hollow in a rapidly secularizing society, but not among those that believe in a literal transcendence. As Barb Elkins, the grand matriarch of the Jolo church once told me, “If you do not believe in handling, pray for those who do.” May God bless Pastor Wolford and his family.

Well, I agree that we shouldn’t pass laws preventing adults from engaging in dangerous practices in the service of their faith: that’s discrimination against religion, and takes away from adults the right to do what they want so long as it hurts nobody else. (Of course, we have to think about how this practice affects others, including the children who are taught it!). But it is by no means “laudable” to play with venomous snakes in the service of God.  The difference between snake-handling and other dangerous practices, like race-car driving or football, is that with sports there is the possibility of a tangible reward at the end: you win, and can get lots of $$.  You know that if your team wins the Superbowl, or you win the Indy 500 race, you’re gonna go home with a lot of dosh. But the “victory” in snake-handling is illusory: you supposedly go to heaven by playing with snakes for Jesus.  There’s not an iota of evidence for that, and therefore the activity is profoundly stupid.  If you want to handle snakes as a form of thrill-seeking, as did Steve Irwin (he ultimately died from a stingray barb piercing his chest), fine—so long as you don’t injure the animals—but to say it’s “laudable” when it demonstrates your faith in God is simply crazy.

Faith in fact is never “laudable,” for it’s not admirable to believe in something without evidence.  But when that belief risks your life (and Mac Wolford had a wife and daughter), it is not only not laudable, but contemptible.

If you want a contrast with Hood’s ludicrous piece, read this moving eyewitness account, also in The Washington Post, by Lauren Pond, “Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith.” Be sure to see the photo gallery by clicking on the picture at the top (warning: it shows photos of Wolford after the bite and right before he died).

52 thoughts on “My snake-handling piece in The New Republic, and a note

  1. I’ve encountered believer’s with mindset akin to Woolford’s and the feelings I experience are extremely uncomfortable and powerfully unsettling. I have a great deal of respect for Lauren Pond’s commitment to her profession.

  2. Faith in fact is never “laudable,” for it’s not admirable to believe in something without evidence.


    (I’d phrase it a bit differently; rather, that one should portion one’s beliefs in accord with a rational analysis of objective evidence, but that might be a bit stilted for the venue.)

    …and, now, I’ll go and pop over to TNR and see what things’re like there….


  3. How is hang-gliding different from snake-handling?

    It’s the pay-off. Extreme sports like hang-gliding don’t just satisfy a desire for adrenaline/thrill; they are big, interesting experiences that, even if my desire to stay safe prevents me from partaking, I can understand people doing and enjoying.

    What’s the pay-off from snake-handling?

    There are two categories here: worthwhile risk and stupid risk.

    1. Even when handling venomous snakes in a safe manner there is no really good reason, other than scientific research by a herpetologist, to pick a venomous snake up. Most of what people see when someone is handling dangerous snakes is grand-standing. Steve Irwin was a prime example – there was absolutely no reason to handle them the way he did! I wonder how many kids got bitten because they tried to do the same thing he did?

    2. The pay-off from snake-handling is that it pleases jesus and that might make you feel good. While jesus is unreal, an illusion, the good feeling is real.

    3. Several of the responses on this sub thread seem to be saying (uh oh) that what it is possible for someone to get from handling snakes is different than from other risky things like extreme sports, categorically. If that is the case read on, if you are interested, otherwise this is off target.

      Now, I sure as hell am in no way supportive of these christian snake handlers or their proponents. But.

      Some people, many, can and do derive precisely the same things from handling snakes as they do from hang gliding or any other thrilling endeavor. Wonder, excitement, beauty, amazement, thought provoking, emotion provoking, you name it. And I don’t think that seeking such experiences is a bad thing at all.

      Now, causing harm to animals to get your fix is, I think, a bad thing. And you can argue with some merit that any interaction with wild animals is bad for the animals. But, as with all things there is a spectrum, it is not black and white. There are plenty of people that handle snakes because they are infatuated with them, like other people are with cats, dogs, hot rods, and all kinds of other stuff, and they would never intentionally cause overt harm to the animal.

