Snake Salvation?

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National headlines were made this week when a snake-handling Pentecostal pastor, Jamie Coots, died of a rattlesnake bite after being bitten in a church service. Coots was a pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus' Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and was a star of the reality show "Snake Salvation," which aired on National Geographic.


While it seems unsurprising that a serpent-handling pastor might die of a snakebite, particularly since they tend refuse treatment for their bites, it is less so than it seems. Seemingly more surprising is that this was actually Coots's ninth rattlesnake bite. At the bottom of this seeming mystery is the fact that rattlesnakes rarely inject large doses of venom into non-prey like humans, and largely for this reason, even if left untreated rattlesnake bites carry nearly a 97.4% survival rate in humans. (This is a 1/40 chance of dying, which is extremely serious, and this rate is improved to 99.7% while other serious complications can be avoided with rapid medical treatment, so do not refuse medical treatment if bitten by a rattlesnake, obviously!) Coots's son identified that something about this bite was different than the others, and a good guess for that is the quantity of venom the snake injected into him.

While there's a salient point to make about the fact that the relevant Bible verse inspiring Coots and other snake-handling Pentecostal Christians, Mark 16:17-18, is considered apocryphal by the wide majority of Bible scholars, I am more interested in the role snake-handling plays in illegitimately bolstering the faith of believers in this fringe practice. Obviously, knowing that there is a 97.4% survival rate to a rattlesnake bite takes some of the faith-inducing mystery out of the situation, but what about less likely medical "miracles"?

One way we can analyze this question is by turning to the reasoning tool known as Bayes's theorem. This basic mathematical result about conditional probabilities allows us, among other things, to identify the effects of false positives in apparently miraculous cases like Pastor Coots's survival of eight venomous snakebites.

Because the chance of surviving a rattlesnake bite is so high, the miracle in this case already appears busted, but what if Coots had been bitten instead by the most venomous snake in the world, Australia's fearsome inland taipan, which packs an 80% untreated mortality rate. Would surviving this snakebite be a miracle? (Note: The African black mamba, the second most venomous snake in the world, because it more reliably injects fatal doses of venom, has an untreated mortality rate of very nearly 100%).

Let's make the assumption that miraculous healing is rare, but let's also be generous enough to suggest that it happens one out of a thousand times it is sought. We will also assume that a miracle is 100% effective at curing someone when it occurs.

With these values, we can use Bayes's theorem to calculate the probability that we have witnessed a miracle should someone like Coots survive an untreated bite from the inland taipan. Sparing the calculation, the result is a mere 0.5%. In other words, if a snake-handling preacher were to be bitten by the most venomous snake in the world and survives the encounter, for all the prayers and songs involved, to assume it was a miracle of faith would be to be wrong slightly more than 99.5% of the time. We should simply expect a lot of false positives when miracles are assumed to be rare events, and one in one thousand isn't even all that rare.

 

But Coots survived eight untreated rattlesnake bites. Isn't that something shocking enough to be considered miraculous? Not quite. He had nearly an 81% chance of surviving them, assuming independence of the circumstances in each bite. To have had a cumulative survival chance equal to a single bite from the inland taipan, Coots would have needed 61 rattlesnake bites. But even surviving that more venomous encounter would hardly have counted as a miracle.

 

We cannot underestimate the power of these displays, though. Though Coots was slightly more likely to survive any given rattlesnake bite than to throw a pair of dice and roll "boxcars" (six on both dice), he gave his congregation a very convincing appearance of dramatic evidence for his faith. These emotionally charged actions and displays will cement faith in those who see them, and they are therefore a clear call for basing our beliefs upon reasoned analysis.

James A. Lindsay, Ph.D.

Author God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges and Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly

Twitter: @GodDoesnt

Written By: James Lindsay
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41 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the insightful post.

    The following doesn’t detract from the main point of the post . . . but the probability of surviving a venomous snakebite is unlikely to be independent of the prior number of bites one has received.

    There will be an immune response to the venom, and the immune response will change with prior exposure. Whether the immune response makes one more sensitive (as to allergens) or less sensitive (as to chicken pox), I do not know.

    Perhaps readers more knowledgeable about the immune system could comment?

  2. There are two broad groups of venomous snakes, Viperidae, which includes rattlesnakes, and Elipidae, which includes the Australian Taipan and the other “wiggly twigs” in the bush. It is probably more true to describe the Indian King Cobra as related to the Australian tiger snake, than the other way round.

