Did you know that the fastest growth among the Christian denominations in Australia today is happening in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Protestant Churches?
One of the defining characteristics of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity is the phenomenon of speaking in strange languages. It is believed that this is a miraculous gift from the Holy Spirit, that it continues a practice of the Apostles themselves, and that it is even a sign of God’s favour. People who speak in tongues consider it to be an experience of connecting with God, a superior form of prayer in fact. Some will even go so far as to say that Christians who do not speak in tongues are seriously deficient as Christians
All of these beliefs are highly suspect. But don’t take my word for it; read the evidence and make up your own mind. You will find some detailed research here which I will try to summarise briefly below.
Firstly, if speaking in tongues were truly a gift of the Holy Spirit, one would expect it to be unique to those who believe in the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. But in reality, speaking in tongues or glossolalia was not only practiced by pagan cults well before Christianity began, but continues to practiced by non-Christians today, including Hindu fakirs and gurus in India and even, worryingly, by voodoo practitioners in Haiti. There is no doubt that pagans began speaking in tongues long before Christianity began, and there is compelling evidence that the practice was smuggled into Christian life by pagan converts to Christianity.
But didn’t the disciples speak in tongues? Here we must make an important distinction, one you will have already noticed if you have been reading your Bible carefully. The apostles spoke with different languages on the day of Pentecost, and those who heard them understood what they were saying. This is a crucial difference to what was going on twenty years later at Corinth, and what goes on in Pentecostal Churches today. “Xenolalia” is the miraculous ability to speak in a real language that one has not learned, but that others who know that language can understand. “Glossolalia” is the ability to speak in something that sounds like a language, but is not actually any known language, and that no one understands. Xenolalia is quite rare. It is virtually impossible to explain by invoking any natural process – a person who does not know Swahili cannot possibly accurately imitate it. On the other hand, glossolalia is quite common, and there are many good theories that explain it as a natural psychological phenomenon (we will consider some of these below). Since no one can understand what is being said, anyone could make sounds, mimicking the tone and rhythm of real language, and sound like they’re speaking a real language when in fact they are just speaking gibberish.
There are in fact five clear references to speaking in tongues in the New Testament. Four of them almost certainly describe xenolalia. But the fifth certainly describes glossolalia – 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14. This long passage is agreed by all to be directed at those who had been causing disorder and confusion among the Corinthians at their church gatherings. It is part of a letter which also addresses not only disorder in gatherings, but many other undesirable trends that had developed in this Christian community.
In it, the overall picture we gain is of a church where people were trying to outdo each other in the spiritual gifts and using things like speaking in tongues for their own pleasure rather than for the building up of their fellow Christians in love. The tenor of the passage is one of admonition. Speaking in tongues may be nice between you and God, but you will have to stop speaking in tongues or at least severely limit it if you are just going to do it for your own benefit. In fact, to make sure no one does speak in tongues selfishly, if you speak in a tongue you must interpret what you said so everyone can understand it. If you can’t, then stay silent. The net effect of St Paul’s words would tend towards the complete eradication of public glossolalia from eh Church, particularly if there was no one who could interpret what was being said. As we shall see below, it is one of the characteristics of glossolalia that the sounds have no meaning (I wonder if St Paul knew this himself, but didn’t want to discourage the Corinthians?).
Most Pentecostal Churches today seem not to heed St Paul’s advice. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of glossolalia as a sign of the favour of the Holy Spirit upon the person who can practice it. Christians who do not speak in tongues are told they are not complete Christians. Pressure is put on Pentecostal teenagers, often in very subtle ways, until they begin to speak in tongues. If they don’t, they are made to feel somehow deficient or inferior. And contrary to St Paul’s quite explicit command, very little interpretation goes on. What interpretation does occur may be frankly fraudulent. What one sees mostly is a multitude of people, all apparently in an ecstatic state, all speaking at once and lolling their heads about in complete self-absorption. They would do well to heed St Paul’s advice!
So what is going on when today’s Pentecostal Christians speak in tongues? What is the cause if it is not the Holy Spirit? There are any number of theories around, but clearly some are better than others. Some have speculated that glossolalia is a genuinely supernatural phenomenon, but rather than being from God, is instead a trick of the devil intended to confuse and distract Christians from the things that really matter. But in general, if a natural explanation for something can be found, that is preferable to a supernatural explanation. Are there any natural explanations?
Tongue speakers often look like they are in a hypnotic trance. Could glossolalia just be some kind of hypnotic state or state of altered consciousness? Others have suggested that glossolalia is evidence of mental illness. It is important to note that some who practice glossolalia, though by no means all, or even the majority, progress to more extreme forms of expression. Holy Laughter is a well-documented phenomenon among Charismatics and Pentecostals, where the worshipper laughs uncontrollably often for hours on end. Even more disturbing is the phenomenon where the worshipper will begin to emit animal noises, grunts and caws and moos, all supposedly under the influence of the Holy Spirit. In fairness, most Pentecostals would consider these activities to be some kind of demonic trick rather than a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit. Others might consider that such behaviour could only be explained by mental illness. However, it would seem that recent research has ruled out hypnosis and mental illness, at least for the more common practice of glossolalia (I have not researched the laughter or animal sounds in detail).
What recent research has found is powerful evidence for glossolalia being a natural process that simply involves copying others. In other words, glossolalia can simply be learned by mimicry and does not need any supernatural or pathological cause to explain it. This makes far more sense of the evidence that glossolalia occurs across a multitude of cultures and religions than does the explanation that glossolalia is a unique gift of the Holy Spirit.
Why would people want to speak in tongues? Studies have found that the part of the brain that is associated with pleasure and positive emotions is highly active while speaking in tongues. This would explain why people who practice it like it so much! But it also means that glossolalia belongs not in the category of supernatural miracles performed by the Holy Spirit, but of natural experiences that make you feel good, like eating chocolate or having a hot bath when you’re tired.
Taking all of this information together, we are justified in concluding that glossolalia is a natural phenomenon and not a supernatural manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit. It is certainly not essential in the life of the Christian, anymore than is the eating of chocolate or the taking of hot baths. In fact, its emotional allure can easily distract Christians from the things that really matter, like practical faith, hope and especially love. When one is speaking in a tongue, one is focused on the pleasure they are experiencing within and ignoring others around them. This may be acceptable when one is worshipping God in private, but it is not what communal Christian worship should be like.
Communal worship involves sharing – many people singing and praying with one voice; listening to each other and harmonising with each other. It involves exchanging the kiss of peace with other, and bowing side by side; humbly coming forward to partake of the One Body and One Cup , united in the mystery of the sacrificial love of Christ. It is the sharing of the experience of God with those around you and thus being drawn into a deeper and closer relationship of love through that shared experience. None of this fits with the self-focused, unintelligible utterance of sounds of glossolalia.
 Anecdotal evidence from a servant (now a priest): he and two friends attended a Pentecostal meeting in Egypt. When the audience was invited to come forward and speak in tongues, the servant came forward and purposely made nonsense sounds. Upon finishing, the pastor gave an eloquent “translation” of what he had said!