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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. WJ

    he placebo effect is real, but it does not mean you really received a drug. It means that you simply THOUGHT or perceived that you received a drug (wishful thinking?), but were in fact mistaken.

    Talking to God is no different. Wishful thinking – essentially it's like the Placebo Effect. Makes you feel better to believe it really happened, so you do believe.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • dreamer96

      The CIA asked their Remote Viewers to look for a kidnapped person in the Middle East....a picture of a image was given...which seemed to be useless...but when they found that person the rescue team noticed the image was a billboard out side his window...

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

      WJ, I understand what you are saying. However, if you ever took a moment to seek God, with the respect that He deserves, He would definitely respond to you. "For everyone asking receives, and everyone seeking finds, and to everyone knocking, it will be opened." Luke 11:10 in the Bible.

      You can't deny that God is real and living, if you've never tried to contact Him in sincerity of heart.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  2. dreamer96

    The CIA and the Air Force had their Remote Viewers...the Army had their men who stare at goats and the Navy had the radio men....

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

      Kind of funny how the only guy who teaches "remote viewing" claims to be able to make all sorts of money using his amazing abilities, yet his only source of income appears to be the sale of books and courses in teaching this idiocy.

      Look up the Randi Challenge.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • dreamer96

      What is even funnier is the remote viewers looked inside one of the 7 missile silos build in Iraq for Saddam and saw horrible tests conducted on prisoners and captured Iranian soldiers...Later the US would enter those missile silos and find one was a test lab for toxic chemicals...a killing booth was setup to test the chemical poisons..

      December 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  3. WJ

    The placebo effect is real, but it does not mean you really received a drug. It means that you simply THOUGHT or perceived that you received a drug (wishful thinking?), but were in fact mistaken.

    Talking to God is no different. Wishful thinking – essentially it's like the Placebo Effect. Makes you feel better to believe it really happened, so you do believe.

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

      That is a good point.

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

      The placebo effect is a deception, the crucifixion of a innocent soul was not.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • deadlyserious

      Humberto:

      The placebo effect is not a deception. It's quite real. The long-term benefits are the deception.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  4. Dan

    When are you religious nuts going to grow up? I know you WANT to believe but think about how absurd it is.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Yag Kosha

      What people like Dan need to remember is that they have no more knowledge or evidence to support their contention that God does not exist than believers have to support theirs.

      The way I see it's 50/50, I don't rule anything out.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  5. Name*penguin

    Further proof that some well educated people with teaching positions at well respected universities are stupid. It eliminated Stanford as one university I would want my kids to attend.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Dan

      Same here.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  6. Doodlebug

    If I was one of these persons and someone asked me point blank "does God speak to me" – I would rather be considered insane, or mad than deny my faith. And always, I would prefer to believe in something.. rather than nothing at all.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      And always, I would prefer to believe in something.. rather than nothing at all.....

      Interesting comment. Why?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Yag Kosha

      Cedar Rapids: Maybe it's because Doodlebug has aspirations of higher purpose, while you have no aspirations other than grabbing as much as you can within the span of 80-odd years..

      December 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  7. David

    The most important revelation I have ever received is the understanding that we were created by God with three distinct parts: spirit, soul, and body.Every born-again believer has undergone a complete inner transformation in his spirit so that when God speaks it is usually through your inner spirit. Those on this forum who reject the concept of God will never hear him speak through the spirit because that transformation has not taken place and God cannot force you to listen to him if you do not acknoledge his existance. Of course he can bring an event ito your life where you cry out to him and he answers.

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

      So he can bring about a massive tragedy to force prayer? Sounds like a nice guy to me.

      Also, what about the non-born-again Christians who speak to their god? What about Mormons? What about Jews? Muslims? Satanists?

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

      If were were created in god's image than why aren't we invisible?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Yag Kosha

      Dan, I'm sure to the majority of women, you are invisible.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Bonnie

      Dan, I keep seeing people, perhaps you, asking the same question. God created mankind in His image, meaning in His likeness. Image per the dictionary: (one definition) a mental representation, idea, conception. God created mankind and placed in man with knowledge of rightfulness and the wonderful capacity for genuine love. Flesh is in opposition to spirit because flesh is physical and God is strictly spiritual. Flesh cannot see spirit, by God's own design. However, if we actually seek Him on a spiritual level, with our heart, He will allow His love to be felt by us and He will communicate telepathically.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  8. Wootings

    In short, if you have an occasional sensory hallucination, you're not crazy. But if you attribute such things to, or generally believe in, any religion...then you are crazy.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  9. Bonnie

    Our Almighty God is a LIVING God, of the highest wisdom and power, who designed and created the universe and all that is in it. As the article mentions, there are those with imaginations who invent sensational stories for themselves; however, true communication with God is actually quite intimate and genuine. Just as one computer sends a message (email) to another, so does one intelligent being send a mental message to another. Telepathic communication.

    God tells us at Jeremiah 29:12-14, "And you will certainly call me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. And you will actually seek me and find me for you will search for me will all your heart. And I will let myself be found by you, is the utterance of Almighty God."

