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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 • God

soundoff (7,767 Responses)
  1. warytraveler

    Why is this garbage on the front page?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  2. dreamer96

    Albert Einstein said knowledge of Physics is important to be a researcher...but more important is a good sense of imagination..

    December 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Duke

      But nowhere did he mention it is important to have a sense of delusion.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • dreamer96

      Duke

      And they called all the people who tried to fly..crazy too....but Orville and Wilbur Wright still tried....

      December 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Good analogy – they dreamed about flying, and invented the airplane. Humans have been dreaming about the unknown, and INVENTED gods.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • dreamer96

      Sign on the wall in a house of sin in the Movie Easy Rider...If God did not exist..Man would have to create Him...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  3. Molly

    people need to walk in the highway of holiness and righteousness and they will hear from God. we all know that none of us can exist without the power of God.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • MStriker

      according to that logic my father was God and my mother was Mary. I wouldn't exist with them! Guess that makes me Jesus! HOLYHOLYHOLY HALLELUJAH! THE PROPHET HAS RISEN ONCE MORE! BOW DOWN TO ME YOUR GOD AND SAVIOR I WILL GUIDE YOU OUT OF THESE DARK TIMES AND INTO THE AFTERLIFE!!!! Just gotta give me $20 first. That was my experience with every church I ever went to. Only met one Christian who ever really read the Bible, and he can't stand the rest of you evangelicals either.

      Go and flagellate yourselves for the forgiveness of humanity and gtfo CNN.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  4. Dennis

    Well, CNN is now giving equal time to fruit-cakes. They hear voices...but it's OK...it's God.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  5. TheVocalAtheist

    Delusional would be the proper description I think. The guy on meth was drug induced during his delusion but it was merely an amplification of what was in his mind already, apparently he had been searching do to something that's why he took the drug and then while under the influence he had this so called "epiphany" about writing a book, probably something that he always wanted to do. There's nothing supernatural or special it is just an auditory hallucination which is a delusion.
    The same goes for anyone looking for an answer, like Martin Luther King Jr., he just found the courage that was already there but there was no God involved.
    So, you religious folks out there please understand that you are not hearing the voice of God, one because it doesn't exists and two, because it doesn't exist. It's all in your head, you are listening to yourself for confirmation. This is a no brainier, geesh!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • ApresMoiLeDelusion

      Amen! The question is why this Stanford prof doesn't make it clear that her research in no way suggests the voices come from outside her subjects. Either she doesn't want to offend her believing readers/subjects/sponsors, or she doesn't want to come out as a believer. Unconscionable. Given that her central thesis, that people hearing the occasional voice are assumed to be schizophrenic, is so obviously false, I suspect she is a closet believer...

      December 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  6. Craig

    If you're having conversations with invisible people, you're crazy.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Hammer

      Absolutely right. There is never a time when you hear voices in your head or speak to imaginary friends that is "good." They need rehab and need to get back to reality.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  7. jms4177

    If you are talking to someone that you can not see, you need help.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  8. selfevolved

    Wow, talk about not teaching fairy tales in schools. Now you're trying to convince the public that they're NOT crazy when they hear a NONEXISTENT being talk to them? Why don't you go ahead and give them a few assault rifles while you're at it? Why stop half way?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Raven

      The left wing liberals are already doing that apparently so they can ban them for the children.....