    Their venom works differently, Vipers by blood coagulation, and Elipads by neurotoxin causing muscle failure, particular of the diaphragm, hence suffocation.

    Their is a definite ability to build resistance to Elipad venom. The old vaccine, now superseded, was from an equine derived protein. The CSIRO (Oz Govt. scientific organization) maintained a herd of draught horses that were so conditioned to the toxin that they could shrug off a sterilized dose of tiger snake toxin sufficient to kill a very large number of unconditioned animals.

    The protein resulting was spun out of blood, and formed the basis of the anti-venine. It’s use was problematic as patients commonly incurred a violently allergic reaction to the equine protein sufficient sometimes to cause cardiac arrest.

    I once met a tiger snake collector at Lake George, when it had water in it, near Canberra who collected tiger snakes for CSIRO by simply picking them up and putting them in a sack. He claimed, over a beer, that he had been “Bitten maybe 80 times, and it still hurt like like hell” when it happened, but that was all the effect.

    The point about how much venom gets injected is very valid. A friend who was bitten by a big brown snake many years ago still suffers from a variety of ailments derived from the bite, and they will doubtless shorten his life. He survived because his dog took the most of it, and was killed outright. My friend, in remote bushland, was semi conscious for three days, describing it as the worst LSD trip he could imagine, and then woke up and walked out for 15 miles before he reached a road.

    I am not a snake expert by any means, but all keen hikers in Australia learn are wise to learn about them, and their habits.

  3. One wonders how many people who

    a. Understand Bayes’ theorem and conditional probabilities and

    b. are aware of survival rates from snake bites,

    would need to be convinced by the facts and analysis presented here- even assuming some were interested in the definition of a “miracle” .

    On the other hand, those who believe in miracles, in God’s/ Allah’s/ Jeovah’s etc…absolute power, etc… are most unlikely to be convinced-or to even listen .Their definition of a miracle would include their God deciding at a his discretion to change the laws of probability, have a snake’s venom being made more or less toxic depending on a number of parameters, including the state of sinfulness/saintliness of the victim-or even of his family and ancestors.

  4. Fundamentalists who believe in miracles usually don’t bother to learn about measuring probabilities or the classification of snakes or venoms (after all they are the ARKyologists snake kind of animal) Surviving a snake bite is “proof” of miracles, so god-did-it-all! – If the preacher dies, that is just one of the “mysterious ways”!

    Animal handling is a skill. For those who don’t know how to do it, and have no idea how to learn, it is amazing.

    .- – Which reminds me – our cat will need to be shut in a bedroom, as my son is going to a lengthy birthday party, and is leaving his large dog here this afternoon!

    • In reply to #5 by Alan4discussion:

      Fundamentalists who believe in miracles usually don’t bother to learn about measuring probabilities or the classification of snakes or venoms (after all they are the ARKyologists snake kind of animal) Surviving a snake bite is “proof” of miracles, so god-did-it-all! – If the preacher dies, that is…

      Good plan about your cat….I suggest you let the cat out of its prison at key moments of the day for a bit of cartoon action sequence and have your camera ready to film….chuckle ….I’m a cat lover too….honest !

      • In reply to #7 by Light Wave:

        In reply to #5 by Alan4discussion:

        Fundamentalists who believe in miracles usually don’t bother to learn about measuring probabilities or the classification of snakes or venoms (after all they are the ARKyologists snake kind of animal) Surviving a snake bite is “proof” of miracles, so god-did-it-a…

        Now here is a ritual that makes some sense, Cat-handling. Much safer than snakes and both parties enjoy it.

        • In reply to #10 by alf1200:

          In reply to #7 by Light Wave:

          In reply to #5 by Alan4discussion:

          Now here is a ritual that makes some sense, Cat-handling. Much safer than snakes and both parties enjoy it.

          you wanna come test your faith in that?

          • In reply to #17 by SaganTheCat:

            In reply to #10 by alf1200:

            In reply to #7 by Light Wave:

            In reply to #5 by Alan4discussion:

            Now here is a ritual that makes some sense, Cat-handling. Much safer than snakes and both parties enjoy it.

            you wanna come test your faith in that?

            I don’t have any. But I did take a course in Cat Juggling. (lots of bandages)…….

  5. Trusssssssst in meeee……as Kaa said in Jungle Book – If you believe your invincible !

    I would call this type of pseudo cult practice – Snake Bothering – a bit like whispering, but thousands of times more deadly….

