I Must Be Brain-Damaged Because I Don't Believe in God

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University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has scanned the brains of believers in search of the neurological bases of their beliefs. According to CNN,

Newberg took that brain-scanning technology and turned it toward the spiritual: Franciscan nuns, Tibetan Buddhists, and Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues. His team members at the University of Pennsylvania were surprised by what they found.

"When we think of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, we see a tremendous similarity across practices and across traditions."

The frontal lobe, the area right behind our foreheads, helps us focus our attention in prayer and meditation.

The parietal lobe, located near the backs of our skulls, is the seat of our sensory information. Newberg says it's involved in that feeling of becoming part of something greater than oneself.

The limbic system, nestled deep in the center, regulates our emotions and is responsible for feelings of awe and joy.

Newberg calls religion the great equalizer and points out that similar areas of the brain are affected during prayer and meditation. Newberg suggests that these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God. He says there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power.

So what's up with nonbelievers? Are our brains defective or just more highly evolved? Whole CNN article here.

NEXT: Un-Smearing Ron Paul (and Keith Ellison)

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  1. This is like noting that tennis players, baseball platers, and javelin throwers all have highly-developed shoulder muscles, that covert lots of glucose when they compete.

  2. So what’s up with nonbelievers? Are our brains defective or just more highly evolved?

    Neither. Just different.

  3. Human brains are obviously built to hold religious beliefs – to the point where even nonbelievers are pretty religious.

  4. Rocks are obviously built to bash people on the head, to the point where even non head-bashing rocks hurt pretty bad when they hit your head.

  5. I love it when there’s a study like this and the media breathlessly reports it along the lines of: “Is there a god? Science reports: Yes, Yes, oh Yes!”

    For what it’s worth, here’s the money quote from the article. Hardly a ringing endorsement for the theists.

    nstead of viewing religion and spirituality as an innate quality hardwired by God in the human brain, he sees religion as a mere byproduct of evolution and Darwinian adaptation.

    “Just like we’re not hardwired for boats, but humans in all cultures make boats in pretty much the same way, Atran explains. “Now, that’s a result both of the way the brain works and of the needs of the world, and of trying to traverse a liquid medium and so I think religion is very much like that.”

  6. The other problem with this reasoning is that it assumes that religious believers were born with their brains wired that way, when it is well known that the brain re-wires itself based on the experience and actions that take place during its lifetime.

  7. Newberg calls religion the great equalizer and points out that similar areas of the brain are affected during prayer and meditation. Newberg suggests that these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God. He says there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power.

    I bet the same exact areas of the brain were activated by the people who attended the Nuremberg rallies.

  8. Instead of viewing religion and spirituality as an innate quality hardwired by God in the human brain, he sees religion as a mere byproduct of evolution and Darwinian adaptation.

    That’s kind of like saying, “There’s no reason to think Leonardo designed the Mona Lisa, I think it was a mere byproduct of a brush applying paint to a canvas”.

  9. So they’ve developed the religion circuits through repeated use, while we’ve developed the ‘skepticism’ circuits?

  10. One must not confuse believing in God (or a spiritual realm, if you prefer) with believing in a specific dogma. It is possible to believe in a higher power without being a Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc.

    It has been surmised long before this study that it is possible to access the spiritual realm through the subconscious mind. This can be done through such various means as prayer, meditation, autosuggestion, yoga, drugs, sex, music, etc.

    Unfortunately, many people “get connected” to the spiritual realm as they are being taught a specific dogma. This confuses these people into believing that they are getting judgemental messages from God when, in fact, they are only receiving the energy from the spiritual realm and the “messages” that they are receiving are either coming from outside influences or inside of their own head.

    It, also, must be understood that our perceptions of God are only limited to the fallability of our own brains and senses. God (or whatever higher being on believes in) can be in a form that nobody can possibly conceive of. So, saying that one does not believe in Jehovah does not mean that one is incapable of believing in a higher being.

    Of course, this is just my understanding of things. Your mileage may vary.

  11. Tell drug addicts to watch videos of drug-related phenomena and you see the same pattern of activation. Therefore, we are hard-wired to be drug addicts. More likely, both religion and drugs hijack the normal functioning of the brain and result in altered states of behavior.

