The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

What is the Limit on “Respecting Beliefs”?

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 31, 2009

I saw a recent post on another skeptical blog – PodBlack Cat – which mentioned a news story about a girl in Mississippi who claimed to be possessed in her high school classroom (read the news story here). Apparently, this young woman began to “speak in tongues” and began making predictions, some of which included predictions of other students’ deaths. Upon witnessing this event, some students got in touch with a local TV station, and now the whole thing has a kind of surrealistic feel to it.

I see three things with this story that are just plain silly. One, the claim by the girl that she was possessed (according to her, by God); two, the claims on the part of other students that she was possessed not by God but the Devil; and three, perhaps most importantly, the fact that a local news station actually treated this whole fiasco seriously. A modern 21st-century television station doing a news story on a kid who claims to have been possessed? Are you kidding me?! That must have been one slow news day.

Let me take each of these points on, one-by-one…

#1. The girl claims that she was transmitting the voice of God because, according to her mother:

… she believes God is using her daughter to touch students at Pelahatchie High School.

The supposed process by which “God’s voice” was transmitted was something known as “speaking in tongues.” According to some charismatic/evangelical Christian sects, this is a mark of being in direct touch with the divine, but scholars of anthropology & linguistics refer to such phenomena as glossolalia. From the Skeptic’s Dictionary, the entry on glossolalia states

When spoken by schizophrenics, glossolalia are recognized as gibberish. In charismatic Christian communities glossolalia is sacred and referred to as “speaking in tongues” or having “the gift of tongues.”

and…

Glossolalics behave in various ways, depending on the social expectations of their community. Some go into convulsions or lose consciousness; others are less dramatic. Some seem to go into a trance; some claim to have amnesia of their speaking in tongues. All believe they are possessed by the Holy Spirit and the gibberish they utter is meaningful. However, only one with faith and the gift of interpretation is capable of figuring out the meaning of the meaningless utterances. Of course, this belief gives the interpreter unchecked leeway in “translating” the meaningless utterances. Nicholas Spanos notes: “Typically, the interpretation supports the central tenets of the religious community”.

So it seems that “speaking in tongues” and the subsequent translation of this supposed divine language is dependent solely upon being a member of a specific religious sect which is privy to the Godly message. As a young man, I attended a church for a time that was into this sort of thing, and I have to tell you that not once did any bit of it make any sense to me. I had the distinct impression that whenever someone in that church either spoke in or translated the “divine language” that they were basically making it up in their heads in an effort to reinforce their belief system.

It is also interesting to note that it is very difficult to distinguish such behavior from that exhibited by some who are mentally ill. Ironically, many other Christians are very suspicious of those who “speak in tongues”, but not because they are concerned about mental illness.

#2. This brings me to my second point – the reaction from the other students, who were presumably also Christian, was universally negative. In fact, rather than believing the message from the “possessed” girl was from God, most thought it was Satanic in nature. In fact, some students reacted (or over-reacted) so strongly that, as the news article states

“It made some students cry and leave school,” Sparks [a student] said. “Some have not returned yet.”

Sparks and his classmates said they think an evil spirit possessed the girl. They were so convinced that Sparks and his friends brought Bibles to school and had a devotional.

possessed

So now we have a very interesting situation set up in that school. At least one student, the girl in question, seems to believe that she is a vessel for the “voice of God” while a number of other students believe that she is being possessed by Satan or demons of some sort. Note the dichotomous thinking here: the students (and presumably their parents) assumed that the voices were coming from either God or Satan. No one ever seemed to consider that perhaps these voices had another, less supernatural, source (e.g., the entire thing could just be made up). Why not?

#3. Which brings me to the third point – how the media used this non-story as a way to “fill the news hole.” This is one of my biggest problems with much of the media in the United States – rather than present news that has been responsibly vetted with the purpose of informing, too many in the media nowadays seem to be only interested in getting ratings. And that means taking non-stories and inflating them to over-sensationalize them. And what better way to get ratings in the buckle of the Bible Belt than to smear a story about kids & their parents squabbling over which supernatural entity supposedly possessed a girl in her high school classroom? And by covering the story in such a sloppy manner, the media lend an air of validity to it, reinforcing the nonsense.

The appalling lack of responsible reporting on the part of this TV station is so thick you could cut it with a knife (sadly, this isn’t the only example). First, they actually treated the story with a certain degree of seriousness; second, notice that nowhere in the coverage of this entire sordid affair is there any evidence that the journalists (if you can call them that) in question actually attempted to find a scientific/skeptical point-of-view on the whole question of glossolalia or demonic possession.

This kind of behavior on the part of the media only serves to perpetuate ignorance, because much of the time it is justified under the guise of “respecting the beliefs” of those people involved in the story. But at what point does “respecting beliefs” become silly, or perpetuate ignorance & lack of critical thinking, or even become outright dangerous?

For example, consider how some in the media give a platform to morons like Jenny McCarthy to rant on and on about how vaccines cause autism (they don’t – period). Or how the media allow douchebags like Kevin Trudeau to peddle their snake-oil “natural cures” while convincing the gullible to avoid scientific medicine for treatment of cancer? Or what about “respecting the beliefs” of those who would, rather than take their sick children to the hospital, pray for a miraculous healing – even if it results in the child’s death?

There is a fine line here that the media must walk. However, too many in the media have gone too far in one direction: “respecting beliefs” at the expense of an accurate & responsible portrayal of reality. There are good examples of the media covering a story on the paranormal responsibly, such as Anderson Cooper’s coverage of one of Sylvia Browne’s most high-profile blunders, but sadly that sort of good reporting is all too uncommon.

However, skeptics should not withdraw into frustration & cynicism and give up hope. Rather, we should get out there – through meetings, face to face discussion, blogs (like this one), media events, etc – and educate people and the media. If all we do is complain, then we can only blame ourselves for the inevitable spread of nonsense.

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3 Responses to “What is the Limit on “Respecting Beliefs”?”

  1. [...] What is the Limit on “Respecting Beliefs”? « The Skeptical Teacher [...]

  2. [...] posted about something similar in my entry titled “What’s the Limit on ‘Respecting Beliefs’?” but this is a far more serious situation – in fact, it is one of life & [...]

  3. Auto-didact Cognoscenti said

    Well, as someone who speaks in tongues on a fairly regular basis, I can only say that I doubt even God would think it anything other than gibberish, but that might be because I don’t produce it in any church, rather as a result of physical pain or extreme frustration. BTW, I’m a fully verbal Autie, maybe that’s got something to do with it.

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