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Saturday, 02 June 2012


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As she describes the situation, her question was answered by the pastor's wishes.

Of course, his wishes turned out to be fungible when his belief in death became stronger than his faith.

The curiosity is what might have happened had he been saved after requesting help. I think I know the answer, because I lean cynically.

I would have done the same, although not because of some photojournalists-are-neutral belief. People's beliefs should be respected as long as they do not adversely affect others, and in this case it is my belief that his dying was his own choice.

Live by faith, die by faith. A bit like the story of the man in caught in a flood with the faith that God was going to save him. A boat came by and offered a rescue but the the man declined because he was waiting for God's hand out of the situation. Man in the flood drowns and meets God in heaven. Man to God "I had faith, why didn't you rescue me?" God replies "I sent a boat. What more did you want?" When bitten by a snake get medical attention quick.

The problem is basically that Lauren put herself in that position. One should think about the potential pitfalls of such a venture to determine what "might happen" and whether one would be comfortable with those scenarios.

I know we cannot compare humans to animals, but as a photojournalist one is not necessarily responsible for controlling the action, but just reporting it. A National Geographic Photographer may want to intervene when a lion is at the kill, but they do not.

Since there was no direct involvement of the photographer, and the wishes of the pastor were followed, I don't think there is fault to be found - IMHO!

"He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences"

Thus far we in Australia fortunately seem to have escaped this religious fanaticism. Lauren Pond bringing them to attention as a photo journalist is doing her job.

I thought that American Christian fundamentalism had moved on from the world depicted by Flannery O'Connor.

A moral situation for sure. Unfortunately, she (Pond) must answer the question for herself. No one else, irregardless of authority, can say.

If the pastor was in control of his faculties calling paramedics might not have helped - he might have refused them.

It seems unlikely that her being there with a camera would have changed his attitude.

State law may say various other things.

I couldn't help LOLing when I read the part about this moron's father being killed by a poisonous snake too - guess I'm going to Hell.

To quote that Great American (Texan) Ron White: "You can't fix stupid!"

Ms. Pond need not fret about documenting his suicide. The more people who see her photographs, the better are chances that this Darwin Award candidate's actions will encourage shunning such absurdity.

The only negative revealed by reading her linked Washington Post article is that survivors included at least one offspring, a daughter. The gene pool is still at risk.

Only in America... Cheers Kevin

Mike wrote: "So in order to respect his beliefs in this situation, by standing off and not attempting to save his life, I am acknowledging that our beliefs are equivalent—i.e., I'm admitting the possibility that his belief might be correct and mine might be false."

I would look at it differently. By standing off and not attempting to save his life I am not necessarily admitting the possibiltiy that his belief might be correct; instead, I am acting on my own belief in personal autonomy.

Ms. Pond,

From experience in young deaths, guilt seems, unavoidable,and wrestle with it I might, it does no service to either the deceased nor the survivors, and in the case of Pastor Wolford, seems misplaced, as his death seems not tragic, but noble. Few of of us are given an opportunity to die for personal convictions and beliefs. Our beliefs and convictions are not relevant; Pastor Wolford has chosen his path, based on his beliefs, and I am in awe of that. Sadness, grief, but not guilt; you should feel honored to have been witness to such conviction, and glad at having been his friend, and through your empathetic photography, a supporter of those beliefs.

Mike, you said: "I am acknowledging that our beliefs are equivalent—i.e., I'm admitting the possibility that his belief might be correct and mine might be false."

No, I don't think that you'd be admitting that it's possible that the pastor's belief would be right and yours false. I think if I were to have been there to document such behavior, I would have to acknowledge that I may witness a death, and photograph it. That's why I am not a photojournalist.

I have little patience for foolhardy behavior, religious or otherwise. I rarely go up to Vernal and Nevada Falls because I can't stomach seeing the idiots who insist on standing on the edge.

Can I stop such behavior? Maybe. Can I save them when they've gone over the edge? No. I can at least let them be stupid, because their freedom is as valuable as mine. The only equivalence is their right to be stupid, and my right not to watch it.


I confess that I nearly stopped reading at the words in the second line “Pentecostal snake-handling sect”, because life is too short. I don’t know what it is about the great nation of the United States, but you have the ability to host some real wackos, some of whom like the Topeka Kansas Westboro Baptist Church are just plain nasty nasty nasty people. Maybe I answer my own conundrum - your nation is so great precisely because you have this level of tolerance.

(As an aside, do these people not ever stop to think that the Bible is a collection of hearsay, eventually transcribed into writings, then converted through many defunct languages before it gets into English? Maybe something gets lost in the translation - just a thought.... And I say that as a slightly delinquent Christian.)

On your substantive point, I think Lauren Pond is guilty of criminal neglect, and being part of a conspiracy. She calls herself a “photojournalist”, as though that gives her some immunity from being a part of real life. I have a difficulty with the concept of journalists (whether photo- or written) being completely detached documenters, with no moral compulsion to step in to the picture. What she should have done, very clearly, is to take a minute to call 911 and get the paramedics there. It seems that eventually the Pastor did consent to having assistance - if it had arrived earlier he might still be around today to either continue his showbusiness with the snakes (no doubt there is money and private profit involved), or even to reflect on the obvious insanity of handling dangerous animals because a small snippet of ancient text tells him that’s what is required.

Is Ms Pond serious? Or naive? Any PJ who did not envision such a scenario did not think it through.

