Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ glossolalia

November 26, 2014 • 7:09 am

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is a special habit of American Christians, though other Christians in other countries use it too.  Both Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt, once evangelical preachers, told me recently that although they’re now diehard atheists, they sometimes still speak in tongues when they’re alone, for they find it relaxing.

The Jesus and Mo artist highlights this practice in today’s strip:


Here’s a real example (there are many on YouTube), showing evangelist Anita Fuentes speaking in tongues. I can see how one might find this relaxing, like a mantra uttered during meditation.  It’s certainly not a real language, as linguists have analyzed these utterances and found no semantic structure.

104 thoughts on “Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ glossolalia

    1. Not really. Iirc linguist Karen Stollznow once studied glossolalia from different countries and noticed distinct differences — predictable differences, meaning one can tell what country the person is from just by hearing a apparently telltale clues in the sounds and patterns.

      1. I’m sure the dialect may be detectable, but what possible meaning can be derived from word salad incantations?

        More importantly, religious proclamations and semantics are repulsive. These forces will cancel each other out (hence theological non-cognitivism).

  1. Oh dear, that woman babbling in “tongues.”
    From the video: “You can literally pray for hours in the spirit…”

    I kept wondering about all the things she could actually accomplish instead of spending it babbling…buying a book, learning something, cleaning the yard, helping someone out, getting snow tires for the car…anything!

    1. I’m guessing you could probably work up a pretty good buzz carrying on in this way. Could come in handy in a pinch 😉

    2. “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”

      I don’t really have a problem with the “wasting time” aspect. I assume they wouldn’t keep doing it if they didn’t get something valuable out of it. Even feeling that they’re getting something valuable out of it counts — if all we’re looking at is whether something works at making someone happy.

      But they don’t really stop there, so why should we?

      1. Certainly this may do no serious harm in itself. But, I look at it as an indicator of a mental perspective which opens itself up to woo generally. This can be and often is harmful to all of us. The indicator tells us that here is a person who’s upbringing lead to a serious societal handicap. It reminds us that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

  2. I would agree that glosslalia is more “formalized” in Christianity, but very similar practices are found in other religions – especially shamanistic traditions.

  3. I cannot myself comprehend how something meaningless like that clould be relaxing! Yet anyone who sings will have done exercises in choir practice when you sing with meaningless sounds aah – ooh – eeh – iih etc, so…

    1. It’s the Navajo inside us all trying to get out. Imagine, its just you and the coyotes on the high desert plains…you haven’t a clue how to speak Navajo, but you pretend anyway. I can see that being relaxing if not altogether diverting.

  4. Don’t forget that much Muslim ‘education’ consists of memorizing and chanting verses from the Qu’ran in Arabic by people who don’t speak Arabic and have no idea what they are saying.

    1. You mean, like mediaeval Xtian congregations learning verses in Latin?

      (No I’m not trying to give Islam a pass, I don’t think the comparison is complimentary).

      1. That’s another example of the same thing. It’s still not exactly glossolalia since it involves learning specific words as opposed to just letting your linguistic machinery spin it’s wheels. I imagine one gets the same kind of high from it.

        1. I agree it’s not quite the same. I don’t think I could ‘do’ glossolalia, as soon as I started trying to produce nonsense syllables I’d start thinking about what the next one should be and then they’d start to sound like actual words. When learning a phrase in a foreign language you don’t have to invent anything, the pattern to follow is set out for you.

          1. I’m sure I’d just channel all those doo-wop songs:
            da doo ron ron ron da doo ron ron doo wha diddy diddy dum diddy dum…

  5. A former prof of mine (himself an evangelical Christian) literally wrote the book on the topic:

    “Tongues of Men and Angels: Religious Languages of Pentecostalism”
    William J. Samarin

  6. I’ve yet to have any regrets for my piddling support of the Jesus and Mo artist. S/he is without peer in consistently leaving me with the thought, “…and real, live adults believe this shit!”

    1. A baby babbling is probably a stage in the development of a human being from child to adult, in this case the baby is experimenting with language.

      Glossolalia is a so called adult reverting back to childhood.

    1. “Creepy” is the word for me. I think we should send in the Pope’s exorcism corps to sort her out.

      Seriously though, I’m probably being intolerant but this stuff just makes me roll my eyes and say ffs. I suppose I can see that it’s really just a form of meditation, so would probably have some value for some without the supernatural bits.

    1. Yaba dabba do 2 U 2!!
      But I’m glossing over the details.
      Just thinking about speaking in tongues
      makes me feel silly. That can be relaxing
      in a way.