  12. “Just like we’re not hardwired for boats, but humans in all cultures make boats in pretty much the same way”

    What? Define same way? As in we all make things that float? Does he realize how many different types of boats there have been, all specialized to meet certain cultures needs.

    Also, the article confuses usage with purpose. I could use a rock to hold up a table, hit someone in the head or skip it across the water, but its purpose was not any of those things. We are not created to believe in G*d, we merely found it useful for a time to do so.

  13. I bet the same exact areas of the brain were activated by the people who attended the Nuremberg rallies.

    Probably, just as the muscles that get developed in the arms of medieval executioners are the same ones that get developed in firefighters who lug around hoses while saving people.

  14. Whoa, Dan T’s a Behe booster now? Weirder and weirder.

  15. Hey, if there’s somebody who’s RedTFA, does it mention whether there is any correllation with the ‘mirror circuits’ we’ve been hearing so much about these days?

  16. That’s kind of like saying, “There’s no reason to think Leonardo designed the Mona Lisa, I think it was a mere byproduct of a brush applying paint to a canvas”.

    No, it’s not like saying that at all. There’s objective evidence demonstrating that Leonardo existed and painted the Mona Lisa. There is no evidence like that regarding a god or gods. That’s where faith comes in.

  17. “Newberg suggests that these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God. He says there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power.”

    That suggests (to me at least) that for most of human history that believing in a higher power was an evolutionary advantage. Believing in God helped to perpetuate the species (“be fruitful and multiply”) while nonbelievers were at an evolutionary disadvantage.

    Hmmm …

  18. I find drugs work better than religion at exercising those parts of my brain.

  19. IW,

    I think the evolutionary advantage was a desire to kill and convert infidels and gathered a large following to help kill and capture, while the non-believers had less impetus to kill or convert, as a whole. After all, look how many Christians and Muslims there are as opposed to Bhuddists and Jews.

  20. Inkstained Wretch,

    Here’s another theory – the brain developed in certain ways to better allow us to grapple with the challenges of our environment and culture, and this is a side effect.

    Like the neat bursts of colar you can see when you close your eyes and rub your your eyelids.

  21. “for most of human history that believing in a higher power was an evolutionary advantage. Believing in God helped to perpetuate the species (“be fruitful and multiply”)”

    It did? Doubt it.

    how about to explain the unexplained. to deal with uncertainties….

    L_I_T – you’re being humorous, right?

  22. “Just like we’re not hardwired for boats, but humans in all cultures make boats in pretty much the same way”

    What? Define same way? As in we all make things that float? Does he realize how many different types of boats there have been, all specialized to meet certain cultures needs.

    Also, the article confuses usage with purpose. I could use a rock to hold up a table, hit someone in the head or skip it across the water, but its purpose was not any of those things. We are not created to believe in G*d, we merely found it useful for a time to do so.

    1)All boats are the same in the same way all religions are the same. The surface decorations, materials, details, dimensions, presence or absence of sails or paddles or whatever, all of these change culturally. But a boat is still a boat. I would bet $100 that you, a 1st-century BC Roman, a pre-colonial Australian Aborigine, and Chaka Zulu would all make the same distinction between a boat and a raft, for example. (Read Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By or The Hero With A Thousand Faces)
    2)From what I’ve read,* we do seem pretty ‘hard-wired’ to believe in “god,” in the broadest, AA-meets-Campbell kind of sense. I have no idea whether it’s actually “hard-wired” on a purely neuronal level, or merely the gestalt result of inexperienced, unarmed human reason coming up against the sheer bafflingly-mute cruel complexity of the “World of 10,000 Things” (as Chinese Buddhism calls it.) I’m also not sure that its specific origin truly matters; the point is that ‘faith’ is a real human trait worth as serious consideration as self-interest or love, not a mere silly fiction to be discarded in the face of ‘better science,’ (or what have you), as Dawkins et al. would have it.
    *Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, specifically, although Terry Pratchett talks about a “turtle-shaped hole” in the human brain.

