September 21, 2015

I'm Back!: The Thinking Atheist on tour and the nature of the sacred

As a short note, my laptop is back online, and so am I. Yay!

I figured I'd start working back up to a regular posting schedule with a fun post today: the nature of the sacred and the ridiculous.

Yesterday, I attended a tour stop by Seth Andrews, the Thinking Atheist, who was promoting his new book Sacred Cows. Andrews talked about some of the ridiculous aspects of the scared, much like he does in his book, with the objective of spreading a simple message: if it's okay to question these sacred beliefs, why is not okay to question others?

It was a great meaning, and I highly recommend stopping in if his promotional tour takes him near you.

I don't want to give away his entire bit, which involved a rubber chicken and numerous other fun moments, but he opened with snake-handling, one of my favorite subjects.

Wikipedia defines the practice like so:

Snake handling, also called serpent handling, is a religious ritual in a small number of Pentecostal churches in the U.S., usually characterized as rural and part of the Holiness movement. The practice began in the early 20th century in Appalachia, and plays only a small part in the church service.

Before I dive into the ridiculousness of it, here's a point that I didn't know before Andrews mentioned it during his talk yesterday--the snakes used in these practices are often malnourished and dehydrated, living only a fraction of the life expectancy of the same species held in captivity and given proper care. Wiki addresses this too:

Kristen Wiley, curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo said that the risk of fatal bites is significantly reduced by the familiarity of the snakes with humans, and by the poor health of snakes that are insufficiently fed and watered and kept in crowded areas. Snakes that are maltreated are less likely to strike and the deteriorated condition of the snake produces weaker venom, suggesting that deaths related to snake-handling are more likely to occur when someone is bitten while handling a newly captive snake, still in relatively good health, and then refuses medical treatment. Snakes living in the captivity of snake handlers live an average of three to four months, compared to a well-cared for snake in captivity which can live 10 – 20 years.

But that's not the point. It was just a fact that I learned that took the practice from, "Man, that's bizarre, why do people do this," to "Oh my god, that is terrible."


Some states endeavored to ban snake-handling when it first began to emerge in Appalachia. In fact, while most states only made it punishable by a fine and confiscation of any animals founds, Georgia actually instituted the death penalty for the practice at one point--the law was later overturned due to the severity of the punishment making judges reluctant to convict. One of the states did not legislate the practice is the state of my birth--West Virginia.

One county over from where my mother was raised is one of the most commonly listed snake-handling churches. Since the practice is legal in West Virginia, the Church of the Lord Jesus, in Jolo, West Virginia, is able to practice this ritual freely and openly.

I find it fascinating because my grandfather, a West Virginia coal miner, came into contact with that church in the most extraordinary way: a gentleman who attended the church worked on the same mining crew as my grandfather, and when the men paused to utilize nature's facilities, the snake-handler would often tie any venomous reptiles he happened across to his ankle, until he could get back and secure it (or them) in his lunch pail. Presumably, these unwitting reptilian fellows were then invited to the Jolo church's services the following weekend. No word on whether any of the snakes ever converted, however.

Growing up, this was a fun story--one that my mother recounted, that I heard at my grandfather's knee. Those silly snake-handlers--everyone would laugh uproariously.

Religious faith is a funny thing. As we criticize it, we are always reminded that these are people's deeply held, sincere beliefs. In some ways, that idea is held up like a shield, a piece of armor designed to protect the faith from any "attacks". And yet, even in families as deeply religious as mine, there are beliefs that are freely open to be mocked and criticized--it was often pointed out that serpent-handling, speaking in tongues, and the like are ridiculous, because Revelation represented the fulfillment of the testament of the Lord, and with the fulfillment of the testament, such gifts were unnecessary.

Convenient, no?

So where is the line? What's appropriate to discuss, and what is not? I think it's pretty clear where I stand--any idea or belief should be scrutinized, compared to the evidence, and accepted, rejected or adjusted based on what you find.

Dear readers, this is a bit of a quirky rite. I highly recommend checking out Seth's book for more such strange religious practices. In the mean time, what's the weirdest religious rite, belief or superstition you've encountered?


P.S.--If you are interested in reading more about the Jolo snake-handlers, check out this article about them, published by the Guardian a few years ago.

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