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I’m With Stupid – June 1, 2012

by Todd Hartley 

I know nothing about religion. Let’s just get that out of the way right off the bat. In fact, if you’ve been following this column the last four years, you can probably recall numerous instances when I wrote something so absurdly incorrect about people’s beliefs that it defied all belief. That’s ultimately how clueless I am when it comes to matters of faith.

But I content myself in knowing that, at the very least, I have never deliberately maligned someone’s faith, despite my stunning lack of knowledge concerning the subject. To me, all religions are equally valid and equally invalid. No one practice seems any smarter or stupider than any other, and nobody should be singled out for believing something contrary to what someone else might believe.

Actually, that’s a lie. There is one faith so outrageously idiotic that it and its practitioners absolutely demand to be singled out. I’m talking, of course, about the bizarre subsect of Christianity known as snake handling. If ever there was a stupider way to worship God as you view him or her, I haven’t the slightest idea what it is.

In case you’re not familiar with snake handling, it involves exactly what its name indicates: handling snakes, particularly poisonous ones. If that sounds like a bad idea to you, well, that makes you a sane, rational person. However, for a handful of less rational people, mostly in the American South, playing with potentially deadly serpents is, for some inexplicable reason, the way they choose to show their belief in the Almighty.

The practice stems from a passage in the Bible, Mark 16:17-18, which reads: “And these signs will follow those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them.”

Sounds nice, right? The only problem is it doesn’t really work, and so snake handlers are subject to little mishaps like the one that occurred last week in West Virginia. What happened there was that a snake-handling preacher named Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford was bitten on the leg by a yellow timber rattlesnake named Sheba, and you’ll never guess what happened next. Actually, maybe you will; he died, shockingly enough.

Now, obviously, there’s nothing all that funny about someone dying. But not all deaths are created equal. For instance, when someone dies as a result of an unforeseeable accident, that’s a tragedy. But when someone dies because they were trying to prove that they could handle rattlesnakes without dying, I kind of have a hard time feeling sorry for that person, particularly when you take into account Wolford’s personal circumstances.

You see, Wolford’s father, himself a snake handler, also died of a snakebite when Wolford was a teenager. (What’s that line about those who don’t learn from the past being damned to repeat it? Whatever it is, this seems like a perfect application of it.)

In some ways, I suppose it’s admirable that snake handlers believe so unwaveringly in the Bible that they take everything it says to be infallible, but why, out of all the passages in the Bible, did they choose that particular one to use as a litmus test of their faith? If it wasn’t so dumb, it would almost seem like they were trying to show off or something.

And make no mistake about it: it is colossally dimwitted. Think about it: According to Mark 16:17-18, drinking poisonous things should also not hurt “those who believe,” but you don’t see any Drano-drinking churches, do you? And why not? Because it would kill you, regardless of what Mark has to say, and everyone, even those whose faith is unshakeable, knows it. That’s why so few people deliberately drink poisonous things.

So why do snake handlers assume that some words in an ancient book make them immune to snake bites? Clearly they aren’t, as Wolford’s case illustrates. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out, even though I’m sure tons of rocket scientists regularly attend snake-handling churches to commune with similarly intelligent people.

Anyway, as I hinted at before, people can believe whatever they want to believe. I promise you it makes no difference to me. But if you’re a snake handler, maybe you should take Wolford’s death as a sign and hunt around a little for a safer, saner church. I’m pretty sure God won’t hold it against you.

Todd Hartley is the founder of the First Crocodile-Handling Church of God. None of its surviving members have any arms left. 

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