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Glossolalia is not God

TJ Luhrmann (remember her? Templeton grant awardee who likes to pretend religion is all sweetness and light?) is now defending speaking in tongues in the NY Times, with one concluding caveat.

Speaking in tongues still carries a stigmatizing whiff. In his book “Thinking in Tongues,” the philosopher James K. A. Smith describes the “strange brew of academic alarm and snobbery” that flickered across a colleague’s face when he admitted to being a Pentecostal (and, therefore, praying in tongues). It seems time to move on from such prejudice.

Why? It’s a silly practice…well, actually, I can see some virtue in the practice, but absolutely none in the rationalizations used for it. For instance, there are bits of this that I don’t object to, until the end.

What dawned on me in Accra is that speaking in tongues might actually be a more effective way to pray than speaking in ordinary language — if by prayer one means the mental technique of detaching from the everyday world, and from everyday thought [yes, isolating oneself in mindlessness], to experience God. [who says?]

She mentions other practices, like meditation to disengage from thought, and focusing and filling one’s minds with imaginary scenes from scripture. She left out the more obvious example, though: doo wop.

Obvious to me, anyway. Sha na na, sh-boom sh-boom.

There is something in our brains that connects with repetition and rhythms and sounds — it’s why music exists. It can feel good and it can even have physiological effects to remove ourselves from the world or to just soak in a mood, and I can sympathize with the idea that people find pleasure in it. But “to experience god”? No. That’s where Luhrmann goes off the rails. And it’s going to carry a “stigmatizing whiff” for as long as deluded apologists for religion continue to pretend it has anything to do with a god.

Her article is titled “Why We Talk in Tongues”. It doesn’t answer the question at all, and she never will as long as she’s looking for explanations in magic.

Shooby-doo-wop-do-wop-wop-wop-wop.

Comments

  1. Anthony K says

    My partner and I do that, although the syllables aren’t entirely nonsense: they’re the names of our cats, verbed, adjectivised, adverbised as necessary to fit whatever earworm we’re vocalising.

    Neither god nor the cats find it necessary to respond.

  2. says

    Phlibbityglashnob spakaraka doboremogo dsaefindefiqupalinaspo seegopleizideyo abinezkaweevo qreqakindowapa jagamobodiffu dezkenjivnaqrizdepiko kamegreff opadobatopa klergitz ermoreeble.

  3. Jackie: The COLOSSAL TOWERING VAGINA! says

    Behold, the prophet speaks in tongues!
    “Bawitdaba da bang a dang diggy diggy diggy said the boogy said up jump the boogy!”

  4. Jackie: The COLOSSAL TOWERING VAGINA! says

    BS,
    translation -”Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy”.

  5. carlie says

    believerskeptic – I finally watched Twin Peaks this summer and all I have to say to that is AAAAAAAAAHELP

  6. whheydt says

    When my wife was a graduate student in Linguistics at UCBerkeley, she went to a Pentacostal meeting and observed people “speaking in tongues”. Her basic observation was that all of the phonemes, syllable canon, and word constructs were from English, making the “tongues” random mixed, up, garbled, pseudo-English.

    I note that the cited material all seems to be about WHY to “speak in tongues” and not WHAT “speaking in tongues” is, nor HOW it works.

  7. anteprepro says

    “Glossolalia is not god”? It might as well be. Either that or Sophisticated Theology might as well just be people “speaking in tongues”. It is nonsense all the way down, so they might as well embrace that. And Tongues is the best way to embrace that openly that I’ve yet to see!

  8. RFW says

    “Speaking in tongues” is no such thing. It’s incomprehensible babbling and not in any tongue at all.

    If you go back to the bibblical account, the context of the speaking-in-tongues episode was preparation to go out and preach the gospel to the world. You would therefore expect that these tongues would be languages of pagans to whom you wanted to preach, no?

