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.
Madona is an old cow.
And I would like to see Jesus's Face when he meets you at the Pearly Gates...You who say nasty things about his mother...
Since these "pearly gates" are said in the bible to be carved from a single pearl, then are these terrestrial mollusks or extraterrestrial mollusks?
And since you're prone to believing the Book of Revelation (the origin of pearly gates) ,then you must presumably also believe that only 144,000 of jewish descent of the 100 billion people that ever lived will make it to this heaven, putting the odds of any modern American getting in as slim to none.
God always seems to tell people to do what they were going to do anyway. Now they can just blame god instead of owning their actions.
jegelkrout, that to me is one of many big problems with religion generally: the sloughing off of personal responsibility to some sky fairy.
Bob Bob Bob....
Bob ..again I say a Muslim boy a school window that looked out on the Twin Towers...a school teacher that hears the boy tell her ...Look at those Twin Towers....they will be gone soon....Facts are there for something...
If God speaks to you, you are NEVER crazy. God never promotes unrighteousness nor mental instability, but instead leads people to righteousness and peace. Demons speak to deluded people and claim to be "God, which is what they do because they are liars. The real problem is that when people who are unaware of how the spiritual world works hears a person who is in fact deluded claim that God has spoken to him or her , they tend to automatically and erroneously conclude that anyone who claims to have heard God is crazy.
Tom: proof, please, or shove off.
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.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all began as the same polytheistic ancestor worship cult. These gods never spoke to anyone because these "gods" were once human kings, warriors, and politicians. Most christians/jews aren't even aware that the god moses speaks to (Yahweh) is the son of the god that made Adam (El). There are 36 gods mentioned in the Bible, and over 3000 ever created and worshiped. we've only recently discovered that about half the Greek gods are based on actual Egyptian and Phoenician rulers between 2000-1000 BCE. and there is evenmore evidence to suggest that the gods Poseidon and Yahweh could represent historical armies of the same naval army. There is no supernatural force here and most of the Old Testament is just corrupted folktales and ancestor worship from neighboring civilizations, hence there is no reason to presume that there are gods or that they have ever spoken to anyone. And that means, if you hear a voice in your head, you are in fact crazy.
Bingo. We have a winner. Right on, Seyedibar.
The Native Indians spoke of Nature as a thin veil separating us from the spirit world ....considering the Rubber Band and String theories they might not have been wrong...
Thank you for sharing your belief about the bible. The very essence of faith is "whosoever will" or will not. By the way, applying the same type of analysis, perhaps you are Poly-Hominisitic. You refer to yourself by the monicker Seyedibar, likely have a first, middle and last name, nick names, attributes, id numbers etc. Just an observation.
I find it amusing that atheists become agitated and feel compelled to shout their hateful bile at any mention of religion. The constant din of 'keep your religion to yourself!' resounds while they try to force their views upon others. I wonder if they see the irony, or if that just gets in the way of their own self-important ranting.
Yeah that is ironic after and election where the GOP candidates wanted to impose their Religious views on everyone in the country.....
Stow your ad hominems, Chris. The same adjectives can be applied to many of the Christian posters here too. Now, note that there are far more Christian criminals than atheist ones.
Seriously, present any 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.
Slapping your own face. That's what it sounds like.
But Bob there is plenty of proof that humans have done some strange things before.....and yet to discuss that is also met with many critics too....There is more things in Heaven and Earth that man can image..
No, I think it's the fact we all woke up. We're done with the divisiveness of religion, its hypocrisy, the lies, the killing, the torture, the maiming, the silencing, the distortions, the molestation of the minds, bodies and souls of our youth, the hate, the deception, the cover-ups, man is the measure of all things, you hold dominion over the world, the manipulation of truth and it's most insidious attribute - teaching and professing hatred for love except in its sanctioned forms. THAT is religion. THAT is it's history. That is who you religious are.
dreamer, again, present your supposed proof for your god.
It depends on the Atheist to be honest. Those types of Atheists you find however are known as militant Atheists, and they're the ones giving other Atheists a bad name. I'm an Atheist myself, but I've never belittled someone for their religious beliefs. In fact, several of my best friends are Evangelical Christians and one is even Islamic.
I don't recall being agitated or spewing out any hate, just a strawman you created.
Bob ..again I say a Muslim boy a school window that looked out on the Twin Towers...a school teacher that hears the boy tell her ...Look at those Twin Towers....they will be gone soon....
