Apr 2, 2012

Pentecostals & presumptions of sickness

In preparation for my class on American Pentecostalism, I’ve been trying to review the academic analyses of speaking in tongues, which ethnographers and psychologists seem to insist on calling “glossolalia” even though no one engaged in the practice calls it that.

My initial conclusion: A lot of it is crazy talk. 

Not the speaking in tongues -- the studies.

There’s a lot of confusion where the context of tongues (be it the sociological context of the pentecostals or the linguistic context of the speaking itself) is mistaken for the cause. There’s much built on the assumption the practice is abnormal. Which it may be. But the assumption stands in the place of any explication of how and why, only bolstered and reinforced by studies that reproduce the presumption, without any actual interrogation of how the studies and their methods lead to the conclusion that was never really in doubt.

To often,  it's as if the only interesting or viable question was thought to be "what's wrong with these people?"

There was a German study in Berlin in 1965, for example, which found glossalalists were “pre-schizophrenic” or had, at least, suffered psychotic breaks. A minor detail: the study was done in a suicide-prevention clinic.

The latter fact, one suspects, had something to do with the findings.


Another study, done in 1912 in Switzerland, found those who spoke in tongues were dealing with issues from their childhood, the words themselves articulations of the “infantile-repressed.” The way this conclusion was reached, though, was by writing down the words a patient spoke while speaking in tongues, then reading them back to the patient, and then asking the patient to free-associate. Asked, for each glossolalia-word, “what comes to your mind in this connection?” The free-associated words were the interpreted by the psychoanalyst. Who drew this conclusion about painful childhood experiences and unfulfilled wishes.

Perhaps I’m too skeptical of the method, here, but it seems to me that free-association + psychoanalytical interpretation could always reach this conclusion. And maybe it’s always true -- who, after all, escapes childhood unscathed? -- but I don’t know that it really actually tells us anything useful about speaking in tongues.

There’s a similar problem with one of the most often cited studies, which administered Rorschach test to holiness pentecostals in the American South in the 1960s. 

It was found they all had unstable personalities.

Even if one accepts the legitimacy of Rorschach tests, there is the problem, as later studies have pointed out, of sample bias. We’re talking, after all, about poor whites in the American South in the ’60s. And poor whites who are socio-economically marginalized even more than other poor whites in the American South at that time.

There’s a similar problem with a study done in Berkeley California in ’66. Looking specifically at those who spoke in tongues in churches where that was not accepted behavior, the study concluded those who persisted anyway, who didn’t split off to join congregations where their prayer practice would be accepted, were deviant. Based on interviews with these people, the study found they were hostile to authority, for example, and felt isolated.

Well, yeah.

But this doesn’t tell us anything about speaking in tongues in particular. It tells us something about that specific group in that specific social context.

And something rather obvious, too.

Yet there seems to be such persistent disregard of context.

In ’64, a psychologist reported that “Mystical religious experiences” are “a defense against reality with potential danger to the emotional equilibrium of the individual.” This broad conclusion, though, turns out to be drawn from a sample not of tongue-speakers generally, or a broad swath of those who have had mystical experiences, but a single case study. A single case study of a patient who thought God would enable him, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, to play the piano.

One can easily defer to the psychologist’s judgment that this individual was suffering from “an hysterical attempt to hold together his shattering ego by a frantic leap to glossolalia” without drawing any larger conclusions about glossolalia or mystical experiences more generally.

In another case, a study concluded that people pray in tongues in situations of “tension and anxiety.” The fact that this is, a lot of times, when people pray, didn’t seem to come into consideration. So, a fairly obvious observation, which has something to do with the context of speaking in tongues, is mistaken for a point about the cause of speaking in tongues, and is turned into this crazy talk:
“In the subjects whom we studied, [glossolalia] is used voluntarily in many secular situations to reduce tension and anxiety through a number of thought and motor pathways …. the individual feels a general state of uneasiness or tension or restlessness and not knowing the cause seeks to relieve the tension through the motor act of rapid and fluid vocalizations. Glossolalia may be used in this way either consciously or unconsciously. One of our subjects claimed that during examination time, he frequently would burst into tongues.”
This is not to say that none of the studies show any awareness of these problems. Or that all the studies are simply bad.

Some compare pentecostals with others from similar socio-cultural positions, with mixed results. A study done in South Africa found pentecostals were more likely to have psychopathogies than others. A study in Minnesota at the same time, and another one done in Los Angeles found that wasn’t true.

The one study just cited at length above notes, too, the problematic correlation between psychopathology and class.  When poor and socially-disadvantaged “glossalalists” were compared with middle-class and more respectable practitioners of the same religious practice, the poor, in general, were found to be sociopathic, hysterical and hypochondriacal. The middle-class and upper-class were, in general, fine. The study hastens to add this should not be construed as showing social classes result from psychological health or lack thereof, as there were, actually, well-off people who were mentally ill and poor people who psychologically fine. But it does seem like they, or maybe psychology more generally, have pathologized class in general.

Regardless, they do note that different classes, different sorts of people with different social problems and varying degrees of socio-psychological deviance do speak in tongues. So: “glossolalia is a psychological phenomenon which bears no necessary linear relationship with personal variables.”

And: “the phenomena of glossolalia per se cannot be interpreted necessarily as dither deviant or pathological, for its meaning is determined and must be interpreted in terms of the socio-cultural context.”

To the extent that this study and such studies do that, they seem more constructive.

Mostly, though, the field seems to have been dominated by assumptions about abnormalcy, which are then constructed as “studies” that take, as their beginning and end, the question “what’s wrong with those people?”