If a war photographer is embedded with an enemy of the US Military there is a pretty good chance he\she knows that if the US military finds that enemy he\she is going to be taken out along with the enemy. Now if a PJ is documenting snake handlers and they are using poisonous snakes, expect a victim.
To answer her question, she played no role in this incident except as a documentarian, exactly what every PJ should do. Help was available had he wanted it.

This reminds me of a joke... Please bear with me, I realize it must appear to be in very bad taste to tell a joke in this context, but there is a sincere and serious reason for the "joke". That said, here goes:


A severe storm threatens a small town. The town is in a low-lying area and the predicted rainfall is so severe that the area is expected to flood. The whole town may even be washed away. The mayor orders an emergency evacuation of the town. As the residents flee to higher ground, the mayor sends police officers door-to-door to help those incapable of leaving on their own, and to persuade the holdouts to leave.

As the police go from door to door, they come upon an old man in his house. A strongly religious many, he tells them he does not fear the storm or the floods. He is confident God will protect him. The officers do their best to persuade him, but with other houses to check and the rain pouring down, they eventually leave.

The storm and the rain get worse, and the town begins to flood. Soon the water has risen 2-3 feet. The town's firefighters slog from house to house, with the help of inflatable dingies, looking anyone the police may have missed.

They come upon the old man, sitting on his dining table, as the ground floor of his house is under water. They try to convince him to lead, but again he says he does not fear the storm. His faith is strong, and he knows God will protect him from harm. As the water continues to rise, the firefighters are forced to leave.

A nearby river floods its banks and the water level rises quickly. Cars are swept away, and some ranch houses are fully submerged. The old man retreats from the rising water and moves to the second floor of his house.

Soon thereafter, a Coast Guard boat comes by. Spotting the old man with their search light, they try to get him to jump into their boat, but he refuses, shouting to them, "Go on, save yourselves! My Lord will save me, I have no fear. My faith is strong and he is mighty!" As the current strengthens, the Coast Guard is forced to leave.

Water from higher areas flows downhill into the town, and the water levels continue to rise rapidly. Soon the second floor of the old man's house is submerged and he is forced to climb onto the roof. He ties himself to the chimney to ride out the storm.

During a momentary break in the storm, the National Guard sends a helicopter to survey the damage in the area. Flying over the town, the pilot and co-pilot spot the old man on his roof. The hover and lower a rope ladder, shouting for him to climb up to safety. When he refuses, they tell him the break in the storm is only temporary, and the water levels will continue to rise. If he stays, he will surely be swept away and die.

The old man is undisturbed. "The Lord is mighty. He created the storm, he can save me. I have no fear. You will see...the Lord will provide for me." The National Guardsmen continue to try to persuade him, but the old man is resolute. As the storm begins to pick up again, the pilots are ordered to return to base for their safety.

As they ascend, they see a wave of cresting water headed for the old man. The wave rips his house from its foundation. It floats along for a while, then starts to tip and is submerged. The old man is thrown from the chimney and bobs along in the water, until he cannot fight the current any more and sinks below. Despite the storm and their orders, the National Guardsmen try to find the old man, but he doesn't resurface and drowns.

Following his death, the old man ascends to heaven. Having lived a pious life, he is admitted through the pearly gates. He immediately seeks and audience with God.

"My Lord, I do not understand. I have lived a good life. I obeyed your commandments and did my best to avoid sin and to follow your will. My faith was always strong and I was your willing servant. Yet in my hour of greatest need, you let me drown. Why didn't you save me?"

God rolls his eyes, throws up his arms and in exasperation responds, "You dunce! Who do you think sent the police, the firefighters, the Coast Guard and the National Guard?!?!?"


A long joke for a bad punch line, but it illustrates a serious point. Certain religious people seem to have a certain disconnect in their logic. They believe that God acts in all kinds of ways, and in other contexts they even believe that God acts through people, yet when it comes to certain matters, they believe that God's will can only be shown in the absence of human involvement.

If Ms. Pond has called the paramedics, is it really so implausible that she would have been acting as an instrument of God to save Mr. Wolford?

Best regards,

A friend told me recently that Mike Johnston does not exist. I disagreed and told him that while I respect his decision to deny the existence of Mike Johnston, I personally believe that Mike Johnston does exist and that Mike and I have developed an odd sort of relationship over the years. I explained how I have gotten to know Mike through his writings and have read many of his blog posts and essays, though not all. I can even contact Mike using email and he actually responds. I believe there is real person responding to my emails and that it truly is Mike Johnston. There are many others who believe in him as I do. I even hope to meet Mike in person one day.

what if it was god who had sent her (or a paramedic) to save him?

Stupid, exactly.

I agree with the people who support this person's right to believe what he believes, and that no one is responsible for his death simply because they witnessed it. I do think that cameras are not necessarily appropriate in profound experiences such as birth and death, which are sacred no matter what the circumstances. And I find pointless and overly righteous those who feel the need to judge this man's beliefs as moronic or worthy of the so-called Darwin award. The world is full of more than any of us will ever fully comprehend and calling things that don't make sense to you stupid is a limited perspective at best.

I think that the "do unto others..." concept was looked at with your other post on morality as well as this one. I can't remember where I heard it, or from whom, but I've always remembered "Do unto others as they want done unto them."

