On Removing Your Blinkers

I posted this on my personal blog. T.M. Luhrmann is a contributing author of the 2011 Annual Review of Anthropology. This is an edited version of the original post.

August 2013

Today The New York Times published an unusual piece, written by the scholar Tanya Marie Luhrmann, on what is technically known as glossolalia, the practice of speaking in tongues in certain sects of Christianity.

Luhrmann argues it may be a “better way to pray” and that it is “time to move on from” the prejudice most of us feel when we think of the types of people who worship in gibberish.

About a half hour after I saw it, Slate Political Writer Jamelle Bouie tweeted a link to John Gruber’s post about it on his widely-read blog, Daring Fireball. Jamelle is not comfortable with Gruber’s stance:

Hard to believe The New York Times ran this piece of claptrap on their op-ed page. “We” don’t speak in tongues; religious nutjobs do, and they do it because they believe in superstitious nonsense. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that there is a high correlation between tongue-speakers and climate change deniers and creationist “science” school curriculum pushers — people who are doing real and genuine harm to our society and the planet.

I’ll spare you the obvious criticism of double-standard and left-leaning bigotry, suffice to say that if progressives want tolerance, they may do well to remember it’s not for selective application.

It doesn’t mean I feel sorry for Luhrmann. She’s an anthropologist at Stanford University, so she can’t have escaped repeated attacks on the substance of her work by fellow researchers. I work with scientists, I can tell you: they are vicious bunch, and anthropologists can be especially scrappy.

The truth is, this particular discipline often gets a lot of flak because their work on various cultures sometimes leads them to ignore the bigger picture, losing sight of the idea that there does exist a hierarchy of values. This stems in part from the fact that cultural relativism was developed as a tool to counter western ethnocentrism in anthropology, but quickly became synonymous with “excusing behaviour that should be universally recognised as bad just because it occurs in a different culture.” An example: female genital mutilation is just bad, I don’t care where it happens.

So it would be almost a cliché to pillory Luhrmann on those grounds, as Gruber attempts to do. But the fact is that from his high horse, he spectacularly misses her point.

To understand her position requires some knowledge of religious practices—in this case, prayer—and their purpose. It’d also require the intellectual willingness not to dismiss what she’s saying just because she’s saying it about a group we don’t like, and a practice we think is nuts. In other words, it requires us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater the second we read the words “charismatic Christian.”

Here’s a list of things she is not saying:
- we should adopt all the practices of those who speak in tongues because they are good;
- we as a society should adhere to, or even take their values seriously;
- we should believe in the God of tongue-speakers, or any god at all.

Here’s what she is saying, and a careful read tells me she is quite surgical about her argument:
- let’s look at prayer, which is a meditative practice that has equivalents in other cultures, other philosophies and other faiths;
- now that I’ve got your attention, shall we examine various techniques of prayer/meditation;
- if you’re a Christian and you’re going to spend time praying anyway, let’s explore the effects different kinds of prayer have on you;
- it’s already been established that certain types of meditation change your brain and there are some clues that they may promote immune function and general well-being by lowering stress: could tongue-speaking have similar results?

By the way, some work has already been done that shows glossolalia affects how blood flows in the brain. If other studies of various meditative practices are any indication, this could be a very good thing, and we could learn something valuable about strategies to promote health. As I read it, it occurred to me that glossolalia could potentially work like transcendental meditation, a technique in which the meditator repeats a mantra over and over, until it ceases to mean anything and becomes just a string of sounds. A quick search told me I wasn’t too far off. Here’s a 1984 paper that shows this comparison has been done at least once.

For us to take a serious look at this, we have to stop pointing and mocking and being appalled by tongue-speaking. Instead, we should act like scientists, and study it with an open mind. What Luhrmann does is divorce glossolalia from the value system in which it is often practiced. She zeroes in on this single aspect of the religious experience, and asks an Excellent Fucking Question.

A careless read may make it seem like she’s adhering to it all, and expecting us to embrace it as well. Someone pointed out that her column could be co-opted by fundamentalists as a way to push their beliefs on other people, and indoctrinate more children. It’s true, because not everyone will take the time to pick this apart. Luhrmann studies humans in their communities and specialises in this particular culture of charismatic Christianity. She uses the terms of that culture and embeds her argument in that specific frame of reference, and I can see where confusion can occur.

But c’mon, people. Since when is this a free pass for us to become lazy readers, cafeteria liberals, or negligent thinkers?