I get what this is all about but honestly it's a hard thing to understand. God does speak audibally but for each person I think it is different in how God talks to them. Sometimes it is through another person, sometimes through The Bible, sometimes through just observing things around you. I do enjoy those moments but the times I hate are when you don't hear or see God at times.
Never argue with a fool. After while, nobody will be able to tell the difference.
God is real, people. The devil is real. What each person chooses to believe is up to the individual. To my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ: Once you have been a witness, let God do the work. No arguing is necessary.
I love you all, whether you believe in God or not. Have a great new year, everyone. :)
You see, I don't have brothers and sisters in Christ. Whether they be whatever they be they are my sisters and brothers. Not because they believe or because they don't. I'm pointing out to you your unseen, unrecognized divisive nature of your belief and its under your nose. If the devil is real, he gave to your beliefs and in those beliefs can separate you from the others so that you can look down upon others who don't believe as you do.
Christianity is exactly what Christ warned about.
"Never argue with a fool. Unless you are me, because I am the smarterest boy.
God is real, people. The devil is real. The book that says they are real is true because the same book tells me it is true, so that means God and the devil are real. You see, so anyone who doesn't agree with that sound logic is a fool."
I am better than you because I am smarter than you because I understand and subscribe to Bible logic and you don't, but I love you in a not-at-all-condescending way."
FINITO...time you hear GOD's voice is done...and it never been direct to ...Nowadays GOD's voice is through action...deeds..etc...when things go wrong while what are you doing is good ...you should understand that GOD is talkin to you ..when you are the one sleepin ..and things workin to you while the hardworking is looks the loozer ...GOD is talking to you...CAPPICCI
For those of you who are not religious: Why do you criticize people of faith so heavily? Why call them "mental" or "crazy?" There is no need for that.
As for what I believe: I believe that Jesus walked the earth many years ago, and he threw the status-quo, the hierarchy of the time, into the wind. He cared for the peasants more than royalty. He united the Jews, and that scared the rulers of Rome which led to his death. He sacrificed himself for his people. His teachings have propagated through 1000's of years and still influence modern man. Was he a child of God? I believe so. Some don't, and that is fine. That is your decision to make. I believe God speaks to us, but not with words. I believe he speaks to us through experience. The subtle breeze blowing through a medow, the amazing rock structures in the mountains, and the various events that shape our lives and alter our future. My belief in God allows me to enjoy these small things just a little bit more; it allows me to live life as a better person; and it allows me to enjoy life as much as possible.
Baloney. You aren't a better person. You are merely being dishonest with yourself, or you are truly deluded.
Open your minds and hearts and someday God may speak to you in more ways than one. There doesn’t have to be a scientific explanation for everything.
Yeah, sometimes I hide your car keys or the remote as a way of saying "fuck you!" instead of letting you know how to avoid getting cancer or what the winning lotto numbers are because I'm a dick.
Actually, yes, there DOES have to be a scientific explanation for everything. Not trying to find it and just believing resulted in the D*rK Ages. I think we can all agree that when religion ruled the west it was NOT GOOD!
As supreme being & creator of the universe, perhaps a SINGLE shred of verifiable evidence could be provided ? Thanks :-)
Couldn't agree more. Throw out all the claims which could have a natural explanation, and there should be a pool of evidence which is irrefutable. I searched and searched and never found such evidence.
Well I don't know about proof of God...but plenty of strange events...like those detailed in the movie Mothman...
The 'believers' will read your comment and just shrug it off. They have nothing to offer on the subject of proof/logic/rational thought.
Okay. The fact that you are alive, self-aware, and able to make your own choices. You're welcome.
Um Chris...that's proof of evolution, not proof of a creator. Fail.
I have hidden the definitive proof of my existence in a single grain of sand somewhere in the top 3 miles of the Earth's crust. First one to find it wins a brand-new 8-track player autographed by yours truly and a set of rusty golf clubs courtesy of Satan.
(Shipping costs, taxes, and other delivery expenses are the responsibility of the winner and not God, Inc.)
(Contest ends in 4.3 billion years so don't dawdle!)
I have had GOD talk to me on several occasions..on one of them I saved my moms life....some times I ask GOD to show me things or tell me what to do....and he does....in disbelief I some times don't listen and GOD punishes me or what I like to think as lessons to be learned...
You really should see a psychiatrist. There are meds that can help you with the voices and delusions.
Tenisha – why are you screaming the word "God"?