To paraphrase the movie Airplane!: "They bought their ticket, they knew what they were getting into, I say let 'em crash"

Now to the serious comment. I've often wondered how I would react documenting intense life or death moments. My logical brain says a journalist must remain distant and not become part of the story. My emotional mind says "How can you not do something!" I often think of Kevin Carter his iconic photo of the child in the Sudan. The photo which captured the suffering of that moment so horrifyingly clear. His job was to take the photograph, to tell the story, to not become part of the story. The photo brought the plight of the Sudanese people to the attention of millions. Unfortunately for Kevin, the horror of this an the other tragedies he witnessed took it's toll and he took his life.

The people in this story knew the risks, they chose to not believe in them. Lauren did the right thing as a journalist and a human being, even if she carries the guilt of doing that right thing around with her for long years to come. Journalists are there to observed and record, the only way to objectively capture the story is stay outside of it.

None of that will help her cope with the trauma of what she has seen, sadly.

One less fool to peddle noxious atavistic twaddle. Bye!

A compassionate response would be to prohibit exposing children and youngsters to sectarian / religious indoctrination. In the US apparently it is illegal to sell wine to minors, but it seems to be perfectly legal to preach dangerous rubbish to them.


This is interesting from a legal point of view - where I come from not giving help to a man whose life is in danger is a criminal offence... I'm not sure if this law makes an exception for photographers, but I think it does not.

Darwinism in action.

I find myself unwilling to pass any kind of ethical judgment or even to take a position, because this is so far out of my own world as to represent a distinct culture with its own form of morality. This man seemed to know what he was getting into, and did refuse medical attention, although it appears he changed his mind (lost his faith? came to his senses?) when it was too late. Maybe he just didn't want to look weak in front of his family.

I wonder if a parallel could be made to a mass religious suicide like the Heaven's Gate event. I think if I had been a photojournalist working with those people I might have called the police and paramedics. I certainly would have at Jonestown where children were involved.

Mike, I like your point about whether Pastor Wolford would have called the paramedics for Pond had she been bitten. Maybe he would have. We'll never know.

A point of pedantry...

The snake is not poisonous. It's venomous.

What if the believer were 10 or 11 years old? Would you respect their beliefs then?

Religion or no, culturally or objectively, I seriosuly question this gentleman's "competency". In any ordinary circumstance, the very fact of handling deadly snakes in this manner would be strong evidence arguing against the person being "compenet" to make life/death decisions about his or her medical care. But this fellow was an adult (even if his behavior indicated the belief system of a child), and the photographer should not be so hard on herself.

The more serious question, I think, concerns the thousands of nuts out there, like this guy, who are making such decisions for their children who are too young to know any better.

Well, I'm not religious, so to my mind the Pastor made two ill-formed decisions: firstly playing with poisonous snakes and secondly not seeking medical attention when he needed it.

I've haven't read Lauren Pond's article, but if she is a JW herself then she also made an ill-formed decision by not seeking medical attention. If she isn't a JW then she might need to re-consider her actions (or lack there-of).

Interestingly, in Australia at this very moment the press is reporting the story of a young girl dying from leukemia. Her parent's are JW and don't want a blood transfusion, whereas the doctors are arguing that a BT would likely save her life. A Supreme Court judge has ruled in the doctor's favour.

If one Believes in a GOD,which I do not, I would easily agree with MJ in that he provides paramedics for just such events.

Belief is what we often cling to even in the face of contrary evidence, in this man's case the death of his own father under the same circumstances. Fundamentalists insist on treating ancient writings as both God given and literal but the people who wrote them were heavily inclined to metaphor and story telling as a way of communicating ideas. It is a sad tale but it did unfold according to the pastor's choice, not hers.

I don't know about a rush to judgement here - people are entitled to their beliefs, and as long as they're not hurting anyone, whose business is it? Mr Wolford knew what he believed, and what he was doing, and had made a lifelong commitment to it. As an atheist, there are several religious movements and practices which bother me a whole bunch more than snake handling. And as a snake handler, you wouldn't really be demonstrating the conviction on which your faith was built if there was a syringe full of anti venom nearby, would you? As to Ms Pond, she found herself in an (even in retrospect) unenviable position.

There was a case here in Australia where the hospital took the parents of a patient to court in order to give her a life saving blood transfusion (they were Jehovah's Witnesses). @Michael Sebastian, in your featured comment: I tip my hat to you.


Regards, Pak

That only confirms the fact that if prayer worked we wouldn't need medicine.


I read your reply to Michael Sebastian's comment with interest.

'Doing unto others what I would want others to do to me.' is a dangerous doctrine, in my view.

Everything that I might want done to me, I should do or it is OK to do to others?

Really? How about masochistic torture?

I prefer, Hillel's 'Do not do unto others what you would not want to be done to you.'

That is an open system and tells us that we have to get on and examine the world and decide what is OK to be done to others.

If I were in Lauren Pond's position, I would call a medic. If not, then I might as well shut off the whole world and just walk on by.

I don't think it is judgemental of me to help - judgements do not come into it.

Someone is dying who could be saved and made well; call a medic.

As an atheist, I feel compelled to say "jeeeeeezus." Surely there are less lethal aspects of the bible to concentrate on? There must be something about fiddling about with oxen. I know there's plenty of stuff about 100 year old geezers getting it on with their daughters while drunk in th Old testament. Do they do that too?

"Only in America... Cheers Kevin"

Actually no...there are literally thousands of bizarre cults in all the nations of the world. Compared to things like gas bombing subways and genital mutilation this is downright sane.

