Favazza argues that such attitudes spring from secular concerns; that is, snake handling is an unconscious cultural response to political and economic marginalization. "They could foment revolution, hunker behind barricades like the Branch Davidians in Waco and await slaughter. They could sink into depression and whistle Dixie until they give up the ghost. They could seek the consolation of psychosis and imagine themselves gods." Instead, he says, they hold death in their hands and overcome it, proving they're just as good as rich people. Their solace, he says, is that when you live in the pits, at least you get to pick your own poison.
If snake handlers risk harm through Bible-inspired reptilian faith trials, some "self-mutilators" use the Bible as justification for more direct bodily intervention. "What we do with our bodies in great part determines the fate of our souls," Favazza says.
His previous book, Bodies Under Siege (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), is a landmark in the field. He wrote the book because so few of his colleagues sought to understand the nature of the problem. "Doctors and everybody were writing about how difficult it was to treat self-mutilators," he says. "I got in there and said, 'Hey guys, if it's difficult for you, imagine how difficult it is for them.' And so I started giving [self-mutilators] a voice." Favazza has since lectured on the topic at Harvard, Yale, and many other prestigious universities. He's also done related interviews on the Discovery Health Channel, National Geographic Television, and ABC's 20/20.
Perhaps not surprisingly, self-mutilators tend to take biblical passages to extremes, and with dire results. Favazza has, for example, consulted on more than a dozen cases of eye enucleation -- disturbed patients gouging out their own eyeballs. Most of these cases involved young convicts who had became psychotically depressed, a condition characterized by scrambled reasoning, hearing voices, and seeing visions. After reading the passage in the Bible -- sometimes the only reading material available in jail -- in which Jesus says, "if your hand offends you, cut it off, and if your eye offends you, pluck it out ..." some prisoners are spurred into action.
In a similar scenario, severely depressed or impressionable people may read biblical verses extolling the purity of eunuchs and castrate themselves. It turns out to be an old idea.
In his book, Favazza discusses in detail the Russian Skoptsi, a Christian sect that institutionalized castration in the 18th and 19th centuries. Initiates in the sect were castrated in an effort to return to the innocent and joyous days of Adam and Eve, whom the Skoptsi believed had no sexual organs. "Propagation [among Skoptsi] was impossible but the sect grew to 100,000 memberless members," Favazza writes.
The most common type of self-mutilators are "skin-cutters," people who hurt themselves because they find it reduces anxiety, depression and "depersonalization" (an unwelcome feeling of detachment from the self). When the symptoms return, so does the cutting. Such patients call to mind the passions of Christ, Favazza says, and are linked historically with self-flagellators. He says skin-cutting patients often hold the unarticulated notion that only through suffering will they heal themselves.
To help diagnose and treat self-mutilators and others suffering from biblical delusions, Favazza has come up with what he calls "a continuum of spiritual authenticity." It's essentially a system that ranks the healthiness of unconscious motivations and psychological biases that inform a particular religious belief system.
Contemplative monks and nuns, for example, score highly and thus would be positioned at the "authentic" pole. Participants in psycho-spiritual programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous rank in the middle, while adherents to other forms of popular spirituality -- subscribers to a "guardian angel newsletter" for example -- are positioned at the "inauthentic" end of the scale.
"Some people have this very childlike belief that guardian angels are out there to protect you," Favazza says. "In the Old Testament, when angels came to town, the best thing to do was run away because they might be getting ready to blow something up." He suggests that the proliferation in the marketplace of superficial readings of the Bible simply shows that skyrocketing rates of depression have left many people ripe for such sales pitches.