Editor's Note: Tanya Marie (“T.M.”) Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University professor in the department of anthropology at Stanford University in Stanford, California. She is the author of "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God."
By T.M. Luhrmann, Special to CNN
(CNN)—In the Bible, God spoke directly to Abraham. He spoke directly to Moses. He spoke directly to Job. But to your neighbor down the street?
Most people reading the ancient scriptures understand these accounts of hearing God’s voice as miracles that really did happen but no longer take place today, or maybe as folkloric flourishes to ancient stories. Even Christians who believe that miracles can be an everyday affair can hesitate when someone tells them they heard God speak audibly. There’s an old joke: When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.
Except that usually it’s not.
Hearing a voice when alone, or seeing something no one else can see, is pretty common. At least one in 10 people will say they’ve had such an experience if you ask them bluntly. About four in 10 say they have unusual perceptual experiences between sleep and awareness if you interview them about their sleeping habits.
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And if you ask them in a way that allows them to admit they made a mistake, the rate climbs even higher. By contrast, schizophrenia, the most debilitating of all mental disorders, is pretty rare. Only about one in 100 people can be diagnosed with the disorder.
Moreover, the patterns are quite distinct. People with schizophrenia who hear voices hear them frequently. They often hear them throughout the day, sometimes like a rain of sound, or a relentless hammer. They hear not only sentences, but paragraphs: words upon words upon words. What the voices say is horrid—insults, sneers and contemptuous jibes. “Dirty. You’re dirty.” “Stupid slut.” “You should’ve gone under the bus, not into it.”
That was not what Abraham, Moses and Job experienced, even when God was at his most fierce.
For the last 10 years, I have been doing anthropological and psychological research among experientially oriented evangelicals, the sort of people who seek a personal relationship with God and who expect that God will talk back. For most of them, most of the time, God talks back in a quiet voice they hear inside their minds, or through images that come to mind during prayer. But many of them also reported sensory experiences of God. They say God touched their shoulder, or that he spoke up from the back seat and said, in a way they heard with their ears, that he loved them. Indeed, in 1999, Gallup reported that 23% of all Americans had heard a voice or seen a vision in response to prayer.
These experiences were brief: at the most, a few words or short sentences. They were rare. Those who reported them reported no more than a few of them, if that. These experiences were not distressing, although they were often disconcerting and always startling. On the contrary, these experiences often made people feel more intimate with God, and more deeply loved.
In fact, my research has found that these unusual sensory experiences are more common among those who pray in a way that uses the imagination—for example, when prayer involves talking to God in your mind. The unusual sensory experiences were not, in general, associated with mental illness (we checked).
They were more common among those who felt comfortable getting caught up in their imaginations. They were also more common among those who prayed for longer periods. Prayer involves paying attention to words and images in the mind, and giving them significance. There is something about the skilled practice of paying attention to the mind in this way that shifts—just a little bit—the way we judge what is real.
Yet even many of these Christians, who wanted so badly to have a back-and-forth relationship with God, were a little hesitant to talk about hearing God speak with their ears. For all the biblical examples of hearing God speak audibly, they doubt. Augustine reports that when he was in extremis, sobbing at the foot of that fig tree, he heard a voice say, “Take it and read.” He picked up the scripture and converted. When the Christians I know heard God speak audibly, it often flitted across their minds that they were crazy.
In his new book, "Hallucinations," the noted neurologist Oliver Sacks tells his own story about a hallucinatory experience that changed his life. He took a hearty dose of methamphetamines as a young doctor, and settled down with a 19th century book on migraines. He loved the book, with its detailed observation and its humanity. He wanted more. As he was casting around in his mind for someone who could write more that he could read, a loud internal voice told him “You silly bugger” that it was he. So he began to write. He never took drugs again.
Now, Sacks does not recommend that anyone take drugs like that. He thinks that what he did was dangerous and he thinks he was lucky to have survived.
What interests me, however, is that he allowed himself to trust the voice because the voice was good. There’s a distinction between voices associated with psychiatric illness (often bad) and those (often good) that are found in the so-called normal population. There’s another distinction between those who choose to listen to a voice, if the advice it gives is good, and those who do not. When people like Sacks hear a voice that gives them good advice, the experience can transform them.