      December 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  9. MStriker

    we live in a nation of ignorant people. thank god the modern GOP is dying out, get this bull out of politics.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Duke

      Not a nation of ignorant people, but unfortunately the ignorant people vote at a higher rate than better educated people and as a result crazy politicians get elected and affect public policy. Think Kansas school boards or anything in Texas.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  10. pachy

    I wonder how many tax $$$ have gone to fund this "research"?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  11. good ol common sense

    The lyrics to a good song come to mind: "It's just your EGO telling you lies"
    Your ego and subconscience work steadily whispering sweet nothings in your ear. If you choose to listen to those thoughts or even act upon them is determined by your willpower. This is the human condition,

    December 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  12. acheptole

    God: "Dude, are there any Amalakites in your neighbourhood?"
    Me: "Wouldn't you know, God?
    God: "What about those brown people on the corner?"
    Me: "The Hernandezes? They are from Peru...really nice people."
    God: "Smote them."
    Me: "Wh..no! God...no...they are really nice people!"
    God: "Dash their babies against rocks and kill everyone who wears mixed fibers."
    Me: "Awww...geez...go away God...I have to clean my garage...I'm not in the mood for your nonsense today."

    December 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  13. dpappas

    How about reading Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind." Wouldn't hurt.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • good ol common sense

      Thank you for the great reccomendation...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • good ol common sense

      recommendation... :P

      December 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • YoHi60

      One of the best books ever written.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  14. Bruce

    I have heard my name called out several times. On one occasion I was walking through a parking lot with my wife. I heard my name called very distinctly from behind and above me. I stopped and turned around to see who was calling my name. There was absolutely no one else around, much less any one who knew my name. Want to call me nuts, tell me that I'm a head case? My wife also heard my name being called the exact same time and also turned to see who was there. If I'm a head case then my wife has the exact same symptoms at the exact same time. Did the event change my life? Not that I'm aware of. However, the extra time the voice caused us to stay in that parking lot may have changed the course of events of my future enough to prevent something bad from happening to me. Or perhaps what I'm writing here years later will have a positive effect on some one. The saying "The truth is out there" is a lot more accurate than any one can guess. Just because science can't detect some thing doesn't mean it doesn't exist. There are many things science was incapable of detecting in the past that we now take for granted. Who do I think called out my name? I firmly believe it was one of God's angels. Call me a nut if you like. Lots of people have been called nuts and later proven correct. I will be in good company.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Or it was someone calling your name. Or making a sound that sounded like your name. Or your wife just said that she heard the same thing that you did, in order to placate you.

      What is more likely – the laws of the universe were suspended in your favour, or you were mistaken?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Hammer

      I was in New Orleans years ago having improper relations with a girl of the night when she screamed out, Oh god!" Could it be that I am really god? I mean, we're talking about voices and coming to some irrational conclusions, aren't we?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Bruce

      Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear,
      If you had taken the time to read my post carefully you would know my wife was not trying to placate me because she turned and looked at the same time I did. And do you know all the laws of the universe and how they work? I doubt it.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • HolyJoe

      And just because science cannot detect it, doesn't mean its real. You make quite a leap from "I heard my name" to "it was an angel." What's an angel? Are you a polytheist? The article was pretty superficial. Caution reader: it would be quite a leap from "Many normal people claim some kind of disembodied voice experience" to "it may be from God." The reference to the other writer's experience with meth was interesting. There are many ways to hear voices and sense presences. Drugs are one way. Deep inculcated belief in supernatural beings that may/will communicate with humans is another. Childish wishful thinking, imaginary friends, and projection of thoughts and dialog upon them is another. Its interesting how the mind works. However, the ability to imagine something doesn't make it real. In the scientific approach, reality can be tested, and the tests and results can be repeated by others. Bruce hearing an angel, or little Billy hearing his imaginary friend Bob, can't be so shared and tested. Discounting Bruce's claim that his wife heard it too. There are many reasons a spouse might validate something like that, if in fact she did so. As to Abraham hearing God tell him to kill his son as a sacrifice, that represents a horrible ancient religious practice, and anyone claiming to be under such instructions in the USA today would be locked up. Good that Abe "heard" a countermand. The general human perception of what gods are or God is, and their/his relationship to humans, has evolved over time. Maybe the story is a marker of some evolution in the practices of those ignorant and brutal desert tribes.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Hammer

      Bruce... The "Laws of the Universe?" Are you for real? Most of us know the laws of physics and how to separate fantasy from reality. Can you? I doubt it.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  15. saggyroy