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

      See, I'm pretty sure that Quetzlcoatl only speaks through the method of divine retribution.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      And "god" does this throughout the entire expanse of a 15 billion yr old universe containing trillions of stars and an untold number of planets?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  10. disgustedvet

    Good old CNN ,throwing out the raw meat on Sunday morning to feed the haters.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  11. Luis Wu

    If you hear an imaginary, invisible, sky fairy speak – YOU ARE DEFINITELY CRAZY AS A LOON!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Alex

      Let me ask you a question...You are on a cliff because you fell and now need to be rescued. Two men at the top who are trying to save your life each throw you a life line.
      Man #1 throws you a rope.
      Man #2 throws you a string.
      Which one will you have faith in? and Why?
      BTW i forgot to tell you that the rope has a cut in it and can only handle 25 pounds, but you would pick the rope because fo have more faith in something you think you know more about than the string. Even though the string will hold 2500 pounds.
      The fact is some people believe in god and have faith even if you don't. The same as having faith in that rope you think was going to save your life. Even if you don;t believe in god it is NOT your place or right to call anyone else a loonie because you disagree. These same people who believe in god are not calling you a loonie for not believing. So the fact is they show more respect than you regardless of there being a god or not. You should take a lesson and learn how to become a man and show respect to others as you would want them to show on you. So stop being a horses Arrrrzz.zzz

      December 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Alex – it's just ancient mythology and primitive superst!tious nonsense. Grow a brain.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  12. Mary Kay Roberts

    Tanya Marie, thank you for such a wonderful article. I have experienced this three times in my life (I'm 50 now) so it is very rare. It's a shame that others have to post negative comments. They have obviously never experienced this and they would have a much more loving and tolerant outlook on life were this the case.

    Many Blessings and keep up the good work!

    Mary Kay

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

      And how do you know the voice in your head is your god speaking to you?

      Does it sound like Morgan Freeman?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Luis Wu

      You're delusional and need to see a psychiatrist.

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

      Seek help, Mary before you off a movie theater. Do so with all due haste.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Mary Kay

      Sorry guys, it doesn't work that way. I appreciate your concern though.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • James Berry

      I think Osama Bin Laden claimed the same thing, his orders to kill 3,000 humans were also from the voices in his head, and Charles Manson hears them too. But I never heard it of Ghandi or MLK.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Mary Kay

      James, to me that sounds like schizophrenia, much like what the author described. And just to explain, what I experienced was brief and startling, as the author described. It took me a while to even tell anyone or to beleive that what I heard was not from my own imagination. The messaage was one of reassurance and it was not meant for me alone, as it was given to me during a time of deep grieving after the loss of my aunt. People that have had this experience will understand. I also understand the deep skepticism for those who have not had the experience. Logically, if God can speak to people that are open to love and goodness than so can the Devil, thru people that are open to hate and evil. People that post deeply scornful posts are type of people that worry me the most as they are filled with intense hate and anger.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  13. DeeCee1000

    Hard to imagine a "god" that allows millions of innocent babies to die every year the cruel painful death of starvation.

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

      God doesn't wish that any should die. We have rejected him. Jesus says to repent and accept the free gift of salvation. I don't know who you are but I would hope that somehow you would see that Jesus loves you and is calling you to repent of your sins and allow him into your heart today.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      lol Good answer "Sean"! While you're in "prayer", perhaps you should inform your "god" in his heavenly bliss that millions of INNOCENT babies are suffering from lack of food; apparently he's too busy to care for them.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  14. SSGJughead

    god told my ex-wife to drive past a city policeman at 80mph, he pulled her over and asked her whether she was under medication or just wanted to go to jail. He followed her home but told her that he would take her to jail if he saw her out that night. Yes, well, soeone who talks to god scares the living hell out f me.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  15. ArthurP

    "If you hear God speak, you (usually) aren't crazy" No, you are just mildly deluded.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Luis Wu

      No, it's called schizophrenia.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  16. Aaron

    There probably are good and bad spirits trying to reach people. It’s all about good and evil fighting one another.

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

      Yep, that totally makes sense. It's the only rational conclusion anyone could reach.

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

      Good and bad spirits? Tee hee :-D

      December 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  17. James Berry

    CNN=Fox News Light

    December 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  18. Grundig Glasswerks

    Chad, do your homies give you a shasta blasta each time you post?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  19. Apotropoxy

    "In the Bible, God spoke directly to Abraham. He spoke directly to Moses. He spoke directly to Job."
    ______________________________________

    Today, when historians of the ancient world speak they say the same thing that experts in ancient Middle Eastern archaeology and anthropology say. 'Abraham, Moses and Job are fictional characters vital to the backstory of the ancient Hebrews.'

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

      Job is my favorite. He's the one who gets tortured, loses his land, his friends, his family etc., all so his "loving" god can win a bet with Satan.

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

      ..and didn't the big guy play a nifty little stunt on Abraham.Kill your kid-just kidding.It continues to baffle the mind why people would want to believe in such a monstrous concept.But then again,I haven't heard voices.Daffy Duck?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  20. deadlyserious

    Oh yeah, this is a completely reliable study. And founded on good, solid principles.

    First of all, hearing voices doesn't make someone schizophrenic. Well spotted. Good job. Everyone else already knew this.

    Then we come to the genius conclusion that if the little voice in your head affirms everything you already believe to be "good", then it must be your god talking. Truly astounding use of logic there.

    I mean, honestly. Are these articles reviewed before they're published? Or does CNN just enjoy trolling any readers with half a brain?

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

      Just shows how much ignorant hype there is about who is captain their ship.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • James Berry

      Thank You!! It is truly astounding what they consider journalism and we wonder why we can't have an intelligent conversation, Watch for next weeks special on the benefits of channeling, the intelligence in intelligent design and other absurdities.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
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