Being bitten by the snake is supposed to indicate a loss of faith...middle aged men should avoid this occupation as we tend to have lost faith in most things by the age of 40.

These behaviors should be docented for what they are: the aberrant behavior of a tiny, tiny minority.

Or wait, do I reconsider my last comment. Put it up against the photos of the guys coming back dead from Afghanistan. Mostly they chose to do so because they believed in it. Their belief would often cause the deaths of others, women and children even in another country, which the snake dude didn't. One guy gets respect, another is laughed at and called a moron. It's just attitude isn't it? The attitude of the rest of us. Could be there's a universe where snake handling is respected and invading other countries isn't. The photog has just gotta shoot it and keep on shooting.

Isn't that basically the same question as whether to honor “do not resuscitate” requests, which are now in the news in the UK?

See, e.g., NHS ‘too quick to resuscitate acutely ill people’ from BBC News and Acutely ill patients prevented from dying with dignity in hospital in The Guardian.

How come we can refuse treatment when we are dying of an immediately treatable cause whereas if we have a long drawn out and incurable disease we cannot choose assisted suicide?


Pond didn't make any a priori commitment not to call paramedics--even if there is no "Good Samaritan" law in the USA.

She writes "Was it right for me to remain in the background taking pictures, as I did, and not seek medical attention for the dying pastor."

I imagine most people would consider this man's behavior some form of mental illness. When people threaten suicide the proper response is to call for help.

Whatever his beliefs she has lost her own humanity. One doesn't let the mentally ill die a slow death while pointing a camera at them and clicking away.

I suffer from manic depression (as did my father) and although my disease has brought me to the edge of suicide very good people have stepped in to save me. They didn't get out their cameras.

And this is going to end up in some photography book or exhibition?

Great! Gets 'em out of the gene pool. Serious contender for a Darwin Award.

Every time I think about it I am not surprised and surprised how many people in the USA believe the old and new testaments are to be taken entirely literally and that in no way evolution was part of how the billion life forms on the planet came to be. And that some clergy's interpretation of a few lines a few centuries ago must be absolutely infallible, to the point of putting your life at high risk repeatedly as a sign of the strength of your faith.

When someone forwarded me a link to the reporting on Randall's death a few days ago (because I frequent WV, I think), one of the first things to come to mind was Jennifer Baichwal's documentary about Shelby Adams, "The True Meaning of Pictures":


The dcoumentary is even more relevant after reading about Lauren Pond's experiences.

I fully expect the Pastor's family to sue Ms Pond for failing to get medical assistance for their obviously dying relative. They were prevented from doing so by their religious beliefs whereas Ms Pond had no such impediment!

Ok, I don't think Lauren needs to worry about this very much, mourn the loss of a friend and get on with it.

This guy saw himself as a symbol for what he and his followers believed in, someone bigger than the actual message..

The hugest question,..Why haven't these people learned to learn from their experiences and the observations they make with regard to other peoples experiences?

The Dad got bitten by a snake, the Son got bitten by a snake..neither were saved by a god. K? So lets find another guy who's willing to entertain us on Sunday with snake tricks and foaming at the mouth. Who's up for this?..Maybe the Son's son will step up..Sundays are boring now.

Lesson learned..

a) snakes are mean
b) snakes are not mean but will bite you when you piss them off by picking them up
c)Snakes have stage fright
d) God was watching reruns of 30 Rock and couldn't be bothered with another "save" because he finally realized Tina Fey's brilliance as a CREATOR.

When I was young, my family spent summers in a small town in Michigan because that is where my Dad's work took him every summer. we'd leave Chicago and live in this town for 3 months..My folks would take us to church in this town. We wore very casual clothing to church, jeans, gym shoes and a half decent shirt..One Sunday, the priest made my family the subject of his sermon..clothing and hair. We knew he was talking about us and everyone else did too..they glanced over at us with these pathetic, knowing looks. the Priest looked right at us while he spewed

That's when I knew this whole thing was a sham and I was, like, 11 years old. If God had access to some badass Converse All Stars, he'd have been wearing them..I knew that for a fact.

"A point of pedantry... The snake is not poisonous. It's venomous."

Thanks. Fixed.


I'm disgusted by several of the comments taking delight in this death. You can think what you like about Wolford's beliefs; I certainly don't share them. But a man has died in great pain, he's left behind a grieving family, including a child. Regardless of how misguided or foolish his belief system, this is not a humorous outcome. Even though self-inflicted, it's a tragedy, not a comedy.

I hope the snake wasn't killed afterwards.

I wouldn't assume the pastor was a competent adult. One has to grant significance to rationalizations sourced in religious delusion to think such a "man of conviction" is something besides an ignorant fool acting in a way that could bring harm to himself and possibly to others.

He's not elegible for a Darwin, as he had already reproduced. And judging from his own father's fate, his insanity will be inherited by his children. And make no mistake, faith of that sort is nothing short of insanity. I seriously doubt that the Pope would refuse treatment for a snake bite.

One of the reasons I'd make a lousy photo-journalist is that I would never stand by and not aid in anything, I hope, at least...

I've read a few stories over the years about photographers who dropped their cameras, and maybe lost the Pulitzer, because they knew they had to step up, but these stories are far more rare than they should be...the ones who didn't, are maybe defensible by modern ethical standards, but...well...

This is all highly ironic when one considers that if one has, say, cancer and wants to end their life with dignity, most physicians would not help you and most churches would consider such a request to be a mortal sin. I would be very interested to hear the position of The House of the Lord Jesus with regard to assisted suicide to ease unremitting medical pain. I daresay they are against it.

