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My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy
A woman prays in church. Many Christians say they can audibly hear the voice of God.
December 29th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Evangelical • God • My Take

soundoff (7,761 Responses)
  1. Raoul Duke, Jr.

    Anecdotal, non-empirical, non-peer reviewed, pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, masquerading as serious research. Let's just call this "phenomenon" what it really is: delusions, whether chemically or otherwise neuronically produced.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • People are desperate

      No...let's call it for what it is....a Stanford professor who wants to get in the headlines.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  2. gadlaw

    Except that it is a sign of mental illness, it has always been the case before it was recognized as such and no psychological anthropologist is qualified to say otherwise. Totally irresponsible BS to be spreading among a gullible population. This amounts to substandard journalism on the part of CNN to even give this quackery any sort of platform and shame on CNN for putting it on my front page of the 'News'.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  3. Yeoomala

    Unfortunately many people who claim to hear God speak to them are quite delusional with hatred and judgement for not only themselves but for mankind. So if God actually tries to talk to them, these filters make it sound like garbled static on a radio station.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  4. religious_folks_are_nutjob

    This nutjob is a Stanford professor?

    December 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  5. acheptole

    It is true! Because "Crazy" is caused by the Devil. You can tell it is really God's voice because A) He has a deep voice with a slightly Jewish accent B) He talks mostly about Himself, and spends most of the time trash-talking the Amalakites and trying to get you to kill one. C) He always calls at dinner.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Hansel, Eater of a Thousand Hostess™ Cupcakes Before The Apocalypse™

      Don't forget you can always ask the voice to give you winning PowerBall numbers before you call in an exorcist!!

      December 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  6. Dave

    It's very disturbing to hear that 1% of the population has schizophrenia. That's 3 million people. If some of those pose a serious security risk they could number in the thousands or hundreds of thousands!

    December 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  7. Jeff

    Thank you, CNN, for a balanced and thought provoking article. As the list of varied comments makes clear, there are lots of opinions on this subject making it all the more fun to read.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  8. The serpent

    I have had several people tell me that they hear the voice of god, and that he literally speaks to them. My reply is always the same. I have an envelope in my desk drawer. It contains a ten digit number. Ask god what that number is. To date, god hasn't been able to come up with the number.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Jesus Saves at Walmart

      Hah. Perfect.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Edweird69

      I bet he could if he existed. But you know what the thumpers are going to say about this remark, right? Oh, he works in mysterious ways, and other things. Hopefully, some will reply to your post, as I'm anxious to see what they come up with.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Jeff from Columbus

      LOL. So, God is like George Burns in the movie, "Oh God"? Please tell me you really don't think that's how God works.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • YoHi60

      Maybe God doesn't care about digits.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • GOD

      Is the number 2399340189? Do I get a hint? How many guesses do I get?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • KG2012

      Actually, the response I have is that God doesn't respond to challenges like that. You aren't looking to believe in Him, you're simply trying to find a way to disprove God's existence. Why would He waste time giving you an answer you already have. You know the numbers. If someone were to provide you with the answer, would you then all of the sudden believe in God? How many "games" would it take to prove? What kind of "games"? What would the stakes have to get to in order for you to believe? I hope He does show Himself to you in a way that is meaningful to you so that you have a story like the Apostle Paul. He used tp speak against Christ Jesus, until he had an experience with him he couldn't ignore. It changed his life and went out and taught on his behalf. I hope the same happens for you!

      December 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Edweird69

      @KG – sure God responds to games. He bet that Abraham would stab his son Isaac to death, to prove Abraham was "worthy". What a game! He didn't know the extent of Abraham's faith? He had to test it to find out? He had place his own son in an abusive situation, and threaten to murder him, so your god was satisfied that Abraham had met his expectations.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • KG2012

      Yes, we get tested. If you want to call that a game, you can. We are told to have faith in God, not the other way around. Why would God have faith in man?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Edweird69

      @KG – so he has to test people? The only reason you would test something, is to "find out results". Why would an all-knowing being need to "find out" anything? He supposedly knows all things. Your response makes zero sense!

      December 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • KG2012

      Our walk in this life isn't just about us. It's also about an example we can present to others. An outward display of faith, such as answering a test of faith, is a great way that others can see how much faith we have. Do we REALLY believe, or are we just saying we do. You are right, God already knew what would happen, but people don't have that knowledge. He has to take people to the edge to build their strength, courage, faith, and whatever is needed. It's not about what He needs, it's about what WE need. Will anything, regarding God, make sense to you? Why are you reading an article about God if you aren't interested in learning more about Him? I am assuming that you are interested, you just haven't found it yet. I don't have all of the answers and I don't know what will make sense to you. I don't know anything about you. I encourage to continue to search for answers. I hope you find what you're looking for.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  9. longshot

    really? and the religious types wonder why they are becoming more and more irrelevant

