Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Only a facade of language

Glossolalia, or 'speaking in tongues', is sometimes claimed by Pentecostal christians to be a sign that they have been touched by the 'holy spirit'.  It has many biblical precedents, which of course makes it undeniably true.

Or does it?

The phenomenon has been extensively studied in many different communities around the world, and perhaps the first surprise is that is is by no means exclusive to the pentecostals or even to christians.  To me, it is analogous to Pascal's Wager.  (See an earlier post called Pascal's Gambling Debts).  In a universe where everyone agreed that there was only one deity (not like our universe) communication with god might be a possible explanation, even if it is not testable.  But since shamans, spiritualists and pagans also exhibit the same phenomena I think it is hard to argue that god is behind it all.  Which god?  Or should I ask 'who's god'?

Indeed, a study in the 1970s by linguist William Samarin showed that the structure of the utterings was not consistent with it being a real language and he described it as being 'only a facade of language.

Neuroscientists conducting brain scans on people who were speaking in tongues have confirmed that the areas of the brain responsible for language go surprisingly 'quiet', while the areas that produce emotion become very active.  There is little doubt that these people are emotional and I believe that most of them are doing it in good faith and not just putting on an act.

However,  you can begin to see the signs that I am skeptical of the straight-forward claims that god is influencing the people to speak like this. 

But I am not alone in these doubts. Not even all 'the faithful' have any time for 21st century speaking in tongues

The Wikipedia article explains that some christians, the 'cessationists',
believe that all the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to occur early in Christian history, and therefore that the speaking in tongues practised today is simply the utterance of meaningless syllables. It is neither xenoglossia nor miraculous, but rather learned behavior, possibly self-induced. These believe that what the New Testament described as "speaking in tongues" was xenoglossia, a miraculous spiritual gift through which the speaker could communicate in natural languages not previously studied.

Now we come to a much more interesting topic.  Xenoglossia is a phenomenon where people claim to be able to speak or write a (real) foreign language that they could not possibly have learned.  I'll come back to that another day.  It sounds much more interesting!


Anonymous said...

A really good book to read on this isn't actually specifically about tongues at all, but about Jackie Pullinger. It's called Chasing the Dragon and is all about her going on a slow boat and ending up in Hong Kong and befriending all the triad drug gangs. It's worth a read, and an amazing account :)

Tony the slighlty unbalanced genius said...

I speak in "Tongues" pretty much every Friday night after several pints of Belhaven Best. No matter which of the liquid gods you believe in, "Tongues" is widely burbled and understood between fellow worshipers.

Anonymous said...

Hahaha :D

Hilary said...

...actually to be serious, I do speak in tongues and have done for many years, and for me it has never been an emotional experience, but rather an aid to worship and praise and intercession. In a sense it is the Holy Spirit praying through His people, and it is one of the spiritual gifts that God gives to His people on or after conversion.
It was also one of the very first signs for the Jews to realise that God had poured out His Spirit on the Gentile believers in the same way He has poured out His Spirit on the Jewish believers at Pentecost.
It was also prophecied in the Old Testament in the book of Joel.
It is a gift of God.

Plasma Engineer said...

@Hilary - I wonder whether you understand yourself while you are doing it? I find the topic surprisingly interesting.

However, as I said:
"But since shamans, spiritualists and pagans also exhibit the same phenomena I think it is hard to argue that god is behind it all. Which god? Or should I ask 'who's god'?"

Hilary said...

There are deceitful spirits and couterfeit spirits...and yes, pretty much I do know what I am praying most of the time... :)