As long as one dresses up the issue as one of religious freedom, however, everyone will be afraid not to be acting like civil libertarians. Religion really does 'poison' everything.

Now I feel guilty that I haven't spent time trying to document the deaths of people that routinely take outrageous (IMO) risks. Had I done so, and drawn enough attention to the potential fatal outcome of these risky practices, I might have helped discouraged others from taking the same risks.

Since nobody has brought up the other standard joke that fits this situation...Suppose you were photographing a young child playing on a pier, and they strayed too near the edge and fell in. You've got just the right angle for a Pullitzer prize-winning photo, so basically you have to choose between taking that photo and saving the child. What focal length would you use?

(Originally was about film speed, but somehow that version doesn't work quite as well any more.)

I'm not a pro photojournalist, but it seems obvious to me that when you, as a photojournalist or reporter, go and ask for access to private events, you're taking on some responsibilities, and that one of them is putting your own judgments largely in abeyance (not acting on them) while you're a guest of others. It's the tradeoff for getting the information and making it available to others (as several people have already said).

Everybody no doubt has a breaking point -- where their beliefs and values conflict so strongly with the beliefs and values of their hosts that they just can't stand it any more. No doubt for most of us this comes far sooner when the situation involves somebody disadvantaged or not granted full autonomy in the host culture (children being the obvious case).

In this particular case, we're talking about a mature adult who is a leader in the host culture; I don't see any reasonable argument that he's not freely making his own choices as much as any other human being.

This may be easier for me because I think his choice is deeply stupid, and that his dying helps show that to those around him, possibly giving them a chance to learn better.

(The joke I opened with is clearly intended to show the photojournalist being too involved in making images; the fact that the victim is a child, and that the event is an accident, and that nobody else is around, are all relevant to that. At that point any human being has a duty to put priority on rescuing the child, not taking pictures. Although jumping into the water yourself if you can't swim is not a good choice; rule one for emergency responders is not to become another victim.)

This seems like an inevitable conclusion. The photographer should have been prepared for this and maybe she thought she was. Being confronted with a difficult death can make you re-think things though.

This man made a choice long ago on how to address this very situation as well as all health issues. He's probably stood in the photographers place on several occasions as well. In the heat of the moment she could have made the call to the paramedics and if their care was refused, you then have to wonder if they were needed elsewhere. He made the call and she respected it. In those times when he was a bystander, I wonder if a call to the paramedics was an option.

This really was a decision that needed to be made quickly. Being bitten on the thigh by a viper requires immediate help. The blood flow in that part of the body would require anti-venom be administered ASAP. Refusing immediate help probably sealed the deal. As a hiker I'm well aware that I would need an airlift and 40 - 100K for anti-venom if I were bit.

To commenter JB: You said "Whatever his beliefs she has lost her own humanity."

If you believe humanity is something you can lose, not yet. She's questioning her decisions to continue shooting. That indicates she hasn't lost her humanity.

I'm not convinced you can lose your humanity. Even brain-dead patients have rights, are considered human. Just as the severely retarded are considered human, people like Hitler and Ted Kazinski are likewise human beings. Granted, there are monstrous human beings, but human beings none the less.

Humanity is a spectrum, and it includes saints and monsters. Pond is human, and one of the better ones for publicly questioning the ethics of her actions/inactions.

As a species, human beings do not fall somewhere between the angels and the apes: We fill the entire spectrum, and sometimes go beyond both limits.

Just sayin'.

"If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."
~ Voltaire

Personally, I would have had the cellphone in hand ready to call 911 as soon as the Pastor's pain became unbearable for me to continue witnessing.

On the other hand:

Ms. Pond - please stop the hand wringing and the self pity. The Pastor lived and died as he wished. I only hope his wife and kids can forgive him.

Adam, an instrument of G-d? Whose G-d are we talking about.

David, maybe father and son were both saved by their G-d. Had they lived, perhaps both would have committed far greater sins. Maybe their deaths happened as they were supposed to happen.

That's why I prefer photographing births rather than deaths...



Surely it could be argued that it could have been God's Will to save this man by someone getting help from a paramedic?
There's too many combinations possible to be definitive over it, but having a paramedic 'there' when help was finally called for may have led to a different outcome ?

But I would never say Lauren's decision was wrong, as she repected what she had been told.

For me though, I always feel it is better to err on the safe side.

Dear Folks,

Regarding some of the comments I'm reading...

I'm a fervent anti-militarist. So, when Mike writes some Memorial Day column or other piece respecting soldiers and vets, would it be appropriate if I posted a comment to the effect, "Good riddance, the gene pool is better off without such murderous fools; they brought it on their own heads by their idiot beliefs and behaviors?"

I don't mean as a free speech issue, but an emotional level? As a matter of sensibilities and sensitivities, with consideration to others, in the light of real people who have died real deaths. Would that be an appropriate post?

pax / Ctein

I think at this point I'd have thought "F**k this sh*t, I'm calling an ambulance!" I don't see why beliefs which are, on the whole, completely insane (and this applies especially to the whole Jehovah's Witness blood transfusion crap) should be respected any more than th e belief of the nutjob on the corner that Venusians are beaming stuff into his head.

