The testable faith of snake-handling preachers

timber rattlerAnother preacher has died at the hands of his delusion. This time it was 42 year old Jamie Coots of Middlesboro, Kentucky. In 2012 it was Mark Wolford from Morgantown, West Virginia. Both men died from rattlesnake bites they received while “demonstrating” their faith.

While painful, a rattlesnake bite in the United States is rarely a death sentence. The vast majority of rattlesnake bite victims survive by seeking prompt medical attention, but because both Mr. Coots and Mr. Wolford were so incredibly deluded by their religious convictions, they waited on their faith to save them.  Why?  Because the two pastors took the words written in Mark 16:17-18 literally. That scripture reads,

“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.”

They believed. And as a result of that belief, each felt he would be protected from harm – which of course they weren’t. Rattlesnakes do what they do, venom does what it does, the human body reacts how it reacts, and now Mr. Coots and Mr. Wolford are dead.

I don’t have the details on Mr. Coots, but Mr. Wolford was bitten in the thigh by a timber rattler. Timber rattlers, as with all rattlesnake species, have large, retractable fangs which act as venom delivery syringes. The older and larger the snakes, the bigger the payload of venom they deliver. Rattlesnakes may also be able to control the amount of venom they inject. In other words, sometimes a rattlesnake may bite and not inject any venom at all – possibly to serve as a shot across the bow, while on other occasions a snake will inject the full, deadly amount. Another amazing adaptation of a rattlesnake is their namesake; they advertise their discontent to all by shaking their keratin tipped tails. They rattle.

We can only assume that both Mr. Coots’ and Mr. Wolford’s snakes were tired of being man-handled, their rattling had not worked to warn these odd, pale, loud, bouncing primates of the danger they faced, therefore each snake moved to their final option. Venom.

What happened next is not for the squeamish. Timber rattlesnake venom is difficult to pin down because there is quite a bit of variation within the species, but let’s assume that these particular reptiles had Type B venom. Type B is mostly hemotoxic and is a particularly nasty blend of enzymes, amino acids, and other bits and pieces which roll up to form a toxic saliva that practically melts bodily tissues (the one two punch of necrosis with coagulopathy). Cells are destroyed by the millions while at the same time the bodies’ normal ability to stop the melt-off by blog-clotting is dismantled. The body is liquefied.

So Mr. Wolford, being bitten in the thigh, must have been in excruciating pain. That is a huge muscle and the effects of high-speed necrosis on that much body tissue must have been nauseating.

According to a Washington Post account of Mr. Wolford’s incident, somewhere in the process of waiting for faith to save him – several hours after the bite – the reality of unbearable pain along with the visual and olfactory cacophony of decaying body tissue finally pushed the fiction of faith healing to the part of the brain that houses the Tooth Fairy. Someone made an emergency call to the Bluefield Regional Medical Center.

It would seem that even some snake handlers have a threshold of pain tolerance that once passed, eclipses Mark 16:17-18 with the reality and potential relief medical science. For Mr. Wolford that threshold was crossed too late. For Mr. Coots, medical treatment was refused. For both, reality, as it so often does, ignored what people hope is true. Each man died a senseless, faith-fueled, death.

“Darwin award” memes float around the internet when these types of things happen but frankly I don’t like those. First, they suggest that these snake-handling deaths somehow influence natural selection, which is biologically inaccurate and may inadvertently propagate a misunderstanding of what Darwinian natural selection actually is. But more than that, these are sad stories of religious delusion, with the only redeeming part being that at least these guys didn’t take innocent lives with them by way of grenade-laden vests or dynamite-packed car trunks. But make no mistake, the depths of their delusions ran no less deep.

There is nothing noble about these deaths. There is nothing commendable about this level of commitment to faith. All that happened here was that naturally non-aggressive, wonderfully complex, crotalus horridus were harassed by large mammals who should have known better. The snakes bit the mammals and as predicted, without medical treatment, the mammals died.

Reality doesn’t care what you believe.

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