Among the Most Annoying Accommodationists (male category), we have Chris Mooney, Andrew Brown, Mark Vernon, Chris Steadman, and many others too numerous to list. But in the female category, four people immediately spring to mind:
Elaine Ecklund (constantly twists her survey data to show that scientists are, after all, more religious or “spiritual” than most people think. Supported by Templeton).
Krista Tippett (constantly touts spirituality and tries to pry out of her guests their spiritual or religious beliefs. Unctuously ingratiating.)
Karen Armstrong (so apophatic that one can’t discern what she’s saying. Unaccountably popular, probably among those who want to be religious but lack tangible beliefs).
and the latest addition, Tanya Luhrmann (recently funded by Templeton)
Luhrmann tentatively joined the list when she published her book When God Talks Back, an investigation of a charismatic Christian sect that had a very thin thesis: you gotta work to be able to talk to God; prayer isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of practice before you start hearing God’s replies. Whether God existed was a question Luhrmann tiptoed around.
And she continues this tiptoeing in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. For reasons that elude me, the Times has recently shown a strong desire to osculate the rump of religion, including last Sunday’s debate on creationism. Equally obscure, but perhaps related, is the reason why they keep publishing insubstantial op-ed pieces by sociologist Luhrmann, all of them making only one point: the stuff that religious people do is good. What’s most annoying is that she keeps her own beliefs under wraps, trying to cater to believers of all stripes while not alienating any of them.
But perhaps her most annoying op-ed yet appeared in yesterday’s NYT Sunday Review: “Why we talk in tongues.” As far as I can see, it says nothing beyond this: Christians all over the world speak in tongues, which is a way of praying different from the two classical ways of praying (“apophatic” prayer, similar to meditation, in which you disengage your mind, and “kataphatic” prayer, the traditional form in which you “fill [your] imagination with scripture”).
Beyond this, Lurhmann notes that speaking in tongues is like meditation, and makes people feel better (duhhh!). She also cites MRI scans that show that those who practice “glossolalia” (the fancy word for speaking in tongues) “experience less blood flow to the frontal cerebral cortext.” She interprets this finding as their brain behaving “as if they were less in a normal decision-making state—consistent with the claim that praying in tongues is not under conscious control.”
Of course it’s not under conscious control; if you’re a determinist, nothing is, including regular prayer. This is just a method in which one utters meaningless syllables freely. And, at the end of her piece, Luhrmann tells us not to look down on this behavior:
Speaking in tongues still carries a stigmatizing whiff. In his book “Thinking in Tongues,” the philosopher James K. A. Smith describes the “strange brew of academic alarm and snobbery” that flickered across a colleague’s face when he admitted to being a Pentecostal (and, therefore, praying in tongues). It seems time to move on from such prejudice.
But why shouldn’t it be stigmatized? It sounds ridiculous, like baby talk, it’s done in public, and, most of all, it’s an embarrassing public display of faith. Are we supposed to respect this practice? Give me a break.
Of all the publicly displayed forms of Christian worship, speaking in tongues is perhaps the most deserving of ridicule. Here’s a segment from the movie Religulous that shows some glossolalia:
h/t: Greg Mayer