What's the harm in snake handling?

6 Nov 2013

What's the Harm is an awesome web site that tracks news stories of the actual death, damage, or other distress caused by belief in the unbelievable – everything from faith healing and ghosts to Scientology and IRS denial. (Should the site suggest that a pet pseudoscience or dogma of yours is harmful, don't fret; you should see dozens of competing claims on that list that we both can agree are just plain wacked.)

One category not currently on What's the Harm's copious catalog of crank-bait is pentecostal snake handlng (Wikipedia). This is a ritual found in certain rural parts of the U.S. in which believers handle venomous serpents to demonstrate their faith in the protection God promises:

Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. 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. (Mark 16:17-18)

It's a promise that God keeps... except when he doesn't. According to the Wikipedia page linked above, the modern founder of the ritual, George Went Hensley, died in 1955 from – spoiler! – snakebite. The sneaky reptiles went on to beat God again and again, doing in snake-handling evangelist John Wayne "Punkin" Brown in 1998, believer Linda Long in 2006, and pastor Mack Wolford in 2012. (The victims are united in both belief and inability to learn: "Punkin" lost his wife to snakebite three years before his own divine "oops", and Wolford's own father fatally bet the wrong way on God vs serpent in 1983.) The harm isn't limited to adults taking their lives in their own hands; children roped into the ritual have been killed too.

Then again, as the surviving believers will readily point out, there are plenty of handlers who aren't bitten. Therefore Jesus, right? Well, maybe it is God. Or an inscrutably-interfering Loki. Or snake-calming magnetic reiki flux vortices generated by the psychic resonance of the belief process.

Or maybe there are more mundane reasons, suggests Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling (my thanks to the HerpDigest mailing list). In the article, NPR reveals likely causes behind non-attacks, such as simple familarity with the handler. Said a snake authority,

"I think most snakes, a rattlesnake or a copperhead, if you are gentle with them after they've been in captivity and [you] pick them up gently, they won't bite you. So, it wouldn't matter what [your] religious belief was."

But there's yet another likely, and more depressing, protectve factor: sick, starved, dehydrated, and half-dead animals.

NPR was contacted by snake experts who strongly suggest that a snake's reluctance to bite a religious serpent handler may have more to do with the creature's poor health than with supernatural intervention.

"The animals that I've seen that have come from religious snake handlers were in bad condition," says Kristen Wiley, curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo... She says snake-handling preachers who don't take care of their snakes are "setting themselves up for a safer encounter during their services when they use a snake that is in bad condition to begin with."

As esxpected, the Pentecostals aren't having any of that. Pastor Jamie Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name – who readily admits that his caged, underfed charges live "three to four months" compared to the 10 to 20 years of snakes under good care – protests the critics:

He says any suggestion that the serpents they take up in church are not deadly is ridiculous. Handlers get bitten all the time, he says, and every few years someone dies.

Er, yes. There's that "inability to learn" thing again... 

Snake handling is definitely a bit of loonery that belongs on the What's the Harm? list. It's a dumb mundane nothing passed off as supernatural protection (with God apparently offering all the robust protection of a tafetta flak jacket). Worse, it kills animals and people. That's the harm.  

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