There be Spoilers Here: Durkheim, ‘Breaking Bad,’ and the Uncertainty of Religious Theory

Have you been watching ‘Breaking Bad’?

It had been six years since Professor Strenski and I had spoken.  Six years since I sat in the back of his Method and Theory course at UC Riverside, and since I had first read his Thinking about Religion.  I had recently decided to ‘apply myself,’ had returned to ‘academia,’ gotten lost on the way toward a very rewarding degree in Art History, and was, for the first time, learning about the varying methods and theories of religious study.  It was in that class where I first heard of Emile Durkheim.  As I would discover later, Professor Strenski’s style of teaching, the way he explained that particular Frenchman’s social theory, about his unified system of beliefs, his elementary forms, was different from the usual method.  Rather than merely prattle on about relative-to-sacred–this, and set-apart-that, Professor Strenski taught us about the man.  Biography was the key.  Knowing why Durkheim defined religion as he did, rather than just how, would give us a fuller understanding, a clearer focus, on the subtle elements binding his definition to his distinct worldview.  

The question of whether I had been watching ‘Breaking Bad’ had two parts: had I seen the most recent episode; and was I able to watch the show at all while living in Scotland?  My answer was in the affirmative—though I chose not to share with him the ‘quasi-legal’ means of my viewing.  He responded with an excited smile and we talked a moment about the writing, the plot points leading up to the finale, the inevitable demise of Walter White.

When I think back on it, one thing I truly enjoyed about Professor Strenski’s book—as well as his teaching style—was his ability to tangentially veer off topic while not losing complete track of the subject at hand.  Tangents, I have always felt, are the instructor’s greatest tool.  Not only do they assist in keeping the student’s attention, but as metaphor, paint the instruction in different hues than mere black and white.  For instance, when we look at the underlying components of Durkheim’s theory of religion, his idea about ‘God and Society,’ it becomes reducibly contextualized by means of the socially problematic milieu of his academic upbringing.  In his Thinking about Religion, Strenski emphasizes this influence by exploring the political backdrop against which Durkheim spent his “formative years:” a France sunk in national depression; the eastern départements of Alsace and Lorraine lost to the Prussians in the defeat of Napoleon III in 1871; a “national humiliation and desire for revenge;” all of this especially significant to a young secular Jew growing up on France’s eastern border with Imperial Germany.[1]  It is not difficult, then, to follow these sociological actions toward Durkheim’s equal and opposite reaction from “traditional religious loyalties” toward becoming a “truly religious devotee of France.”[2]  We see here the origins, the chemical elements combined to form in Durkheim’s theory a focus toward establishing a “secure and viable social order in modern France.”[3]  Society, social structure, sociability, all necessary components in establishing not just an identity, but a national dignity, a challenging cohesion of social and individual; these things were etched into Durkheim’s psyche as he wrote his notable texts, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).  

We focused our discussion on the writing, on the elegance and patience demonstrated in Vince Gilligan’s unwillingness to rush the narrative along.  How his use of music, of song lyrics, revealed a sort of meta-narrative.  Ours were isolated voices.  Upon hearing my colleague in the study of all things Atheism, Chris Cotter, would be doing an interview with the Professor who introduced me to Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Weber, et al. at the joint BASR/EASR in Liverpool, I insisted he pass along my regards.  More than that, Mr. Cotter ensured we’d have a few moments to catch up.  Having enjoyed the conference’s gala dinner, the Professor and I withdrew ourselves from the dining hall/college bar for a quiet space to recollect.  Once alone, I noticed our American accents no longer seemed so alien.  In our short discussion, even on ‘Breaking Bad,’ it was pleasurably refreshing to hear a similar accent, an analogous vernacular returned back to me.  We had created, in our brief chat concerning an American drama about a chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin, a sort of fusion of consciences: two Americans, in England, at a joint European and British conference on Religion, Migration, and Mutation enjoying a shared and direct experience, an isolated circle of ‘home.’  Our conversation turned to themes in the narrative.  He remarked about the ‘science’ in the show, the metaphor of Walter White referring to himself as Heisenberg, the oft-misunderstood principle about uncertainty.  We returned to whether ‘Heisenberg’ would die in the final episode.  Would all his scheming, his obsession with ‘taking care of his family,’ his murders and mayhem, actually pay off in the end?  Or, more likely, was this all leading to the only possible conclusion: his death, either by the cancer choking his lungs, or through the choices he had made in the last two years of his life?