Freedom includes the right to make mistakes.
Once you over-ride that, and thereby diminish another's freedom, you've removed the ethical basis for having your own freedom respected.
She did the right thing, and should be told so.
Aside from the intrinsic value of freedom, it works. Societies based on freedom simply do better, in human terms as well as economically.

OED's first defintion of "poisonous" with selected quotations from the entry

1. Containing, or of the nature of, poison; having the properties of a poison; venomous.

1665 R. Howard & Dryden Indian-queen iii, in R. Howard Four New Plays 156 Yet we destroy the poisonous Vipers young.

1789 W. Paterson Narr. Four Journeys Country of Hottentots 163 The Kouse Band, or Garter Snake, is another of the poisonous reptiles of that country.

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.
   —Bertrand Russell

That's my opinion, and it might be Ms Pond's opinion, but it wasn't the pastor's opinion. He made his choice, and Ms Pond OK'd it (and thus made her choice) when she agreed to shoot the story.

She shouldn't feel guilty at all—she got a great story and the pastor got the death he wished for. I might sound callous, but I'm being rational and following the facts to their logical conclusion.

If Ms Pond is having such a tough time with this, she should maybe reconsider her choice of profession.

I vote with those who think religion is merely another manifestation of insanity, but faced with this situation, why not call for help immediately and have the medical personnel there for him to argue with until he changed his mind?

If I were her I'd feel guilty as hell, and I wouldn't soon get over it. And I was a serious journalist for a long time. There's not one decision here, there's two -- his and hers. In her place, I would have said, if *I* don't call the paramedics, and he dies, then I haven't done everything I can do to prevent his death. In that case, *I* have a moral problem that is distinct from his, but no less serious.

This is not like those cases where PJs have documented war executions and lynchings and so on, because in those cases, they would not be able to act to save the lives that were taken. Her in action was purely voluntary, and, I have to say, somewhat inhuman. For God's sakes, the guy's dying of a snakebite - call the paramedics.

I would add that if I were a paramedic, I'd treat him even if he didn't want to be treated. Again, I have a moral obligation (to save lives) that is distinct from his. If he wants to sue me later, so be it, but that doesn't remove my moral burden to act. Don't tell me about lawyers when somebody is dying.

And don't tell me about mental competency, either. The guy is writhing in agony, and we're debating the fine points of his mental state?

She should be ashamed of herself, forever.


I'm quite disappointed in the snide and derisive comments about Pastor Wolford. Though condescending and superior, they actually are words of ignorance, and a refusal to make any effort to learn of a wondrous strange culture. The quick condemnation of an alien culture, though completely ignorent of it, proves only the condemners intellectual poverty. PFUI!

From here in England this sent a shudder through me,.....this is the most powerful country on earth, and one that we increasingly fear. This is NOT the mumbo-jumbo of an uneducated African witch-doctor, these are the electors of the most powerful 'democracy'...a democracy that can and does bing down fire and destruction on who it likes.......

.......Never mind the wrath of God, we need to be very afraid.....

I think an important point is that tha pastor made his decision, but then changed his mind, but too late sadly, and he asked for help from paramadics.

No one could have forseen this change, but as I said before, I would have erred on the side of safety and called for a paramedic anyway - even if it meant being castigated later on.


@01af: The correct quote is "As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities."

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” - Seneca

>in the light of real people who have died real deaths. Would that be an appropriate post?<

At least in Britain it surely would be.

Ctein, re dead soldiers: "...would it be appropriate if I posted a comment to the effect, "Good riddance, the gene pool is better off without such murderous fools; they brought it on their own heads by their idiot beliefs and behaviors?"
I made that point earlier, but no bites.(sorry). For me they are about on the same level particularly with the current conflict so yes I guess you have to give the snake dude the same respect - respect for doing his duty as he saw it, not respect the "duty" itself, which is the point I guess.

"he's making the choice to let god save him, which he believes is what's going to happen. My belief, were I in Lauren's place, would be that god is not going to save him, because god is imaginary;"

Wow, Mike, I truly understand... but what your saying, to be clear, is that religious people are universally incompetent and that you must intervene, whenever your beliefs tell you to, in order to save them from themselves.

That's not OK.

"Ironically, what gives this argument its force to me is when I imagine our respective positions reversed. That is, if I were bitten by a snake, his belief might be that no action need be taken because god would step in to save me; but in that case, I would very much want him to defer to my belief, and call the paramedics."

No, not at all. In your hypothetical, his calling the paramedics at your request is EXACTLY the same as Laura Pond NOT calling. In both cases, the other party is respecting the wishes of the dying adult against their own beliefs. Your desire to trample another persons belief is selfish.

Religious belief. You are entitled to it, just as much as the Islamists who flew into paradise via the World Trade Center.

He learned from his daddy and perhaps his son will do the same. When confronted with evidence that challenges their belief, the faithful just believe more strongly.

If you want fringe beliefs, believe me, we got 'em. It's literally the cost of pluralism. But to accept snake-handlers as in any way representative of Americans is also completely daft, to use an English term. They're not even remotely representative of Southern Pentacostals, who some would say are a fringe group within the broader Evangelical movement, which in turn is a minority of Christians.


To Ctein, in respect of your possibly forthcoming post to advance and explore some ideas on anti-militarism.

I spent 20 years in the British Army, so my views would possibly be opposite to yours, although in a sort of moral Mobius loop, you may find we completely agree. Soldiers are among those who understand the realities of conflict. You would also find that personally I completely subscribe to Voltaire’s thoughts: I will defend to my death your freedom to hold a position that I suspect I would not agree, even if I don’t yet know the details of your argument.

