Jamie Coots’ snake theology was not that crazy

Any religion is, by definition, crazy to a nonbeliever.

The death of Jamie Coots could be read as just another bit of evidence that the universe doesn’t much care what you believe. Physics, biology, geology — all perk along with or without our assent.

Coots may have been the most famous of America’s snake-handling Pentecostal preachers. He was featured last year in a reality show called “Snake Salvation.” He died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during the regular Saturday service.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, this was the ninth time he’d been bitten.

Not every snake is going to want to bite. The effects of a snakebite can vary: How big is the snake? How much venom got in? How sensitive is the victim to that particular venom? And news reports say that both Coots’ father and grandfather performed the same rituals without being killed.

So Coots’ grabbing the rattler wasn’t quite like stepping out a window in the belief that angels would hold him up. But it was in that direction, as this bite demonstrated. Faith or no faith.

Snake handling churches all look to a few verses in the New Testament:

* Mark 16:17-18 — “And these signs shall follow them that believe …They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them….”
* Luke 10:19 — “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.”
* And Acts 28:1-6 tells a story about Paul being uninjured by a venomous snake attack.

To most people, these seem like a crazy justification to handle deadly serpents. But I evaluate these kinds of claims through Weiss’ Law of Religious Relativism: Any religion is, by definition, crazy to a nonbeliever.

That’s not to say that someone of one belief can’t appreciate the piety, values or even practices of a different belief. But those areas that depend on faith will seem irrational — crazy.

Is it crazier to believe that the creator of the universe had a son who is somehow also him and required that son to be tortured to death and resurrected to allow his creations to escape the consequences of sin — or that he would protect his faithful believers from the effects of snake venom?

From the outside, it’s a coin toss. Although gambling on the snakebite protection can have much clearer this-world consequences.

And to be fair to Christianity, most Christians see their snake-handling brethren as misguided. They’ve got their own proof texts, including Luke 4, where Satan tempts Jesus to jump off a roof. Old Scratch quotes Psalm 91:

“He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Jesus counters with a line from Deuteronomy: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Other faiths have their traditions of wonderworkers — and of warnings against putting too much stock in them. In Judaism, for instance, the Talmud warns against depending on miracles for protection from evil. And Maimonides, one of Judaism’s greatest sages, said more than 800 years ago that the basic laws of the world weren’t going to change even with the coming of the Messiah:

“Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside, or any innovation will be introduced into creation. The world will follow its normal course.”

But here’s another truth: Friends of mine who have attended and written about Coots’ church tell me that Coots was a powerful preacher. That members of his church say it saved them from the street, from drugs, from self-destructive and evil ways. And I believe it.

I believe it because, of the many flavors of faith I’ve covered, I can’t think of one where practitioners didn’t make a believable case that their religion helped give them purpose and peace and structure against the chaos of everyday life. Muslim, Jew, Pentecostal, Brahma Kumari, Sikh — my list could go on for a while.

And every one of them would consider the faith claims of the other to be as crazy as most of us consider seizing a poisonous snake. Yet somehow each one apparently does some good for some people.

The Journal quotes another pastor who was at Coots’ home Saturday: “He died for what he believed in.”

Sadly for his friends and family, the universe didn’t much care.

Image courtesy of Brent Myers.

  • Doug Wilkening

    Back when I was a Chemist, a very sad report made the national news. A high school science teacher was performing a chemistry demonstration for his class to illustrate the properties of sodium. He had done this demonstration dozens of times before in his teaching career. During this particular demo, however, he accidentally dropped a large quantity of sodium metal into a beaker of water. The exothermic reaction that followed caused a serious explosion. None of the students were harmed, because they were all a sufficient distance away, but the teacher died.

    i don’t think this incident changed anyone’s mind about the value of Chemistry, either as a profession or as a subject to be taught in high school. In the same way, I don’t think the death of the snake handler will change anyone’s mind about this or any other religion. Incidents like these tend mostly to confirm for each of us whatever biases we may already hold.

    • JeffreyWeiss

      That example was an accident that happened, one presumes, in spite of precautions. And what happened was totally predictable: Large enough hunk of sodium in water = explosion. The result confirmed rather than contradicted what science said would happen.

      The death of Coots, however, contravened the prediction of the system in which he was operating. It happened, far as I can tell, while he was performing his rituals in their usual manner — no accidental anomalies. If it were an experiment, it would be considered to have contradicted the hypothesis.

      Significant difference, I think?

      • Doug Wilkening

        Not if one understands Pentecostalism. I personally don’t accept its more extreme forms, such as snake handling or health and wealth, but I’ve visited enough Pentecostal churches and have been subjected to their sales pitch often enough that I think I understand it.

        They believe that God tends to bless the believer with health, money and protection from harm, and that these blessings tend to increase in proportion to one’s faith, but no guarantees. They also believe that God is sovereign, and that one can not manipulate him with prayers or rituals to force his hand on blessings, the blessings are bestowed by grace and only if he wills. So, a believer can lose money, become ill, get bitten, etc. It seems to be a probabilistic thing with them. More faith = higher likelihood of receiving a blessing.

        I find their thinking not dissimilar to those branches of science that rely on probabilistic evidence, such as toxicology, public health, psychometrics or climate science. We all know the old geezer who’s smoked all his life and doesn’t have lung cancer, and we all know that in the midst of global warming we often have a cold and snowy day. These examples don’t refute the science, because these sciences are based on the study of averages, trends and probabilities. No one isolated case constitutes a refutation. So too with Pentecostal beliefs on health and wealth.

        There, I’ve poked the hornet’s nest by mentioning global warming. Maybe we’ll get a heated discussion now (pun intended).