  23. That’s kind of like saying, “There’s no reason to think Leonardo designed the Mona Lisa, I think it was a mere byproduct of a brush applying paint to a canvas”.

    It’s only like that if you completely don’t understand evolution.

  24. Seems to me that it’s likely the reporter is trying to make this study into something that it isn’t by cherry picking a few quotes & findings from the study. Anyone have the scoop on the actual study? Was it simply about trying to find what areas of the brain are used by this process?

  25. VM,

    Just a tad sarcastic. IW proposed that it was evolutionary beneficial to believe in GOD (ie: Christian, Muslim), but I was pointing out that those tended to come about more easily because they were the most aggressive religions for the past 1000 years, killing or converting those with less fervour.

    Explaining the unexplained explains “religion” in general better.

  26. As a believer myself, I have at least as much problem with this study’s conclusions as anyone else. If indeed certain people are hard-wired to believe in God, doesn’t that undercut the idea of free will, which underlies the Christian faith and others? If some people are hard-wired not to believe in God, how can he justly then condemn them to everlasting hell for their lack of belief?

    But, my theodicial crisis is averted when I look at the simplistic Brain Map that this study goes by. Not to mention that the idea that increased blood flow to certain regions of the brain infallibly indicates greater activity in that region is itself unproven.

  27. Sam,

    It doesn’t matter whether we’re hardwired or not, physics dictates what a successful boat is, but has no dictates on what a successful religion is. If you want to argue that a bass boat is the same as a luxury cruise liner, that’s your perogative, but I think boats are in no way a human phenomenom designed entirely by our imagination of what “should” be, but a practical experimentation of what “must” be.

  28. If indeed certain people are hard-wired to believe in God, doesn’t that undercut the idea of free will, which underlies the Christian faith and others?

    yes

  29. Lost – phew. IW’s relatively modern slant caused eyebrows to be raised!

    The lead singer of Bad Religion did his dissertation on a related theme:

    PUBLICATION NUMBER AAT 3104570
    TITLE Monism, atheism, and the naturalist worldview: Perspectives from evolutionary biology
    AUTHOR Graffin, Gregory W.;
    DEGREE PhD
    SCHOOL CORNELL UNIVERSITY
    DATE 2003
    PAGES 292
    SOURCE DAI-B 64/09, p. 4139, Mar 2004
    SUBJECT BIOLOGY, GENERAL (0306)

    hier

  30. Is it me, or is discovering that when we think stuff or do similar mental activities, our brains are doing similar stuff behind the scenes not exactly all that surprising of a finding? I mean, the basic conclusion of this study seems to be “the brain does stuff when we think and believe and junk” which, tell me if I’m wrong, is not exactly a shocking conclusion.

    Newberg sounds like a real BS artist in how he’s interpreting this stuff.

  31. doesn’t that undercut the idea of free will, which underlies the Christian faith

    crimethink, LIT, I would like to introduct you to John Calvin.

  32. I bet if you in fact believed that this was a good measure, you’d find a normal distribution of peoples level of spirituality.

    Some religions require a lot by way of spiritual connection, but others merely require you to stand up, sit down, and sing poorly.

    You’d probably find a lower than average spirituality level in Southern Methodists, but also likely the world’s highest level of development in pot-luck supper receptors in the brain.

  33. Whoa, Dan T’s a Behe booster now? Weirder and weirder.

    Naah. Dan T is just adhering to his guiding principle of taking whatever position he thinks will annoy the most H&R readers.

  34. You call it “God,” I call it ‘shrooms.

    Reinmoose,

    I know some Lutherans who could give those Methodists a run for their money (or jello).

  35. Lost in Translation says: “I think the evolutionary advantage was a desire to kill and convert infidels and gathered a large following to help kill and capture, while the non-believers had less impetus to kill or convert, as a whole. After all, look how many Christians and Muslims there are as opposed to Bhuddists and Jews.”

    Ummm, the Old Testament is waaay more violent and vengeful than the New Testament — “an eye for an eye” versus “turn the other cheek” — so this “Judaism didn’t spread because it was more pacifist than Christianity” theory has some major holes in it. If one religion sends out missionaries to everyone worldwide, while another is confined to just the Chosen People, which is likely to be the more dominant religion after a few thousand years?