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This is important, because often, when voices are discussed in the media or around the kitchen table, the voices are treated unequivocally as symptoms of madness. And of course, voice-hearing is associated with psychiatric illness.
But not all the time. In fact, not most of the time.
About a third of the people I interviewed carefully at the church where I did research reported an unusual sensory experience they associated with God. While they found these experiences startling, they also found them deeply reassuring.
Science cannot tell us whether God generated the voice that Abraham or Augustine heard. But it can tell us that many of these events are normal, part of the fabric of human perception. History tells us that those experiences enable people to choose paths they should choose, but for various reasons they hesitate to choose.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat at his kitchen table, in the winter of 1956, terrified by the fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery bus boycott, he said he heard the voice of Jesus promising, “I will be with you.” He went forward.
Voices may form part of human suffering. They also may inspire human greatness.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of TM Luhrmann.
@Ted, I went back and re-read the article and I see your point. I misread a key part where she said, "the [audible] voices are treated unequivocally as symptoms of madness. And of course, voice-hearing is associated with psychiatric illness... But not all the time. In fact, not most of the time."
She is not saying that the most of the time the voices really are audible, which is what I thought the first time I read it. My mistake.
But I suggest there is something deeply wrong with her article nonetheless. She could state unequivocally that the voices are not really audible, evangelicals just claim they are.
And she could say that she has either assumed the "audible voices" are not really audible and not bothered testing the claims, or she has tested the claims and verified that the voices are not really audible.
She also could be more clear that even though these evangelicals are not really insane, they are seriously deluded, a state of mental defect nonetheless. They are hearing voices in their head, so intensely that they actually claim the voices are "audible" – a very serious delusion.
This is the biggest crock of bull I've ever read. So sick of evangelicals diluting any sense of logic or reality in this country. They're becoming part of the problem, not the solution. If people would quit praying and start thinking about how to fix their lives as well as the country, maybe we wouldn't have so many problems in our government and in our society.
I'm so sick of Atheists intolerance for anyone who thinks differently from them. Your hatred and bigotry towards those who are religious is YOUR problem. And a problem for which you need help.
If you don't want to believe in God, fine. That's your decision. But, how about leaving the decision about whether the rest of us want to believe in God up to each individual?
Or, better put, who died and made YOU God?
I pray that my "logical" conclusions are correct.
Jeff from Columbus thinks it is intolerant of people to criticize an idea.
Believers constantly cite the "hatred & bigotry" of atheists, who are simply challenging nonsensical ideas. The idea seems to be to shut folks up.
Sorry, but we'll continue to speak up about bad ideas, and maybe Jeff will eventually be among the many who benefit from hearing our (real) voices.
Why do delusional theists get so mad at Atheists for stating our opinion? It is childish, reminds me of somebody with their mouth and eyes closed, hands over their mouth. No speak, no listen, no see. It is our belief that there is no god. We have the same right to express our thought as all of the religious crackpots that push their agenda everywhere I look.
This is a sad and pathetic article. If you are an adult with a imaginary friend you should be heavily medicated. If you are hearing your imaginary friend a lobotomy might by right for you.
I read the comments here and they mostly make fun of this article the idea that people would receive a message from God or Angles or another source of intelligence is a big Joke to them...They say there are not references...But the truth is far from that..The real truth is in the records of your local police department and other law enforcement agencies and the US military...Many records in fact going back 100's of years of people that survived in battle because they heard a voice telling them to move over there, go that way around a building, a bush....I know of one soldier that was the sole survivor in a battle in the French Hedge Row region, just because he heard a voice telling him to go around a hedge row different from all his friends in his squad...They were all killed by a hidden German Machine Gun....He took out that machine gun all by himself..and was the only survivor of that engagement....
Or a young mother who was investigated by the FBI for talking in town about something bad happening in town soon...only to have that happen days later..with a strange common set of facts....