Concerning Durkheim’s social theory of religion, Strenski demarcates two views: a reductionist and a non-reductionist reading.  The former reveals a rather clear reduction of the “object” of religion to society.  As a consequence, Durkheim believed that “religious experiences” were really just “misperceived experiences of social forces.”[4]  Thus, there is “no experience of God”—at least none that we could prove—but rather “shared and direct experiences of society,” the power of which “feels” like an experience of God.[5]  In the context of ‘identity,’ Strenski labels this reading as ‘D1’ for Durkheim no. 1.  ‘God≡Society.’[6]  Concerning causation, this equation concludes that the “underlying reality of religious experience,” and thus the “nature of God,” is society.  In contrast, the non-reductionist reading, a mirrored perspective of the first, flips the equation: ‘Society≡God.’  Durkheim no. 2 expresses “nothing less” than the idea that society has a “religious, or at the very least, spiritual, nature.”[7] 

Our conversation was brief, but cordial.  He was departing the conference early and I had at least two more bottles of wine to ingest.  Yet, all that evening, and into the hangover of the next day, I kept thinking about the implications of the subject of our chat.  Walter White—‘Heisenberg’—argued from the very beginning that chemistry was the study of change, not matter.  It was the study of growth and decay, of transformation, migration, mutation.  Even up to his almost perfectly composed death, Walter White believed he was actively involved in the physical study of change.  Cancer, chemotherapy, cooking, wealth, power, murder, and eventual termination.  These elements formed his social milieu, his split identity, his life’s continuing uncertainty.  If nothing else, I suppose my conversation with Professor Strenski further reminded me that uncertainty is indeed a universal principle.  The more we focus on and attempt to understand a thing (the position), the farther we get from actually making any sense of it (its momentum).  Durkheim witnessed this, and I believe we see it repeated over and over in the context of religious study.  As we think about religion, then think about thinking about religion, then so on and so forth, we engage in a trans-generational discourse, a social discussion that enigmatically matches the very theories we seek to understand.  We become, in that very process, aspects of those theories, especially in the ways we translate them, teach them to each other, engage in tangents.  The more we change, the more they change, the less certain an original meaning ever seems possible.  Perhaps, then, Durkheim was right.  Perhaps my shared and direct experience with Professor Strenski, two Americans abroad, discussing a culturally popular, and truly ‘American’ drama, formed some sort of experience of God.  Perhaps our experience is an ideal example, a tangent, on how one might explain Durkheim’s theory of equating society to God and vice versa. 

I’m not entirely certain.  Perhaps it’s best to think on it a bit more. 


  • Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion.  Malden: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, John A. Spaulding and George Simpsons, trans.  New york: Free Press, 1979
  • Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Carol Cosman, trans.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Werner Heisenberg. “On the Perceptual Content of Quantum Theoretical Kinematics and Mechanics.” Zeitschrift für Physik, Vol. 43 (1927): 172-198. English Translation by John A. Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek, eds. Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983: 62-84.
  • Vince Gilligan, Creator, Breaking Bad: Seasons 1-5, Produced by AMC.

[1] Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion (Malden: Blackwell, 2006), 290.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 295.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interestingly, the ‘≡’ symbol here denotes in physics, particularly in relation to an identity, a sense of equality.  See also Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 295.

[7] Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 296.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

Picture 118While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

By Travis Warren Cooper, Indiana University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Paul WIlliamson on Serpent Handling (3 June 2013)

In one melancholic and chilling scene in director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), leading man Brad Pitt’s rendition of the famous American outlaw sits outside his Missouri home. He holds snakes in his hand, both as an allusion to Jesse James’s revivalist family background and intertextual echo of earlier filmic portrayals of the outlaw’s capricious and violent personality.

The Jesse James of the historical record was not an Appalachian serpent-handling Pentecostal, of course. But Hollywood likes to blend its symbols, especially its religious ones, and tends to prefer homogenized provocation over denominational specification. In an earlier Revisionist Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Robert Duvall―an actor now known for his critical portrayals of charismatic religions in films such as The Apostle (1997)―stages a prophetic utterance to determine Northfield,

Minnesota as the next site of exploit. This revival-type soliloquy, along with the snake-handling allusion of the 2007 film, construes Jesse James in terms of both violent outlawry and religious extremism. If film is to any degree a barometer of cultural perceptions on a subject, both Pitt and Duvall’s scenes are commentaries on the close relationship between religion and violence. Serpent-handling is one visible face of these tensions.

