Snake-Handling, Vaccines & Science Denial

Yes, so social media was aglow and more than a little snarky and even downright cruel over the death of Rev. Jaime Coots, a snake-handling pastor from Kentucky. After refusing treatment for yet another snake bite, Coots died last week, but media folks and outsiders to this particular subculture are wrong to think that this event will do anything to deter this small Pentecostal subculture from continuing to practice snake handling and drink poison as a sign of their faith.

So what is going on here? Over the last few months, the Coots death, and a series of other events have made me re-think the notions that historically Pentecostals accepted medicine if they could sacralize the process first.  As long as Pentecostals made clear that they were not being unfaithful in seeking medical treatment, they’d take their medicine. By and large, Pentecostals accept medicine, from everything from chemo for cancer, prescriptions for chronic conditions, to flu shots. Lately, there is a backlash of sorts against even the most basic form of medical treatment.

The first and most well-known is the death of reality t.v. pastor Jamie Coots, who died last week rather than seek medical treatment for a snake bite.
I have no doubt that this subculture is viewed as extreme, radical, and unsafe for anyone who engages in such transgressive behavior. But, like most forms of transgressive behaviors that do not harm others and are engaged in by consenting adults, especially under the cover of religious freedom, that behavior is protected. Rev. Coots had a right not to seek treatment, he had a right to practice his faith, and even though there was a law prohiibiting the transportation of poisonous snakes in the state, Coots thwarted that law, the same way he refused treatment–because he was being faithful.

I have written elsewhere about the snake-handling subculture and how outsiders, horrified at the practice, often revert to berating the practitioners as “ignorant,” “extremists” who ought to be forced to accept medical treatment and the entirety of the snake-handling culture be criminalized.

Such laws will not deter these small churches, localized in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, who are often generations into their particular traditions that not only call for the “taking up of serpents,” but the drinking of poisons like strychnine.

Then we have the anti-vaccination campaigns of some involved with prosperity preacher, Kenneth Copeland’s church near Ft. Worth, Texas, that resulted in an outbreak of measles last summer. Copeland’s daughter, Terry Parsons Copeland at first denied being the source of the anti-vaccination campaign at the church, saying that she was only concerned because of the supposed link in vaccinations to autism, (from a now debunked study), but that was not all.
In an online sermon posted following the outbreak, Parsons and her husband urged parishioners to get vaccinated, unless “you’ve got this covered in your household by faith and it crosses your heart of faith, then don’t go do it.”

The Texas case resulted in a localized outbreak of measles. A potentially more deadly anti-vaccination campaign arose in Cameroon, where a previously polio-free Cameroon, recently started seeing outbreaks of the dreaded disease again. Seems that a Pentecostal church in Cameroon told their congregants not to accept the polio vaccine and rely instead on faith.

What Copeland and the Cameroonian church have in common is both are advocates of another Pentecostal subculture called the prosperity gospel. Basically, what those affiliated with Copeland’s church and the Cameroonian church did was place their faith into action–decrying the need for vaccines, when all one needed was their own verbal intonation of faith that would summon God’s protection from communicable diseases. Only, it did not work.

Some prosperity gospel advocates today are advocating what Pentecostals advocated in their early years, which was to reject allopathic medicine in favor of God’s ability to heal and and protect from sickness. After World War 2, a combination of seeking middle class respectability and the accessibility of common medications made it easier for Pentecostals to accommodate their beliefs about faith healing and medicine. Pentecostals took medicine, as long as it was clear that they were not abandoning their belief that prayer worked as well, and that God also ordained doctors to heal. But before medicine gained acceptance, even after, especially within these two subcultures–snake-handlers and prosperity gospel advocates, both have at times questioned and even abandoned the consensus belief among Pentecostals that medicine was one of God’s ways to heal. Why snake-handlers like Coots abandoned that consensus may be easier to explain than why prosperity gospel folks at Copeland’s church or the Cameroonians did?

Perhaps it is a part of the whole science denial ethos so prevalent in many quarters of conservative Christianity. If you do not have a theologically appropriate answer to how vaccines work, how snake venom acts as a necrotizing agent that eventually withers your body down to unworkable collapse, even the cosmological issues of how the sun stays in the sky (gravity). How vaccines work (building up tolerance to active agents), or even building tolerance to snake venom (eventually it wears you down)–are all under suspicion, because they come from non-sacralized sites of knowledge.

In a time and a social place today where some religious folks are again convinced that the end is near, (gay marriage, legalized pot, Barak Obama), where the signs of a imminent moral apocalypse are right around the corner; a way to demonstrate faith over the secular, over the medical profession, over science–is to proclaim that you are cashing out. Whatever social and cultural capital gains Pentecostals received over the last few decades, that may have been  too much to pay for respectability, so much so that some decided that was not worth it, and like Coots, and others who have refused treatment for themselves and on behalf of their children–they will pay with their lives, and the lives of their children.