I used to believe that God spoke to me, not audibly, but through my heart. There were times where I followed this voice and it seemed as if something from beyond was trying to warn me of something. There were other times I followed this voice and nothing panned out. Looking back, I was simply going with what I felt was the best decision at those times and wanted to believe it was of divine origin. I eventually realized that I was forgetting the misses and remembering the hits. We have it within ourselves to affect our own decisions, we just lack the self-confidence to do so.
Our minds are capable of doing some astounding things. Recent experiments have shown that when people are put in a situation where they feel they have little or no control, their minds begin to actually see things that are not really there. It is just your mind trying to make sense of things when you feel you have little or no control about events in your life.
I'm not crazy at all don't need meds maybe u do.....And his name Should be all caps.....different types of miracels has happend 2 me....I'm sorry your not 1 of the lucky ones to have such a higher power to direct you in ur path of life
Good thing they didn't put Noah in a psych ward or we may not be here to talk about this!
Noah never existed. All the worlds creatures in a little boat during a flood that covered the entire globe. People REALLY are gullable enough to believe such foolishness?!?!?!
They did not have time to do that, because the loving god decided to kill them all off.
Noah must have had slaves, because there was no way his family could have fed all those animals and shoveled all that poop by themselves.
At one level, just another way of saying "prove god does not exist", which, as I think we all agree, is like saying, "prove leprechauns don't exist." It is very easy to show how the Judeo Christian god is an invention of man, though.
1. Only in late Bronze Age Palestine had anybody heard of this god. The millions of people living elsewhere in the World had never heard of it. All of the people living in China, Eaurope, Africa, India, the Australian Aboriginals had never heard of it until humans from Palestine gradually moved out and "spread the word".
Does it really make sense that a being would create the an all-knowing, all-powerful, immortal being created the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies 13,720,000,000 years ago (the age of the Universe) sat back and waited 10,000,000,000 years for the Earth to form, then waited another 3,720,000,000 years for human beings to gradually evolve, then, at some point gave them eternal life and sent its son to Earth to talk about sheep and goats in the Middle East.
While here, this divine visitor exhibits no knowledge of ANYTHING outside of the Iron Age Middle East, including the other continents, 99% of the human race, and the aforementioned galaxies.
Second, does it not appear to you a little silly that, of all the countless millions of people, this god would make the Jews its "chosen race" and obsess with giving them a host of rules, most relevant only to farmingcommunities. Hmmm, did god creat the Jewish farmers or did the Jewish farmers create God....
Next, the stories of Christianity are not even original. They are borrowed directly from earlier mythology from the Middle East. Genesis and Exodus, for example, are clearly based on earlier Babylonian myths such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Jesus story itself is straight from the stories about Apollonius of Tyana, Ho.rus and Dionysus (including virgin birth, the three wise men, the star in the East, birth at the Winter solstice, a baptism by another prophet, turning water into wine, crucifixion and rising from the dead).
Next, the Bible is also literally infested with contradictions, outdated morality, and open support for the most barbarous acts of cruelty – including, genocide, murder, slavery, r.ape and the complete subjugation of women. All of this is due to when and where it was written, the morality of the times and the motives of its authors and compilers. While this may be exculpatory from a literary point of view, it also screams out the fact that it is a pure product of man, bereft of any divine inspiration.
By the way, we have no idea of who wrote the four Gospels, how credible or trustworthy they were, what ulterior motives they had (other than to promote their religion) or what they based their views on. We know that the traditional story of it being Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is almost certainly wrong. For example, the Gospel of Matthew includes a scene in which Jesus meets Matthew, recounted entirely in the third person!! Nevertheless, we are called upon to accept the most extraordinary claims by these unknown people, who wrote between 35 to 65 years after Christ died and do not even claim to have been witnesses. It is like taking the word of an unknown Branch Davidian about what happened to David Koresh at Waco – who wrote 35 years after the fact and wasn’t there.
When backed into a corner, Judeo-Christianity admits it requires a “leap of faith” to believe it. However, once one accepts that pure faith is a legitimate reason to believe in something (which it most certainly is not, any more than “faith” that pixies exist is) one has to accept all other gods based on exactly the same reasoning. One cannot be a Christian based on the “leap of faith” – and then turn around and say those who believe in, for example, the Hindu gods, based on the same leap, got it wrong. In a dark room without features, any guess by a blind man at the direction of the door is as valid as the other 359 degrees.
Geography and birthplace dictates what god(s) one believes in. Every culture that has ever existed has had its own gods and they all seem to favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams, and prejudices. Do you think they all exist? If not, why only yours?