    It would be interesting to record a number of pentacostals s’ing in t’s, along with what their native language is, and then see if the sounds they make turn out to be drawn from the phonemic inventory of their mother tongue. Does a Kartvelian pentacostal (if such exist) make the peculiar popping consonants of kartuli ena, or does he start making sounds like those in Armenian, Azerbaijani, Turkish, and other languages in which he might reasonably be expected to preach the gospel?

  9. says

    I had a conversation with Martin Gardner back in the eighties when he cheerfully announced that he had learned to “speak in tongues.” He described it as triggering some kind of “let go” reflex in his speech center that released a babble of self-sustaining gibberish. Once you’re in that zone, you can spew mock-language indefinitely. I still regret that he did not demonstrate his new skill to me.

  10. Anthony K says

    RFW, the wiki page on glossolalia describes a few such studies. See the ‘Linguistics’ heading.

  11. Anthony K says

    He described it as triggering some kind of “let go” reflex in his speech center that released a babble of self-sustaining gibberish. Once you’re in that zone, you can spew mock-language indefinitely.

    Lawyers, philosophers, and glossolaliacs, oh my!

  12. Trebuchet says

    Meanwhile, on the main Pharyngula page with this post at the top we have this ad:

    Experience the beauty and bliss of the world’s most sacred mantras!

    and

    Revoluution sound technology shocks meditation groups!

    Ain’t context sensitive advertising wonderful?

  13. Sastra says

    The people who speak in tongues would likely reject Luhrmann’s academic attitude, whence she goes right into Therapist/Anthropologist mode and distances herself from the issue of whether or not glossolalia is really speaking to God or whether it is only “speaking” to “God” (wink wink nudge nudge). They’d reject it because they’d find it condescending and insulting. They don’t consider themselves to be psychology patients or a strange but interesting tribe to be examined aloofly for how their techniques and personal quirks “work” for them. They consider themselves to be honest seekers of Truth who have gained amazing insights into the way things really are.

    That is, they’d find the attitude condescending and insulting if they’re able to see past the fawning approval she gives to this ‘useful’ practice. I think there’s much more real respect in meeting a person on their own ground and telling them they’re wrong than there is in smiling blandly and insisting that it really doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong as long as they’re happy … if they DO think the issue matters more than they do. But of course many people will take a compliment no matter how passive-aggressive it is. And they’re more than happy to allow a secular person to adopt a distant attitude of non-judgment if it means that they thereby get to avoid criticism, protect their faith, and continue on in the delusion that their critics are intelligent but morally bankrupt on the most important topic possible.

    Luhrmann’s study and insights into why and how believers believe — the process they use to convince themselves that they’re transcending the natural world and hobnobbing with the mystical secrets and relationships of the cosmos — is a valuable contribution to anthropology, psychology, and the understanding of religion and its practice. It’s also perfectly consistent with gnu atheism. After all, Daniel Dennett — one of the original Four Horsemen — spends plenty of time discussing the mental and cultural reasons why religion formed in the first place and still persists in the 21st century. Most of what she writes is nonproblematic and I’m seriously considering reading her book … for the parts which are both useful and true.

    But here’s where she goes off the rails into full-blown accomodationism:

    Speaking in tongues still carries a stigmatizing whiff. In his book “Thinking in Tongues,” the philosopher James K. A. Smith describes the “strange brew of academic alarm and snobbery” that flickered across a colleague’s face when he admitted to being a Pentecostal (and, therefore, praying in tongues). It seems time to move on from such prejudice.

    “Stigma?” “Snobbery?” “Prejudice?” Telling someone who is (almost certainty) factually wrong that they are, in fact, (almost certainly) factually wrong is suddenly lifted from the intellectual honesty of serious debate and Problem-Solving and relegated into the Identity Smorgsbord, thus equated to the bullying tactics of someone who doesn’t like your fashion, your taste, and your lifestyle. Therapist/Anthropologist Mode is a perfectly reasonable approach to take if you are simply being a therapist or anthropologist. Once truth enters the picture though, then preferences and “usefulness” have to take a back seat. It’s not just supposed to be calming or bonding. It’s supposed to matter.

