Speaking in Tongues: A Sign From God or Human Will?

The following is a hate laced rant at my mother from a family member of ours because I frequently support equality and because I came out as a member of the LGBT community myself:


While reading the rant (some of it was cut off, but it doesn’t add anything to the “discussion”), this relative makes mention of me being “baptized in the Holy Spirit” and that me giving up religion is tantamount to “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit!” While I don’t think that not believing in or being unsure of something can be considered blasphemy, at one time I was what Pentecostals would call “baptized in the Holy Spirit.”  In the Pentecostal religion, this is something that his highly sought after.  It’s seen as something special and mysterious.  The Bible is clear that it is just one of many gifts, but to the Pentecostals it is the gift.  For United Pentecostals and Apostolics (we were Trinitarian Pentecostals) you can’t even consider yourself “saved” unless you’ve spoken in tongues.

I don’t claim to understand what happened to me.  Whenever it happened it was an interesting, frightening experience that I couldn’t understand.  All I know, is that up until the first time I was “slain in the Spirit”, as Pentecostals call it, I wanted it.  I thought this would surely cure me of my gay “problem” and that I would finally feel like a good Christian, not doomed to Hell.  I don’t remember the exact event that spurred it, but all I remember is that I was in my early to mid 20’s at a youth meeting and some school shooting or some other disaster had happened and one of the church moms had come into the meeting to tell us about it and said we should all pray to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.  We all joined hands and stood in a circle for at least 15 minutes basically begging God to give us the gift of tongues (how this would have helped the victims of wellwhatever disaster had happened, I don’t know…)  Eventually I remember feeling like I’d drifted off, like I was lying at the bottom of a deep pit staring up at the entrance which seemed like a tiny speck of light far above me.  I could hear others speaking around me and could hear myself speaking words that I couldn’t understand, but it all sounded like it was in another room.  Experiences like this happened a few more times in my life, and I remember a time where my Uncle (who happened to be the pastor of the church I was attending) whispering in my ear (making me feel more than a little uncomfortable) “There will come a time when your mind will tell you this isn’t real, that it’s all in your head, but you remember this conversation! You remember this feeling!” I think I will always remember that feeling and he was absolutely right…  

There were multiple times when I have been “slain in the Spirit”. One time myself and a lady that went to the same church that I did were caught in uncontrollable bouts of laughter, another time at a prayer meeting I got this foreboding sense that something horrible had happened to a family member and couldn’t stop crying about it (in fact, nothing had happened to anyone). Each and every time I had a “Holy Spirit” experience, I wasn’t overjoyed.  What I actually felt was that I wasn’t in control of myself.  While sometimes (as in the case with the laughter) there was a sense of euphoria, there was also a sense of fear.  Even though I was always told that this is the Holy Spirit, it’s still a somewhat frightening sensation “losing control” of oneself.  Having given up religion, it would be very easy for me to just pretend like nothing ever happened, but something did happen, and I’ve always wanted to know what it was.

In the book of Acts in the Bible, “Speaking in Tongues” is described in the following way:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each Pentecostof us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:1-12)

If that is what speaking in tongues is supposed to be, then everyone in any church I’ve ever went to was doing it wrong, because that wasn’t what I was doing, or what anyone in any church I’ve been to has done… Some United Pentecostals I’ve spoken with have said that there were two versions of the “Gift of Tongues.” One was the first that those in Acts experienced, which was just the initial “outpouring of the Spirit” and the other was the sign that you’re saved, but all of the passages of the Bible that I’ve read on the subject don’t give any indication that there are two separate gifts.  If we are to take the Bible as truth, and surely if the “gift of tongues” was meant to be the way it’s done now, then the Bible would give mention of it.  Right?  Why did the “gift of tongues” seem to die out until 1901 when a woman in a small church started it up again?  If this was the filling of the Holy Spirit that was supposed to be available for all Christians, then why did it disappear for nearly 2000 years?

