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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. Marihame Michel Hanna

    Reblogged this on Enlighten Journey and commented:
    Amazing reflective article

    December 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  2. Water into beer

    This is a repost, but it certainly fits this bit-a-business. My widowed Grandmother lived a few blocks from a 50,000 watt radio transmitter in Chicago. She would often pick up radio signals on her old, steel bed. She thought it was God talking to her. One afternoon when the guys were playing Euchre and Grandma was napping, she suddenly yelled out, “He’s here!” Dad raced up the stairs and came back a few minutes later, “It wasn't God”, he said, “It was only Harry Caray.” My uncle reminded him that he was in Cub country and he should keep such opinions to himself.

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

      Hilarious :-D

      December 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • vancouverron

      Reminds me of a Partridge Family episode where Lori got metal braces, and the same thing happened to her, picking up radio signals. Funniest line was when Chris asked her if he could listen to her mouth.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  3. Wake Up

    Mental illness is serious stuff. People hear and see things that are not these. I wonder how much of it is just that? Evangelicals can just go packing back into the churches that they came out of. I'm sick and tired of their religious cr ap! So they hear God talking....well God is telling me now that he's not pleased with what they are doing in his name. Take that!

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

    i'll just take a stab in the dark here , since i'm not qualified to comment on her research but maybe that voice some people here are actually thier inner selves and not some god that is all powerful and talks to us. like carl sagan says extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence

    December 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Wake Up

      Last night I heard a voice say my name. I woke uo and figured out it was just a dream.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  5. Jcook

    Good article. As an agnostic I struggle with the existence, yet have had situations of external voices (or perceived external voices). I think that ppl assume everything unexplained is from god, so when they hear a voice, wether they really hear it or not, they go overboard. My dad said everything is a result of the three "P's" (perception, patience, and personality) as to how ppl respond to pretty much everything.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  6. Dan

    I'm sure that people who believe in an invisible guy that created everything in a week a few thousand years ago, people created from magical ribs, and talking snakes will probably also hear voices in their heads.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • tom LI

      Ah, but with the right sauce and smoke treatment Ribs can be made magical...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  7. cindy lou who

    right on cue...cnn's sunday morning i hate God article.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      This is a I hate god article huh? Or are you looking for an excuse to post your Sunday 'I'm a victim' post right on cue?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Veritas

      Hate "god"? Not more than we hate Zeus, Thor and Horus; and all the other thousands of "gods".

      December 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Veritas

      And don't get me started with the war on xmas :-D

      December 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • SaltyBob

      GOD = man made!
      Religion = Man`s control over other men/wemon!
      Science = a search for knowledge and understanding of the real world.
      Mike Huckabee = opportunistic parasite cretin who preys on the innocent and downtrodden to further his own pursuit of wealth and power.
      Follwers of God`s = People in real need of help that are at the end of the road or rope, people with no real means to effect change in their own lives or others effectively.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  8. Adam

    Sorry folks, but if you hear a voice in your head, its called Schizophrenia, and you ARE crazy.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  9. putty

    Our brains are wired to make meaning out of disorder. We get the feeling of deja vu whether or not we have experienced something before, we see human faces where there are none (trees, clouds, toast) and we make static turn into intelligible human voice (EVPs). That's not crazy, that's just our weird brains at work.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  10. achetole

    God: Knock Knock!
    Me: Who's there?
    God: Amsterdam.
    Me: Amsterdam, who?
    God: Amsterdam tired of all these stupid knock-knock jokes. Hahahahaha!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  11. Tom B

    People believe in Alena though have never seen one. Why is it so hard to believe in God? Most alien encounters or sightings have been debunked as military aircraft. But there are ghosts...aliens....so why not God?

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

      that is not a particularly good reason to believe in god. those purporting alien encounters are usually considered delusional.

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

      ...and your proof of the existence of ghosts and aliens is....