  36. Not that this has anything to do with anything at all other than jh’s comment, but “turn the other cheek” wasn’t meant as an invitation to, “hit me again.” What it meant was, “thanks for the backhand, now let’s see if you’re man enough to slap me as an equal.”

    Just sayin’…

    Otherwise, I’m with the moose on this one.

  37. So what’s up with nonbelievers? Are our brains defective or just more highly evolved? Whole CNN article here.

    They’re just the same. Having hung around conservative Christians, liberal Christians, and atheists, I’ve come to the conclusion that people are people. If you’re a sane, rational human being, you’ll be sane and rational no matter your religion. If you’re a fundie, you’ll be a fundie, no matter your religion.

    Specifically, fundie atheists are just as narrow-minded and intolerant of different beliefs as fundie Christians are. Both have the habit of repeated assertions that their way is just right, and any reasonable person could only see it that way. Both believe that the masses are kept from seeing the light by a mysterious force; for Christian fundies it’s Satan, for atheist fundies it’s irrationality or society or somesuch.

    Basically, I think that if you did a careful anthropological survey of different religions, you’d find that they all acted in the same way. Some people buy passionately in, and expect others to do the same, while others buy in but prefer to live and let live. I know atheists will hate me, but in this respect at least atheism is a religion (or at least can be).

  38. jh,

    I guess that’s difference between the preaching and practice of each’s religion. Christianity sure didn’t accomplish most of its expansion through thoughtful persuasion, that’s for sure.

  39. grylliade,

    you’re right you know, but religious fundies tend to coerce better than atheist fundies. If you have a belief that there is no god, what incentive is there to do bad things to your fellow humans if you are not guaranteed any supernatural reward vs. if you are promised supernatural bliss for committing a few corporal sins. There’s alot stronger allure to violence in one than the other.

    That said, people are stupid, panicky animals so who’s to say what keeps them civil.

  40. “After all, look how many Christians and Muslims there are as opposed to Bhuddists and Jews.”

    That’s because the Christian and the Muslim religions are newer. Newer religions tend to be more evangelistic. The Buhdist and Jewish religions were at one time more evangelistic, but have become more mellow, so to speak in their old age.

  41. “If some people are hard-wired not to believe in God, how can he justly then condemn them to everlasting hell for their lack of belief?”

    How can a loving god condemn people to hell on the basis of their honest beliefs?

  42. We’ve covered the ‘explaining the otherwise inexplicable natural world’ rationale for religion (which tends to diminish in a god of the gaps fashion), but let’s not forget the ‘political control in primitive societies’ one – you could try explaining the social contract and night-watchman state to the peasants, but it’s so much easier to just tell them ‘Obey me or God will kick your ass.’ (And not so primitive societies, too; divine right still isn’t safely dead and buried.)

  43. I know some Lutherans who could give those Methodists a run for their money (or jello).

    I had a friend in college whose father was a Methodist minister. They had, I swear to god, a Lenten Potluck, which seemed at least mildly blasphemous to me.

  44. Why would peoples’ brains resonate when thinking about obviously false gods like the Buddha or the papist heresy?

  45. Bronwyn says: “Not that this has anything to do with anything at all other than jh’s comment, but “turn the other cheek” wasn’t meant as an invitation to, “hit me again.” What it meant was, “thanks for the backhand, now let’s see if you’re man enough to slap me as an equal.”

    Just sayin’…”

    I think you’re wrong — read the whole sequences of examples of pacifism Jesus held up as examples of correct conduct (Matthew 5:38-44):

    “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

    But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

    And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

    And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain …

    Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

    P.S. Lost in Translation: I think you were wrong when you said that Christianity didn’t primarily spread through thoughtful persuasion — passages like the above resonate with at least some of us.

  46. Religion is not necessary for meditation. So his conclusion is not supported by his premises. Atheists who meditate should received the same benefit. Maybe he should include martial arts, and yoga. But then he couldn’t credit religion.

  47. “Why would peoples’ brains resonate when thinking about obviously false gods like the Buddha or the papist heresy?”

    Because, just like Protestant Christianity, it’s all in the mind.

  48. They examined Buddhist monks to find evidence that belief in God is “hard-wired”? Buddhists don’t believe in God as an entity who created the universe and judges people. Buddhists are, in a sense, atheists.

    Also, what’s a cloke? Cause I don’t have one.

  49. “Also, what’s a cloke? Cause I don’t have one.”

    Kind of an inside joke — in biblical times, if you took both someone’s coat and cloak / cloke, they’d be nekkid.

  50. jh,

    And I think you’re wrong (mostly) to think that it did, but then again, most history isn’t written about the boring forest theological discussions that resulted in conversion…

  51. Lost — what’s a “boring forest”?

    Mebbe you’re right — no way to know for sure.

  52. DISCLOSURE:

    Ron Bailey posts on the Science vs. Religion false dichotomy are all tedious reruns.

    save us karl popper, you’re our only hope

  53. grylliade,

    Basically, I think that if you did a careful anthropological survey of different religions, you’d find that they all acted in the same way.

    It has been done (many, many, many, many, many times) and they don’t all act the same way. Indeed, how religion works varies from culture to culture. Most people took the Greek Gods seriously, but no Greek was going to ram those Gods down the throat of say a traveller (and Athens was chocked full of them in the Fifth century) who didn’t adhere to the particular Greek pantheon of Gods. No perhaps you will make some objection about Socrates, but that was as much about Socrates being friendly with some of the oligarchs who temporarily ruled Athens as anything. No, some religions are almost universally tolerant of other faiths, etc., and others are not. That speaks more to the culture associated with those religions than to some universal human standard.

    ____________________________________

    Anyway, as many scholarly commentators have noted one the basic changes in religious belief came with the advent of the major monotheisms. They combined state and religious power in unique ways (no one is going to deny that the state and religious weren’t combined in 5th century Athens for example) and that’s in part what has made “modern” religion more dangerous than what had existed in the classical period.

  54. grylliade,

    I know atheists will hate me, but in this respect at least atheism is a religion (or at least can be).

    You’d be better making an argument about the nature of ideologies (religion is a sub-set of such) than claiming that atheism is a religion or resembles one.

  55. “Some religions require a lot by way of spiritual connection, but others merely require you to stand up, sit down, and sing poorly.”

    yeah, uh, not really.

  56. It doesn’t matter whether we’re hardwired or not, physics dictates what a successful boat is, but has no dictates on what a successful religion is.

    The way I see it is:
    a)people ‘need’ religion and boats to roughly the same degree

    b)inasmuch as ‘physics’ ‘dictates’ how the human mind works (i.e. certain neurons are ONLY connected to others, and every “thought” is ultimately a physiochemical reaction), it does, necessarily, dictate the tenets of a ‘successful’ religion. I would argue the current state of affairs is comprable to that of space travel, in that the shuttle model (i.e. religion in general, i.e. modern [i would argue mis-]interpretations of ‘real’/’original’ religious practices/thinking, i.e. contemporary monotheism) is quite obviously not working all that well, but it seemed like such a great idea at the time, and so many people have put so much work into it, that they’re really unwilling to let go. At the same time, alternate models (i.e. scientology, fundamentalism, ‘megachurches,’ &c/the X-prize, quasi-privatized Russian spacetravel, &c) are, in their inevitable way, popping up everywhere. On some very real level, I’m half-waiting for John the Baptist to show up, because the parallels between now and the, let’s say, century before the birth of Jesus are f’n eerie.

    “Some religions require a lot by way of spiritual connection, but others merely require you to stand up, sit down, and sing poorly.”

    yeah, uh, not really.

    Yeah, uh, really.

