Snakes Alive: Resituating the Moral in the Study of Religion

  • Robert A. Orsi


At the end of a compelling account of his two-year sojourn among snake-handling Christians in southern Appalachia, Dennis Covington, a Georgia-based reporter for the New York Times, describes the night he realized that he could not join the handlers, whom he had come to love and respect, in their faith. I want to borrow this instance of one man’s discovery of radical religious otherness—a discovery that led him to turn away in sorrow and disappointment from his friends—as an opening onto the question of what a renewed emphasis on moral inquiry might mean for the academic study of religion.


Religious Study Moral Inquiry Economic Campaign Poisonous Snake True Religion 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    The distinction here between precept and convention in the way moral orientations have informed the study of religion is borrowed from Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History (1975; reprint, LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1986), 311.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995).Google Scholar
  3. For a much more existentially challenging account of this culture, see David L. Kimbrough, Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 6.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 31, 85.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    See Murray G. Murphey, “On the Scientific Study of Religion in the United States, 1870–1980,” in Religion and Twentieth-Century American Intellectual Life, ed. Michael J. Lacey (Washington, D.C., and Cambridge: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Cambridge University Press, 1989), 136–7;Google Scholar
  7. and Robert M. Crunden, Ministers of Reform: The Progressives’ Achievement in American Civilization, 1889–1920 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 268, 270.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Sam Gill, “The Academic Study of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62 (Winter 1994): 969–70. Gill is here specifically criticizing the way “comparison” is understood in the discipline by some, but he clearly intends his remarks to have broader force.Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 241.Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    David L. Haberman, Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). I should note that David Haberman is a colleague of mine on the faculty of Indiana University and a friend.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Elizabeth A. Castelli 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert A. Orsi

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations