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.
You're a teacher at Stanford? I'm glad my kids went to Harvard and Penn. Next time you speak to god and he speaks back to you tell him to call me. I have some issues I'd like to discuss with him, such as the Holocaust, 911, and Sandy Hook ES.
Really CNN? you printed this? Who wants to worship a god what is absent when you need divine intervention and yet talks to flaky people about their whiny butt problems. The man has no priorities.
America would be "slightly less" screwed up if more people would think like you... I could NOT agree more.
We have plenty of crazy bible bangers up here in Canada too, but it seems that the REALLY crazy bible bangers in the US are really making a mess of things like... oh, I don't know, science and common sense, maybe?
The standards for universities must be at an all time low, mama. Maybe you threw your money away.
This sort of thinking annoys me no end. "WHY did God let this and that happen?" FYI, God made us a perfect world. He gave humans dominion over the world. We are to take care of the world – that means treating the Earth properly, being our brothers' and sisters' 'keepers'.
Then God stepped back and let us have dominion over this marvelous creation. When things go wrong some people immediately blame God. Wrong! Blame the world we have created, NOT God. Blame our apathy, our greed, our cruelty, our selfishness, our ignorance, our indifference, etc.
You don't like something in your world? Then get off your big behind and change it! Get your friends and relatives involved, too. Make the world a better place for now, for the future, for the children. But if you prefer to sit on your big behind and whine and complain about the unfairness and inhumanity in the world ("that God let happen") without lifting a finger to fix what broke then just hush up. YOU are part of the problem. WE are all part of the problem. Only WE can fix the world.
God is not the problem and God is not to blame when bad things happen.
To "experiencedmom55"… You'll get to speak to God soon enough (on Judgment Day) and you'll have to give an account to him for all the ignorant and foolish statements you've been making about him. So you'd better start thinking all those excuses up, because you're going to need them...
What gets me about people like you is that you always blame God for everything bad and you never ever consider or blame yourself or the devil for anything. Why is that? God did not create the atom bomb, man did. God does not force evil people to do bad things, those evil people do that all on their own. So if God is not the cause of those problems, then why should God always be the solution. Do you think God exist only to cater to you, to run around all day long and prevent bad people from doing bad things? That is not his job. That is not the purpose of God. You've got it backwards. We exist to please him and to serve him. That is our purpose and that is what he requires. So what have you done lately to please God? What have you done to even make you worthy of his help or assistance? And if you haven't done anything to make you worthy of his help or assistance, then what make you think he even cares one wit when something bad happens to you? Trust me, he does not. Nor will he even lift a finger to try to stop people like you from all the bad things you've been saying and doing either (like the evil things you've been saying about him unfairly). Instead, he'll just let you live your life on earth and then continue right on to hell. And he'll deal with you on Judgment Day…
To "Steve Wilson, Canada"… If you think that if more people in this world thought like the devil rather than like God that this world would be a better place…then you're more screwed up than you realize…
If Jesus spoke to Martin Luther King, and encouraged him to go forward, that would imply that He believed in Dr. King's mission of equal rights for African Americans. What does that tell us about His message? What does God/Jesus tell us to do when he talks to us? I doubt that he directs Presidents to go to war, or rich folks to plunder the poor and middle class, or Westboro Baptist to picket funerals, because this would be counter to His message in the New Testament of compassion for the poor and sick, etc. No, I think that people, in their darkest and most desperate moments, seek comfort in their cores and hear what they think they want to hear. I don't think it's crazy, I think it's our psychological brain giving us comfort when we need it most. It's what our brains and psyches evolved to do.
Well what if God speaks and tells you to do bad things to people? Does that still mean you're not "crazy?"
What a commentary – it's okay if the voice you hear belongs to God, but if if it's anyone else, you know . .. . .like the "devil" then it's a sign that something is wrong.
Religion provides a medium through which more people become detached from reality than any other aspect of life and more often than not it produces distortion that what they believe is actually moral and proper.
Our children were never raised to either shun religion or be forced to abide by its doctrines. They are grown now and although none became overtly religious to any extent, they are all very fine upstanding people and live their lives according to good family values. They don't hear anyone talking to them except for themselves and they take full responsibility for their actions with no one to constantly seek out for forgiveness.
" About four in 10 say they have unusual perceptual experiences between sleep and awareness if you interview them about their sleeping habits." -It is called Sleep Paralysis and is a very common condition caused by your body not being in sync with normal sleep cycles. It isn't a god or a devil, just biology.
Actually, that's entirely incorrect. No such activity occurs during sleep paralysis. The unusual experiences are the result of hypnogogic and hypnopompic reactions as the brain transitions between either wakefulness and sleep or vice versa, causing REM or dream activity to become superimposed over the wakened state and creating what appears to be hallucinations and other sensory distortions.
Faith is what holds us together. Lack of faith is what makes people nuts. Please do not listen to the naysayers posting against people who have faith, they are doing the work of the devil. God has shown his wrath to us many times in the bible when his people lose faith in him. I was raised with religion in my life, but am not a church goer. That doesn't make me an atheist, I just don't think any of the churches have it right. You atheists have lived on earth as long as I have, and are no wiser. If I chose to have faith in the hopes of some type of afterlife, you leave me alone and I will leave you alone. We both still die.
I have faith in logic, reason, objectivity, common sense and science. Not in ancient mythology. Grow a brain dude.
"lack of faith is what makes people nuts ?" What amazing nonsense.
Faith is what moves people to fly planes into buildings, or blow up innocent people. Faith is what divides common sense people from wingnuts like you.
total disillusionment. Promoting this kind of fantasy is terrible.
Present any verifiable evidence for your god. Any. 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.
Bob, you should run for President. FINALLY, someone with some commen sense.
(Uh oh... I might be going to hell now)...
I am so relieved, I was afraid that the atheists might have read this article and behaved like an adult, not so.
Oh well we can't all be as intelligent as you folks because we believe in God. That seems to be the litmus test you use to judge our intelligence .
I'm really not trying to anger you but I will keep praying for all unbelievers.
@ Larry M..Bob asked you some questions.Do you believe all the stories in the bible or do you cherry pick?..Answer the darned question.Join the list of the internet believers-put up or go away.
Bob… You ask for evidence of our god. Yet the reality is, there always have been evidence of our God, only not the kind of evidence people like you have been willing to accept. So the real question you should be asking is – Why haven't you accepted the evidence which God has provided?…
Yes, even after hundreds of years, there are still fools like you who have refused to accept the evidence which God has provided. And what evidence is that? The bible says, God is a spirit. And a spirit is invisible. Therefore, to prove to you that the invisible spiritual God exists, he sent his only begotten son into the world in the form of Jesus Christ, not as a spirit but in the form of flesh and blood (something you can see and touch and believe in) in order to prove to you that the invisible God exists. For Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. Therefore, Jesus Christ is all the proof you need. He is the irrefutable proof and evidence of God's existence. And it is evidence you cannot deny. So the only question is, Why haven't you accepted it? If countless other people in the world today has been able to accept Jesus Christ as suitable evidence, then why haven't you?…
People like you love to run around screaming "there is no evidence, there is no evidence". When the reality is, you are a liar. For there always has been ample evidence of the existence of God. Only it's not the kind of evidence people like you have been willing to accept. And if so, then who's problem is that? – God. for not providing you with the kind of evidence you have been willing to accept? Or yours – for not accepting the evidence which God has provided? Me thinks that the problem lies with you…
do you want proof that the Bible got it right or proof that a higher power exists? Pick your crusade wisely, because one doesn't necessarily dovetail into the other. Any smart enough to understand the scientific arguments against religion should be smart enough to know the difference.
Trust me, if you ever do hear some kind of audible voice talking to you or speaking inside your head, that is NOT the voice of God talking to you. It is only the Devil trying to deceive you. And if you believe or think that it is God, then you have been deceived…
The most critical and important thing being overlooked in regards to God speaking to people in the bible is that in every case, the people God spoke to were always preachers. They were always either a prophet (like the Old Testament prophets), or an apostle (like Paul, Peter, etc), or a true sent preacher like we have today (yes, prophets do still exist today). God has never at any time spoken directly to ordinary lay members or ordinary people. He never has and he never will. For example, all those people you read about in the bible – Adam, Isaiah, Abraham, Noah, Job, David, Solomon, Lot, Jonah, Moses, etc. – all those men were in fact Old Testament preachers, and God considered them as preachers. They were God's forerunners to the apostles and the sent preachers we have today. If God wanted the people to know something, he always gave instructions to his apostles and prophets. And those men then gave instructions to the people. That is how God works. Always have and always will. God never has spoken directly to the people. Only Lucifer does that, in an attempt to deceive you. That's because Lucifer knows that most people on this earth are ignorant, are completely ignorant of the truth of the scriptures. And he uses that ignorance against you in an attempt to deceive you. Lucifer has convinced countless people in this world that it is God who is speaking to them, when in fact, it is nothing more than the "voice of the devil" they're hearing…
Ephesians 4:11 – And he (Jesus) gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
As the above scripture confirms, God has a system and chain of command he works through. That system is – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Although God works with all five of those positions, he only speaks directly through the first and second order – apostles and prophets. Even evangelists, pastors and teachers do not hear God but must get their instructions from the apostles or prophets. And since there were only 12 apostles (and they aren't alive anymore), nowadays God only speaks directly to his prophets (yes, prophets still do exist). God does not speak to anyone else. If anyone thinks so, they are a liar. If an ordinary person thinks God is talking to them, it is only the devil they hear…
Perfect Nonsense, presenting quotes from the bible as proof of its claims is essentially circular reasoning.
You people are all crazy. Theres a reason this article is an OPINION piece, because not many others agree.
George… What people like you call "circular reasoning" is nothing more than the truth you cannot defeat. You feel that for something to be acceptable to you, it must be defeatable. But truth cannot be defeated...
Thanks for clearing that up for all us poor uneducated, uninformed. Its so comforting to have a real know it all for these kind of articles. Actually I think I will hold on the the Voice within me, I think I trust it more than I do you.
..Hey Larry.if you needed assistance,in an emergency,any- where anytime,and I was there,I would assist you.Would the voice in your head?
Larry Mandrell… If you want to cling to the devil and to the voice of Lucifer talking inside your head, rather than to the word of God and to the truth written in the scriptures, then feel free to do so – but you don't have to tell us about it because we really don't want to know…
Secondly, at no time have I ever said you should trust me. I can't save you. You should only trust the scriptures. And if you can't trust the scriptures, then there's no hope for you...
It's sad, but some people aren't going to be saved because they're too ignorant. Too ignorant to accept the truth. You sound like such a person. If so, unless you change course, a rude awakening awaits you in hell (because Lucifer will reveal to you that he was that voice)…
Madonna is an old cow.
God is a fairytale for cowards and fools.
How do you know that God does not exist?
We know because of logic, reason and common sense. There is no imaginary, supernatural, invisible man in the sky. Grow a brain. Religion is based on ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by members of primitive tribes. It's not real.
The same way you know every fairy tale is a fairy tale. There is no evidence for it.
Saying that you are doing the work of evil. If there is a hell, enjoy it fool!
Tank… A "fairytale" is the world you're living in. It's time to come back to the real world. A "fool" is someone who makes a flat statement that God doesn't exist, yet doesn't have a shred of proof or evidence he doesn't exist. And a "coward" is someone who is doesn't even have enough brains or common sense to admit or simply say "I don't know" whether God exists or not…
Luis Wu… Apparently you are so gullible. Someone told you that lie and you believed it. It's time to realize the truth. You have been deceived…
No, you're just stupid.
Why would the voice be god's?
There are many more likely possibilities.
I wish Christians were as dedicated to proselytizing others as today's Atheists. It appears, knowing that Atheists are still a minority of the population and that a majority of the comments on every religious article I've read on CNN comes from members of the non believing community, that they spend a good deal of their time trolling the internet looking to launch some intellectually deep assault against religion that has never been done before *says very sarcastically while smh*. Bravo Atheists!
i suppose what's important here is that you have found an entirely undeserved method of feeling superior.....
I have had the very same thought. I think it is because we, as Christians, have the faith we need without feeling the need to taunt the unfaithful with confrontations and name-calling. However, I often feel like I am not doing my duty as a Christian to stand up for what I believe. Reading the comments here of non-believers makes you feel too overwhelmed to even want to share the truth.
Be careful, Satan can speak and claim that God spoke. Abraham did not have a Bible. God does speak to people today through the Holy Scripture. Those who are not happy with that could be deceived by voices which do not come from heaven at all. Read Luke 16:31 – if people do not listen to Moses and to the prophets, they will not believe even if someone from the dead would come to them.
Luis, do you really think with all the atheist ranting that they will ever change even one of us? You unbelievers use words like logic, proof, etc, but you don't even use it yourselves. May God have Mercy upon you for your unbelief and your attacks on us.
Oh boy, another opportunity for Atheists to come out of the woodwork and act like as clowns. Can`t wait to hear about how a priest touched them, or how a bully stuffed them into a locker, or how they came out of the closet, or how they come from a broken home– and how their inability to deal with that has NOTHING at all to do with their current position that a higher power doesn't exist. Laughable that a group who puts so much stock in science is so ignorant to the how's and whys of what they do.
kill yourself, retard
It never ceases to amaze me how many people get sucked into the delusional fantasy world that is religion. It's just ancient mythology and ignorant superst!tious nonsense. If you're hearing voices, see a psychiatrist. It isn't real.
Which religion you subscribe too is base almost entirely on where you were born. If you were born in India, you're a hindu, if you're born in the orient, you're most likely a Buddhist or Shintoist, if you're born in an Arab country, you're a Muslim. Because those are the religions that are drilled into since childhood. It's just ancient mythology, nothing more. When will the human race evolve enough intelligence to understand that??? Maybe never it seems. It's pathetic.
A voice of reason. Thank god. ;-)
it may be 'real', but why woud it be 'god'?
That's what i would have said, Thank you Wu.
Luis, your own superiority is a delusional fantasy.
It never ceases to amaze me how much atheists feel the need to bash the religious beliefs of others. What are you so afraid of that you need to attempt to undermine the beliefs of others?
Who is crazier the person that commits suicide or the person that does not? Atheist are more likely to commit suicide.
According to the 2003 World Health Organization's report on international male suicides rates (which compared 100 countries), of the top ten nations with the highest male suicide rates, all but one (Sri Lanka) are strongly irreligious nations with high levels of atheism.
Because suicide is a black mark on the honor of families, so they cover it up and say "It was God's Will"
Facts hurt don't they.
Could it be that people like you enjoy persecuting other people just because they refuse to accept your nonsense?
Atheists aren't crazy. Just ask Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot...
Mohammud Al Abeckim, The truth does not hurt at all. But lies and jumping to conclusions do. You have no proof that they covered it up. You are just jumping to conclusions. The fact is that local authorities used similar means to determine homicide and suicide.
DeeCee1000, Whatever my reason, I am jstill ust stating a fact.
Etahn, religions are no better than the people you mentioned. I hate to break it to you but religions have killed and tortured human beings too, except that they try to justify their behavior by saying it is done "in the name of god".
"all but one (Sri Lanka) are strongly irreligious nations with high levels of atheism." Your citation is bogus. There is no direct link here between suicide and atheism. In fact, the minority religious populace could very well be where 99% of the suicides occur. Suicide isn't exactly crazy. Tell the person dying in pain that they are nuts to want to speed things up. Believing that the bible couldn't possibly contain content not intended by god given its contradictory testaments... that is just insane. What about the Christan sects who want the dome of the rock leveled to clear the way for the Jews to build a synagog to usher in the end of time! Now, that isn't just suicidal... they want to take us ALL with them. That is terrifying!
I'll tell you why - because it's harder. Plain and simple. We don't have a beautiful religion to fall back on, just as we know that putting teeth under our pillow won't bring money. We have to reason with the notion that people are human and humans are prone to violence without any real cause. If it's not the devil, then what is it...? We're confronted with our own, undistorted image of what being human is and it's not the measure of all things. We kill our children in our schools. We fly planes into buildings. We torture and kill. This is what being human IS.
To continue, we accept our lack of purpose. We accept the notion that there may not be a reason for this. There may NOT be a reason for pain and suffering. Your suffering may not be to any greater purpose or reason. That, in and of itself, takes great resolve and strength. Oh, it's easy just to say, I'll meet my kids in heaven and I'll see my parents again, but the reality is, I won't but it would be so much easier to delude myself and say, oh, this pain is temporary and I'll just wait it out. We HAVE no such buffer. You are 13 billion years in the making and you are here but 80 years of that, TOPS. There won't be another you, him, her - never again. Not in that combination, so it's incredibly fleeting, random, brutish and short. THAT is the reality. Some can't handle that reality and without anything to fall back on, take the express to destiny.
Etahntard... adolph hitler was xian, dummy.
Who knows? You could be picking up your neighbors thoughts.
Yeah, well we also have one of the worst records of mental health in this country so her facts are bogus. Many people in this country have some sort of psychological problems that are not reported. Its not like every year we have hundreds of cases where a parent kills their children and then says oh it was god telling me to. So please don't believe all this garbage.
Sorry folks. Go see your local shrink and tell him that God just spoke to you and told you whatever and see if he says you are a well adjusted human being after the session ends. Clue-–when he says "I can see you again next week."
As the researcher herself stated "these Christians, who wanted so badly to have a back-and-forth relationship with God."
This sounds a great deal like autosuggestion to me. These people could talk to Sponge Bob for long enough and they'd hear a bubbling voice answering them back.
Just what evangelicals needed: A PhD backing up their insanity.
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.