Risible Nonsense

Having just finished Robert Bellah’s magisterial Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011), a book which sympathetically treats religion as social and ontological praxis, it was good to be reminded today that however beneficial such praxis can sometimes be (or however much sense it might theoretically make), sometimes religion isn’t sensible. In his review of a new book on medieval heresy and the Cathar crusade, Diarmaid Macculloch refers to this as “the almost limitless capacity of human beings to believe and internalize the most risible nonsense if it suits them.”

The first item was reported, without a hint of irony, last month in this story about a serpent handling Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia. What makes this story so incredible, other than the fact that the pastor was bitten and died, was that his father died in precisely the same manner and the pastor had watched the whole thing. Dad’s unintentional “do not do this” lesson apparently was not learned:

A “serpent-handling” West Virginia pastor died after his rattlesnake bit him during a church ritual, just as the man had apparently watched a snake kill his father years before. Pentecostal pastor Mark Wolford, 44, hosted an outdoor service at the Panther Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia Sunday, which he touted on his Facebook page prior to the event.

“I am looking for a great time this Sunday,” Wolford wrote May 22, according to the Washington Post. “It is going to be a homecoming like the old days. Good ‘ole raised in the holler or mountain ridge running, Holy Ghost-filled speaking-in-tongues sign believers.”

Robin Vanover, Wolford’s sister, told the Washington Post that 30 minutes into the outdoor service, Wolford passed around a poisonous timber rattlesnake, which eventually bit him. “He laid it on the ground,” Vanover said in the interview, “and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh.”

Vanover said Wolford was then transported to a family member’s home in Bluefield about 80 miles away to recover. But as the situation worsened, he was taken to a hospital where he later died.

Snake-handlers point to scripture as evidence that God calls them to engage in such a practice to show their faith in him. Mark 16:17-18 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.”

Wolford told the Washington Post magazine in 2011 that he is carrying on the tradition of his ancestors by engaging in snake handling. “Anybody can do it that believes it,” Wolford said. “Jesus said, ‘These signs shall follow them which believe.’ This is a sign to show people that God has the power.”

Wolford said he watched his own father die at the age of 39 after a rattlesnake bit him during a similar service. “He lived 10.5 hours,” Wolford told the Washington Post Magazine. “When he got bit, he said he wanted to die in the church. Three hours after he was bitten, his kidneys shut down. After a while, your heart stops. I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.

“I know it’s real; it is the power of God,” Wolford told the Washington Post Magazine last year. “If I didn’t do it, if I’d never gotten back involved, it’d be the same as denying the power and saying it was not real.”

Venomous snakes are in fact real. They have power. You just have to read the signs, which usually consists of tail rattling.

The second item comes from this story about a Jesus statue at a Catholic church in Mumbai that drips water from its feet (where the nail or stake was driven through) and which was being hailed as a miracle. The holy liquid was gathered by credulous pilgrims from far and wide, who were encouraged to drink it as a heavenly cure. The bishop and church encouraged this profitable enterprise.

Intrigued, the founder of India’s rationalist society decided to investigate. This is what he found:

I had a close look at a nearby washroom and the connected drainage system that passed underneath the concrete base of the cross. I removed some stones from the drain and found it was blocked. I touched the walls, the base, and the cross and took some photographs for documentation. It was very simple: Water from the washroom, which had been blocked in the clogged drainage system, had been transmitted via capillary action into the adjacent walls and the base of the cross as well as into the wooden cross itself. The water came out through a nail hole and ran down over the statue’s feet.

This was unwelcome news and the debunker, Sanal Edamuruku, is now being prosecuted by Catholic organizations for violating this chilling provision of the Indian Penal Code (Section 295A):

Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs: Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.
Edamuruku now faces three years in prison for diagnosing a plumbing problem. The Catholic authorities who encourage believers to drink sewage are immune.
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8 thoughts on “Risible Nonsense

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    The deceit hiding in such rants (the assumption made quite explicit by such notable intellects as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) is that by taking away their religion these individuals would suddenly become more sensible and that their action and choices would become more effective or productive.

  2. Cris Post author

    I wasn’t aware that there was any “rant” involved and there certainly isn’t any “deceit.” There is something about some kinds of religious beliefs that can lead to nonsensical behaviors. It’s sometimes hard for religious intellectuals to understand that folk beliefs don’t much resemble their own. These folk beliefs routinely inspire actions that are less than sensible, and why or how this occurs is worthy of serious consideration. My guess is that in the absence of certain beliefs, these people wouldn’t be handling timber rattlers as if they were pets, or drinking wastewater in the hope of a cure.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    But they would be doing things equally silly.
    Everything I have seen in human behavior suggests that a wide diversity of almost anything is routinely tried – if for no other reason than just to ‘see what happens’. It is simply a feature of our brains and probably leads to our ability to innovate – it is also across all human societies.

    These examples are cartoons, anecdotes suited for a believe-it-or-not. With seven billion odd people immersed in religion, some are sure to do some of their silly things in the name of religion. What should be more impressive is how little significance such silliness adds up to. Playing with poisonous snakes should earn one a Darwin Award, yet surprisingly generations of these ‘handlers’ keep procreating.
    You keep chanting risible as if it were a mantra to dispel demons (hence my caricature of it as a rant). While laughable, these antics are just noise in the picture of life. It is equally silly to hold these cartoons, this random noise up as representative of how religion motivates people.

  4. Cris Post author

    If “risible” were a chant similar to a mantra, I would have used the word more than once. I used it once, and it was a quote from one of the most respected historians of religion who writes today (MacCullough). You seem more than a bit defensive about the whole issue. Care to explain why?

    As for how often people do silly things with religious motivation, that’s an empirical question. While I don’t have any firm data, I’m quite confident this sort of stuff is not just inconsequential “noise.” It’s regular, widespread, and recurring. Having grown up in a highly religious environment and watched people do (and say) unbelievably bizarre things for many years, all in the name of their religion, I’m fairly confident of that. There are entire swaths of the US given over to this sort of thing. Only politics rivals religion in terms of motivation for dubious behaviors, which isn’t surprising given their structural and transcendental similarities.

  5. Cris Post author

    I don’t normally allow advertising on this site but this post will stay. How precious. The Aussie kids look like they are having fun. LeFevre wins the argument by advertising default.

  6. J. A. Le Fevre

    I suppose I’ll take that . . . with faint praise. Funny how our emotions work their way into our perceptions and our prose. Trying I was, to build a weak and limited yet convincing argument for a topic that doesn’t lend itself to well to limits.

  7. Cris Post author

    But did you look at the kids having fun at parties with venomous snakes? That should make you feel much better.

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