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.