    Sure, it’s a dandy idea to understand views you do not hold. But if the views are supposed to be meaningful models of reality then you shouldn’t stop — can’t stop — at the level of tolerant understanding and benevolent appreciation for the other bits — the superficial props which prop up error. You use the understanding to learn how to correct the error.

    That is, you do so if you consider the folks on the other side who are speaking in tongues and insisting this is evidence of God to be your equals and human colleagues … instead of your clients or study subjects. The “academic alarm” Lurhmann derides are the very values of the Enlightenment which anchors the ideal of rational tolerance she promotes. It is not academic. It’s the fabric of the culture and progress we and she aspire to.

    It does people no good to place them in a category where “they” get to make mistakes and remain superstitious and prejudiced and biased by faith because “they” wouldn’t be able to function in reality. Like us. It’s the Little People Argument again, masquerading, as usual, as a call for less prejudice. The Prime Directive.

    Snobbery on stilts.

  14. Anthony K says

    Revoluution sound technology shocks meditation groups!

    Not as much as an electric zen fountain with the ground prong removed, though.

  15. Ivan says

    “If you open your mind too much your brain will fall out.”
    This would be a perfect epigraph for such an article.

  16. CJO says

    If you go back to the bibblical account, the context of the speaking-in-tongues episode was preparation to go out and preach the gospel to the world. You would therefore expect that these tongues would be languages of pagans to whom you wanted to preach, no?

    It seems to have been a point of contention in the earliest Christian circles. Paul clearly denigrates the charisma (Gk. “gift of grace, divine favor”) of glossa and prefers propheteia in the discussions of charismata in 1st Corinthians. He also parallels the two in terms of interpretation (also a charisma); in his eyes, glossolalia without interpretation is useless to the community though he still recognizes it as divine in origin. How, exactly, it was supposed to be interpreted is unclear. It also seems that Paul did not consider glossa any human language or languages, but possibly he believed it was the language spoken in heaven.

    When we come to the occasion of Pentecost, in Acts, the passage I think you’re referring to, “divided tongues as of fire” come to rest on the apostles “and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance … The multitude [was] bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” So this is obviously a different conception of the phenomenon. Also lost, apparently, is Paul’s contrast with prophecy; Peter’s sermon on the occasion explicitly conflates the two. So it looks like, by the time Acts was written in (probably) the early 2nd century, the charismatic phase of Paul’s Christianity was a thing of the past and his careful distinctions among various practices had been lost or at least were not valued in some communities.

  17. Sastra says

    Luhrmann is treating glossolalia as if it was a type of meditation — which it probably is, in part. You relax and zone out and feel calm and peace and a sense of harmony and connection. But it’s not just meditation and it’s disingenuous to act as if it were.

    It’s more like astral projection.

    Luhrmann would probably be equally interested in what goes on during “astral projection” — much like Susan Blackmore, studying the paranormal and consciousness and the brain and the way it works in anomolous situations. But Blackmore, unlike Luhrmann, wasn’t content to leave it coyly up in the air as to whether or not people were really leaving their bodies and concentrate instead on praising the many benefits. No, she had had an OBE herself and had been a true believer and wanted to know what was going on and whether this was, in fact, amazing, astonishing, game-changing evidence for the supernatural.

    My guess is that Luhrmann would play the same tricks with ‘astral projection’ as she does with speaking-in-tongues. Focus on how lovely and fun and useful it is and rail against the bigots who want to test it and “dismiss” it.

  18. yazikus says

    Does a Kartvelian pentacostal (if such exist) make the peculiar popping consonants of kartuli ena, or does he start making sounds like those in Armenian, Azerbaijani, Turkish, and other languages in which he might reasonably be expected to preach the gospel?

    I was raised around this nonsense. I have more than one memory of being prayed on with people speaking in tongues (think darkened, overly heated room, crying people circling around you, putting their hands on your head. Creepy!). I did notice however, that even though I heard people on different continents speaking it, it did always sound like “tongues”. Not sure what the implications of that would be, but just one observation.