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  • God’s Word is the ‘Verse. The one ‘Verse. The uni-Verse. The best method ever devised for reading the ‘Verse is science.

  • gimpi1

    Sadly, I guess this is a sort of Darwin Award situation. Those who refuse to accept “non-sacralized” scientific knowledge will suffer for it. Those who won’t be vaccinated will get measles. Those who won’t heed an evacuation order will drown. Those who won’t take the medicine they need may die. Annnd, you’re OUT of the gene pool!

    That may be part of the price of freedom. But you don’t get to take your kids along for your ride into unreality. That price is too high.

  • ucfengr

    I’m skeptical of the government/industry consensus on vaccine safety The industry would prefer to keep you focused on Jenny McCarthy (or Kenneth Copeland, apparently) rather than hear from people like Dr. Bernadette Healy (former director of the NIH) and Dr. Bob Sears (board certified pediactrician and author), among many others, who have also raised concerns about vaccine safety and dispute that the vaccine/autism link has been settled. They’d also prefer you not ask why the US kids are vaccinated 2-3 times more than most other 1st world nations with no measurable difference in life expectancy or infant mortality. They’d also probably not want you to wonder why vaccines injuries are covered under a special court where doctors and vaccine makers have no legal liability, damages are restricted and funded by a tax on the vaccines. If vaccines are safe, they should be able to survive in the same legal environment as every other medical procedure or product. That they don’t have to should raise questions from you “progressive” types.

    • Asemodeus

      That is quite a bit of gibberish you just spouted. Here, let me educate you.

      As for the courts…

      Claims filed for injuries caused by vaccination accounts for 1.8 per 1,000,000 doses administered. You would have to be struck by lightning 600 times in a row to get those same odds.

      Welcome to the real world. In the real world, everything has a risk to it, and you cannot account for every variable and every person in the world at once.

      • ucfengr

        I’m not sure a link to a long ad hominen attack on Dr. Healy really qualifies as “education”.

        Regarding the courts, every other medical device and procedure is covered under the same legal regime that every other product operates in, only vaccines have their own separate system. A system, I might add, where the manufactuerers and providers have zero legal liability, unlike every other product. If vaccines are no more inherently dangerous than any other medical product or procedure, why do they need a special legal system? If they aren’t as safe as advertised, why does the US insist on vaccinating children 2-3 times more often than nearly every other 1st world nation?

        • Asemodeus

          “I’m not sure a link to a long ad hominen attack on Dr. Healy really qualifies as “education”.”

          Calling out someone that cited fake studies from a fake organization is a statement of fact. I can see why this confuses you.

          “Regarding the courts, every other medical device and procedure is
          covered under the same legal regime that every other product operates
          in, only vaccines have their own separate system.”

          Because of crazy people such as yourself trying to game the court system with frivolous litigation.

          ” If they aren’t as safe as advertised, why does the US insist on
          vaccinating children 2-3 times more often than nearly every other 1st
          world nation?”

          Already refuted. Do you have a reading comprehension problem?

          • ucfengr

            The person you cite, David Gorski (aka Orac, aka Asmodeus?) is not an objective observer on vaccine safety. Given his financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry (Sanofi-Aventis in particular), paid shill is probably not too strong a term.

            I also note you dodged my question about the vaccine industry’s special legal system. If vaccines are as safe as every other medical product or procedure, they should be able to operate under the same rules. If they aren’t, parents should know so they can make informed decisions.

          • Sven2547

            The person you cite, David Gorski (aka Orac, aka Asmodeus?) is not an objective observer on vaccine safety. Given his financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry (Sanofi-Aventis in particular), paid shill is probably not too strong a term.

            For a person who gets upset over supposed ad hominem attacks, you resorted to one with breathtaking ease. You’ve offered nothing to discredit Orac’s facts, opting instead to draw insinuations about his character.

          • ucfengr

            Perhaps you should read the Gorski/Orac posts Asmodeus linked to. You’ll find them remarkably fact free, but loaded with ad hominem. Is pointing out that someone mostly resorts to ad hominem attacks itself an ad hominem attack?

          • Sven2547

            Yes, I did the reading. Far from being fact free, they both represent thoughtful, thorough exposés on the quackery of the anti-vax movement.

          • ucfengr

            “Quackery of the anti-vax movement” seems rather ad hominem itself. A more accurate, thoughtful expression would be “people concerned about vaccine safety”, but that’s much less easy to dismiss.

          • Sven2547

            people concerned about vaccine safety

            Spreading slanderous falsehoods isn’t “concern”, it’s quackery.

            Seatbelts are literally more dangerous than vaccines. But I don’t see a movement of “concerned” parents suggesting that kids shouldn’t buckle up. This is the level of unreasonableness we are talking about here.


          • ucfengr

            You’ve certainly got the talking points down. Are you another Gorski/Orac “nom de cyber”? He has many, you know.

          • Sven2547

            lol you can’t refute me, so you just suggest I must be Orac. You’ve got the ad hominem down to a science.