A snake-handling preacher who survived nine previous bites succumbed to his final, fatal bite in Kentucky in early February 2014. As CNN reported on February 18, “A Kentucky pastor who starred in a reality show about snake-handling in church has died—of a snakebite. Jamie Coots died Saturday evening after refusing to be treated, Middlesboro police said. On Snake Salvation, the ardent Pentecostal believer said that he believed that a passage in the Bible suggests poisonous snakebites will not harm believers as long as they are anointed by God.” Evangelical preachers like Coots not only handle venomous snakes but also engage in other dangerous activities such as drinking poison. They base their faith on Biblical verses in Mark 16: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Pastor Coots and his followers are Biblical literalists, believing that each and every word in the Bible is the true and inerrant word of God. This is a position that Bill Nye “The Science Guy” took creationist Ken Ham to task about during their January 2014 debate when Nye described the Bible as “verses translated into English over thirty centuries.” Even assuming that God wrote the Bible through men, all that copying and translating, Nye noted, leaves many opportunity for errors to creep into the verses. Thus the Mark 16 reference to snakes may simply be a metaphor, part of a well-known tradition of depicting Satan or evil in the form of serpents. Many evangelicals, however, take it literally. The premise behind snake handling is to demonstrate their faith, both to themselves and as an inspiration to others, by doing something dangerous. It just happens to be serpents because of a bible passage, but in theory the same ritual role could be fulfilled by drunk bullfighting or playing Russian roulette. Seeking medical attention for a snake bite is seen as a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal, a belief that can also be found in other religions including Christian Scientists and Scientologists. In many cases children have even died because their devout parents refused to take them to a doctor. Coots, though well-known because of his high-profile status on a popular television show, is far from alone in this practice. Though not common (and in fact illegal in many places), snake handling at evangelical events occurs on a regular basis. It’s not clear how many people have died from it—since official numbers are not kept and only high-profile deaths such as Coots are likely to make the news—but the victims likely number in the hundreds. Many wonder what effect Coots’s death will have on his followers. The most likely answer, surprisingly, is none. Their religious belief is what in logic is called non-falsifiable; that is, it can't be proven wrong or false. No matter the outcome of snake handling, it’s God’s will: if he gets bitten and dies, it’s fine because God called him home and it was his time to pass, and if he doesn’t get bit (or survives the bite) it’s because God protected him. It’s framed as win-win situation, so no matter the outcome it reinforces their religious beliefs. In fact it would be more surprising if Coots’s followers’ faith was shaken: After all, the whole point of serpent handling is about affirmation of faith; for them to lose faith because of what happened to him would be the ultimate betrayal. It’s not clear whether Jamie Coots’s son, Little Cody, will keep up the snake-handling tradition that killed his father, but it seems likely. In 2012 another well-known Pentecostal serpent handler, Mack Wolford, was killed in his West Virginia church after being fatally bitten by one of his snakes. Wolford’s father was also a snake handler, and he, also, was killed by a snake in 1983. Many greeted this news incredulously: Didn’t he learn a lesson from this? The answer is that of course he did; he just learned a lesson that’s different than most non-Evangelicals would take from this tragedy. Not that God wanted Wolford to die—and surely not that God doesn’t exist and left Wolford to his own devices when handling venomous snakes—but instead that Wolford’s faith was rewarded in heaven. While some have found dark humor in the irony of Coots’s death, the fact is that religious beliefs, like all other beliefs, have consequences. Coots, like religious zealots of all stripes, was willing to stake his life on the power of his faith, and he did. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Many believe that a mere glance or stare can cause harm (or even death) to others. My article on folklore the Evil Eye is now out! Everyone gets a dirty look now and then, and we usually think little of it (especially if we deserved it). For most of us it is soon shrugged off, but in many places belief in "the evil eye" is taken very seriously, and requires immediate action to avoid harm. The evil eye is a human look believed to cause harm to someone or something. The supernatural harm may come in the form of a minor misfortune, or more serious disease, injury — even death. Folklorist Alan Dundes, in his edited volume "The Evil Eye: A Casebook" notes that "the victim's good fortune, good health, or good looks — or unguarded comments about them — invite or provoke an attack by someone with the evil eye ... Symptoms of illness caused by the evil eye include loss of appetite, excessive yawning, hiccups, vomiting and fever. If the object attacked is a cow, its milk may dry up; if a plant or fruit tree, it may suddenly wither and die." You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Genies (or jinn, as they are better known in the Arabic world) are supernatural beings with roots in ancient Mesopotamian legends. Jinn, however, are not the lamp-dwelling, wish-granting benevolent servants that Westerners know from popular culture. The image that most Americans probably have of genies comes from the 1960s sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie" or the animated big blue Robin Williams-voiced wiseacre in Disney's "Aladdin." More recently, in the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel "American Gods," audiences have come to know a cab-driving jinn who switches identities with an Omani salesman named Salim. (Salim had recognized the jinn from a story told to him by his grandmother). Gaiman's magical, shape-shifting jinn is fictional, but belief in genies is widespread. In "Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar" (Counterpoint Books, 2011), researcher Robert Lebling noted that "Jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world's population.... They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible." (Lebling is also the creator of a Facebook page titled The Jinn Group, where members share jinn stories and lore.) You can read the rest of my LiveScience.com article HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Hey folks! The new episode of Squaring the Strange podcast is now out, and in it you can hear Pascual Romero and I in Part 2 of the series on Jamaican ghosts and folklore (this carving below is of a Jamaican "duppy"). Listen here! https://squaringthestrange.wordpress.com/ You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I recently stumbled across this photo on Twitter depicting an African Cultural Studies professor referencing my investigation into the skeptic-raping monster popobawa-- and my "Fortean Times" cover article on the topic... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
I got a Google Scholar alerting me that my research on African witchcraft and superstition belief is cited in a new academic book, "Witchcraft as a Social Diagnosis." Glad my work is helping to bring attention to the dangers and injustice of modern-day witch hunts!
My research on the famous Bell Witch ghost is referenced on the Wikipedia page about the case! Brian Dunning too!
Last month a group of witches claims to have cast a curse on the man whose light sentence for sexual assault has outraged many in social media. I'm quoted briefly giving my two cents in the HuffPo article HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
My new CFI blog is about a recent exchange I had with a woman who saw me on a TV show for my Rose Hall investigation and sought further information about ghosts there. It provides insight into flawed ghost hunting assumptions, and the practical difficulty of doing a thorough historical investigation into a specific question that ghost hunters often have... you can read it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Bought a used book on magic for my library, noticed the previous owner's attempt at writing a spell on the last page.... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Black cats and broken mirrors, my oh my! I'm quoted in a recent Yahoo News piece on the origins of various superstitions... you can read it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
From the Radford Files archives: Ali Sabat was condemned to die in early April. Sabat, the Lebanese host of a popular TV show, for years gave his viewers psychic advice and predictions. This may cost him his life. Many people around the world claim to foretell the future, talk to the dead, and do other amazing (if scientifically unproven) feats. The problem is that Sabat is a Shiite Muslim, and many Muslims—like many fundamentalist Christians—consider fortunetelling occult and therefore evil. Making a psychic prediction is seen as invoking diabolical forces, perhaps even entering into a pact with Satan. Fortunetelling, prophecy, and other forms of divination have been condemned by Saudi Arabia’s religious leaders. In 2008, while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Ali Sabat was arrested by that country's religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. His crime: sorcery. Yes, people can still be accused of practicing witchcraft and condemned to death for it in 2010. According to the human rights group Amnesty International, a court last month upheld Sabat's death sentence, with the judges deciding that "he deserved to be sentenced to death because he had practiced 'sorcery' publicly for several years before millions of viewers." He was scheduled to be publicly executed April 2, but his beheading was deferred. Sabat is not out of trouble; he did not receive a reprieve, merely a temporary stay of execution, and as of the writing his fate remains in question. In an ironic twist, Sabat might save his life if he confessed that his psychic predictions and powers were all a hoax (or an act merely for entertainment) and therefore not a true exhibition of occult powers. This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the June 2010 Skeptical Briefs newsletter. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
