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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

    I'm too old for invisible friends.....

    December 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • YoHi60

      Sad.

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

      why be sad if he not sad. thats sad

      December 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Chris

      They're right, YoHi60.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  2. rbrucecarter

    As a Christian believer, who reveres a real, risen savior who actually is real (unlike the false gods of other religions), I have first hand experience. Communication is usually on a non-verbal level because language is an inefficient tool – but He gets his message across. Occasionally there is a verbal message, in cases where there is dire danger and He needs to quickly get my attention. This, of course, is total nonsense to the non-Christian, who doesn't have a relationship with a living God and living savior. Their religion (or lack thereof), may make them a better person, but it is a lonely experience with no response to prayer – or even no need for prayer. They talk to themselves, and maybe feel better for it, but there can"t be a response from somebody who is dead or not real. I pity them – life without Christ would not be worth living. I don't see how anybody can do it.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      Yeah, nuts alright.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • dreamer96

      Some call the feeling that feeling the Heebie Jeebies , or the Willies, or the hair on the back of their neck stands up...

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

      If that isn't mental illness I don't know what is!

      December 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Chris

      "False Gods of other religions", What I love about you christians and just about any other follower of god, whether that be catholics, muslims(same god moron, different prophet), jews, or anyone else, is that you are all so judgemental. I know that was an inclusive statement and judgemental in itself but it would take longer to leave out the few whom aren't. Your Holy Bible leaves much ot interpretation, but 1 thing that is very clear and cannot be me misread is the rule forbidding all followers of Christ from passing judgement upon others, that is a right left only for God. Yet you go through your lives judging everyone who doesnt agree with your beliefs.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • love

      Totally agree!!! Sadly, not everyone understands..

      December 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  3. dreamer96

    Our most advanced mathematical theories the string, and rubber band theories, say we are actually living in a universe with many more dimensions ..10 or 12 or more...Who's to say what those other dimensions contain....a way to communicate with other intelligent beings is well within these other possible dimensions...

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

      Good point and something I'm not willing to rule out. However, for the meantime, I look to what we currently know in order to determine whether or not something is highly probable or true. Numerous scientific experiments have been done on prayer, psychics, mediums, card readers, Weegee boards, and the results are always the same; no demonstration of the existence of a supernatural.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • dreamer96

      Dan again I suggest you look at the records we already have...Like a small young Muslim boy telling his school teacher the twin towers were going to fall....facts are facts and the FBI and other agencies have many other strange cases...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Dan

      The twin towers were a target for a very long time. I'm sure some student, somewhere, at any given time, claimed that the towers were going to fall. We tend to forget the misses and remember the hits. But quite honestly, I'm still open-minded about the existence of a supernatural. I'm just trying to look at this as objectively as possible. And even if there is such a thing, and I'm not implying that you're guilty of this, we still have a huge leap to make between the existence of a supernatural and the truth of a specific belief system.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Chris

      You retired, Mulder...get a new hobby and let the grown ups talk.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Energy

      Your stretching the idea of mathmatics. Mathmatics is a tool to explain how things can work if its applied correctly. Mathmatics suggest that we are minor to a bigger imagination. There might be a billian different dimensions, and each dimension may be a different god, or each dimension may be something smaller to other more greater things. Who knows, but to assume that God is in that dimension is just an assumption.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Dan

      Another example is, one year after 9/11, the New York state winning lottery numbers were 911. I look at it this way, there was a 1 in 1000 chance that the number was going to appear for that lottery. In addition, I'm sure there were a million different places within the state that could have had the 911 sequence randomly appear. I'm sure it didn't appear in nearly all of those places (hence forgetting the misses), but odds dictate it was bound to appear somewhere.

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

      Dan is correct be careful with your conspiricies, hell before the towers were hit my father told me when he was in the military in the 60s that they talked about the twin towers and the pentagon being a target by plane being used as a missle. The whole 911 possibility was not a surprise. But just there really not a fail proof protection for that to happen.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Dan

      The same could also be applied for OBEs during a surgery. People claim that they saw their parents praying. Or the "Heaven Is For Realz" book, where the kid saw the whitewashed Jesus, then the Angels sang a song to him about genocide (Joshua fought the battle of Jerico).

      December 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  4. Energy

    People in gerneral have different perspective of life, no one thinks the same even in the christian community. Two people from a christian church can say god spoke to them, but they are usually talking about two different things. I believe that most people who say god spoke them, didnt hear a voice at all or didnt hear anything at all. They just have a confident conclusion to an idea or action, but really dont know how or care to explain why its the right thing to do. I remember i was in the parking lot of a restaurant and a young kid with a bible came up to me and say "God told him to tell me that I need to become a pastor", I replied "God told me directly that I am to become a doctor" the kid replies in "OH no you are the devil and leaves". A friend of mine told me the same thing that the kid came up to him and told him he is to become a pastor. Now nothing bad about the kid or what he was saying, but the kid was just acting on either what he felt was right or what someone else told him to do. I really doubt god told him to go to everyone person and tell them that they are to become a pastor.