    December 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  10. JJ

    Apparently this sky god told numerous folks to run for president in 2012 (Santorum, Perry, Bachmann, etc.), all mostly Talibangelicals but then they didn't even win the nomination. Either this god of theirs is just fucking with them, they are crazy or they were trying to convince their fellow crazy frothing at the mouth Talibangelical Christians to vote for them. You see Christians, being skeptical is a good thing.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  11. Name*

    They say fa ith is healing and talking out loud of your prayers makes your prayer more meanngful.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  12. KG2012

    These posts are a really good snapshot of what is going on in the world. So many people think they are the "rulers of the universe" and that they are the end-all-be-all. How can we really think that we are so powerful and that there's no power above ours? Ever tried to stand up against a tornado? An earthquake? We are not at the top of the food chain. There is a power above us, who created all of this. He is the Father, and as a Father, sometimes needs to discipline His children. Are there any children who enjoy discipline? God brings us everything that is good, and sometimes he allows bad things to happen ... for our own good. I'll never claim to understand why bad things happen and why children die. People are always free to make their own decisions. Maybe they ignore the good voice in their head. I don't know why bad things happen to good people and vice versa. I don't have the answers ... I'm just a human. People are flawed and make mistakes every day. Even Christians (sarcasm)! We are all flawed and fallible. We disappoint others, we hurt others (unintentionally, hopefully), we do stupid things all the time. This doesn't mean there is no God, it means we are messed up and need to find a better way. If we could follow the way God wants for us, life would be so much better for everyone. Love Him, and love one another. If we truly had love for each other, gave to one another, helped one another, and looked out for one another, this world would be such a different place. But, people screw it up by not following God's commands, being disobedient, being selfish and self-centered, and not respecting authority. I, for one, am a Christian who can't wait for Heaven. I'm not depressed or suicidal, just faithful and looking forward to meeting my maker.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Andrew

      Mythology. Pure mythology.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Mr. Black

      Then kill yourself and make everybody happy. Seriously, weather is not on the food chain and it's not proof of a higher power. It's proof we have atmosphere and sometimes that atmosphere gets turbulent. This is because of a number of reasons, none of which have anything to do with divine intervention.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • ETK

      How can you really think that we are so powerful and that we know what the power above ours is, to the detail of an afterlife?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Edweird69

      Meeting your maker? You've already met your maker. It's called the universe. You're composed of water, and DNA and a few other elements that evolved over billions of years. It wasn't magic. You don't have a heavenly father. That is an ancient, made-up theory for explaining the existence of conciousness.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Raoul Duke, Jr.

      And who or what created this power of which you speak? If there is a hierarchy of things, then there has to be something even higher than that god you purport to be the highest thing. You destroy your own argument. Who are you to say you know what this highest thing could be? Prove it, with even some shred of evidence. And don't say your bible is evidence for god. If you do, then I can just as forcefully say The Hobbit is evidence for elves, dwarves, goblins, orcs, trolls, dragons and wizards. Actually The Hobbit is more "evidentially reliable" because it was written by a 20th century university educated scholar rather than a bunch of uneducated late Bronze Age sheep buggers who thought disease was caused by demons and that slavery was acceptable social behavior.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • csi623

      There are so many things we do not understand simply because we negate the existence of something we do not undestand. I do not undertand God, but that does not mean God does not exist. Ask me to prove it, I am posting agreeing with KG2012 that one we will all meet our creator. Denying the existence and purpose of the son of God will definitely have dire consequences.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Edweird69

      @csi – you can't prove there aren't invisible unicorns either. So, are you going to believe in them, just in case? If you don't believe, and they don't exist, don't you fear their wrath. The old con game "believe, or suffer the consequence", certainly works on your mentality.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • KG2012

      I used nature as an example of something in this world that is more powerful than humans, hence the "food chain" reference. God created everything, so all of this is under His control. I'm not trying to convince anyone, simply stating truth. You can see it for yourself, or deny it for yourself. It someone wants to look into it further, I encourage them to do so. For those people so critical of the Bible, I would like to ask if they've actually read it, or just bashing it because that's the popular thing to do? I see proof of God every day through the people in my life, the perfection of of nature (and the atmosphere that Mr. Black mentioned), and everything I get to experience in a day. The Bible is the place we can go to learn about God and how we wants us to live our lives, but not proof in and of itself. That comes from experiencing him, maybe through the "inner voice" this article speaks of. I just hope people can feel His presence in their lives and know that there's more to our existence than we think. God is real and living. His spirit resides in all of us whether we accept Him or deny Him. He's there, loving us anyway.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • KG2012

