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Ask the Patriarch 44
On Speaking in Tongues

from Lynda Eyambe

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What is your view on people who speak in tongues?

My cousin who is as religious as you could possibly be told me she was recently "born in the holy sprit" and blessed with the gift of speaking in tongues, and I believe her because she would never lie about something like that.

I'm an atheist, but I wanted to know in your opinion what made her suddenly to suddenly start mumbling incoherently? And I know in her heart she thought it came from God.

Is it that when your faith is strong enough you get almost delirious and your subconscious just takes over and you do the things your mind wants you to do? I don't get it, if you have a medical or psychological view on this I would love to hear it.

Thanks

The Patriarch replies:

Lynda:

"Speaking in tongues" as part of a religious experience is nothing new. There are records of it occurring as early as 1100 BC in ancient Grecian ceremonies. So it is not a uniquely Christian experience.

However, it is a comparatively recent innovation in the Christian context, primarily arising in Pentecostal denominations, though it has spread beyond those origins.

As far as the denominations that don't practice glossolalia are concerned, they consider the whole practice to be based on an erroneous interpretation of certain New Testament passages along with a mistranslation in the King James version of the bible.

The general understanding is that, as described in the New Testament, these practices refer to apostles speaking in real languages which were previously unknown to them. For example, if I were suddenly to start speaking Urdu and be completely understood by those to whom Urdu was a native language, then I would be performing as described by "speaking in tongues" in the New Testament.

However, the languages actually spoken by those who "speak in tongues" in Pentecostal ceremonies are totally unknown. They are not real human languages. Essentially, they are total gibberish. Nonsense syllables. And apparently equivalent to what was occurring in ancient Greece in ceremonies for quite a different set of deities.

Why does it happen? I would suggest it occurs in religious ceremonies because it is expected of the participants. It is unconscious mob psychology. It is peer pressure.

One study of the phenomenon (and there have not been many - churches are unwilling to have these things receive scientific scrutiny) found motor and vocal behaviour similarities between those who practice glossolalia in a religious setting and victims of Tourette's syndrome.

In neither case is it a conscious deliberate act. In the one case, it is a disorder of the mind, in the other, it is a group dynamic created by the religious beliefs.

So - you are probably quite right that your cousin is not lying about what is happening to her. She is just living up to the expectations of her particular faith. But the practice does not make her beliefs any more valid.