A lightning-rod of controversy, serpent-handling is a contentious practice on multiple levels. As popular media attest, the ritual is a filmic symbol of North American religion. More specifically, it is an iconic metonym of U. S. Pentecostalism. Protestants live deeply material lives, as scholars have argued (McDannell, 1995), and some of them interact with prayer cloths, guitars, bottled anointing oils, thick hymnbooks, and worn family Bibles in densely intertwined networks of objects and quasi-objects of the Latourian sort (1993). In obedience to what they see as clear biblical mandate, snake-handling Pentecostals take up canebrake rattlers and copperheads—and on rare occasions, cottonmouths or diamondbacks—living objects that have the potential to strike and kill their bearers. Snakes are living agents and dangerous ritual objects.

That religion manifests in violence often finds itself made light of in pop cultural depictions, such as in Duvall’s expert mimicry of a Southern preacher’s drawl as he gives his pseudo-prophecy. Is this an uneasy laughter, a nervous chuckle, of sorts, that holds cultural anxieties at bay, and perhaps allows viewers to laugh off these ambivalences? Cultural depictions of serpent-handlers are often cynically comical in their accounts. Moe Szyslak, a character in The Simpsons, brandishes bandaged hands and refuses to join Homer’s new religion, saying, “I was born a snake handler, and I’ll die a snake handler.” More recently, comedian Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina in The Campaign (2012). In this irreverent parody of the American political system, Brady attempts to assuage the public’s concern that he is not really a Christian by joining a serpent-handling congregation. All this occurs after his political opponents shame him for not being able to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I have the power in me!” he exclaims, dancing in a group of other handlers at the front of a small church that brims with visibly ecstatic worshipers. “I could do this forever. These snakes love me.” Brady’s glee is short lived, though, as one of the snakes predictably strikes, sinking its fangs deep into his forearm. He rips it out, uttering a string of expletives. But even as his sight blurs and he breaks out in feverish sweats, Brady manages to turn the situation for political gain.

In terms of scholarly representation, however, comedies such as The Candidate and long-running favorites like The Simpsons simply get it wrong. While they evidence a cultural uneasiness with the practice, they do not accurately portray the marginalized group in focus. Comical films stereotype and homogenize fringe religious practices; scholarly study elucidates complex social and cultural minutiae. While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions. But this is just harmless slapstick comedy, one might claim. It would be all fun and games if it were not for the fact that cultural understandings—public opinion informed by (and informing) common stereotypes—often exhibit themselves at the legislative level.

According to one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Appalachian serpent-handlers, “legislatures and courts have had little real knowledge of serpent-handling churches and therefore have little basis on which to judge whether serpent handling is dangerous to others” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 214). In 1940, Kentucky passed the first law banning “intentional exposure to venomous reptiles” in religious gatherings. Tennessee and Virginia delivered bans of their own in 1947. North Carolina and Alabama followed suit in 1949 and 1950. Notably, North Carolina and Georgia have legislated even further by prohibiting the preaching of beliefs about snake handling, rather than simply banning the practice itself. “Thus in North Carolina and Georgia even preaching from Mark 16:17-18 could be interpreted as a violation of state law,” the authors lament. These sorts of state actions “not only infringe on religious practice but on the right to religious belief as well.” West Virginia, in 1963, passed a bill that made the handling of poisonous serpents a misdemeanor. Both Georgia and Alabama ratcheted up the legal consequences of serpent handling by bringing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony (Ibid., 208-217).

Two of Hood and Williamson’s arguments are that stereotypes influence legislation and legislation has tended to unconstitutionally limit the practices of snake handlers. Overall, Americans tend to resist approving of religions that might bring physical harm to its devotees. “It is implicit in a commonsense view that religion must be ‘good’ and should not condone rituals that can maim or kill. While this is a reasonable position, it also can be viewed as a prejudice. Why cannot religion legitimately endorse a practice that can maim or kill?” Ultimately, they argue that “despite the fact that serpent handlers are injured and killed, their faith may be both sincere and valid” (Ibid., 209). Stereotypes and prejudices against fringe religious groups like serpent-handlers do not realize the cultural specificity of the rituals, the meaning derived by participants from performance in it. To be certain, the authors do not shy from describing the violent nature of the practice. They go to disquietingly specific lengths, in fact, to describe the physical effects of snake bites and admit that increased handling of snakes actually increases rather than decreases the potentiality of attacks (Ibid., 87, 85).

