Earlier this week news began circulating about the death of yet another snake-handling preacher and my first response was to leave it alone. Christians hate being lumped together with the fringe outliers of their religion and at first I was happy to comply with their wishes. But yesterday the son of the deceased preacher announced that the very snake which killed his father will be making an appearance again in this week’s gathering. As anyone who knows anything about religious belief knows, this is par for the course. You can’t learn from your mistakes if your religion tells you that you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. Knowing this the way I do, I decided to write about this because, while their actions may look crazy to the rest of us, there’s an important lesson in this story that’s relevant for the saner members of the faith of my youth. This story accentuates something I desperately want my Christian friends and family to see about the nature of faith, of biblical authority, and of confirmation bias.
Most Christians will understandably want to distance themselves from these Appalachian oddities because they feel that these bizarre eccentricities don’t represent their own more reasonable faith. It feels irrelevant to them because they don’t identify with it. They would never do something as crazy as dancing around, brandishing venomous snakes. But these guys are just doing something in a really big way that I was taught as a Christian to do in a much smaller, but analogous way. I see here something that is detrimental to the psychological well-being and intellectual health of my friends and family, so I want to take this opportunity to say something about it. There are a number of ways that the death of a snake handler illustrates what’s wrong with the more socially respectable version of the faith which I inherited as a child.
First of all, you have to realize that these people only do this because the Bible says they should do it. The Bible tells them that if they “take up serpents” and “drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.” When confronted with the dangerous absurdity of this notion, most sane people find a way to dismiss this passage. The most educated way to do this is to note that the last twelve verses of the gospel of Mark aren’t original to the text. Even though this passage has been a part of the Bible for most of the church’s history, they follow the lead of those scholars who throw this passage out (a somewhat contradictory move for inerrantists) so they don’t have to worry about it. But there are two major problems with this: 1) Once you do that, you’ve also thrown out any appearance of a resurrected Jesus in this gospel. With this passage taken out, Mark’s gospel ends with three women “trembling and bewildered,” fleeing a vacant tomb without telling anyone anything “because they were afraid.” That’s a terribly unsatisfying place to end this story, particularly since most scholars agree that this gospel was likely the earliest of all of them. That presents some rather obvious problems, but you can go there if you want to. In fact, please do! Consider the likelihood that the earliest Easter tradition had no posthumous appearances of Jesus because those were only added later. 2) This isn’t the only place where the Bible leads its readers to believe they will be invincible to snakes. In Luke 10, Jesus tells his followers they’ll “tread on serpents and scorpions,” and the book of Acts tells a story in which Paul gets bitten by a viper and suffers no ill effects. Clearly this is an early Christian tradition and these Appalachian snake handlers are just following the Bible as best as they understand it.
Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Why would your tradition uphold practices like condemning homosexuality or prohibiting women from having authority over men but then turn around and fault these guys for obeying the Bible in ways that even more radically test their faith? And I know you can say “you’re not supposed to test God,” but sometimes you’re told that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. Besides, the biblical passage behind this deadly tradition speaks of deliberately “taking up serpents in your hands” and it groups this among other signs which are meant to validate the claims of Christianity. Nothing in this passage indicates that these words had an expiration date, as if they were only relevant to one time period or one group of people. Again, I say these people are only doing what the Bible says to do. Perhaps for you, this is one of the places where you simply choose not to follow the New Testament. Everybody has at least a handful of those whether they admit it or not (have you baptized anyone for the dead lately?). But be honest with yourself when those moments come. Don’t lie to yourself and pretend anyone can truly follow the teachings of either the Old Testament or the New without throwing out at least some of it.
Second, I want you to take a good, long, hard look at how the snake-handling tradition doesn’t die even when its most visible advocates do. In particular I want you to notice the relationship of belief to empirical observation. They are told they can handle snakes and they won’t be hurt. Then they get hurt. Then they do it again. Then they lose an arm. But they keep doing it! Then they finally die of a snake bite. So what do onlookers do? Even their own grieving children? They keep on snake handling. They’ll even bring back the exact same snake and use it again in the next week’s demonstration of their fearless faith. But WHY?! The answer is baffling but simple: They are taught that their beliefs and practices should remain unchanged even in the face of contrary evidence. That’s how religious belief works. People whose beliefs are more nuanced and harder to falsify will snicker and mock these country folk for not seeing how these deaths disprove their doctrinal stances. But again, they’re just doing in a bigger way what the rest of the faithful do in more subtle, socially respectable ways.