  19. Anthony K says

    I did notice however, that even though I heard people on different continents speaking it, it did always sound like “tongues”. Not sure what the implications of that would be, but just one observation.

    Now that’s really interesting. If you were surrounded by speakers of a language(s) you didn’t understand, but they also spoke in tongues, do you thjnk you could tell when they were speaking each?

  20. yazikus says

    Now that’s really interesting. If you were surrounded by speakers of a language(s) you didn’t understand, but they also spoke in tongues, do you thjnk you could tell when they were speaking each?

    Definitely, or at least, I’m reasonably sure that I would. I have always thought that tongues had a very distinct sound. Granted, I’m no linguist. But I have been to a large variety of churches!

  21. yazikus says

    Also, I could never do it. I tried, I thought that the spirit was mad at me or something. But I just couldn’t.
    -
    I wonder if my mom still speaks in tongues while cleaning the house?? Hm…

  22. playonwords says

    Never had it tested but I have been able to producer conversational style glossolalia since my teens, I and a couple of friends would hold long discussions in it. Rhythm and rhyme has little to do with the effect, although I can produce something sounding like rhyming couplets. If needed I can produce “angelic” or “demonic” style vocalisations and on occasion tell my Sigoth that I might pop down to a local Pentecostal church – but she threatens me with mayhem if I try!

  23. Anthony K says

    Definitely, or at least, I’m reasonably sure that I would. I have always thought that tongues had a very distinct sound. Granted, I’m no linguist. But I have been to a large variety of churches!

    I’d suspect that you could, or at least you could better than I, given your background familiarity with it, presuming that glossolalia around the world shares similar features/absence of features found in natural languages, and that we can detect those features/absence of features, even when we’re unfamiliar with the natural language or phoneme set being compared.

    I find it all fascinating.

  24. Anthony K says

    Never had it tested but I have been able to producer conversational style glossolalia since my teens, I and a couple of friends would hold long discussions in it.

    I’ve got a friend who’s a skilled and successful voice actor, and as accents are part of his stock-in-trade‎, he can speak fake German, Russian, Gaelic, and so forth, at least convincingly enough for English speakers who don’t know the language he’s faking. Is it something like that, or different?

    Okay, that’s it: I’m spending the rest of the afternoon looking for examples on YouTube. If anyone from work asks, just tell them I’m listening to meditative sounds, and the whalesong video just ended.

  25. says

    She mentions other practices, like meditation to disengage from thought, and focusing and filling one’s minds with imaginary scenes from scripture

    I always find it interesting when religious people mention such practices, because I can’t help but notice that that’s exactly the method for how to artificially inspire strong emotions in yourself. I know because I’ve done it; repeatedly and with consistent success. It’s not even that hard.

    You can inspire a whole range of emotional states based on nothing but your imagination; states which feel very real and can even have associated physical manifestations, such as laughter, crying, shaking, sweating, etc.

    I note this because these people so often place a high premium on their emotions as ways to validate their experiences. How often have you heard a believer say “I know it’s true because I felt it in my heart” or some similar phrase?

    So, when they describe methods like this, I can only interpret it as an admission that they’re engaged in a process of self-deception. Whether they realize it or not, they’re actively lying to themselves, like a dowser who’s convinced that the willow branch is moving on its own.

    If only they’d take the most obvious precaution of any proper truth seeker and test out if their methods would still work with a different target. Once they find that they get the exact same result from praying to Obi-Wan Kenobi, I’m sure the point would start to sink in.

  26. Sili says

    He described it as triggering some kind of “let go” reflex in his speech center that released a babble of self-sustaining gibberish. Once you’re in that zone, you can spew mock-language indefinitely.

    That’s one of the reason I can’t use the common mnemotechniques like memory palaces and chains and that sorta thing. I cannot let my id run wild with imagination. I find it impossible to do sustained silly.

    Re the OP, I hope a sophisticated theologian™ corners Luhrmann and tells her that no true Christian believes in that kinda thing. It’s just an atheist strawman.