      1. Oh, I guess I should have clarified. By the term “snake handling” I mean people handling snakes in general, as in caring for pets etc.. Not a specific contest like a carny side show to see if you can pick up a snake and wave it around without it biting you. Which, of course might be grounds for me misunderstanding all the other comments in this sub thread.

      2. Yes, that is what I intended to convey.

        I guess I’m just skeptical that Jimbob Snakehandler would really, truly have the same reaction to hang-gliding or base-jumping as he would to waving a snake around for a bit.

        But even if he does, I still feel it’s legitimate to say “look, you, Jimbob, may have worked this snake-handling experience up in your mind to the point that your having snakegasms when you do it, but from an outside perspective, holding a snake is not an experience in the same order of magnitude as hang-gliding or base-jumping”.

        1. I pretty much agree with all of that, particularly given what I think you mean by “snake-handling.”

          In my comment above I completely generalized the meaning of that term thinking of snake loving naturalists, snake loving pet owners and the like.

        2. See, the thing is…if Biblical-style faith were real, it would work as it did in The Matrix. If they truly believed, they wouldn’t need to dodge bullets, and there would be no thrill from nor point to snake handling or other such parlor games. The true believers would just go about putting their super-powers to work in whatever heavy-lifting of demon-battling was necessary, and us peons would mostly just tremble in fear as the titans clashed around us.



          1. That’s a good point.

            Snake-handling is only a remarkable demonstration to them because somewhere deep inside they’re not convinced the magic is real.

          2. Thing is, even when the magic doesn’t work, they don’t conclude it wasn’t real; they just conclude their faith wasn’t strong enough.

          3. I have to wonder how theists deal with all the cognitive dissonance. There is just so much. I don’t think I could do it. I guess that’s why I’m an atheist.

          4. “I have to wonder how theists deal with all the cognitive dissonance. There is just so much. I don’t think I could do it. I guess that’s why I’m an atheist.”

            That’s totally why for me. Atheism was the only philosophy (actually an “aphilosophy,’ for all intents & purposes) that met the standards of critical thinking.

            I didn’t know the term “critical thinking” back then; it was just the worldview that followed from everything I’d learned and experienced up till then.

          5. Exactly, watch “Supernatural” for a world where the supernatural really is real. Witchcraft works, demons really will buy your soul, and there really are monsters in the woods. It bears no resemblance to our own.

          6. For most people in my 71 years considering that almost everyone believed these claims then surely the nonbelievers must be wrong otherwise it would mean that the huge overwhelming majority would be wrong and that just could not be true. Some famous County siner at a major award show “They claim we are delusional!” huge applause among crowd that no! they knew they were not delusional!

    4. Maybe it is true that some of these snake-handlers are getting a kick out of it. Maybe snake handling is the clerical equivalent of extreme sports.

      However, even granting that, still it is a bit stupid. To borrow Sam Harris’s example of comparing religious devotion to a man’s delusion that Anegelina Jullie is in love with him, snake handling can be compared to base jumping because you think Angelina Jullie is secretly in love with you and she fervently watches your base jumping videos on youtube so you keep doing that to please her.

      I’ll have to read more about these snake handlers though. Is it possible that they feel they need to do snake handling to attract crowd, devotion, and ultimately money? Does the frequency of snake handling increase when the economy worsens?

      1. Trophy, I love that thought. What exactly is the prime motivator outside of proving the magic to be real? In one way it seems as if the snake handler is saying ‘your faith isn’t enough. I must demonstrate the power to which you have put that faith in order to prove it has merit.’ But, of course, the inevitable occurred, the magic is false, and faith in the magic is proven to be futile. As Dr. Coyne has frequently pointed out, it’s good to have faith in something that has demonstrated many times how it will likely behave. I have faith my car will get me to work, I have faith my lunch will be tasty, I have faith Dr. Coyne will dispel public claims of religionists, IDers, creationists, etc with immense insight, aplomb, and wit. Mr. Snakehandler had faith the magic of god would prevent what many of the rest of us would have faith in instead, getting bitten and subsequently dying.