Besides attempting to accurately document the rituals of their subjects, the authors contextualize and humanize the snake-handlers, putting faces on the people who engage in the rituals and find theological meaning from the practice—regardless if it is dangerous. Since the origins of U.S. Pentecostalism, they point out, there have been under a total of 100 documented fatalities due to serpent-handling rituals. In the interview, Williamson points out the irony that state governments feel the need to prohibit the religious practice while turning a blind eye to excessively dangerous sporting activities. Consider, for instance, that between 1931 and 2008 some 1,013 fatalities occurred due to athletic participation in the sport of (American) football (Mueller and Colgate, 2009), a (quasi-religious) ritual in its own right. Further, the authors examine stereotypes themselves, finding that when exposed to ethnographic data, critical outsiders actually softened their opinions and became more empathetic in their understandings of the handlers (Hood and Williamson 2008, 222). Practitioners do die from snake bites, but these deaths are uncommon exceptions. The snake-handling rituals, in terms of safety, are actually quite contained: “Experienced researchers know that church members and observers are not endangered by others who are handling serpents.” There is also “no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer” (Ibid., 214). Those who handle are consenting adults, to apply a term with heavy cultural baggage, and as little as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds. In short, Hood and Williamson find that serpent-handlers have largely been misrepresented in both cultural stereotypes as well as legal precedent. They intend their study to address some of these issues.

My response to Hood and Williamson’s theses is mixed. With Russell McCutcheon’s critic/caretaker binary echoing in my mind (2001), passages arguing that the faith of the handlers “may be both sincere and valid” through an application of Soren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 209) seem to me at first to step well beyond the qualifications of the scholar of religion. What place do scholars have in evaluation of the quality and sincerity of a group’s theological systems of belief and action? Further, are academics scholars or activists? Are we to study particular people groups or argue on behalf of and in support of them? At points the authors come across as explicit advocates or spokespersons for these marginalized Pentecostal churches. We would do wrong, however, to dismiss the work as it is the most sustained and nuanced study on the subject to-date. Have not subaltern studies scholars taught us that all academic writings are political acts, produced within privileged positions of power and prestige? Scholars, especially those studying living peoples, cannot ignore the fact that we have ethical obligations towards our subjects of study. For those of us who work with human subjects, pre-research training and approval through Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements are constant reminders of these obligations. As primarily an ethnographic work, Hood and Williamson’s study rightly falls under the category of critical ethnography as it assumes “an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain,” in anthropologist D. Soyini Madison’s words (2005, 5; emphasis original).

There are no easy solutions for these issues. Hood has gone as far as calling for those who have died from snake-bite related complication to be lauded for their willingness to follow biblical mandate (find the Washington Post article here). In response, other scholars have allowed for an empathetic respect, of sorts, but reject that lauding need occur. Still others argue that endorsement via lauding, respect, and empathy is a less relevant construct that should have little bearing on whether or not a scholar effectively understands a phenomenon. Toward the end of Brad Pitt’s scene, he turns the tables on viewers’ expectations. He discusses with the young Robert Ford how good the snakes taste fried, how he gives snakes the names of his enemies before he eats them. Then in one fell action he flattens the heads of the serpents across a table and decapitates them. If one doubts the allusion to the Pentecostal ritual, a woman vocalizes “Amazing Grace” in the background. The decapitated snakes writhe around the outlaw’s arm. This is only one possible interpretation of a symbolically polysemous scene, of course, but one cannot help but read into it one’s own theorizations. Is this not serpent-handling with a shocking twist, a bloodied reversal of viewer expectation? Pitt adds violence to violence as he underscores the controversial American ritual. Films of this sort obscure the ritual¾making it even more foreign and violent, so to say¾but as scholars of religion we must work to elucidate and understand it.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Picture 118Travis is an associate instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University (Bloomington) in religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His primary research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, materiality, cognition, gender, media, anthropology of film, and visual culture. Travis is an ethnographer by methodological trade. His published works include “Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior” (PentecoStudies 12.1 (2013): 83-105, and “‘Cooking with Gordon’: Food, Health, and the Elasticity of Evangelical Gender Roles (and Belt Sizes) on The 700 Club” (Religion & Gender 3.1 (2013): 107-123. He also writes informally about his academic work on his personal blog, “Mythology & Footnotes.”


  • Hood, Ralph W. and W. Paul Williamson. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Religion: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Mueller, Frederick O. and Bob Colgate. “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2012.” Unpublished paper, prepared for the American Football Coaches Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and The National Federation of State High School Association, 2013.