I would however encourage you to be gentle, and generous in your treatment of those who do voluntarily join and serve. It is not the easiest of lives. I would ask you to consider that most among us are not murderous, and that the sort of “Darwin Awards” language of improving the gene pool will not win your argument. I’m also uncertain as to the meaning of your “real deaths” line - is a death of a soldier in an explosion in Helmand Province any less real than the death of an elderly old man in a nursing home, or of a child run over by a car in the street outside of their home? It seems not, to me at least.

Anyway, I look forward to your post, and I will read it with respect for your views.

"but what your saying, to be clear, is that religious people are universally incompetent and that you must intervene, whenever your beliefs tell you to, in order to save them from themselves."

No, that is not what I'm saying. I wrote down what I said, so that you can read it; you needn't fantasize other words to put into my mouth.

I said that if the situation were reversed, I would want to pastor to act on MY belief system, and call the paramedics, rather than act according to HIS belief system, and wait for God to save me; which becomes a justification for me to defer to his belief system and act according to his wishes when the outcome concerns him.

Dare I hope that restating it will help you see that your paraphrase is inaccurate? Very well then I shall hope. [g]


Clearly the pastor did not wish for this death. First and foremost, it shows (by his stated beliefs) that he was not right with god when he died; that's serious! Second, close to the end he apparently changed his mind.

If he had wished for this death, he could have easily managed it much sooner. He didn't.

Speaking of venom. I'm a bit bothered by the venom we "enlightened" folks here on TOP are about people of faith. How dare we judge others. Aren't we opposed to being judged ourselves? The Darwin comments are not acceptable behavior for us. We're better than that.

As to her inaction? Not to worry. She was there doing a very specific job and there were others who knew the situation better than her that chose to refrain from acting. Chances are, without immediate medical attention, he would have died anyway. They were already aware of that.

"there were others who knew the situation better than her that chose to refrain from acting. Chances are, without immediate medical attention, he would have died anyway. They were already aware of that."

Actually, I believe it's the opposite. I'm not an expert, obviously, but from what I've read in books about religion, most snake handlers have been bitten numerous times and usually recover. It's just a guess, but my guess is that the onlookers had the opposite expectation--not just because of god, but based on previous experience.


Reminds me a bit of the story behind the photo Kevin Carter took in 1993, in Sudan, of the vulture hovering over the starving little girl. He took the photo but did not help the girl--not known if she died later. Yes, it was a powerful photo, but did his failure to help the girl make him a moral monster?

"so if I have a duty to try to render lifesaving help where needed, then I would have a duty to render assistance to him. "

This seems to be the most questionable part of your argument, Mike. An obvious question that can be raised (but certainly not the only one) is: what is the force of the word 'duty'? How far does that duty go? Can it/should it override all other concerns? Or can it be trumped by the explicit contrary wishes of the person you feel you need to help? So arguments of individual autonomy and not transgressing the explicit wishes of others come into play.

If one is a dogmatic atheist, one might argue that the explicit wishes in this case are based on a delusion, but that would be a very high-handed position to take. Even though the whole of one's integrity might well be behind that belief, particularly at at such a heightened and existentially decisive moment, acting on such a supposition would involve imposing one ultimately unjustifiable world view over another, in other words, an act of power play.

"If one is a dogmatic atheist, one might argue that the explicit wishes in this case are based on a delusion, but that would be a very high-handed position to take."

You've also completely misread my argument, but I'm not going to restate it again. I give up.


Dear James,

No, that was very much NOT a prelude to a forthcoming column. Mike has a firm rule that there will be no explicit discussions of religion or politics here. Given the current US standing in the world, it would be impossible to write a column about anti-militarism that didn't evoke such a discussion, even if I wanted to do so. Furthermore, while Mike has given me carte blanche to write about any subject I like, they still have to fall within his guidelines. If I turned in an off-topic column that fell outside those guidelines, he would reject it.

(A reminder to folks who are under the misimpression that I have some editorial authority here. I don't. I am merely a columnist who also happens to have a big mouth and be friends with the editor, but this is Mike's field, ball, game, and rules.)

If you'd like to pursue the conversation with me in private, that would be another matter; drop me an e-mail at [email protected] . I'm not averse to discussing my feelings in the matter on a one-to-one basis. Some of my best friends have been extraordinarily high in the US chain of command, and it didn't stop us from being friends, so don't worry that I'm going to bite your head off in private.

I totally get the closed loop thing. One of my friends is an anarcho-capitalist (for those not familiar with the term, libertarians are wimps compared to them). My leanings run much closer to anarcho-communist. It's remarkable how narrow the unbridgeable gap between us really is. We have many interesting conversations.

Preamble out of the way, I may have been a bit too gentle and oblique in my post (Mike "requested" that it be nonconfrontational). My final question was meant entirely rhetorically. I would not consider such a post socially appropriate. In fact, if I were God here instead of Mike, I'd have disallowed every one of the Darwin-esque/good-riddance comments as falling well beyond the bounds of acceptable taste. That's the point I was hoping to make. There is political rhetoric, and there's what you say in polite and considerate social company that you wish to remain polite and considerate.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

If you're under the impression that you do not hold, very strongly, beliefs that are not founded in facts and reason, I suggest that you are wrong. For all values of "you".

Of course the pastor didn't "expect God to save him" he was willing to leave the saving or not saving choice in the hands of his god. That's kind of the point with snake-handling, and many many many other more common rituals in virtually all deistic religions: the abdication of control to the deity.

I need to remind people again of the following, from our Comment Guidelines:

"2. TOP is not a forum! Please don't respond to other commenters unless you're being helpful. Your comment should be your response to the main post."



Also, I've been a bit testy today, for which I apologize. We in Wisconsin have been suffering under an avalanche of political advertising, which, as usual, makes me feel anxious and stressed.

The election is tomorrow, after which we will no doubt be subject to weeks of recrimination, accusations, false claims about what the election means or doesn't mean, and discussions about recounts.

Don't envy us.


"You've also completely misread my argument, but I'm not going to restate it again. I give up."

I wasn't, for a moment, suggesting that was your argument, but merely stating that if one intervenes on the basis of one's own belief system it is an act of power.

Ah Mike, you create posts about religious issues at your peril;)

Does not mean it was not a very interested and thought provoking piece. The pastor's religious beliefs are somewhat beside the point here. It's more about the circumstances under which we have the right to intervene or not in another person's free will.

My view is that we do not, unless the person is unaware of the situation that they are placed in. Pretty grey area. However government disagrees. Many laws exist to prevent me harming myself even if I do so knowingly.

The irony in this situation is that without secular laws, which promote free speech and free will, most fundamentalist religious groups, including that of the pastor, would happily deny free will to many others "for their own good".

This is why I support a secular legal system and an independent judiciary as the lesser evil.


your last points completely taken. I do apologise if I was in your mind when you wrote that.


I will drop you an email, but it may be a couple of days so that I can marshal my thoughts properly for you to examine. I'd be interested to discuss further. My perspective is from a background in international relations and an instinct that realpolitik pretty much works; I have only the vaguest of ideas as to the "anarcho-*" thinking. I believe it would be an interesting conversation which I am sure we can have both constructively and with respect.

With a digital camera, the photographer should have been attuned to bytes.

"which becomes a justification for me to defer to his belief system and act according to his wishes when the outcome concerns him." [Mike]

Guess I missed that part originally, I was under the impression that you were advocating intervention. Oops.

"Guess I missed that part originally, I was under the impression that you were advocating intervention. Oops."

Right. I was coming down on the opposite side, in favor of non-intervention. Dr. Haskell put it better than I did, and more succinctly. I was saying that I'd want Mack Wolford to follow MY belief system if I'd been bitten, so therefore I should return the favor for him and let him dictate his own treatment.

Of course, this begs the question of whether he WOULD defer to me if I'd been bitten, or if he'd impose his own belief system on me, against my wishes--something religious people have been known to do throughout history. But fortunately that's not a situation in which I find myself, or am likely to.

I hope.

I do think Pastor Wolford was completely deluded, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't respect him. You have to let people be idiots if they want to, as long as they aren't hurting others. Remember that Australian crocodile-wrestler who died? Dr. Crocodile? He had some sort of handle. Steve Irwin. Whenever that guy came on the TV, I'd say "that guy is going to die someday soon." And sure enough. But then, every time anyone mentioned his death, they'd call it a freak accident that could have happened to anybody. Well, no--no, it wasn't. The guy was incredibly reckless around dangerous animals as a matter of course. It was completely ordinary behavior for him. It was only a matter of time.

But that doesn't mean anyone has a right to intervene. He has to be left to his chosen fate. And sure enough, his fate found him--just like Pastor Wolford's found him.

Curiously, one can speculate that Pastor Wolford might have had his dangerous behavior inculcated in him as a child, by his father. And there's a parallel with Steve Irwin, whose daughter, I read, wants to follow in her father's footsteps.

The sins (idiocies? Depends on how you look at it I guess) of the father....


Just one last quote that I can't resist:

"God answers our prayers by refusing them."


You have to realize that in this instance Pastor Wolford had already made the choice for himself. Yes, you were there to witness the results of his choice but that choice was not only already made by himself but it was also never your choice to make. Had it been your choice I'm sure you would have chosen for him to practice a religion that was less harmful to himself and to others. As the other journalist mentioned in his comments had you the opportunity to choose his path for him then you would have never have had the opportunity to observe and report on this particular group of people and to get to know him and the things that mattered to him. What makes it worth reporting was the relationships you formed and what made it interesting to read is the sensational aspect and danger that his beliefs posed to himself and those who chose to adhere to them.

You see there was no choice available for you to make and therefore there is no "moral dilemma" present Any "choices" were already made beforehand by Pastor Wolford and the beliefs that he decided to align himself with. You cannot blame yourself for choices that were already made well before you arrived to document what is a very interesting man who lived a very interesting lifestyle. Please don't try to blame yourself for the results of the choices made by others. I know it's hard to be in a situation that is so heart wrenching and you wish with all that is in you that you could change the outcome. You have to realize that what happened would have happened whether you were there to record it with your camera or not. I can't pretend to know what that's like and it seems so simple from an outside perspective. I think you should hold fast to the relationships that you formed while you were there and you have the unique position to share those relationships with others and to help others to better understand the man who Pastor Wolford was.

Although this is an interesting subject and thread, almost everyone seems to have avoided the larger issues of the effects of religious fundamentalism's effects.
One example is that embryonic stem cell research has basically been ended by the religious right. I can explain the mechanism of why that is so if you are unfamiliar with the situation. It's not really something the news media understands.
In effect they have handed us the snake.

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