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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. ArthurP

    God spoke to me this morning and said He was really saddened by the fact that so many Christians have failed His test of intelligence and still refuse, even after all the evidence He has provided, to accept the fact that The Theory of Evolution is correct.

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

      Can I make a rock so heavy I can't lift it?

      Does the Pope shit in the woods?

      Pick a number between 1 and 32,238,458.232,442. Wrong! You lose. And I knew that was going to happen but you'll burn forever anyway, 'cause that's how I roll.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  2. Adevilson

    Articles like this are the reason why so few people resort these days to CNN as a source of reliable information.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • YoHi60

      You're one of the few?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  3. There is no god

    I expect more from cnn then this tripe.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • YoHi60

      And I expect better spelling from you.

      We're both disappointed.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

      YoHi60 – How is your efforts to make life a living Hell for others helpful?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  4. Aaron

    Who knows? If you’re willing to completely open up to God, it could happen. But at the same time, keep in mind that some people are more gifted than others.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • YoHi60

      And that some people are con artists.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  5. xMoonWitchx

    We didn't have a scientific classification for Leprosy either until we realized that it wasn't a curse from God but rather a biological illness much the same as we'll later discover that this all-encompassing self-replicating, power self-delusion is a illness. Society encourages it's children to have communes with the unseen, to facilitate this notion that what you have to say is so important an all-powerful being will acknowledge you and change the course of events, because you and your thoughts are so important How incredibly.. ..unhinged. How about this, you dying right this instant would have about as much bearing on the universe as whether or not that spec of dust lands on the armchair or the carpet. You are of no consequence what-so-ever.

    As for what is becoming the Catholic News Network [CNN], this article is precisely what is holding back logical discourse. In it's ambivalence, it clearly lays the foundation that this is "okay" and "normal" when this isn't at all normal. It is not AT ALL normal to hear voices telling you thing over another. It is not normal to see people walking around a room. That is not normal. It is not at all normal and for CNN to headline an article on it's front cover suggesting that it is, to me, wrecks of journalistic incompetency or the desire to be viewed by a larger audience as the National Enquirer masquerading as a news organization.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  6. Lou Siffer

    Just about as real as the Ouija Board....

    December 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • YoHi60

      But much more interesting.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  7. David Lloyd

    This is why we (usually) laugh at Anthropology; but not audibly.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  8. brian

    Schizophrenia is just one type of delusional disorder. When you look at the demographics for all types of delusional disorders, the rate is much closer to the "one in ten" citied for people who hear god. Given that the majority of people who suffer mild delusions don't seek medical assistance, It is more likely that they are suffering a Grandiose Delusion.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  9. Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

    If you can't hear or visualize yourself thinking through things, you're likely brain dead.
    Inspiration is rooted in being able to accept thoughts; whether by 1st person, 2nd person, or 3rd person promptings.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  10. Onslow

    There is no god. No one is speaking to you. It's the workings of the amazing brain. Please read 'Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There' by Professor Richard Wiseman. Fascinating reading about the facts and the psychology behind fortune telling, out-of-body experiences, talking with spirits, ghosts, prophecy, etc.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

      There is comfort in accepting the concept of believing is something greater than oneself to aspire to be like or to please.
      Having a sense of accountability beyond life is what has built civilizations and organized civilized interaction between people.
      Unfortunately, it's people that done have a sense of greater spiritual purpose that make life a living Hell. Even atheist have created religions and organizations to give structure and causes in order to control over people. When you take away a person's perception of spiritual accountability, either in this life or the after life, it creates a mindset in some that gives them justification to eliminate SOBs that torment or oppress them.
      The more we eliminate accountability that aspires to benevolence; the greater the likelihood of inhuman acts, genocide, and the collapse of the civilized world. Artificial accountability in our temporal world is only appealing to the selfish who find vain pleasure or power under such structure.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  11. cosmicc

    Whether you are talking to yourself or talking to god, it's the same thing. It's fine if it's a one-way conversation. When it becomes a two way conversation it's time to seek help.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  12. Read This. My Amazing Conversation With God!!! N

    God spoke to me once. He said "Hey Clayton, do you have the time?", and I said "yes, it is 10:15", and he said "thanks, I keep forgetting if the clocks went back, or forward".

    December 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  13. darte

    If you hear a God talking you may want to increase your dosage or decrease your dosage of your meds.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  14. Bob

    Present verifiable evidence for your god. No one has ever managed to do that, after hundreds of years of wild claims of talking snakes, virgin birth, and rising from the dead, as well as the brutal tales of vicious, vindictive, bible god.

    Christians, get on it: Put up or shut up already.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • YoHi60

      Prove the opposite.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  15. Steve

    The religion of the day is the psychosis of the day. If you think you have a connection to a super natural power just by putting your head down, you are imagining things. If the imagined super natural power is talking to you, then you must be the enlightened one and I guess you are another messenger from god that will come and save us from our earthly evils. One of my favorite sayings is "The mind is a wondorous place". People have been endoctrinated with belief systems that are very hard to keep up the daily lies they must tell themselves. I understand that everyone needs to find their place in this world, but many belief systems have too many holes in their foundations and just dont hod up. Think for yourself. The voices you hear are your own. Take responsibility for your own life.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  16. dylanesq@msn.com

    "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?"

    Wrong..right from the get go.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  17. Marty in MA

    religion is nutz. You are crazy if you hear or talk to invisible wizards.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  18. Paolo

    This is CNN with liberal, God haters abounding so I pray to God the voice you are referring to isn't the fraud Obama' voice.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • dylanesq@msn.com

      Go ahead, mio caro, delude yourself that you are having some effect by praying...you are nuts.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Dan

      Going by your post, you seem to admit that no one truly knows if these voices are of divine origin, if they're from satan, or just figments of our imagination. Thanks for the example.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • cosmicc

      Why drag our god-fearing president into this? We're talking about imaginary beings.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Lynn

      What? I'm a liberal, and I believe in God. And God demands you love our president.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • don in albuquerque

      Another nutball speaks

      December 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  19. achetole

    "Fred...it's G-d....did you do what I asked about the Amalakites? And those wearing mixed fibers? What are you waiting for, Fred? It's me...the Lord your G-d...Fred?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  20. Jason

    "Most of the time when you think you hear God speaking to you, it is you speaking to yourself" – St. John of the Cross – Of course he said most of the time, the point being is that you don't know what is from the imagination and what could be from the devil or what could be from God – That is why a spiritual director is important in order to discern – It could be a big mistake listening to a voice and directing your life according to what you think you heard coming from God.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Ghandi quote

      As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, keep it.
      Mahatma Gandhi
      Indian political and spiritual leader (1869 – 1948)

      December 30, 2012 at 9:35 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.