This topic has come up a lot lately because Peter Boghossian has shone a light on this particular facet of faith in his new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. He has caught a lot of heat for this because most Christians don’t appreciate being told that their beliefs are “without evidence.” To be fair, I’ve already explained why I don’t prefer that way of putting it myself, although the way I would put it may sound almost identical. There’s one key distinction. From my experience, evangelical faith requires believing irrespective of evidence. That speaks neither to the presence nor absence of evidence, which to my mind makes this formulation at least a little bit more accurate because most Christians would have a long list of evidences which persuade them to continue in their faith. Granted, the kind of things which satisfy most Christians are utterly unsatisfying to atheists (that’s why they’re atheists). But they do have evidences of sorts.
However, the Bible encourages believers to look beyond what they have seen thus far to expect even more than what they have already witnessed. Inherent in the notion of faith is an expectation that God will do things which go beyond what even past experience in itself can validate. That’s why the archetypal hero of biblical faith was a guy who believed he was to become the father of a large nation even though he was old and childless and his similarly old wife had never been able to bear children. Faith means believing things even when they seem contrary to what you see happening around you. That’s why it’s called faith. And that explains why the predictable deaths of snake-handling preachers never seem to kill the tradition. It’s because faith teaches you to believe things even when empirical observation suggests they are untrue. That’s what Paul meant when he said “we walk by faith, not by sight.”
The third and final thing I believe this story should cause us to see is that the Bible leads people to believe other things which, while usually less lethal, are just as untrue. I’ll give you two examples, and I’ll explain why the failure of these things to materialize won’t stop people from believing them,“come hell or high water.” I’ve talked about them before, but they bear repeating:
A) If you give money to God, you’ll get it back, and then some. I lead off with this one because the Bible so clearly tells its readers to put God to the test on this matter. It says that if you give of your material wealth to God (which in practical terms means giving to the budget of either a church or an authoritative individual) then you will not only receive that back, but you’ll get even more in return. This promise appears in both the Old and New Testaments, the latter by way of Jesus himself, followed by Paul as well. The Bible makes no pretenses about people doing this selflessly. It encourages them to give so that they’ll get even more in return. It’s meant to be both a positive reinforcer and a kind of evidence for the claims of the Judeo-Christian religions.But this doesn’t work. I’ve tried it. So have many, many others. But that doesn’t seem to impact most Christians’ belief that these promises are reliable. Just as the snake-handling people do after their preachers die, when this promise fails to materialize, believers draw from a massive arsenal of excuses to account for what happened: Maybe God is trying to teach them to be okay with not being compensated according to this promise. Maybe God doesn’t want them to be too materialistic (then why promise material gain in the first place?). Or maybe they misunderstood it and it doesn’t really say they’ll be compensated. Maybe if they read it in the Hebrew or in the Greek it won’t really say what it seems to say. If all other excuses fail, then somehow or another, “it just wasn’t his will.” In this way, this clear and unambiguous assurance cannot possibly count against the credibility of this belief system, because it just can’t. It’s not allowed. The system of belief must be protected and preserved at all costs.
Oh, but sometimes the money does come in! You take on a second shift, or perhaps work some overtime and guess what happens? Your income goes up! It must be God keeping his promise, right? Come on, people. Why do you play these games with yourself? If you get 40 hours’ pay for 40 hours’ work, that’s not miraculous provision. If you work overtime or vacations and get “time and a half,” that’s not miraculous provision, either. Nor is it necessarily miraculous if you voice your needs in front of a group of compassionate people and they choose to help you by giving to you. That’s people taking care of people, and it happens among the religious and the non-religious alike. At some point in this process, you become guilty of slothful induction. No matter how undeniably this promise seems to fail, you will not allow that realization to set in. You can’t, because your whole belief system might be threatened. You can see the snake handlers’ denial so clearly, but seeing your own is a different story.
B) If you pray for sick people to get healed, they will be healed. Not by doctors, not by medicine, and not by the normal functioning of the immune system. Miraculous healing. That’s what the Bible promises again and again and again. In fact, one of those instances in which Jesus promises miraculous healing for the sick occurs in the same passage as the snake-handling promise. They are side-by-side, both presented as signs of the legitimacy of the Christian message. But anyone who is honest with himself must admit that this usually doesn’t work, and when it does work, there are always other factors involved which contribute to the healing. Chemotherapy, perhaps, or medicine, or surgery. Sometimes even the normal functioning of the body will take care of things as big and as ugly as cancer. It happens both with and without prayer.
Studies have been done to try and establish an empirical basis for claiming that “prayer works,” but they always disappoint. In order to preserve the belief that closing your eyes and talking quietly to yourself makes things happen around you, you have to employ significant confirmation bias. You must write off all instances in which the desired effect didn’t come to pass (“God just had other plans”) and focus only on those moments when things went the way you asked for them to go. But hold on a second there. Do you not see what you are doing? You have arranged things in such a way that failure is impossible. This belief has been constructed in a way that makes it non-falsifiable. It cannot be proven wrong.
You got that job you wanted, right? Congratulations! Did you interview for it, and put your best foot forward? That’s great! But why then call this “an answer to prayer?” You made it happen by doing the things people do to make this happen. Does it matter to you at all that other people did the same things you did, and got their jobs, too, but didn’t pray at all? This is how confirmation bias works. If you automatically rule out all data which contradicts your hypothesis (in this case that “praying for things can make things happen”), then of course all you’re left with is positive results! If you also refuse to eliminate other relevant variables (like interviewing for the job, or taking the medicine, or working the extra shift, or telling the whole Sunday school class about how broke you are) then acquiring affirmative results is a piece of cake.
But these are mind games, folks. We are only fooling ourselves. We have rigged the game—stacked the deck—to insure that our belief system won’t be disturbed. It’s Human Psychology 101, really. But we need to move beyond these self-delusional tactics and start looking for things that more reliably lift us out of our own personal biases. It’s understandable that you want to distance yourself from these crazy snake handlers, and you shake your head at their obtuseness. But they’re just doing in a really big way what you were taught to do in a thousand more subtle and socially acceptable ways. They’re just doing what the Bible (and yes, their tradition’s reading of it) tells them to do. Tell me again how that’s different from what you do?
My Prayer Challenge
I’ve offered this challenge before, and I’ll do it again many more times. As a previous devotee to many different traditions of prayer (petitionary, intercessory, confessional, contemplative, prayer-reading, healing, adoration-confession-thanksgiving-supplication, etc), I’ve run the gamut of prayer approaches and experiences in my time. I sympathize with the desire to “take God at his word” about the various promises the Bible says he has made. But I also came to see that in order to maintain beliefs like these we construct an elaborate edifice of protective excuses and rationalizations to eliminate evidence which seems to undermine what we are told to believe. If you have any sincere interest in combatting the self-deluding power of these kinds of mind games, then please accept this challenge:
1) Pray the way Jesus taught you to pray—privately, where no one else can hear you do it. Quite the opposite of the public spectacle prayer has become for so many Evangelicals (and politicians hoping to earn their vote). I want you to see what happens when you don’t let other people know what your needs are. Are you willing to try that? For six months? Jesus told you to make your needs known to God in secret because, if he’s the one who will meet your needs, then he’s the only one who needs to hear what they are. This is one of the points at which rationalization sets in so that you tell yourself, “I wouldn’t want to deprive others of the joy of seeing how God answers people’s prayers.” Uh huh. So you don’t think he’s able to show them that in their own lives without you helping him? Do you even really believe the stuff you say you believe? I know that sounds harsh and critical but I say it sympathetically. I’ve been in that same position myself. But then I realized what I was doing, so I gave it up. Are you willing to be that honest with yourself?
2) Pray for things that only God can do and keep a written record of the results. You rig the game when you mainly pray for things that will likely happen anyway, even without prayer. I’m sure you’ll still pray for your children to get over their flu (thankfully, you’ll give them medicine for their symptoms anyway) and you’ll pray for your spouse to get that job promotion (which he or she will also work hard to earn). But I’d like to challenge you to keep a journal of “answered prayer” while only including those things which you know cannot happen through any way other than divine intervention. Why include anything else as evidence? If your goal is to truly demonstrate that your faith doesn’t rest on flimsy rationalizations and confirmation bias, then stop admitting weak evidence as exhibits in this case. Concretely track the outcome of prayers made in private for things which only God can do. Do this for six months. If you make it to the end of six months and still believe prayer has any relationship to what happens around you, I would like to see your journal. I will publish it here and admit it as relevant evidence for the reliability of the promises of the Bible.
I predict that long before the six months are up, most who attempt this will abandon the experiment because it’s not going the way they wanted it to go. Rationalizations will kick in soon:
- I didn’t believe hard enough.
- I must have doubted at least a little.
- My motives must have been wrong and that’s why God didn’t answer the prayers.
- We shouldn’t test God because that’s bad.
- Prayer should really be for other things, like fellowshipping with God instead of asking him to do things. God isn’t Santa Claus, after all.
Never mind how many times that Jesus himself tells you to do this very thing in no uncertain terms. If you take this as seriously as I’m suggesting, you will have to either abandon the experiment or else you will finish out the six months with a significantly different understanding of either prayer or biblical authority or God or all of the above.
Don’t be like the snake handlers. Don’t keep making excuses for all the moments your belief doesn’t actually match your experience. It’s not a healthy way to live. You may not handle snakes in church, but you may very well harbor your own tradition’s irrational notions just as faithfully, come hell or high water.