Or one of the 12 sources of warnings of the 911 attack from someone that had no connection at all...and that person also predicted and warned of an attack at the Olympics in Atlanta Georgia....He too was investigated.......You are right about one thing....The people that make the warnings are called crazy before and driven out...and after the event the same people are investigated again and called a person of interest...and their careers are ruined for a second time.....and do not forget Richard Jewell who was first called a Hero in that Atlantic Olympics bombing..then later a person of interest..because his mother had told him he would someday be a great man and do a great deed...like save peoples lives.....Funny I knew an old woman that had dreams of terrible events...and she would rarely talk about them....because as she said...I told people in the past and they would call me crazy..then after look at me like I was a Witch or something..so now I usually don't tell anyone anymore....She was strangely right about many events...Because I was one of a few people that she would talk to about her dreams..and other premonitions... So go dig through the records and see for yourself...if the records are still there anyway..
How about people start giving themselves some more credit for the ability of mankind. That "voice in your head" is not God. That is YOU! You are the one who's giving yourself these thoughts and responses.
Would you like to buy some snake oil??
@ striker; God is within..
"God is within"
Hiding in your imagination, which is why no one else can see him.
To CNN: Does CNN welcome "lively and courteous discussion" indeed, or do they put out bait? Does this person's university credentials give them the front and center story on your web page? Does your disclaimer free you from any notion of accountability? This article is flawed on so many levels.
As is your lack of understanding. And I'm not talking about God.
I believe in the beginning God, you atheists believe in the beginning nothing. Now tell me who has more faith? God.....nothing. Both of them can't be proven. Lets say you're right God doesn't exist. What do I lose? Nothing, but if I'm right, you lose everything. I'd rather be wrong and nothing happens. Atheists', your lifestyle proves Christianity. My Lord says that when you rant and rave about my religion, I am blessed. So keep up your nonsense. I love what you say, because every other religion in the world hates it when it is criticized. Let your mouth aflowin, I don't mind being blessed.
If you want to be a slave, fine by me. Your life has been wasted, congratulations.
concerned veteran: your post illustrates Pascal's Wager, and it is faulty. it assumes only two outcomes. try harder next time. also, how do you make the logical leap from the possibility of a creator to the certainty that it is a "god"?
also, you know nothing about our lifestyles.
I don't know, therefore god!
@ CV – you say that if you are wrong about God you lose nothing. Have you considered the infinite number of possibilities? What if there is a God, but not your Christian God? What if there is a God that favours rational thought as opposed to belief. What if there is a God that sends people to hell when they use a screen name containing the word "veteran"?
Google "Pascal's Wager" to understand the logical fallacy you just expressed.
Wow. So many fallacies and falsehoods packed into one single paragraph. You christians sure are a hoot and a half.
Hey CV, according to the bible, satan also believed in god. A lot of good that did him.
Point being, belief is nothing compared to action. If a christian believes they're in the right, but do nothing to satiate that belief, then what good have they done?
Atheists, simply put, do not know and do not believe the explanations provided by supernatural religions. That does not make us folks whom "lack faith". In fact, our beliefs are pretty simple: "treat others how you want to be treated". Think about that the next time you decide to tell someone their life path is wrong based on your beliefs. Perhaps it will explain the reaction you get..
I don't know, therefore no God.
One logical fallacy is pretty much like another.
Atheists do not believe in God, the same way you don't believe in Zeus. Atheists can have faith, but just not in religion. You are right, it can't be proven that God does or does not exist. It also can't be proven that Zeus does or does not exist. Belief in God requires true faith – unquestioning belief without any proof. The moment you have any doubts, you no longer have faith.
"Atheists', your lifestyle proves Christianity." I think you need to re-think your belief system. Living as an atheist proves nothing other than humans can be atheists. I have met more some atheists more moral than most Christians.
In parting, there are quite a few atheists lashing on this forum due to the treatment we receive from Christians (as this is mostly a US site, most of the atheists here are US). We have had Christianity pushed on us all of our life (by quite a few who haven't even read most of the bible).