    2. I love the group Niyaz and have several of their cds. They’re a sort of electronic Persian fusion group and the lead singer usually sings in I think Urdu or Turkish — but she also sings in invented language. I was at a concert where she explained that she grew up multilingual and realized that she could “fake” foreign languages. So some of the songs are just babbling. She didn’t claim anything beyond that — it was just fun.

    3. I’m inspired to write a Glossolalia Limerick.

      A boggley wuggley wiggle
      Badoobley noggly figgle
      Kazakkerly foo
      Badaggly boo
      Shabobbly fobbly piggle.

        1. The dirt is normally in the perceiver, not in that of the the transmitter.
          Though in the case of filth like that, I agree. Unadulterated and unexpurgated.

      1. I think the Rev Charles Dodgson did better…

        ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
        Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
        All mimsy were the borogroves
        And the mome raths outgrabe

        And I always get it wrong, it’s borogoves.

  7. In the UK we have something called The Alpha Course, offered by mainstream (mostly C of E) churches as either an introduction to Christianity or a refresher for the faithful. The main force behind it is Nicky Gumbel, who has also been a big influence on the present Archbishop of Canterbury. He’s definitely ‘into’ speaking in tongues:

  8. I suddenly realize that I’ve been missing the point of Karen Armstrong all this time! She’s doing glossolalia!

    But seriously… I wonder if there is something similar going on… some kind of satisfying trance-like state that is achieved by vocalizing non-meaningful sounds.

  9. Wouldn’t linguists be able to scientifically analyze this kind of babble and show that it is not a true language? That would convince the adherents, make them embarrassed, and convert them the rationalism right away. Wouldn’t it?

    1. Wouldn’t linguists be able to scientifically analyze this kind of babble and show that it is not a true language?

      Define a “true language”, please.
      You can fairly easily determine if it is similar to languages that we know (though many are on the verge of extinction), but what about languages that we don’t know? Including the (almost certain to exist) languages of species on other planets.

      1. Define a “true language”, please.

        Hmmm…interesting challenge.

        Any answer is going to have to invoke Claude Shannon in some form or another, at the least.

        I’d probably go with something along the lines of any method by which information is communicated from one entity to another.

        For a language to be useful, it’s going to have to be able to communicate arbitrary information. Glossolalia only seems capable of broadcasting the message, “I am a deluded Christian fuckwit,” so it’s not particularly useful. Not that there’s no utility in broadcasting that message, but there’re other ways to do that that’re generally also present with glossolalia.

        At this point, I’d probably also invoke Alan Turing. If your language is Turing-Complete and supports arbitrary expansion of references between the language and real-world phenomenon, that’s probably “good enough.”

        From there, you could compare languages based on their encoding efficiency (with compressability being a good test), but that’s going beyond the original request.


  10. That, and a strong cup of instant coffee*, and you’ve confirmed two of the signs promised in Mark 16:17-18.

    *yuck, anything that tastes that bad must be poisonous.

        1. Or maybe you don’t get good instant coffee in the States?
          I was trying to remember … I was probably in my mid-teens before I ever had “percolated” (if that’s the generic term) coffee, and it was several years more before I encountered a way of brewing it which made it preferable to instant. (Or tea, for that matter.)
          I believe that the power of childhood exposure to particular concepts is a matter that has been discussed ad nauseam before on this site.
          To be honest, I don’t think that I’ve ever preferred “perc’d coffee” to proper coffee. But if you’re sharing an office with a dozen other people and there’s a perc in the sludge corner, then you’ll make that as a matter of sociability, unless no-one else is fancying a brew. The wife has a mild preference for perc’d coffee, but again, she acquired that taste in her thirties when she was exposed to it working in the oilfield. Before then – chai all the way. (Or кефир , if that were available – now there’s a taste that is worth acquiring – stale milk a day short of becoming cottage cheese. Yummy! I shall enquire of my Romanian other-shift guy if I should bring a culture out on my next rotation. That should have the Medic’s eyes rotating to the light fittings!)
          Whether the slop in question is dire or not, I’m not qualified to comment. At home I typically use Douwe Ebergts, or a mix from the local coffee shop which the wife likes. I’ve no idea what brand the brew machines in the canteen and tea shacks use.

          1. Or maybe you don’t get good instant coffee in the States?

            I’m trying to parse that sentence…and not having much success. How, exactly, is it that a bachelor can be married…?

            I was trying to remember … I was probably in my mid-teens before I ever had “percolated” (if that’s the generic term) coffee, and it was several years more before I encountered a way of brewing it which made it preferable to instant. (Or tea, for that matter.)

            Percolators are perhaps the worst way to brew coffee. Honestly, I might actually prefer instant to percolator coffee. In either case, I’d prefer water….