      Also, somebody is wrong and somebody is right. If you (atheists) are wrong, there are dire consequences. If Christians are wrong, what are the consequences? Sharing my faith with others is something I'm called to do through my faith. It's a way of showing love to others, because if I'm right (and I believe I am) then I should want eternal salvation for others. Teaching others about my faith is like offering them eternal salvation. It's an expression of love. I'll offer it, but not force it down anyone's throat. It's up to you to choose. Faith can't be forced. Stay encouraged fellow believers. Do not be afraid. If God is on our side ...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Edweird69

      @KG – Why is it that believers always assume non-believers have never read that book? Your assumption is, if we had, we would jump to the same conclusions as yourself. Well, most of us non-believers seem to know that book better than you. My mother was a Pentecostal preachers. What you "feel" is a conciousness, a spirituality if you will, All civilizations had the same emotion. It is not proof of the existence of a deity. Your statement that nature is perfect, is quite off the mark. Species go extinct all the time. Nature is still experimenting to this day, it has not evolved into perfection. It's ok to be spiritual, but to elevate it to the proof of a deity is beyond absurd.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Edweird69

      @KG - Look up Pascal's wager. Your bet is, I'll practice it, just in case it's correct, therefore I have nothing to lose. Well, you have about 32 other religions to practice while you're at it. Because they have the truth too. What do you have to lose? Your freedom to live your life as you would choose vs living it under a tyrannical, delusional existence. Why would any sane person want to spend eternity with someone/something, they had to be saved "FROM".

      December 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • KG2012

      @Edweird – I am merely suggesting that people make an informed decision, rather than jumping on the coat-tails of those around them. Maybe your experience in life is different than others, and because you are making an informed decision doesn't mean everyone is. I wasn't trying to offend anyone who has read the Bible and rejects it. That's your decision. I'm not going to convince anyone one way or the other on this post. I'm not trying to. I have my reasons for believing as you have yours for not believing. Pascal's wager is not my reason for believing. I was simply responding to someone else who mentioned dire consequences. As far as nature is concerned, I think it was created with perfection, and many things maintain their perfection. There's a cycle to things and there are species that go extinct. I don't have all of the answers. I can't tell you why these things happen. I know there is a power above it all that's in charge.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • csi623

      A person can choose to believe what ever he or she wants and it can be invisible unicorns. One of the blessing we have in this country is the freedom to express and practice our beliefs. As a christian God tells me to share his Son to all if a person refuses then is ok that is his/her choice. A person does not convinces it is the Spirit.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  13. People are desperate

    Well, just goes to show that not everyone at Stanford is doing quality work.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Not Fair

      Stanford would not keep her around if she did not do something useful; like provide gatorade to the footbal players as they come off the field.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  14. Name*Chedar

    Only when you have divine eyes and ears, will you see gods ( not the omnipotent God the Christians and the Muslims are referring to) and the whole realms of existence.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Raoul Duke, Jr.

      You say that with a great deal of authority and certainty. What is your source of this "great wisdom?" Deepak Chopra possibly? BWAHAHAH

      December 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  15. bebow

    If you wish to hear the voice of God, listen carefully to what other people are saying. God never fails to show up in this way at just the right time. Review your personal history if in doubt.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • GOD

      I can pick up things with my toes. Did you know that? I knew you didn't know that! Ha ha! I'm just fucking with you.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  16. LiberalLove

    CNN belief blog – where the Atheist go to church.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Andrew

      A "Belief Blog" on a news site is inherently strange. People assume that news is fact-checked and has a basis in reality (Fox "News"/Propaganda aside). So to have a section which presents mythology as an alternative to reality is odd. Clearly CNN is just trying to appeal to the evangelicals for marketing purposes – I guess scientists are not yet an identifiable demographic. Or maybe they know we will be satisfied with being able to set the record straight in the Comments with the facts and data and science.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Edweird69

      I wish my house contained some gullible perishoners...I'd certainly pass the plate!

      December 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Edweird69

      oops...perishioners

      December 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  17. Nidal

    People can say whatever they want.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  18. James Berry

    The author needs a psychiatrist Because the bible says Abe and Moses talked to God we are to believe it is factually true? And Jesus appears on toast and melted cheese. If my neighbor says God spoke with him I'll keep my children home.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  19. Dan GA

    God is talking to people today. He is telling them to go to WalMart and buy guns to protect them from the heretic In the white house who will soon take their guns in his plot to turn the US into a socialist state – starting with the eliminating the second amendment. which God told the founding fathers to write. God also called up the Pope today on the Heaven Hotline to the Vatican and reminded the Pope that the church should continue to oppress women. and amass wealth in His name. Sigh.

    I wonder what is telling Boehner and Cantor?

    CNN... Really? This is for Fox.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Dan GA

      I'm a big idiot, too.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  20. The serpent

    Several years ago, a woman killed her children because god told her to kill them (Her story). I wonder why the author didn't show up in court to testify of that murderers behalf?

    December 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.