Religious Dogma

Commentary on Snake Salvation

Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of...

Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky., 09/15/1946 Company funds have not been used in this church and it is not on company property. Most of the members are coal miners and their families. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Snake handling as a profession of faith has been a decades long tradition for some holynist Pentecostals living in the Appalachia mountain region. The National Geographic channel is hosting a documentary series titled “Snake Salvation”, which is promoted as a look inside the prominence of faith and religion in the life struggles of two pastors of snake handling churches. The series follows the daily life of the pastors who are trying to maintain their snake handling traditions while dodging the law, dealing with a disapproving society and family difficulties.

Members of my extended family are Pentecostal and I am familiar with Pentecostal worship practices such as speaking in tongues and being slain in the spirit so I know that people can have strong convictions that the power of God can overtake them and cause them to act in a certain way. I have never attended a snake handling church, nor have I ever wanted to. But with the showing of this series I wanted to satisfy my curiosity and compare this type of Pentecostalism with that I have experienced.

The “anointing of the Holy Spirit” during worship services is common in Pentecostal churches, but snake handlers take this anointing a full step forward. Snake handlers hold and dance with venomous reptiles as proof that they are faithful to God, evidenced by God’s anointment upon them that they will not be bitten, and if they are that they will survive, unless God has appointed it as their time to die. Besides handling snakes, they drink lye and strychnine, and also wave fire beneath their chins and over their hands as proof that they are being faithful to God. They perform these acts based on a literal interpretation of this scripture found in the Gospel of Mark:

“They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

As I watched this series I could not help but wonder if it would be different if they knew the history of their religion, or if it was known that many biblical historians believe that the verse they take so literally as a call to exhibit faith was a late and forged entry to the text and not found in the earliest manuscripts of Mark. Even so, given the number of people handling snakes during religious practice, most are not bitten.

Does this mean that God protects the ignorant? Probably not.

Herpetologists who have studied the practice of snake handling attribute the relatively low number of deaths to the poor health and maintenance of the snakes during captivity. Snakes that are dehydrated and underfed are less likely to strike and the deteriorated condition of the snake produces weaker venom. It was noted that numerous snakes are crowded into one container and lack of fecal matter indicates that they were not being routinely fed. Snakes living in the captivity of snake handlers live an average of three to four months, whereas snakes living in their natural habitat can live much longer. Even in captivity a well-cared for snake can live 10 – 20 years. The data would seem to suggest that snake handling pastors increase their chances of not being bitten during a religious service by ensuring that the snake is in poor health and that snake bites which do occur produce much weaker venom that while it may cause serious harm it does not cause death. Death is more likely to occur when someone is bitten while handling a newly captive snake, still in relatively good health, and then refuses medical treatment.

Because some people have died handling snakes during a worship service, some states such as Tennessee have banned possessing venomous reptiles. But, as depicted in the series, don’t expect these religious devotees of snake handling to give up the practice. People attending these congregations are often family members following a long enduring belief that if they do not do these things that they will go to hell. They have been indoctrinated into this belief for the most of their lives as a part of their family culture.

My father’s family hails from Appalachia. I know this culture well and I also know that many of those living in this region are economically impoverished, poorly educated and socially isolated. Family and tradition are foremost in their lives and the religious tradition of the family is unlikely to be challenged by subsequent generations. The lyric of an old hymn (Gimme that Old Time Religion) that says, “It was good enough for my grandma and its good enough for me” is an accurate reflection of the mindset of these closely knitted families. A great many will never leave their communities or ever attend college and in turn will most likely never encounter alternative religious or life style points of view. And the traditions that they were born into will be passed to future generations, time and time again.

The Pew Institute reports that people who are poor and undereducated are those most likely to hold religious beliefs. Watching this series makes that point even stronger. It is easy to see that Jesus and the bible provide a means of solace for people struggling through poverty and the hardships that it causes in their lives. Their faith allows them to believe that they are rich in spirit, much richer than the man with the money, and it allows them to equalize their worth as a have-not when compared to the haves. To the poor, Jesus’ words of “blessed are the poor” and his gentle affection for the poor add value to a less than desirable existence. I’ve been there and done that. I know what it feels like to need a power greater than myself to be in control of my life so I understand how important their faith is to them. I am somewhat sympathetic to people continued to be deceived by a great lie. But that being said, as a Tennessean, I hope that Brother Andrew never succeeds in lobbying the state legislature to allow snake handling as an act of religious freedom; and I will remain committed to the separation of church and state which keeps dangerous religious beliefs and practices out of mainstream society.