    "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown." – Carl Sagan

    December 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  16. Kathy

    I think the author has provided some reassurance to those who doubt that their experiences have validity. I have had afew of these experiences, and I have always tried to ask myself some tough questions to determine (as much as is possible) if what I'm being told is merely a justification to do what I want or to confirm something that I already believed anyway. It's hard to know. Al-Qaida terrorists are promised by "voices" that they will have a harem of virgins in the afterlife if they commit suicide and kill Americans; whether to interpret the voice as saying something "bad" or "good" is in the eye of the beholder. But I do think God speaks to us in ways that comfort or guide, or that gently confront us to help us change for the better. Any reluctance I feel to talk about such events is not because I think I'm crazy, but because the "message" was so personal and so intimate, I almost feel it's too precious to share. I hope people reading this will be discerning, but also open their minds and hearts to this mystery.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  17. Dan

    If the supernatural is real, and something is really speaking to us, how do we know it's really God? What if it's the devil trying to trick us and gain its trust, only to later tell us to kill and eat babies?

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

      St.john said "brethren test every spirit, to make sure it is of God"

      December 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Dan

      But how do we test? If we're using common sense, isn't that relying on our own morality to override anything that a spirit is trying to convey?

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

      That's why they have a breathalyzer test.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  18. Bill

    When you pray you are talking to God. When you read the bible, God is talking to you.
    If you hear voices you better get some help.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      What about the parts of the bible that command stoning disobedient children to death? Is that god saying that? Or commanding genocide? Is that god saying that? Encouraging ra-pe? Slavery? That's all god saying that through the bible.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • anonimous

      is pretty sad your comment. how do you know if something is real if you never tried? I have such experiences since more than 22 years ago, and, every time that happens is because I need that information or somebody who need it. like the one when somebody was in the street and try to kill me with a gun and I hear in my inside that sweet voice that alert me and when i turn my back I saw an armed man coming to to attack me ( I was with my girlfriend that time ) and then I react in a way that the men run away even with a gun in the hand. that's only the tip of the iceberg. every time God talk to me is positive, good, nice, helping me or others, nothing weird or crazy, or asking me to pray for people in trouble. and the most nice part is when He talk to me about something and then I realize is really happening short time later. if I told you how many times I remember ( still going on ) I cannot fill this entire cnn webpage. why me? I'm not the only one. I know many, many others who God call everyday.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Kevin

      With all due respect – and I truly mean that – when you read the Bible you are reading the words of humans. Maybe they were inspired, maybe they weren't. But it seems to me that if you are going to attribute something to "God," especially when it involves issues such as murder, war, marriage, etc, you might want to be pretty certain there weren't any human errors or outright lies. It is such a huge leap of faith. You do understand that there is no such book as "The Bible" right? It's a human-collected groupings of old Christian texts, of which many others were excluded. Are you curious at all about the humans who decided which writings were the literal word of God and which ones weren't? I'm astounded that so many millions put their faith in the writings of humans.....

      December 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  19. MagicPanties

    I hear my invisible pink unicorn talk to me all the time.
    What's the big deal?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Dan GA

      There's nothing wrong with you. You're just an idiot.

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

      You have insulted the true believers of the BLUE invisible unicorn! Infidel !

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

      We of the green invisible unicorn will wage war upon you people of the false pink and blue unicorns. One day only we, the true believers, will remain.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • good ol common sense

      are you kidding me? the real invisible unicorn hasn't even arrived yet... Geeze...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • saggyroy

      To the green and pink invisible unicorners: "May you find no relief from the tag in the back of your underwear!"

      December 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  20. Nidal

    Its just my account of things, the people who claim special relation with god are likely to be false and after something. Yes there is one in a million chance or even much less they are truthful, but then I would watch for consistency. Its not hard for most to fail to the consistency test. God talked to you? Then he must've told you something interesting!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:00 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.