        Or, is it a case of desperation? Doubts begin to trickle in, faith begins to crumble, so I must dramatically prove to myself and everyone the true power! True power was demonstrated, of course. Rattler venom is potent!

  4. Of course, the passage in Mark about disciples and believers being able to take up dangerous serpents, etc. was a much later interpolation, copying a similar passage that shows up at the end of the Gospels attributed to “Luke” and “Matthew.” All of the best and oldest manuscripts of Mark end at 16:8.

    1. Born 1942 and raised in Methodist church where everything in the Bible was the word of God and therefore everything true. “the Bible is the word og God. I believe it , and that settles it!” Was a common claimed belief among many christians.

  5. I thought suicide was supposed to be a sin in Christianity.
    Playing with snakes and not having the local hospital on speed dial or antivenom in the fridge strikes me as much the same as playing Russian roulette.

  6. The practice of snake handling is a committment to the principle that a person’s life is not a precious possession to be lock away in a box. The snake handlers may have their cosmology all wrong, but their ethics and epistemology are sound. I respect them, much more so than the apologists who look to bring everyone into line by argument or by other means justified through argument.

  7. 1) I suppose one can reconcile Hood’s claim that “… the plain meaning of Mark is clear. The imperative to handle serpents does not include the caveat that one cannot be bitten, maimed or even killed” with Mark 16:18 “… they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly things, it will not hurt them” if one reads a semi-colon after “serpents”, leaving the promise of no harm valid only on poisons.

    But the author of Luke & Acts (who almost certainly worked off of Mark) is more explicit:

    Luke 10:19
    “I have given you authority to trample on snakes ….; nothing will harm you.”

    Acts 28:3-5
    “Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand…. But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.”

    2) Why aren’t there any cyanide-drinking congregations?

    1. “Paul shook the snake off into the fire

      Bastard. He’d suffer ill effects if I had anything to do with it.

    1. or Honor Killing? What about killing your “enemy”! Why not suicide killings. It is considered ok in “wartime”! “This is considered a suicide mission and your chances of living through it any returning are slim! Seen some movies about where prisoners for murder or life sentences during wwII were offered this! Strange how “war” allows different rules!

  8. Wolford was a coward.

    C’mon all ye faithful! Take a quantum leap of faith (sorry for using that phrase, David Deutsch). I want to see priests wrestling with Pythons or Anacondas.

    If the faith was strong enough, surely Our Lord would prevent these men from being crushed and swallowed whole in front of their grief-stricken congregations! Can I get an amen?

  9. For decades it has seemed to me that really true believer’s would handle the most poisonous snakes. The snakes that are much more poisonous than the rattlesnakes that I read about. Some people have been bitten over a hundred times while other have died on the first bite. Somehow I have good reasons to doubt that these people are willing to use much more dangerous snakes. Also like the Bible claim that you can drink any poison. I never could get true believers to do that either. Wise of them, but to me showed they did not really believe these claims. Also why very few people even handle rattlesnakes. Lack of “faith”! Also true of those who go to a doctor and/or hospital rather than relying on prayer or the Bible claims of “Ask anything and it shall be given” too stupid for almost all “true believers”! Most are “practical” because they believe they will live much longer by ignoring claims in their Bibles!!

    1. It would be really interesting to test these “believers” against something really loaded, such as a krait or mamba. Perhaps a North American coral snake? A friend of mine was killed by a krait a few years ago in Burma, because of a stupid mistake on his part, and it was a juvenile specimen. Perhaps one of these “good old boy snake handlers” would like to test his faith against something like that?

  10. I was under the impression that your chief argument with the Tennessee ‘Religious’
    snake handlers was more a protest of how cruelly the snakes were treated. If these idiots want to play with snakes, fine. As long as they are not forcing children too young to understand the risks, let ’em play. But they should never force innocent animals to live in unsanitary and/or cruel conditions. That has nothing to do with religious tolerance.

  11. If a snake handler does not die of snake bite after a long life of handling them, it is held up as proof of God because God kept him alive.

    If he dies of snake bite then it is proof that God is taking him to Him.

    In either case it is “evidence” of God. There is no scenario that would cause the faithful to question the likelihood of God.

    Isn’t it great to be impervious to logic!

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