    The only problem I have when people say god told them to tell you "fill in the blank", is its usually meant for you not to question what they are saying because god told them. And they get really offended when you question them. I had plenty of experiences where people come to me and say "god told me to tell you". A lot of the request were just things that I already knew not to do. If god has something for me to be told he will tell me directly. Other than that God blessed me with a brain, so I can figure things out on my own.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  5. Bob

    Present testable, 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 about your god fraud.

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

      JESUS WAS GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      December 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  6. Bill

    This is ridiculous. Anyone who actually "hears" God speak to them is insane due to the sole fact that the invisible man in the sky doesn't exist. Religion, especially Christianity, is absolutely absurd.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Brian Hartman

      I think you're misunderstanding what schizophrenia and mental illness actually are.

      The author (that I can tell) *isn't* saying that the voice is real. She's saying that the person hearing the voice isn't necessarily exhibiting symptoms of a mental illness. That's an important distinction. A mental illness interferes with a person's ability to live a normal life (without intervention).

      December 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Energy

      brian hartman is right, I dont many of the people commenting didnt comprehend the article.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  7. Mxh

    If you hear Thor speak, though, you're crazy.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  8. ArthurP

    What is so special about talking to God, Zeus and I chat all the time.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  9. jakku

    If God does exist and he like us speaks to abraham and moses, why is it called a miracle? When I speak with someone, nobody calls it a miracle. Or is it because it is so hard to believe – because though you profess a belief youactually do not believe in HIS existence – that it is called so. I wish people wouldlook at the advice and goodness in these books rather than delve on the esoteric.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  10. Mxh

    The idea that if you hear good things its god and if you hear bad things you're crazy is just the silly as attributing one person surviving a natural disaster to god, but refusing to blame the deaths of the thousands of others that die on him. This article is nothing but a religious person pretending she's researched something, but conveniently ignoring that science has already explained what she's clumsily trying to make fit with her beliefs.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  11. JustTheFax

    Some folks just can't resist the urge to be an asss. I'm surprised by the number of folks in here that mistake their opinion for fact. Personally, I see it as a trait of unhealthy thinking. Oh well, just my opinion, right?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  12. Mo

    From the article:
    "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."
    Ok.. so this "scientific study," (which is far from being actually scientific, if there was 1 church, no peer review, no control group etc,) says that:
    1 . About one third of people in a group based on faith hear voices.
    2. Those voices reassure them that what they believe in is right.
    3. They think this is God.

    Remember that having faith means making a virtue out of not thinking.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  13. the AnViL

    on these experiences of hearing voices – ms. luhrmann miraculously discovers: "They were more common among those who felt comfortable getting caught up in their imaginations."

    she could have just ended her "research" right there.

    at any rate... what's clear here is... people hear voices in their imaginations and attribute it to the religious drivel planted in their brains. it's called confirmation bias.

    the bottom line here is – those of you who believe in an imaginary man in the sky are delusional.

    remember kids – if you're delusional – you're out of touch with reality.

    cha cha cha

    December 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  14. Breathepeace

    Audibly? No. Yet I do recall one time being very afraid of death and crying and praying about it, "Jesus, I'm so afraid to die". "It's okay . . . I've already gone through it", came his peaceful reply.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  15. rg

    strange... obviously this writer has paid for an education... demand a refund! someone failed you if you believe your god speaks and you hear IT.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  16. lindaluttrell

    Nothing here about an over-active imagination...some people simply want something so badly, they imagine it really occurred...

    December 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  17. Just Me

    I've heard from God many times,even though I don't hear Him every day, but when I need to hear from Him, He speaks to me through many ways, even through His voice.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      Riiiight. You are on a watch list somewhere right?

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

      I assure you, you don't.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  18. God

    If you hear the voice of a made up deity and you are over five years old you have a problem.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Just Me

      If you reject the voice of God when He is speaking to you and you are over years old....you are a FOOL. :)

      December 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Just Me

      CORRECTION: "over years 5 old"

      December 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  19. Shannon

    it was always mental illness and always will be.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Just Me

      Only in the eyes of a foolish atheist, but to the believer, we know that we know that it is God's voice, so, if you knew what we knew when we knew what we know, then you would have known what we know now.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  20. Dan

    What if these voices are really aliens speaking to us telepathically?

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

      Their humans or a group of humans with a skill to deceive.

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

      And those aliens are so immensely huge and we are so incredibly small that we can't see them. We are like tiny creatures smaller than an atom living on it's body. hmmmm

      December 30, 2012 at 9:57 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.