            A simple drip filter is going to be much superior.

            Better still are the methods that use pressure…espresso machines, for example, force steam through the grounds. The French press uses a hand plunger to force hot water through them. The Aerobie Aeropress is somewhat like a miniature French press that can make a cup of coffee that’ll compete with what a skilled barrister can produce with an espresso machine.


            Never had it. Considering my taste for fermented milk products, I should probably remedy that omission.

            Whether the slop in question is dire or not, I’m not qualified to comment. At home I typically use Douwe Ebergts, or a mix from the local coffee shop which the wife likes.

            Coffee is one of those things where both ingredients and technique are critical. You can make a lousy cup of coffee with great beans, and it doesn’t matter what technique you’e got if the beans are shit. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to source good beans nor turn them into coffee, so long as you know what to do.

            Simple version? Find a coffee house that roasts their own beans and buy from them. Don’t buy from Starbucks; they burn their beans. Sole-proprietor is likely to be a very good bet.

            Then, get an Aeropress. They’re cheap and easy. Start with the instructions that come in the box; after you’ve made a few cups and have the hang of it, do some quick Web searches to see some of the inventive alternative techniques people have come up with and play around with them to see if you prefer the results.

            Do that, and it’s likely you’ll never be interested in instant so-called coffee ever again.


          2. It’s coffee – not worth the effort. We’re on our third (in 10 years) coffee-making machine, and I simply do not know (nor care) enough to assess their technical merits one against the other. The wife meanwhile … I don’t know what her criteria are at all.
            Fizzy puffy steamy things – they’re the machines that go with places where it takes longer to read the menu than to drink the coffee. I walk out of the shop and go somewhere else about 3 seconds after starting to read the menu in such places and go to find somewhere that serves “coffee, now” instead of asking me to read a hundred-item long list.
            If you like fermented milk products then кефир would be on your menu. It doesn’t travel, so you’d best obtain a “starter culture” from somewhere. Chuck it into a carton of milk which is already a bit old, leave it in a cool place (might be a problem in Arizona – fridges are generally too cold. Unless you like Salmonella.) for about 4 days, filter off the floating bits of culture into your next batch (or dump it into the freezer ; delicate it is not) and imbibe. It is “different”.
            I would label the container clearly, otherwise someone will accuse you of having sour milk, as if it were an accident.

          3. I don’t necessarily prefer instant coffee but I don’t dislike it either; and “making” it is about as ambitious as I can be in the morning.

          4. … Until after at least the second mug of warm brown sludge.
            I know that feeling.

          5. I walk out of the shop and go somewhere else about 3 seconds after starting to read the menu in such places and go to find somewhere that serves “coffee, now” instead of asking me to read a hundred-item long list.

            I’d be damned leery of such places, too; as much as they adulterate the coffee, it probably needs to be adulterated.

            But some of them just have those menus because Starbucks has them and the Starbucks marketing empire has convinced people that coffee needs to be adulterated…in large part because Starbucks has shit coffee that really does need to be adulterated.

            If they’re any good, they’ll be happy to serve you “coffee, now,” plus a minute or so for the brewing time. Your only real choice should be whether or not you want espresso or American-style coffee. The latter is made by first making an espresso and then adding a suitable amount of hot water to dilute it.

            If you like fermented milk products then кефир would be on your menu. It doesn’t travel, so you’d best obtain a “starter culture” from somewhere.

            Whole Paycheck has an entire (small) display case of the stuff in the dairy section…I’ll probably start with that. I don’t tend to drink much other than water during the day, plus a cup or two of something hot (mostly tea, sometimes coffee) with breakfast, so I likely won’t start culturing my own even if I like it….


          6. ‘fizzy puffy steamy things’ – are best consigned to preserved railways where I for one take great delight in being hauled behind them.

            Which leads me to wonder – those coffee machines that hiss and roar like a steam loco blowing down the boiler – do they need a boiler certificate?

          7. Hmmm. Probably depends on the volume of the chamber, and it’s working pressure – which adds up to the stored energy.
            I’ll just package that query into a hand grenade, and drop it into the lap of the RSTC (Rig Safety and Training Coordinator) as I’m getting onto the helicopter home. I’ll take the pin with me, of course.
            Asking questions like that is a way to make yourself really unpopular.
            Actually, no, it’s not a problem : the machines we have are pressurised by the water line pressure, I think. I still don’t know about the hissy steamy things – but we don’t have them on board – and that may be why we do not have them.

      1. Fair enough. I didn’t mean to insult anyone’s taste.

        Can I still make the claim that glossolalia is to speaking in tongues as instant coffee is to poison? Therefore neither act confirms a specific test Jesus claimed God would pass (according to the stories in the Bible.)

