Understanding Snake Handlers through the Study of Culture, Cultural Relativism, and Ethnocentrism

In certain remote areas in Kentucky and Tennessee, one can find an unconventional religious service (Kimbrough, 2002).  In these small churches located in rural areas, pastors talk about the different interpretation of the New Testament verse holding that believers shall take up serpents but they will not die. This line is a well-known Bible verse for many Christians all over the world. However, while some worshippers consider it as a promise of supernatural protection in times of great need, others interpret it as a command. These men and women are called snake handlers because they treat snakes to prove their faith in God. It is not difficult to understand the source of the criticisms that is hurled against them. However, the application of principles gleaned from the study of culture, cultural relativism and cultural ethnocentrism can help people tone down the angry rhetoric, and to some extent learn to accept them.

Cultural Construct

It is imperative for people to realize that the snake handlers did not develop their belief system from scratch. In other words, the snake handling doctrine did not emerge from a vacuum. It is a byproduct of other belief systems and the collective experiences of the founding fathers, as well as the religious community in the said region. For instance, a popular definition of culture refers to “the intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development of an individual, group, or society” (Smith, 2001, p.23). Culture is also a way for outsiders to designate the entire way of life, activities, beliefs and customs of a people (Smith, 2001). Based on these two definitions, it is not prudent to judge the snake handlers.

The judgement of them is not sensible because their belief system is simply a side-product of the several social and cultural factors that shaped their communities. An overview of the snake handlers’ belief system will reveal that it is rooted in Christianity. It does not come as a surprise because they are citizens of a country that is pedominantly founded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. However, other forces shaped their belief system, and these social powers have nothing to do with the religion that was transmitted from one generation to the next. For example, most of the churches are located in areas where members are not affluent and did not come from highly educated families.

Cultural Relativism

Due to the fact that most of the churches attract a lot of low-income and uneducated people, the culture that evolved in these areas does not resemble Christian churches in other parts of the state. It is also important to point out that it is easier to capture snakes in these regions as compared to other places in the United States. Therefore, the combination of several factors resulted in the creation of a culture that is different from those that one can find in other American towns or cities.

An important lesson that one can glean from the study of cultural relativism is the moral and political claim that advocates tolerance of divergent cultural styles (Wilson & Keil, 2002). A practical application is the study of how Christians were persecuted in ancient Rome. They were fed to lions and suffered terribly owing to the  people who did not believe that it is beneficial to have a tolerant view of other belief systems. In the present time, Christianity is generally seen as a force for good. In the modern age, Christianity is the power standing behind outstanding charitable works such as orphanages, temporary shelters, educational scholarships, and various types of humanitarian aid all over the world.

Christianity evolved from humble beginnings in ancient Palestine to one of the most important religious movements in human history because somebody decided to tolerate the belief system of Christians living in ancient times. This does not mean that snake handlers must prove their future value to mankind. Their belief system must be respected due to the assuring the protection of other people with uncommon belief systems.. This blanket approval means that people will not live in fear because they are under the protection of the just and human society that values the importance of cultural relativism.

The Dangers of Ethnocentrism

A tolerant attitude towards snake handlers will ensure that people will never learn to develop an extreme form of ethnocentrism. By its very nature ethnocentrism is a dangerous game to play considering that it divides the world into two different groups, through the-us-versus-them mentality. It insists on the superiority of a person’s own culture and dismissing others as inferior.

The dangers of extreme ethnocentrism must be highlighted because it can lead to violence, instability, and a host of unlawful actions. The Holocaust is a terrible stain in human history. In the Holocaust, certain members of German society decided to label Jews as culturally inferior to the point that they deserve to die. As a result of that belief at least six million Jews were murdered because of a program designed to annihilate them. The same thing can be said of ethnic cleansing in many parts of the world.


There must be a tolerant view of snake handlers. People should respect them because of their cultural uniqueness. Lessons learned form cultural relativism would reveal that the snake handlers’ culture is a byproduct of several forces that are beyond the control of their members. It is therefore important to know how they developed their belief system rather than to judge them harshly. For example, the poverty of the region seems to indicate that their Bible preachers had no adequate training on how to interpret the Bible. Thus, instead of criticizing them, the more prudent approach is to work with them. If people are not happy with what they are doing it is much better to work with them rather than to oppress and persecute them. Ethnocentric behavior only produces conflict and will never contribute to a single resolution to help solve social problems.