    Up until the last two millennia, more or less (actually slightly less, but whatever), ‘religion’ was almost entirely practical in nature (i.e. concerned almost exclusively with what one did [Greek ??????, ‘praxis;” literally, “the act of doing”) than what one thought. The Greek attitude towards the gods was more-or-less co-dependent; they regarded the gods the same way a child might regard an alcoholic parent, with secret disdain mixed with pacifying gestures. The Romans, on the other hand, had a fundamentally legalistic relationship with their deities: if a sacrafice had been promised for something that never happened, the sacrafice wasn’t held, because the gods had broken the contract. In almost every way, both Christianity and modern (Rabbinic) Judaism (and, from/through them, Islam) can be construed as different people’s reactions to the destruction of the 2nd Temple, and with it, the only acceptable center for cult practice (i.e. sacrafice-and-stuff, i.e. ‘practical’ [as used above] religion) for Jews. The Temple was The Only Place you could offer sacrafice to (i.e. placate or otherwise positively influence) The Only God Who Mattered; its destruction forced a really significant spiritual crisis that has never really been adequately resolved. (I would point to scientology, fundamentalism, &c, as evidence of this; to me, at least, the relationship between the popularity of Ron Paul and the fucked-upedness/subconscious unpopularity of all other candidates [at least the Republican ones, at least] and the relationship between the popularity of scientology and all other religions [with ‘eastern religions’/’spirituality’/&c taking the place, here, of Democrats] as cut from the same cloth. CAVEAT: I’m a big RP fan, as I Belive In Liberty, Et Cetera. I would argue, however, that not even the most die-hard, ‘World’s Smallest Political Test’-believing, most-capital-of-all-Ls Libertarian could say that all who support Our Boy Ron are so motivated and keep a straight face.)

    (Sorry to get all worked up/long-winded about all this, but, in the words of Gwen Stefani, “this my shh.”)

  57. crimethink wrote:

    As a believer myself, I have at least as much problem with this study’s conclusions as anyone else. If indeed certain people are hard-wired to believe in God, doesn’t that undercut the idea of free will, which underlies the Christian faith and others?

    First, I doubt free will applies to beliefs. We don’t have direct voluntary control over our beliefs (try it yourself). At best we can exercise a indirect influence over them (by choosing who to hang out with, what to read, etc.).

    Second, are you familiar with the notion of a sensus divinitatis? Apparently both Aquinas and Calvin thought people had a faculty that enabled a direct awareness of God’s presence. I suspect there’s support for this in Scripture.

  58. sam: i thought we were speaking of modern religions. it’s such a socially-motivated phenomena that practice is far more regional than doctrinal.

    i see your point, however, in terms of attitudes towards divinity.

    i don’t get the whole ron paul thing, unless you’re saying that people move into things like scientology and the like because the big three of the western tradition are not cutting it. (am i close?)

  59. You’d be better making an argument about the nature of ideologies (religion is a sub-set of such) than claiming that atheism is a religion or resembles one.

    Well, I suppose it really depends upon how one defines ‘religion’. There are two basic definitions that are possible.

    1 – Any set of beliefs concerning supernatural entities.

    2 – Any set of beliefs positing the existence of supernatural entities.

    These sound the same, but the first is simply ANY belief regarding supernatural entities. In this, affirmative atheism – the belief that there is no god, no afterlife, and no supernatural – would qualify. Atheists have beliefs concerning the supernatural. This distinguishes them from agnostics or what I term apatheists, who either take a stand that it is unknowable (or at least unknown) or in the extreme, simply refuse to acknowledge the question of supernatural existence.

    If, however, you define religion as the affirmative belief in some supernatural power, then you are correct that atheism is an ideology, but not a religion.

    We’d have to agree on a definition of religion (I tend to lean toward the first, being more of a rational agnostic than an ardent atheist) before we could agree on whether atheism was a relgion.

    Atheism does carry one common aspect with the other less disputable forms of religion, in that it takes a stand on spirituality. However, it is unique and set apart from religions in that this stand is “none”.

  60. sam,

    I don’t think I need a boat or religion, but maybe people that need religion need boats. That could explain some of my dirt poor relatives that can’t function outside the tenats of literal bible interpretation and their constant upgrading of their bass boats.

  61. “I don’t think I need a boat or religion, but maybe people that need religion need boats. ”

    I did!

  62. Newberg? Isn’t that the scientist whose research team includes an avid practicioner of “speaking in tongues”? Colour me unsurprised.

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