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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 • Evangelical • God • My Take

soundoff (7,761 Responses)
  1. crixus79

    If God actually spoke directly to someone, The voice would be such a powerful force that your head would probably explode.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • dreamer96

      Michelle Bachmann said God told her to run for the Oval Office....That must have fried her brain....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      And you know this how?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      lol. And let us not forget that God spoke to Santorum too! 'nuff said!

      December 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • lol??

      d96, she sneezed at the wrong time. God actually said, "time to go to the Post Office."

      December 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Christian7

      Are you saying that you have the ability to talk with people without hurting people but God lacks this skill? So that would make you more capable than God?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • El Flaco

      Everybody's god lives between their ears. People are just having something like a waking dream.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  2. DJensen

    really very simple... only 3 promptings heard: yours... the enemy... God. Which will you choose?

    Doesn't matter who you are, one day – e v e r y knee will bow

    December 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • JJ

      There's another choice – reality.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      You're so obnoxious.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • El Flaco

      Your god exists between your ears. You are merely talking to yourself. For some people the experience is very vivid, but it is all happening inside your brain and no where else.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  3. xirume

    People will go to extreme lengths to convince themselves that what the fantasies they want to believe in are true.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • dreamer96

      Like Karl Grove on election night at Fox News....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      I wonder if genocide and torturing countless people would fall into the "extreme lengths" category for some of these people.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Gregory H.

      Yep just like gravity, whats on the other side of the end of the universe, when time began, what came before the Big Bang. All ridiculous fantasies...

      December 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  4. nonPCrealist

    So really this topic is: hearing voices occasionally is normal, not thinking that god is speaking to you is normal.

    If you think god is speaking to you, yes, you are crazy.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  5. El Flaco

    Seeing or hearing things that others present do not see or hear is perfectly believable. However, the voice is coming from your own mind or the vision is being generated in the same way that a dream is generated by your brain. Muslims never hear the voice of Buddha and Christians never hear the voice of Jupiter.

    It is akin to a waking dream. The people of the ancient world took drugs or starved themselves (fasted) to encourage these hallucinations. Jesus was supposed to have fasted when he had a dialog with Satan.

    Some people are more prone to is than others.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • El Flaco

      I forgot to mention that many people who report seeing visions or hearing voices are surely lying for one reason or another.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • dreamer96

      Yeah like a young Muslim boy that told her school teacher the Twin Towers were going away....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  6. OldJoe

    God has better things to do than Personally talk to Evangelists.
    Sorry, folks.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • GOD

      OldJoe is right. I've got better things to do than that, like making comments on the internet. You know – important stuff!

      December 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • dreamer96

      Just how many of the GOP Candidates said God told them to run for the Oval Office??....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  7. SanePerson

    If you hear god speak you are hearing voices in your head. You might want to go to the doctor, or at the very least strike up a conversation with the flying spaghetti monster as well.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  8. Aaron

    The devil must have a plan, too. How do you know it’s not the devil talking to people?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • dreamer96

      or Fox News and subliminal messages...

      December 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • ghastly

      Aaron, Fox News are the Devil.....how do you tell the difference?

      December 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  9. David

    Re:Perfect Truth
    Did God talk to Noah and tell him to build a ship? Was he a Apostle? Did God talk to Job and tell him why he was having problems? Was he a Phrophet?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      lol Ah yes Noah. . .who somehow was able to visit every continent throughout the world and rescue the kangaroos, giant pandas and all other types of animals we now have today! Don't bother me with your facts and science! lol

      December 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Instant Gratification

      Did God talk to Jobs and tell him to build an iMac?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  10. HenryMiller

    "My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy"

    My Take: You're wrong–you are crazy.

    For most, I suppose, it's a harmless, benign, kind of crazy, like Elwood Dowd talking to his friend Harvey–an invisible giant rabbit. Unfortunately, for some, what they hear from their god is a long, long, way from benign.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Brian Hartman

      That's why she used the word "usually". If the voice is telling you to blow up an abortion clinic or take an AK-47 to an elementary school, that obviously falls into a different category.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  11. Brian Hartman

    I think people are missing her point.

