An explanation for the group psychology behind praying in tongues

I believe I have an explanation for the strange group psychology behind “praying in tongues”, as practiced by some born again Christians. Rather than write it as I did in a comment to a reader the other day, I’m introducing it in an anecdote of how I learned of this odd practice, and then I’ll offer my explanation of how I believe it works.

Years ago, in early 2007 I think, I realized I had a problem with meth addiction. I was looking for a way out, and my employer at the time, a man who owned a small software development contracting company, invited me to his home to join their church meeting.

I’m an atheist, so going to a church meeting might seem weird to readers, but you need to understand that contrary to the misconceptions of many religious folk, the path to atheism is through having an open mind. Critical thinking means considering all sides, unless you are certain that a side has no merit. At that point, I was willing to try anything. (Aside: Considering all sides also means not giving any extra weight to a religion that happens to be the one you were born into. For the Christians I’ve met, being open means considering Christianity and immediately discarding all other religions without even thinking of considering them. All religions are equal, but Christianity is “more equal” than the rest.)

So I went to Ozzy’s house in Durbanville. About twenty people attended, a group larger than I’d expected. There were all reasonably successful people. Ozzy, his wife, and two children, lived in a large house that could comfortably entertain a group of twenty or thirty. People were milling about, chatting, drinking coffee that his wife prepared, and eating cake. There was also a fat old cat that I could pat rather than interacting with the humans, so for me it was purrrfect.

It was a pleasant experience, with people sitting around and chatting, discussing the Bible, and so on. I can understand the attraction of it, the sense of fellowship it gave them.

Then things turned weird. Towards the end of the evening, as everyone sat in the study, a woman started “witnessing”. I’m not sure if that’s the right word. She was half praying, half talking to the other people, predicting that they would be successful, making some vague personal comments in between, almost like Barnum statements from astrology… I thought she was pretty good. She could make money as a medium, conning people with a clever combination of warm and cold reading, but I digress… Then she launched into prayer. It started out normal, and then she began throwing in gibberish words and phrases. Everyone else started praying too, and doing the same – spurting out made up words and phrases. I sat there dumbfounded, thinking, “What the fuck, man? I thought these people were sane.” Of course that was my cue to leave.

Since then I observed someone else doing exactly the same thing. Well adjusted, intelligent people, who literally pray out loud in gibberish, and somehow it is acceptable to them. They’re not speaking “in tongues”. That’s not a real thing. What would be the purpose of speaking in a language that you don’t understand? Actually, it seems to serve two purposes… It makes them feel like they are part of something greater, and it is, of course, an impressive spectacle. It’s something that can draw others in, if they are so inclined to observe long enough and catch the pattern of syllables and vowels to combine into interesting nonsense words.

I left that guy’s house hurriedly, wondering to myself what could drive smart people to such a behaviour, where each one surely knows that they are just making up childish gibberish, but each also thinking that the others are doing it for real. As an addict, I understood how behaviours that were unacceptable could become normal… I didn’t use meth until my early thirties, having been brought up with the idea of hard drugs being taboo. But soon I found myself in a strange new world where everyone I knew used meth, and I no longer thought of it as unusual. It became normal for me. But I had nothing on these people.

Then the other day, I heard of pluralistic ignorance. If you don’t want to follow the Wikipedia link, in my own words this is the social psychology where a person who is a member of a group rejects a behaviour of that group, but also believes that everyone else accepts that behaviour, so they go along with it anyway.

In the case of praying in tongues, since it isn’t real, everyone rejects the behaviour personally, but believes that everyone else is really doing it. It is ironic and hilarious to me, because somehow they never discuss it, somehow they have to hold on to the silly idea that it’s real. Of course, when I saw that back then in 2007, I chose meth. Hell… if accepting madness was the only alternative to being high, I’d take the drugs every time. Of course it isn’t and I am happily clean and sober. And of course this strange behaviour is not something that all Christians do.