From the Radford Files archives: In March, the Vatican began an investigation into miracles and appearances of the Virgin Mary at the famous Medjugorje shrine in Bosnia. According to an Associated Press report, “An international commission of inquiry headed by Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini — a top adviser to the late Pope John Paul II — has been formed to study the case and report back to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican said in a statement.” The “Miracles of Medjugorje” date back to 1981, when six teenagers claimed they saw a vision of the Virgin Mary on a hill near their village (then part of Yugoslavia). As sunset approached, they claimed, they saw a veiled woman appear in the sky, surrounded by a blinding white light. The woman carried an infant in her arms and did not speak but instead gestured for them to come closer. The teens ran back to their village, but no one else saw the incident. The curious vision reappeared to the same group the following day, though this time she spoke, telling them what they all assumed: “I am the Blessed Virgin Mary.” After that, the same floating woman, child, and bright light appeared nearly every day for the next decade—each time only visible to the original group. The location changed often, and sometimes the Virgin Mary would tell the teens messages which they would then relay to local church authorities (and later to the huge crowds of devout followers gathered nearby). So how would the Vatican go about investigating this miracle? The same way it investigates anything else: interviewing eyewitness, possibly doing tests, looking for physical evidence, and so on. Joe Nickell, in his book Looking For a Miracle, notes that the local Bishop, Pavao Zanic, at first embraced the Marian visions but soon grew to doubt the teens’ story after he began investigating. “Zanic found grounds for doubting the authenticity of the apparitions, including numerous contradictions in the children’s stories.” In fact, at the conclusion of his investigation, Bishop Zanic stated quite unequivocally, “The phenomenon at Medjugorje will be the greatest shame of the Church in the twentieth century. Once can say that these are hallucinations, illusions, hypnosis or lies.” Perhaps due in part to Bishop Zanic’s earlier miracle investigation, the Vatican has yet to validate the Marian apparition or call the sightings a miracle. Still, more than 30 million people have visited the area in the past three decades despite its lack of official status—even as a shrine. Perhaps because of the continuing popularity of the site, the Vatican decided it was time to take another look at the “Miracles of Medjugorje.” This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the June 2010 Skeptical Briefs newsletter. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
From the Radford Files archives: A recent poll by Harris interactive found that 14 percent of Americans suspect that President Barack Obama may be the Antichrist. Nearly a quarter of Republicans, and 16 percent of Democrats, responded this way. Forty percent said they think Obama is a Socialist, and just under one-third believe he is Muslim. If the statistics are valid, the number of people who believe that Obama is the Antichrist is alarming. For many people—especially religious fundamentalists— "the Antichrist" is not a metaphor. It's not meant as a joke or hyperbole. They really, literally mean they believe that the President of the United States may either be evil incarnate (Satan), or the entity who fulfills Biblical prophecy as the adversary of Jesus Christ. Yet a close reading of the Bible reveals an interesting discrepancy: According to Scripture, the Antichrist will try to deceive the public by claiming to work on God's behalf. He will be a so-called wolf in sheep's clothing, a duplicitious man of God pretending to do God's work while instead furthering his own diabolical agenda. President Obama has never implicitly nor explicitly claimed to God's work. Though he has invoked God and religion on occasion, his presidency has been fairly secular. (Those people who believe that Obama is both a Muslim and the Antichrist have some mighty confused and contradictory theology.) George W. Bush, on the other hand, repeatedly invoked God during his presidency. He was quoted in The Faith of George W. Bush as saying "I've heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for President." Bush also said, "The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God who wants this conflict to erase his people's enemies before a new age begins," and that "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job." Of course George W. Bush is no more the Antichrist than Barack Obama is. Yet if what the Bible says about the Antichrist is true, Bush is a far more likely candidate than Obama. For the majority of Americans who are pretty sure that President Obama is neither a Muslim nor the Antichrist, it's easy to mock such outlandish beliefs. But beliefs have consequences; in early April, nine self-proclaimed paramilitary "Christian warriors" were arrested in Michigan. They had been preparing for a battle with the government—and, ultimately, perhaps the Antichrist. This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the June 2010 Skeptical Briefs newsletter. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
In a recent interview about exorcism and spiritual possession I had to keep reminding the interviewer that in many cases possession is a welcome experience done under the supervision of a witch doctor or houngan (in the case of voodoo). When Americans think of possession the kind they're most familiar with (thanks to novelist William Peter Blatty and filmmaker William Friedkin) is from Roman Catholic canon, but around the world possession is often sought out and seen as spiritually beneficial...
