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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 (7,766 Responses)
  1. WMCK

    E=MC**2; I believe the spirit has boundary with material world. Only God willing to talk to you then you can hear, not based on your will and then you can hear it. And only your spirit believe it, then God will to talk to you. It's just like the nuclear energy process. Cheers.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  2. chicadow

    Whoa! I just heard His voice! He said, "stop wasting your time posting on stupid message boards!" Oops. Gotta go. Praise God.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • dreamer96

      You just are getting subliminal messages from Fox News....

      December 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  3. TG

    In the Bible, there are cases whereby individuals loyal to Jehovah God were spoken to, not by God directly, but by his angelic representatives, as for example when Moses went up in Mt Sinai and received the Law covenant in 1513 B.C.E., in which Stephen saying just before he was murdered by the Jewish religious leaders that "you who received the Law as transmitted by angels."(Acts 7:53) Also of the case with Samson, in which his parents were visited by an angel concerning Samson's birth.(Judges 13)

    However, Jesus established that in these "last days" or Jesus "promised presence" (2 Pet 3:3, 4), that our Creator, Jehovah would not speak directly with his loyal servants even through an angel but would provide "meat in due season"(KJV) through a "faithful and discreet slave", a body of spirit anointed men that would be Jehovah's mouthpiece.(Matt 24:45-47) These would be the ones whom God uses in unlocking "the mysteries of the kingdom."(Matt 13:11)

    Anyone who is sincere can approach Jehovah in prayer (Ps 65:2), with the prayer having to be in harmony with his will (1 John 3:22), but he will not respond by means of a voice. My wife was diagnosed with schizophrenia almost 20 years ago and has heard voices. This was the result of an improper chemical balance in the brain, not of God.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Yes, yes, yes – and Sauron communicated through the palantir to various people,as set out in LOTR. So what? It's only a book. Do it make it true?

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

      Records in the FBI files...a young Muslim boy tells his school teacher the Twin Towers will be gone soon...Fact...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  4. Aaron

    Believing makes life more interesting.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Yup – it sure made life a LOT more interesting for Andrea Yates and her family!

      December 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  5. SaltyBob

    Cant even comment on this other to say we need to have these people seek help from a professional, Hearing voices that are not there is sign of deep mental issues.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • truth be told

      Hearing a voice that IS there makes you a real big loser, sorry about you

      December 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  6. YoHi60

    Please proceed, non-believers.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      okie dokie!

      December 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  7. Happy

    ORIGIN OF LIFE: Hypothesis Traces First Protocells Back to Emergence of Cell Membrane Bioenergetics
    Dec. 20, 2012 — A coherent pathway – which starts from no more than rocks, water and carbon dioxide and leads to the emergence of the strange bio-energetic properties of living cells – has been traced for the first time in a major hypothesis paper in Cell this week.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • ??????????????

      G_od should address this statement if it can.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  8. Rick

    People today are just lost. Most can't be still to notice. And those that do, will likely just deny Him.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      How do you know god is male? Maybe you've just consigned yourself to hell forever by pi-ssing Her off!

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

      So you can dismiss everyone who doesn't believe in 'Him'. What if people who believe in something that can't be seen or heard and whose existence can never be proven, are the crazy ones? Of course scientific proof, or even common sense, matters not for people like you.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  9. don in albuquerque

    You guys are just jealous cause the voices only talk to me. Nutballs all the way.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  10. Aaron

    You are part of God. It would only make sense. Right?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Julie

      Not to anyone who isn't psychotic.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Veritas

      Which part of god am I? His dick?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  11. saggyroy

    "Science cannot tell us whether God generated the voice that Abraham or Augustine heard" – Wrong: According to science, if god interacts with humans on a daily basis, he would leave behind evidence. There is no evidence. God does not exist. Absence of evidence IS evidence of absence.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • dreamer96

      An yet our best atheist scientists have found their God particle...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Dreamer – that is the dumbest comment yet. Well done

      December 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • nal1010

      saggyroy must have a saggyd*ck

      December 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • dreamer96

      Thanks that means a lot coming from "Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear"...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Ad hominem attack, dreamer – look it up.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • SaltyBob

      Cant even comment on this other to say we need to have these people seek help from a professional, Hearing voices that are not there is sign of deep mental issues. PS: sorry but your god in fact all gods are creations of man and you nor any other followers of the gods can prove only bring their particular book into the argument anything new to offer ? I thought not.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • dreamer96

      An ad hominem (Latin for "to the man"), short for argumentum ad hominem, is an argument made personally against an opponent instead of against their argument. Ad hominem reasoning is normally described as an informal fallacy, more precisely an irrelevance.

      So what does that mean?..I can not say anything if I am criticized.......That takes all the fun out of having a discussion...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  12. TIM

    This article is extremely ignorant. Of course someone is crazy if they hear a voice talking to them that isn't really there. God isn't real so if you hear him, then you probably are crazy. If religious people want to worship their imaginary friend, that is their business but stop trying to force that crap down our throats.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • dreamer96

      Did the little Muslim boy that told his school teacher the Twin Towers were going to be gone soon...just happen to get it right???

      December 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  13. Yahweh Sabaoth, Lord of Armies

    If you can hear me speak, you are definitely insane.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  14. timothyclee

    If you hear a voice respond when you're praying, chances are its coming from some other person praying near you. If not, its your own mind playing tricks on you – which is a very tenuous experience to base your life course on.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  15. sharkman

    What an inspiring article. Thank You for posting it on CNN !!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  16. chicadow

    If you believe in sasquatch (God's little brother), you will see him. And you will notice, there is an inverse relationship between sightings and IQ.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  17. Fred Smith

    Another crock of bull from CNN the Godless liberal mouth.

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

      Cant even comment on this other to say we need to have these people seek help from a professional, Hearing voices that are not there is sign of deep mental issues.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  18. James Flaherty

    My Creator the Holy Spirit
    desires that I be fruitful to over flowing,
    Full of Holy Spirit.

    Each of us was created
    to be Holy in all we think and do.

    For this purpose was I created.
    That the fruit of my life
    is Love.

    First for my Creator
    But also for all my fellow Human Beings.

    And so, What is Love?
    Love is consideration of my effect
    upon the feelings of My Creator
    and Others.
    To not give offense, but rather
    To produce Joy;
    To produce Peace;
    To be Patient; To be Kind;
    To Raise my Hand to Every Good Work;
    To Bless rather than Curse;
    To Give and to Forgive;
    And in all things to be Self Controlled,

    And to what Purpose?
    That Those Who Are One With the Holy Spirit
    Might Share Eternity

    2012 Copyright James Flaherty

    December 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • YoHi60

      Beautiful thoughts.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  19. Cedar rapids

    Ok, so hearing a voice may not be crazy. Thinking that voice is anything except your imagination, such as a deity or evil spirit, certainly is.
    Heck, if I were to say I heard the voice of Atilla the Hun saying he will be with me, I'd be labelled a nut in a heartbeat. If I were to say it was god then apparently that's ok.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • James Flaherty

      You were created to be a container in which lives a holy spirit, that you will be acceptable to the Holy Spirit, who is your Creator, so that you might dwell in your Creator's presence for Eternity.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  20. Ryan M.

    I've never felt that God has spoken to me verbally, but perhaps through events, maybe seemingly insignificant, in my life. Also occasionally through the words and actions of people around me. I am truly afraid when someone says they heard God in prayer, because they may be convinced to do something truly insane.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:19 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.