  27. madscientist says

    I think I get Luhrmann’s point: God is bliss and Ignorance is bliss, therefore God is Ignorance and we must all worship ignorance. As for me, I’ll maintain that “whiff of stigma” – in fact I’ll make damned sure it’s not a mere whiff. If someone babbles like a moron I’ll call ‘em a moron and ask ‘em if they’d just escaped from the loony bin or if they’ve seen a good quack lately.

  28. Anthony K says

    I find it impossible to do sustained silly.

    Me too, but then I’ve sat and listened to people doing just that for hours. Trained improv actors can do so brilliantly, but the best are, bar none, upper-level managers with business degrees.

  29. magistramarla says

    I wonder what she would think of the combination of Latin, ancient Greek and the occasional Klingon word that we use around our house?
    Any of you who are parents – do you remember spelling c-o-o-k-i-e or i-c-e-c-r-e-a-m in front of the toddler? Our bright little scamp figured it out too quickly and would yell “I want ice cream!”, so we switched to Greek. That slowed her down!

  30. David Marjanović says

    FINALE FINALE EUROPACUPFINALE FINALE FINALE EUROPACUPFINALE FINALE FINALE EUROPACUPFINALE

    …sorry.

    Her basic observation was that all of the phonemes, syllable canon, and word constructs were from English

    Why am I not surprised.

    Phyn’glui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn

    Those who cannot spell ph’nglui shall be eaten third to last.

    If you go back to the bibblical account, the context of the speaking-in-tongues episode was preparation to go out and preach the gospel to the world. You would therefore expect that these tongues would be languages of pagans to whom you wanted to preach, no?

    Behold the Book of Acts:

    2:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
    2:5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
    2:6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
    2:7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?
    2:8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
    2:9 Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,
    2:10 Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes,
    2:11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
    2:12 And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?

    Elamite?

    Fucking Elamite?!?!?

    That’s hardcore.

    (Also, if this means that Elamite and whichever sort of Eteocretan were still spoken when that was written down, that’s fucking awesome.)

    qaStaHvIS wa’ ram loSSaD Hugh SIjlaH qetbogh loD

    baQa!!!

    Once they find that they get the exact same result from praying to Obi-Wan Kenobi, I’m sure the point would start to sink in.

    HELP US, OBI-WAN!!! YOU’RE OUR ONLY HOPE!!!

    That’s one of the reason I can’t use the common mnemotechniques like memory palaces and chains and that sorta thing. I cannot let my id run wild with imagination. I find it impossible to do sustained silly.

    Seems to be the same for me.

  31. larrylyons says

    Old news. Its just a socially learned behavior. Back almost 30 years ago Nick Spanos of Carleton was demonstrating that:
    http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/abn/95/1/21/

    Glossolalia as learned behavior: An experimental demonstration.
    Spanos, Nicholas P.; Cross, Wendy P.; Lepage, Mark; Coristine, Marjorie
    Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 95(1), Feb 1986, 21-23. doi: 10.1037/0021-843X.95.1.21
    Abstract
    60 18–44 yr old undergraduates listened to a 60-sec sample of glossolalia (defined to them as pseudolanguage) and then attempted to produce glossolalia on a 30-sec baseline trial. Afterward, half of the Ss received 2 training sessions that included audio- and videotaped samples of glossolalia interspersed with opportunities to practice glossolalia. Also, live modeling of glossolalia, direct instruction, and encouragement were provided by an experimenter. Both the trained Ss and untreated controls attempted to produce glossolalia on a 30-sec posttest trial. About 20% of Ss exhibited fluent glossolalia on the baseline trial, and training significantly enhanced fluency. 70% of trained Ss spoke fluent glossolalia on the posttest. Findings are more consistent with social learning than with altered state conceptions of glossolalia. (13 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)

  32. Stardrake says

    Let’s see who speaks Glossolalia 70′s style!

    OOga-chaga-ooga-ooga-OOga-chaga-ooga-ooga-OOga-chaga….