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

      "There are ghosts and aliens"? What? There are most certainly no "ghosts" (or "gods") and as for extra terrestial creatures that would have to be proven first.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  12. emb

    what is more likely people don't report hearing voices for fear of being deemed schizophrenic and the social aspects that that entails. (also we may have a problem with our current classification and diagnosis system as a result of worldwide stigmas over mental illness) , or that every aspect of the reality that we scientifically know to be true is all a big rouse put on by an eternal dictator who would allow priests to molest children in churches, but send you to hell for not believing in him and living an otherwise moral and ethical life?

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

    And the Son of Sam killer, talked to and received instructions from a dog............Right. Another opinion I really respect as being coherent and responsible................NOT!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • YoHi60

      Read the article again. You missed quite a bit of its conclusions.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  14. Aaron

    Believing makes life more exciting.

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

      It made life more exciting for Andrea Yates and her family, didn't it?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • tom LI

      Not from my POV. So dont force the opinion on others. Belief in a Big God makes life sadder...not exciting. Its like being tossed off a boat and the one left behind keeps almost throwing you a life-preserver...teasing you over and over. Promise me you'll do X and I'll throw it straight...promise to be a better wife/husband, etc...and I'll toss this thing to you...oops, sorry, promise to send more money to charity...oops...

      and so it goes...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  15. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    NO! If you "hear" "god" "speak" you absolutely are crazy, delusional, hallucinating, thinking wishfully, or the like.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  16. snowboarder

    simply the product of an active imagination. children commonly conjure imaginary friends.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  17. Dan

    Praying is like a rocking chair. It will give you something to do but it won't get you anywhere.

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

    I stopped taking this article seriously when the author said that there are things that science can not explain. Just becuase we do not have sufficient scientific knowledge today does not mean that something can not be explained by science. For example, the common near death experiences that many people have can be explained by science. Science and religion can not be neatly compartmentalized. There is only one world that we all live in. It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between those who hear god's voice and those who reject other elements of science such as evolution and global warming.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Cat

      its not that science cannot be explained, its more like there's a door of the unknown that isn't ready to be opened. But it will be and everything will make sense then.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  19. jeanne friedman

    what difference does it make if you talk to God, and He talks to you? nothing to do with crazy! unless there is a crazy person out there saying God is telling him/her to do bad things, my God is not bad or mean. He talks to me, there is a tiny spot in my brain where i can hear Him if i chose to do so. if talking to myself trying to decide something i can on the spot hear God speak to me and i usually go with that. i can see things that are not there, to others, not to me. with the help of God i can read a person almost instantly. WHY? i have opened the part of my brain that most people wont do, the long lost forgotten part of your brain and most people think you are crazy if you use it. SO USE IT.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      To which "god" are you referring, which is allegedly not bad or mean? Do you mean Yahweh? If so, then you are sadly mistaken. Your god approves of r@pe, killing children who mock prophets by sending bears to maul them, etc. The list is quite fascinating.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • tom LI

      This all well and good, just dont make stuff up to try and explain or sound expert. The tiny spot in your brain is YOU making things up. It only makes the rest of your dialogue sound crazy...

      There is no need to make up stuff. Simply say,"Yes, I agree there is a means to talk to and hear from MY God." (But I wont force the belief on others, nor insist its a scientific fact that it is God.)

      December 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • The serpent

      Ask god for my full name. Than post it. After that happpens, I'll stop thinking that you are a nut.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Veritas

      Hmm, sounds like clinical mental illness to me. Seek help.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  20. Serge Crespy

    No-doubt, in the "thinking process", the individual resorts to an inner-voice, to communicate with his / her inner-self; such, one may choose to associate with a GOD, as "a checks and balances" mechanism for their ego.

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

      That's how bad psychiatry is, they are aware of people that possess a skill to communicate into a persons mind, like the people around Obama, Bloomberg, lawyers and other people, but lie about it.. Worst of all what makes people believe the voice is truthfully.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:46 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.