Jesus did not authorize the creation of new religion. Constantine made Christianity what it is today. Jesus lived and died a rabbinic Jew. Thousand of Jewish zealots were crucified by Rome because they dared to fight against pagan Roman Rule. Jesus never said "O Father. Why have You foresaken me?' He could barely take a breath while he hung from the cross. You are slowly being asphyxiated. Jesus died because he was a non violent pacifist. He was also eloquent. This talent was a threat to militaristic Rome. All the Jews who were crucified were treasonous. Rome was the most powerful nation in the world then as America once was. Rome began to become less powerful as it slowly accepted Christianity as a state religion. It was then that the text were written to lift the blame from Roman shoulders unto the Jews who lived back then. Unfortunately for the Jews on the Planet ever since then they became victims of Christian anti-semitism for the nest two thousand years. All Christianity was trying to do was eliminate the competing faith. That is the ultimate problem with all religion. They all become very unloving and very hateful. The Crusades and Intifada. God weeps.
HAHAHAHA can't stop HAHAHAHa
Laughter is a tonic for the soul.
Hello even the devil believes in God
Who or what is "the devil"?
The purpose of a religion is a selfish to become selfless.
Understand the religion through Acronyms.
G O D – 'Avaricious, Evolving in Delusion'. Not personified above us.
Please share to understand your re-legion.
'TRUE ESSENCE OF RELIGIONS' To unite all.
Translation – please visit my website, I'm very lonely there.
CNN = Christian Nutters Network
God has spoken to me twice in my life. I don't care if anyone else believes it. These events changed my life. God is more awesome and personal than any expert can explain or any nonbeliever can distract.
Wondering where this degree in Psychology came from because I've got news for you folks, if you regularly hear 'God's' voice you're either schitzophrenic or have an irrational obesession with yourself. And any clinitian that entertains that it could be a deity isn't qualified to lecture in Community College, let alone at Stanford.
Where was this omnipotent god when that crazy kid went into SHE in Newtown, CT?
If a person believes they have communicated with something supernatural it is their brain playing tricks on them. It is no coincidence that demonic possessions have been replaced with alien abductions. It all relates to pop culture and what a person WANTS to happen.
There is no god. The sooner we all agree that operation "one of us is crazy" is over we can move with our lives and work on contributing positively to the lives we do have, not waiting for some sort of afterlife that is not going to happen.
Apparently, God wasn't "allowed" in the school because we've been casting him out of public schools. See, that's the way it works. God is omnipotent and all-powerful, but he has to have our permission to be allowed in certain physical spaces on Earth.
@ Jake – like a vampire
I loved this article ! these days it is more acceptable to talk against God then to talk about God . The ones who don't beleive in God , will normally find this article repulsive since it talks about the possibility that there is a God. Those who beleive know that it is possible to hear God's words in many possible forms. For some it may not be words but in dreams , in the bible ....or may very well be in words ( for those who are willing to listen) .
Once, in my youth, I heard the voice of God. It said, "You're not ready." It was right.
If you think you are hearing voices, please seek help. You are a nutter.
Amusing how carefully this professor is to avoid implying that the voices are actually God himself, speaking to some of us. That would be too much for liberal CNN to allow in any of its religious Opinion pieces of course – they'd risk upsetting the science-worshippers, er...liberals. :)
Back to Fox News with you.
I don't believe in Politics 24/7.
This is ridiculous.
If you don't believe in god, then you _never_ hear god talk to you or touch you on the shoulder or anything else.
These things only happen to believers.
Wouldn't ya think that god would want to change the minds of atheists and agnostics? Just a few words would likely do it.
But no, it doesn't happen. Hmmm....
It's a matter of faith, not magic.
They are usually too busy whining about their 'rights' being trampled on by 'people of God' to hear him.
They are God's little bratty kids. But he loves them just the same. And cares for them just the same.
They are just to wrapped up in self to notice or care.
Read the article. Oliver Sachs is an atheist.
Hey Christians, I hear ya. We members of the Flat Earth Society get laughed at and ridiculed all the time too by all those smarty pants know it all types. Those "rational" science lovers with their demand of evidence, etc. Just ignore them. They'll find out one day that we're right when they are out for a walk one day and fall off the edge of the Earth. Then we'll see who's laughing.
It's just like the pope said "The earth is the center of the Universe and the sun goes around the earth. Right JJ ?
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