No, Kalessein, faith is not even belief in a god. It is a mere hope for a god, a wish for a god, no more substantial than the hope for a good future and no more substantial that the "hope for a good future" and no more universal universal than the language you speak or the baseball team you support.
We are a frightened little species and we need to avoid the inevitablility of death. We create our gods to do just that and to explain those parts of nature we cannot explain or control. Fortunately, the penetrating light of science and knowledge has flushed this "god of the gaps" out of his hiding place. He is now forced to inhabit those few remaining dark patches science has not yet fully exposed. The origins of life is one, the uncritical mind of the believer is another.
Either that, or it all started 6,000 years ago with one man, one woman and a talking snake. Either way “oh come on” just doesn’t quite capture it.
You do not need to be afraid. God speaks to all people, every day in many ways. y. You are not a body , only. You are the spiritual person that resides in your body. You were created to develop your character so it harmonizes in holiness with the Holy Spirit, your Creator. This is the very reason you exist.
When you see Holy Spirit Coincidences, you are seeing our Creator lift the veil ever so slightly, that you will receive a blessing. If you focus your attention on the seeming coincidences in you life, you will quickly see how very active our Creator is in our lives. This realization will change your life and your relation to your Creator. The coincidences in your life are another form of your Creator speaking to you.
Thanks for your opinion James.......um...not really.When you have some facts please respond.
When I read the headline on CNN, I nearly lost it. I would have expected something like that on Foxnews, but not CNN. This basically validates every crazy "god spoke to me" nut out there and that's unacceptable. Your reply is EXACTLY what a growing number of us think and believe. Thanks for taking the time to write what you did.
James, all you are doing is advocating confirmation bias.
Very well said. Thank you.
We should also keep in mind that beyond the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have virtually none of the writings left from before the 9th century. All of the Abrahamic writings are very late,and some have proven to have been whole inventions of the 4th century. So many people don't realize that these writings weren't all religious in nature. They are culmination of all the written material that was being passed around: fiction,history, religion, comedy, philosophy. It was never intended to be read and believed as one book, though sometime around the 4th century, a few politicans saw some use in it being such.
My mother used to say that god told her something, in order to beat me.
The thing is, what god told her was a bald faced lie, every time.
This article is crap.
yo mama was possessed.
It's better to believe in a benevolent extraterrestrial that has given us a code of conduct that aspires mutual respect and a redirect from ourselves than to be subject to the whims of tyrants.
Are you willing to consider that this code of conduct was created by man, only to be sold as being of a God? If you look at the Old Testament and parts of the New Testament, it reflects the society of its time (hence condoning slavery). I can accept that humans didn't know any better, I can't accept that an all-powerful God didn't know any better.
A moral code like stoning gays, making a woman marry her rapist, killing every woman and child in a besieged city – that is a great moral code.
Killing a tree for not giving fruit when not in season – just to make a point.
Forcing a woman to beg and humiliate herself before healing her sick daughter – that is a code of conduct we all should admire.
But we don't do that. Why?
The fact that we pick and choose which of the so-called god's commandments we follow – just shows that we have a superior human-made inner moral code that allows us to do the picking and the choosing.
Where in the Ten Commandments does God condone slavery ? No where.
You still don't comprehend what you read. But its clear you place blame elsewhere for your evil deeds and done so with your free will.
If you have a relationship with God you are SUPPOSED to hear from Him on a consistent basis. Secondly, when God speaks it never conflicts with the Bible so people who commit murder saying God told them to do so are incorrect. Follower's of Christ know His voice; other's are tricked by another spirit as they don't know the voice of God.
What's the difference between Spirit & Soul ?
This article and some of the responses are terrifying. If you've ever heard a "god" speak, you are delusional at best, and dangerous.
The same can be said of people that write.
CNN is going to be unpopular with Atheists for publishing such things. Good article.
Actually us Atheists like it...It shows just how delusional religious folk can be.
CNN has rolled out the religious people in their circus carts and we're now all supposed to make fun and systematically destroy them with logic and reason. This is exploitation of the mentally ill and we're falling for this. CNN parades these poor mentally ill, God-deluded people in front of us and we're supposed to mock their illness which we have, with reckless abandon because we have truth, logic and reason on our side.
Shame on CNN and shame be upon a population who would treat its mentally ill with such disregard.
1 in 100 diagnosed with the disorder...........that is quite a lot! just that comment alone makes me think that yes they are "hearing voices" and need help
illinois elects em.
ill i noise Here's the scoop. In Illinois they get elected, then convicted. With God it's the opposite. One gets convicted, then elected.
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