    She's *not* saying that the voice is real. All she's saying is that the voice doesn't indicate a mental illness (schizophrenia, specifically). Hearing a voice that tells you harmful things (e.g., "Kill yourself", "You're worthless", etc.) is indicative of a mental illness. A voice that *doesn't* interfere with your daily life or upset you isn't a mental illness, by definition. It's certainly an auditory hallucination, but not a mental illness.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  12. ohio Mary

    I live in the Bible Belt and it can be terrifiying! We have one evangelical church that holds healing services and claim that their power is so strong that people across the street from the church scream in shock for being healed from the service they are having. I have never heard anyone outside of that church proclaim this and believe that if this WAS the case that everyone in the world would stop going to the doctors and just drive into the parking lot of this church. The point being that emotions can play tricks on the mind and the mind can believe that they hear the voice of God or that healings are occuring etc. I do believe in the power of prayer but on a personal level. I liken it to meditation and meditation can be a powerful thing if done correctly. It can help make decisions and open the mind to listening to the world around you, so this could be the same as hearing God's voice. I cannot say it doesn't happen but I think it would be extremely rare and unlikely on any level. Personally I had a near death experience but even I question the event. It doesn't matter. Whether real or not the experience brought me peace and feeling of no fear of death which is a good thing no matter where it came from.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  13. babooph

    God told little George that there were mass destruction arms & an easy war would fix it in a couple months,makes it hard to trust God[or maybe Bush?]...?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • dreamer96

      Reagan sold WMD's to Saddam from 1980-1988..so did the British and the Germans....Germany sold a complete chemical weapons lab...Reagan used his VP GHWBush, Donald Rumsfled and Dick Cheney to handle the nasty stuff....Military grade Anthrax, Sarin Gas, Tuban Gas, Botulism, Diluted Agent Orange in the form of Roundup...Saddam even had VX nerve gas...In the 1980's anyway..no wonder the French want no part of that invasion...

      December 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  14. DeeCee1000

    Christian7, you sound like a cold-blooded animal with no feelings.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Christian7

      I am not making any sound; I am typing.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      My point exactly.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Christian7

      The good news is that I am not insulting people like you are insulting me.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  15. Christian7

    "I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily."– Issac Newton

    December 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • OldJoe

      Word of God, WRITTEN BY THOSE WHO WERE INSPIRED.

      'Nuf said.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • HenryMiller

      Newton was also an adherent of numerology and believed that the universe would end in 2060. Since the Mayans appear to have been wrong, I guess we'll have to wait another 47 years to find out if Newton was right.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Christian7

      OldJoe, It is not enough said at all. The Bible claims to be the word of God written by humans through divine inspirations.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Christian7

      Newton did not say the Universe would end in 2060. That is an error. He said that the rapture of the church according to the bible could not happen by his calculations until after 2060.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  16. just michael

    Who is one who can think or speak for God, and why he does at the times he does them? I have heard the voice of God, but it was through a gentle breeze. And no I am not crazy. All through the bible, Jesus talked about faith. And i believe the things in my life I have seen and what I have heard is real, for I believe in the power of prayer and what God can and will do. But most people will not believe in something or someone they cannot see or talk to in person. But make no bones about it, God is real and very much alive today, and does things most people cannot explain.. so do not underestimate what he is capable of doing at any time.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  17. the AnViL

    it'll be interesting if ms.luhrmann can expand her "research" to other cultures – to see which imaginary voices others hear.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  18. Aaron

    God has a plan, right?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Of course! And letting millions of innocent babies starve to death every year is a part of it!

      December 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • DJensen

      yes HE does

      December 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  19. alientech

    If you really want to hear God, you'll hear God. But, if God really speaks to you is another story. Imagination is a great thing.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • GOD

      You can always recognize my voice because it sounds like a mouse farting. Very quiet, but distinct and very, very small.
      Just an FYI for people who may not have heard....kthxbye

      December 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  20. Aaron

    All you have to do is believe and anything is possible. Let’s just hope people have the sense to know what’s right and what’s wrong.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
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