I was interviewed on the harm in magical thinking, including discussing my research into muti murders in Africa, in which albinos have been persecuted, attacked, and murdered because of the belief that their body parts are magical. It’s a topic I’ve written about and raised funds to help stop last month. Listeners can hear the show (titled "Magical Thinking: What's the Harm?") HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
I was recently a guest on the badass show 16Miles2Hell, talking about skepticism and investigations. You can hear the show HERE.
Police in Florida suggest that a triple murder in Pensacola late last month is connected to witches, Wiccans, and/or Satanists. My new article on why that's almost certainly false, with a discussion of previous crimes police wrongly attributed to Satanists or witches, is HERE.
A new study finds that self-described vampires are, not surprisingly, reluctant to disclose their sanguine ways to mental health professionals. My closer look at people who claim to be (and sometimes believe themselves to be) real-life vampires can be found HERE.
My look at the glib, pop culture idea of karma, and how the religious idea of karma is actually pretty cruel & horrific. You can read it HERE.
I recently read Candice Miller's book The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt's 1914 exploration of an unknown river in the Brazilian Amazon. It's a fascinating story of adventure, misadventure, murder, and more. In the book I also found an excellent real-life example of one of my favorite logical fallacies:post hoc ergo propter hoc, also called faulty causation.... You can find the article HERE.
My recent article on a horrific crime: a toddler with albinism in Africa was abducted and butchered for his body parts because of the widespread belief that they can be used for potent magic spells. Yes, belief in magic can sometimes be harmless--but it can also be deadly. Read more HERE.
My article for Discovery News on how the U.K. is using belief in black magic to stem sex trafficking in Africa is now up! I hope you find it as interesting as I do... It's good to see this sort of bottom-up culture-specific effort to end this scourge. You can read it HERE.
From a story I wrote in 2014: Dozens of environmentalists in Iceland have staged a high-profile protest against a road scheduled to cut through an area of volcanic rock because of elves... You can read the story HERE.
I was recently interviewed by UNM Prof. V.B. Price for New Mexico Mercury magazine, in which I talked about my new book Mysterious New Mexico, skepticism, and investigations. Who got upset by my book? Find out! The five-question interview is available online HERE.
A recent article in Forbes about cursed items mentions me... You can read it HERE.
My new CFI blog on the bizarre, misogynistic mess that is Disney's "Into the Woods." You can read it HERE.
I was recently interviewed on the Grand Dark Conspiracy Show about the folklore of vampires. You can listen HERE.
My recent article on why the Pope endorses evolution while at the same time reaffirming belief in demonic possession. He's got one foot in the 21st century and one foot in the Middle Ages. Here's why; you can read it HERE.
If you believe in ghosts, you're not alone. Cultures all around the world believe in spirits that survive death to live in another realm. In fact, ghosts are among the most widely believed of paranormal phenomena: Millions of people are interested in ghosts, and a 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses — and nearly half believe in ghosts. You can read the story HERE.
The Oujia board, also known as a witch board or spirit board, is simple and elegant. The board itself is printed with letters and numbers, while a roughly heart-shaped device called a planchette slides over the board. The game was created in the 1890s and sold to Hasbro in 1966. It began as a parlor game with no association with ghosts until much later, and today many people believe it can contact spirits... You can read my article HERE.
Yes, people are still being accused, tortured, and killed because of witchcraft accusations. It happened last week in East Africa when seven people died; my article on this horrible event, with some background on witch hunts, can be seen HERE.