      2. I’m as one with Aidan there. It seems to me that coffee has almost as much BS associated with it as religion.

        (Hey, I like coffee. Instant. Don’t drink anything else).

        1. As long as it has caffeine and no one dares speak to me before I am done with my obligatory 3 cups in the morning, It is all good. Seriously, if the mug isn’t empty, it’s best to remain silent. I will snap.

          1. Yeah, I’m the same. I’m just useless till I get my morning fix. (Of course some would say I’m useless after that too, but at least I’m complacently useless).

  11. Years ago believers used to use glossolalia as proof of God to nonbelievers. They would tell stories of people who suddenly start speaking in a language they could not have known (usually “ancient Aramaic”) or preachers translating amazing predictions (“how do you explain THAT??”)

    Then recording devices became common. It turned out to be easy to demonstrate that no, that isn’t a ‘foreign language.’ And different ‘interpreters’ will come up with completely different translations — or one interpreter will come up with different translations if they don’t know they already heard and ‘read’ that one.

    So this particular Evidence for God capable of spreading faith is only trotted out in personal discussions. Instead, most tongue-speakers shifted to what they think is the unfalsifiable claim that it’s “angel language” — and they take care to avoid anything which looks like a test. Once burned, twice shy.

    1. Just like an atheist. You seem to think that puny human ‘interpreters’ could unravel the mysteries of Godly language. We only know after the predictions come true what the predictions were, silly!

    2. The Book of Abraham is an 1835 work produced by Joseph Smith that he said was based on Egyptian papyri purchased from a traveling mummy exhibition.

      Unknown to Smith, Egyptian hieroglyphs could now (as of 1835) be translated due to the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799.

      When actual scholars compared Smiths “translation” to their translation of fragments of the original papyri, Smiths translation bore no resemblance to the actual text.

      Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie of London University wrote:

      “It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations”.

      The current official position of the Mormon church is:

      “regardless of what the surviving facsimiles and scrolls indicate, the Book of Abraham is a sacred book of scripture and was written by the hand of Abraham”.

      1. Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie of London University wrote: “It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations”.

        Not one word? Surely you’d expect there to be the occasional word that lines up in the right place, if only by chance.
        I started playing bingo on dull Saturday evenings on the rig a while ago (won a phone and a Sat Nav out of it!!), and noticed that any pair of bingo sheets would always have at least one cell which had the same value in it. I believe that there is a similar theorem that this applies to any oriented plane, no matter how scrunched, tossed upon a plane tesselated with the same pattern. I’ll be damned if I can work out a proof though – ossified mathematical muscles. But I bet that for any non-trivial corpus, there would be some overlap of translation and original. If only by sheer chance.

    3. Then again, even without the aid of recording devices, how did they verify that the person was speaking an unknown language? One would think someone would have to be around to confirm the semantics…

      1. In the anecdote there was usually a foreigner and/or a scholar in the area who cries out “Glory be to God! This person is speaking (Japanese/Portuguese/Navaho/Aramaic/Ancient Greek/place-your-selection-here)!!!” And all were amazed and fell on their knees to praise Christ (the ones who knew Him) or accept Christ (the ones who hadn’t.)

        So, Athiest — how do you explain THAT??!!

        1. Lo! It’s a miracle! And immediately following the confirmation by the foreigner in their presence, the believers partake in a riveting game of Three-card Monte…blessed be the poor.

  12. There have been some interesting studies on glossalia some of which indicate it is sometimes connected with a dissociative state similar to hypnosis.

    Two people I know who have done both speaking in tongues (over 30 years ago) and meditation claim the latter is better, but the difference may be simply due to the saner cultural context in which they learned the latter- less frenzied emotionalism. Or due to the folks being older and wiser when they did the latter.

    The woman in the video seems nice enough, but this is the same religion which “gifted” us with Sarah Palin. Perhaps speaking in tongues simply dredges out what is already in you, helping relatively nice people be nicer, but making crazy people even crazier.

    An excellent summary of current research on tongues is here

  13. A loooooong time ago, I was able to do a bout of Glossolalia. It lasted probably a few minutes, and then I got very bored so I stopped.

    The most interesting aspect is when I told my very religious (daughter of missionaries) and highly educated colleague, she insisted that I had discovered either a new language or remembered a lost one. When I replied that this was highly doubtful, she remained unmoved of her conviction.

    From what I remembered, it is similar to a trance as I later learned how to self-hypnotize.

    1. Ah’ve seen ‘um both, an’ Ah’d nearly ruthur take a whuppin’ then to have to bear up under this ululation again.

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