And god forbid, that he ever acquires his dream of being the pastor of the first ever Snake Handling Mega Church.

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11 thoughts on “Commentary on Snake Salvation

  1. FULLY agree with your commitment to keep church and state separate! But I don’t limit it to whether the religious belief or practice is dangerous or not. All religion belongs in church or in the home.

  2. What if I religion believed that, at a certain (reasonably lengthy) age, one should commit euthanasia on themselves and summarily give all of their current possessions to those in need?

    As it is harming no one but themselves, I’m actually a bit unsure on whether I would want to outright ban this, and I believe such a scenario is relevant to the one you’re talking about (although mine is a bit prettier).

    What would immediately strike me as wrong though would be any misleading of religious figures into false beliefs that would take them down this path when they otherwise, themselves, would not. How to manage that would be an obvious questions, but let’s say we could. If we could, and thus it really was “their choice” to do so, and indeed it harmed none else, would you still have it banned?

    • That’s a question that gives me pause to think. I have always been someone who believes in individual freedom providing it does no harm to someone else. So I support the choice of someone who chooses to end their life, or to practice crazy religious rituals – providing it does not directly harm or provide means to harm anyone else.

      So lets say Brother Andrew believes his scripture and believes his faith is strong enough to pick up a venomous snake. Then let him head out to the hills by his lone self and credit his faith. But when he commits that act of faith in a church he is not only testing and crediting his faith but he is also putting others, even small children, in the position of relying on his faith and I don’t think he should possess the power to inflict the tests of his personal faith on anyone else.

      The same goes for a man who believes God has told him to express his faith by ending his own life. if he truly believes that, and is sane, alert and oriented, then let him end his life, but he should never be in the position to hold influence over others and convince them that his God has told him to tell them to harm themselves merely on the basis of his own personal convictions.

      Every religion is founded upon the personal convictions of those in the lead. So I support banning any practice of harm that can influence the weak minded and gullible to follow along blindly. That includes snake handling, committing suicide so you can catch the next God ship passing by in the wake of a comet, or being persuaded to give the last few dollars in your wallet and letting your family do without so that the pastor and the whims of the church are satisfied.

      • I think your opinion rests on a really touchy ethical issue, that of allowing people at large to be considered weak-minded. You could imagine implications such as whether people should really even then be able to vote for themselves.

        I don’t really disagree with you though, but if thats the case, where does the line stop? If the criteria is false faiths/beliefs with negative effects, one could make that argument for religions as a whole (or at least very large sectarian groups) rather quickly.

  3. I’m very disappointed to hear the snake handlers don’t look after their snakes properly.

    I don’t think snake handling – or any other ‘dangerous’ religious practice – should be banned. I even support the rights of Jains to starve themselves to death and oppressed Buddhists to self-immolate.

    The question of religious and cultural coercion is an incredibly tricky one, even for an individual to wrestle with in their own case, much less those of people you don’t even know.

    But I think it’s a safe bet the snakes didn’t consent to be starved and abused so I reckon it’s not an issue of religious freedom, but one of animal rights. The snake handlers should have to comply with the same sort of regulations that would apply to a zoo or circus.

    • Cabrogal, I do believe in freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. I support anyone’s right to handle snakes or whatever other thing I would personally disagree with. Where it becomes difficult for me is when it can harm others. But as you say, it is an incredibly tricky situation to deal with.
      In watching the show I wondered too why animal rights activists were not involved with it, but I suppose snakes don’t have the cuddly appeal that other animals do.
      I haven’t seen a post from you in awhile. I thought maybe you had left the sight. It is good to see a comment from you.

  4. @Page 28
    I was repelled watching children 3-4 years of age dancing around with toy snakes mimicking their elders right down to the foot shuffles and stomps. When I refer to weak minded and gullible I am thinking about people persuaded and influenced either in youth or under the addiction of drugs or struggling with mental illness such as depression, not as a reference to intelligence. I do support religious freedom, even what would seem to me as religious stupidity if practiced by a consenting adult. It just concerns me that some people can be easily mislead, even to the point of harming themselves.

    • I guess I was being a bit more cynical of himanity hah. Still though, I think there are a lot more “soft” vulnerabilities that allow we humans to be “weak minded” or exploitable without having such hard, diagnosable issues. With that being the case, that’s why I ask where the line would be and note that it would seem to encapsulate mainstream beliefs as well.

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