When I think about speaking in tongues and my newfound agnosticism, I still get a little uneasy and afraid.  After over 30 years of indoctrination, it’s hard to get rid of those “Oh my gosh! If I question this I’ll burn in Hell forever!!!!!” feelings. You’d be surprised how many times that feeling strikes you at the strangest moments… Either way, there are explanations out there.  The Skeptic’s Dictionary states:

Psychiatrist Andrew Newberg, Director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, studied five African-American Pentecostal women who frequently speak in tongues. As a control activity, Newberg had the women sing gospel tunes while moving their arms and swaying.

Newberg gave the Pentecostals an intravenous injection of a radioactive tracer that allowed him to measure blood flow and “see” which brain areas were most active during the behaviors. Newberg and his associates published their findings in the November 2006 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. During glossolalia, the part of the brain than normally makes a person feel in control was essentially shut down. The findings make sense, says Newberg, because speaking in tongues involves giving up control and feeling a “very intense experience of how the self relates to [a] god.

After reading this, one might think “Wow! Surely this is a miracle!” But if it is, then it’s not unique to Christian Pentecostals.  As the Skeptic’s Dictionary continues, this altered mental state exists in other beliefs, but in a slightly different way:

Newberg noted that the glossolalia responses were the opposite of those of people in a meditative state. When people meditate their frontal lobe activity increases, while their parietal activity decreases. In meditation, one loses the sense of self while controlling one’s focus and concentration.

There are countless cultures and religions that have had some form of trance state, for instance Native American Shamanic healers have utilized methods to produce altered states of consciousness in themselves and their patients for thousands of years. A wide variety of plants are used by Medicine Men to alter consciousness and enter the trance state.”  As author John R. Rice notes in his book “The Charismatic Movement” (though he does so in a negative light):

ShamanPhenomena of this type are common among savages and pagan peoples of lower culture. Ecstatic utterances interpreted by a person in a sane state of mind have been verified. In the Sandwich Islands, for example, the god Oro gave his oracles through a priest who “ceased to act or speak as a voluntary agent, but with his limbs convulsed, his features distorted and terrific, his eyes wild and strained, would roll on the ground foaming at the mouth, and reveal the will of the god in shrill cries and sounds violent and indistinct, which the attending priests duly interpreted to the people.


Tongues occupied a significant place in ancient Greek religion. The seeress at Delphi, not far from Corinth, spoke in tongues. According to Plutarch (A.D. 44-117), interpreters were kept in attendance to explain her incoherent utterances. Many scholars have stated that tongues were experienced in the mystery religions (Osirius, Mithra, Eleusinian, Dionsyian, and Orphic cults). Some have concluded that the unintelligible lists of “words” in the “magical papyri” and in certain Gnostic “prayers” are records of ecstatic utterances. About A.D. 180 Celsus reported ecstatic utterances among the Gnostics. Lucian of Samosata (A.D. 120-198) described tongues speaking as it was practiced by the devotees of the Syrian goddess, Juno.

Today shamans (witch doctors, priests, or medicine men) in Haiti, Greenland, Micronesia, and countries of Africa, Australia, Asia, and North and South America speak in tongues. Several groups use drugs to aid in inducing the ecstatic state and utterances. Voodoo practitioners speak in tongues. Buddhist and Shinto priest have been heard speaking in tongues. Moslems have spoken in tongues, and an ancient tradition even reports that Mohammed himself spoke in tongues. According to his own account, after his ecstatic experiences  he found it difficult to return to “logical and intelligible speech

So… I still can’t entirely explain this phenomenon, however I do believe that with enough willpower the human mind is capable of powerful things, even temporarily altering its own chemistry. There are many instances of this happening, (i.e. a mother lifting a car off of her trapped child…)  Perhaps there is a god out there somewhere influencing humanity, causing them to fall into a trance and speak in tongues.  But if there is, he / she / it certainly doesn’t influence Christianity uniquely.  As I’ve shown, there are countless examples of other religions and other cultures experiencing this phenomenon in almost the same exact way.  Surely if speaking in tongues was god showing Pentecostals that they’re his chosen religion, and not just humans willfully altering their brain chemistry, then that god would make it distinct enough to tell it apart from what goes on in so many other cultures… Right?

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