    Leave the poor animals alone…you insane bunch of idiots…This Cult’s obsession with snakes…is certainly not reciprocated by the snakes who should be more protected by law…
    However its not just religious cults who bother animals…..even Aussie Steve Irwin who totally loved animals…but invaded their space a little too much and paid the inevitable price for his belief that he had some right to pounce on animals and wrestle them down just to show viewers ?

  6. I assume that the photo is of Coots. By the looks of him, he was already “poisoning” his body through obesity. Eventually, his habits would have killed him off in time. The snake just got to him earlier. Interesting how the religious overlook gluttony and bad personal habits and look for “evil” in something outside of themselves rather than looking at their own toxic ways. As sheepdog stated, snakes “most dangerous kind, the ones that talk to you.” Little do they know that they spew venom to others that they view as threatening. They lash out an bite “threatening” gay children, the rationalists, the pro-science and anyone else that crosses their path. When will they stop picking on snakes and recognize that they hold venom inside themselves.

  7. Yes just the infection one can get from the bite itself is sometimes severe and should be treated right away. Paul was bitten on the hand in Acts 28:4 and lived in another reference in the Bible. I once was sitting with a group of Church goers at Lubys for lunch once and one of the believers commented that as long as they prayed over there food it not only sanctified it but also made it healthy to eat. I made reference to the passage that said “some things only come by prayer and fasting” to try to incite them to rational thought of their statement they made toward ingesting greasy fried food without caution. The arrogance and zealous nature of Bible believers at times makes it near impossible to have any rational conversation.

  8. It’s very interesting that these fundamentalists select the handling serpents part of the passage rather than the drinking of deadly poisons from the relevant verse. As a chemist I’d be delighted to provide some of the heavy stuff to prove the validity of their belief.

    • In reply to #11 by littleleicesterfox:

      It’s very interesting that these fundamentalists select the handling serpents part of the passage rather than the drinking of deadly poisons from the relevant verse. As a chemist I’d be delighted to provide some of the heavy stuff to prove the validity of their belief.

      In fact they do drink poison. There is usually a mason jar of strychnine on the altar in case the spirit of god moves someone to test their faith in this manner as well.

  9. If someone feels the need to do this because of faith, I think they’re stupid, but it’s their faith … However, I would expect the government to step in and ban anyone under the age of 18 from attending any service with these cranks.

  10. Slithering along ~

    Lone Oak Baptist Church in Kentucky, is planning a ‘free steak dinner – gun giveaway’ to attract new members. Head dude admits it is a bait. Curious, seems there is no attempt to attract women.

    Perhaps this due to the culture. Keep in mind that Paducah KY, is situated smack in the middle of southern tri-state area Illinois/Indiana/Kentucky. i.e. “old school”, if you will.

    point people to Jesus

    lol, just follow your nose, folks.

  11. At the bottom of this seeming mystery is the fact that rattlesnakes rarely inject large doses of venom into non-prey like humans, and largely for this reason, even if left untreated rattlesnake bites carry nearly a 97.4% survival rate in humans.

    so Mark16: 17-18 is basically saying have faith in evolution?

  12. Jamie Coots ran an experiment that most people didn’t have the courage for. Sadly, the results disproved his thesis. Now I hope we can consider the matter closed, and nobody needs to repeat this experiment again.

  13. This article seems to just say be safe instead of sorry.
    But over-treatment occurs 39/40 times.
    1/40 it prevents death.
    Who are we to judge the 1/40 that turns fatal?
    I feel like maybe we should get off the pedestal and let people make their own choices. Free speech. Free decision. Instead of laughing to ourselves about the 1/40. The probability is stacked in the favor of non treatment is it not?
    Just food for thought for a fresh perspective. Think about it instead of attacking my thoughts now on top of their thought processes too. It’s just a vain attempt to make yourself feel logically superior. You’re not anyone to judge. None of you are. Just know that.

    • In reply to #22 by dean.fang:

      Just food for thought for a fresh perspective. Think about it instead of attacking my thoughts now on top of their thought processes too. It’s just a vain attempt to make yourself feel logically superior. You’re not anyone to judge. None of you are. Just know that.

      A strange somewhat aggressive argument. No one has attacked you, dean. Or are you afraid someone will appear to be “logically superior” to you? If someone presents an argument to me that is logically superior to mine, I accept it. That is what rationality is all about.