  33. coffeehound says

    @ 8,

    “Bawitdaba da bang a dang diggy diggy diggy said the boogy said up jump the boogy!”

    So God is Kid Rock. That explains a lot.

  34. xaurreaux says

    All I can say is “bah dip, dip, dip, dip, dip, dip, dip, dip, mm, mm, mm, mm, mm, mm, get a job!

  35. Azuma Hazuki says

    David M and CJO, thanks for going into more details on this! I’d always assumed that “speaking in tongues” meant xenoglossy, as the passage describes, because, y’know, I actually read the Bible a lot when in CCD (that was apparently a weird thing for a young Catholic to do…).

    So you two are saying (since Luke-Acts postdates Paul by a good while) that it actually DID start as babbling but the author of Luke-Acts didn’t get that?

  36. David Marjanović says

    So you two are saying

    No idea. I didn’t even know about the reference in… 1 Cor it is, right?

  37. gobi's sockpuppet's meatpuppet says

    Off the top of my head: Bobby McFerrin, Dead Can Dance (Lisa Gerrard) and Sigur Ros (although they claim theirs is a ‘made up language’) have made interesting careers using it. Good for communicating emotion – not so good for concepts…

  38. gobi's sockpuppet's meatpuppet says

    Timely post. A friend just sent me an image of an ad showing a ‘heroin addict’ collapsed in a corner with a needle in her arm with the words: “thier first injection was a vaccination” above.
    It goes on to say: …studies have shown that children who are vacinated are 85% more likely to inject heroin than those who are not”
     
    Is this a real advertisement? He seemed to think so. Has anyone here seen it?

  39. gobi's sockpuppet's meatpuppet says

    Deepest apologies for dropping that here – now in correct thread. Just wish I could delete it here. Need to improve my iPad commenting foo…

  40. cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming) says

    … oops! Apparently hosting calf-pocked goes off not so fell as wull.

    When the family all get together to eat drunk, and get messy

    No finer sentence has ever been uttered in the English language. ;-)

  41. lpetrich says

    It may be hard to find speaker of Kartvelian languages — most of them live in Asian Georgia.

    However, one can find plenty of phonological differences in languages closer to home. Do Spanish-speaking Pentecostals trill their r’s when they speak in tongues? Do Russian-speaking Pentecostals use lots of palatalized consonants when they speak in tongues? Etc.

  42. Owen says

    Suddenly I miss Janine’s music posts from the Lounge. Rev BDC – your #3 was indeed a masterpiece.
    The really neat trick about the whole “tongues” thing, is that you have the “gift” of speaking in them, which is supposedly divinely inspired gobbledygook, and you also have (cf CJO at #29) the “gift” of translating them. Even when I was inclined to take this stuff seriously (I got better!) that always seemed remarkably convenient…

  43. Owlmirror says

    “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, lest friendly milk countermand my trousers.” — Stephen Fry

  44. anuran says

    Glossolalia, if memory serves, is a temporal lobe phenomenon. Being able to do unusual things with your brain at will may have unexpected uses. It may be part of religious practices. It isn’t god.

  45. Akira MacKenzie says

    I recall my one-and-only encounter with glossolalia. It was back in college. One day, I was meandering around the UW-Milwaukee student union when I heard a terrible shouting from one of the meeting rooms. Being a concerned citizen, I ran over to see what the commotion was and to render what aid I could. I looked into the room and saw about a dozen people either standing in small circles or off alone. They were staring into space, their hands raised, and babbling and wailing incoherently, save for the odd “Amen” or “Halleujah.” A glance on at the schedule of events posted next to the door revealed all; it was the local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ having a prayer meeting.

    I backed s-l-o-w-l-y out of room…

  46. vaiyt says

    He described it as triggering some kind of “let go” reflex in his speech center that released a babble of self-sustaining gibberish. Once you’re in that zone, you can spew mock-language indefinitely.

    I do that very often. Mostly, I notice the sounds I make are clearly based on languages I’m somewhat familiar with – Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, English and Japanese, with a dash of Tolkien lexicon.