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Glossolalia: Speaking in tongues

Part of “Pseudoscience A to Z”, a series of articles in the Skeptics Canada newsletter about topics that have not been subjected to much critical thinking by their promoters.

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is one of those shadowy terms that we have all heard, but the act itself is something that we have probably not heard. It has come to be seen as nothing more than meaningless nonsense syllables strung together, but allegedly it once was much more divine.

Some claim that the original form was a language that could miraculously be understood by anyone hearing it, regardless of their native tongue. Quite a feat. I guess that whole Tower of Babel thing has been revoked?

So what is glossolalia? The easy reply, and probably the correct one, is that it is just a bunch of made-up words, spoken in such a way that they sound as if the speaker is using a real but unrecognizable language. It is not to be confused with Xenoglossia, which is the alleged ability to speak a real language to which one has had no exposure. While unrelated in definition, their believability quotient is about equal.

A web site called quotes from an article in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation entitled “An Ethnological Study of Glossolalia” by George J. Jennings, March 1968. He mentions that glossolalia is practised among at least seventeen non-Christian religions of the world, a fact noted by bible411 with the wry comment “Certainly we wouldn’t attribute Glossolalia in these heathen religions to the work of the Holy Spirit.” Ah yes, when Christians babble a bunch of unintelligible phrases it’s because they are infused with the power of god, but anyone else is nuts, and a filthy heathen too. Actually, I would recommend this article for a number of reasons. There are passages that quote from scholarly research and provide a scientific approach to linguistics with a skeptical outlook, there are insights into the way believers approach the subject, and there is some uproarious unintentional humour, as the compilers do everything they can to spin things to make everyone else’s brand of belief to look silly while making their own views appear sensible.

Speaking in tongues is nowadays usually associated with the Pentecostal ministries, the typical “fire and brimstone” fundamentalist Christian sect whose adherents let little stand in their way. They take as their authority the Acts of the Apostles from the Bible, which says that on the day of Pentecost (a variable date connected to Easter) the Apostles “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.” The web site of Pentecostal preacher R. W. Schambach, who says that he sometimes speaks in tongues, informs us that if we call their 24-hour-a-day prayer line “an anointed prayer warrior will pray with you.” Wearing godly fatigues I presume?

The Apostle Paul writes on tongues in Corinthians, saying, “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself, ”Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not,” and “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.” This seems almost to go along with today’s gibberish interpretation.

Some of the most vehement objections to glossolalia come from Christians, who see the practice as not only nonsense but also insulting. The New Covenant Church of God reprints an article by D. James Janes, originally written for the Institute for First Amendment Studies. Titled “GLOSSOLALIA: THE GIFT OF GIBBERISH”, he rips into it with glee, noting that when he was flipping T.V channels and saw well-known televangelist Robert Tilton babbling away, it seemed to him that he had at one point used the phrase ‘Kowwabunga Dude’ made famous by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, hardly poster children for fundamentalists.

Believe it or not, the subject is also scorned by David Icke, the guy who claims that Earth is gradually being infiltrated by reptilian aliens. Put these weirdos in a room and they turn on each other.

One response to “Glossolalia: Speaking in tongues”

  1. Andrew says:

    Pentecostals are not, as you say, fire and brimstone fundamentalists. In fact, they don’t really believe most of the Bible or care about the doctrine of Hell. They are sects though!

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