      • In reply to #23 by justinesaracen:

        In reply to #22 by dean.fang:

        Just food for thought for a fresh perspective. Think about it instead of attacking my thoughts now on top of their thought processes too. It’s just a vain attempt to make yourself feel logically superior. You’re not anyone to judge. None of you are. Just know that.

        A…Sorry I was just speaking from math perspective. Probability.

    • In reply to #22 by dean.fang:

      It’s just a vain attempt to make yourself feel logically superior.

      Nothing vain about it. It’s working fine, thank you. Do I feel logically superior to someone who invites venomous snakes to bite him? You bet I do, intellectually superior, too. And after looking at the photo of this corpulent ass, as ?ngKat did, I will add physically superior to the list as well.

      Where did you get your 40:1 ratio from, by the way? Even constrictors carry hepatitis and a raft of other very nasty bacterial infections. I would strongly advise you not to trust those numbers if confronted by any Australian snake (or venomous spider, we have them, too) that exceeds a Red Bellied Black snake in toxicity, and that is pretty much all the rest, or you will soon be one with Coots.

  14. God Bless ‘Em! As long as snake handling does not become mandatory for the general population, I encourage all Christians to take up the practice. But why fiddle with something as piddling as a garden variety N. American pit viper? I suggest Black Mambas for the snake handling crowd. Not only would they adequately put to test the Godly healing of snake venom, it would also satisfy all sorts of odd Freudian desires Southern Christians likely harbor.

  15. Why can’t somebody explain to these knuckle heads that the verses that they’re basing their faith on are not part of the original text of Mark? Many Bibles even have a disclaimer stating this. On the other hand if you’re stupid enough to play with a deadly snake, chances are you won’t listen to reason.

  16. Quoting something I saw previously regarding the preacher and the snake. “I’d like to feed that snake a couple of fat juicy mice to get the taste of dumbass out of it’s mouth” !!!

    • In reply to #31 by Keith McMullan:

      Quoting something I saw previously regarding the preacher and the snake. “I’d like to feed that snake a couple of fat juicy mice to get the taste of dumbass out of it’s mouth” !!!

      FANTASIMO! Perfect!

  17. Thank you for clearing up the meaning of “boxcars” when used to describe a dice roll in a craps game.

    I would love to know how the percentage of readers who were unaware of its meaning.

  18. No better example of the triumph of science over faith could exist. Poisonous serpents, we know from biological and zoological sciences, kill their prey by injecting poison into their system. The type of snakes used by these pastors are known to kill humans by biting them. Trusting an imaginary entity “up there” because of a verse from scripture — i.e. praying it is so — the pastor, an old Coot(s), took a chance he would not be bitten. He lost his bet. He died. Science prevailed. Science: 1, God: 0. End of story.

  19. Snake bite treatment? Most people think they must make a small bleeding cut over each fang mark and then suck for several minutes with a tourniquet in place between the bite and the heart if possible.
    Not true! Now, the official treatment is to put on a tourniquet and get to a hospital quickly where there may be an anti-venom available. If the bitten person is quick enough, he/she can yank the snake off by the tail before it can chew in more venom. Try not to get your heart beat up.

    • In reply to #36 by craig.gosling.944:

      Snake bite treatment? Most people think they must make a small bleeding cut over each fang mark and then suck for several minutes with a tourniquet in place between the bite and the heart if possible.
      Not true! Now, the official treatment is to put on a tourniquet and get to a hospital quickly where…

      The “cut and suck” has been disqualified for quite some time. Snakes to not inject neatly, like a trained nurse, and much of the venom
      load will be on the skin. If possibe, it should be washed off, as it is highly hygroscopic and can be absorbed through the skin. Peeing on it is one way, if no other method is immediately available. Yes I know ladies, sorry.

      Then a tourniquet, provided someone else can let it off periodically, don’t count on doing it yourself.

      If you have been bitten by any of the Australian Elipads, and you received a full dose, and there is no chance o getting to a hospital quickly, you really do have a problem.

  20. In reply to #20 by alf1200:

    In reply to #17 by SaganTheCat:

    In reply to #10 by alf1200:

    In reply to #7 by Light Wave:

    In reply to #5 by Alan4discussion:

    Now here is a ritual that makes some sense, Cat-handling. Much safer than snakes and both parties enjoy it.

    you wanna come test your faith in that?

    I don’t have any. But…

    I find it very telling that there’s nothing in the bible where god promisies cat handlers they won’t get hurt. even Mark had some idea of the odds

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