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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 (7,765 Responses)
  1. Skeptimist

    There is much in life that invites skepticism – proof is in the results. After our infant daughter was diagnosed with severe developmental disabilities, I hit a very low point and had one of those 3 am confrontations with despair. As the "poor me" feelings took over, I asked God why He gave us a child with these afflictions. This was more of a whining accusation than an actual question and I wasn't expecting an answer. But as I sat there staring into to the darkness, a message I can only describe as silent thunder suddenly arose in my mind: "I didn't give her to you. I gave you to her."

    My despair instantly vanished, replaced with acceptance, confidence and a peace that has endured for 35 years. Prior to that experience, my prayers usually consisted of bargaining, making excuses and giving God instructions. It's a lot simpler now: Thanks for prior guidance and Please for another portion. It works, for every problem, every time.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Instant Gratification

      Except it wasn't God talking to you, your brain merely worked on the problem (subconsciously) and came up with a solution you can live with.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Don

      I genuinely hope your little one is OK, and you have the strength to continue to care for your baby.

      I ask that you be a bit more careful with your words, though. My friend's baby just died of infant leukemia...His "conversations" with God did nothing. Does God give you strength and not him?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • jclough

      Don,

      I'm so sorry to hear about your friends loss. I know personally that the loss of a child is very difficult.

      I can now think of so many reasons why God may have taken his child but none will likley ease his suffering. For me only time and the faith in knowing that only the childs body has died and that the two will meet again.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
  2. SanePerson

    CNN should take this article down, its offensive to sane people.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • lol??

      another psychopathic book burner.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  3. Don

    Anybody who claims they can talk to God is narcissistic. Anybody who believes that God has cured their ills is arrogant. Do you not think the starving people pray? Does God decide not to respond? Are they not deserving?

    The God apologists will say that "he" works in mysterious ways. Sadly, after many, many years of observation, the only evidence-based conclusion is that he doesn't exist.

    Ask yourself what is more likely. 1) An all knowing God exists or 2) A very clever man came up with an idea to know about what happens after death. He realized people would make him wealthy and powerful for knowing this information. Just look at the Vatican, look at the Mormon temples...these are places of vast wealth and people will give money and follow anything that is said from the men who are in charge.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • dreamer96

      The Family Channel now runs a disclaimer before each show for the 700 club...So many predictions..so many that never came true....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • intply777

      why do all you GOD haters fail to mention the Devil......

      December 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Don

      intply777,

      Neither God or the Devil exist.

      Tell me where my logic is wrong. Predictably, you will cite the Bible. So, you must believe that women that lose their virginity before marriage should be stoned to death. You must believe that all gay people should be put to death.

      This God you believe in is filled with vengeance and hate...

      December 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • intply777

      I never said I was christian...you must be referring to the christian bible that was written over a thousand years by many different authors...The bible is a faith based text and not historical or to be taken literally....

      December 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • intply777

      @ DON....why do you blast religion and the belief system of others...why don't you take away what religion and GOD stand for and that is the way in which you live your life....One of my closest friends is an Atheist and I respect his belief..he is also one of the kindest, respected and wholesome person you would ever meet....that is the point....

      December 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  4. Ron cheshier

    I couldn't agree more with Bill Anderson's comment: "Just what evangelicals needed: A PhD backing up their insanity". These delusions are not harmless because they can, and do, lead to disruptions of other, innocent people's, lives. I'm willing to bet that more than one of the 9/11 hijackers "heard the voice of God". Two thousand years ago such events may have served as a cohesive force for a society but this isn't the year 1 and sanctifying such occurrences as "normal" only encourages these delusions and ignores the very real danger they pose. While it is true faith played an important role in the success of the civil rights movement there were many "good"' religious people in the south whose "God" was telling them that blacks were the children of Cain. Let's not forget the other end of the spectrum.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  5. teste

    god grant me the serenity to realize that religion is stupid

    December 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • dreamer96

      Or that man has messed up his message really good...

      December 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • intply777

      you forgot to mention the Devil

      December 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  6. intply777

    It doesn't matter if you hear the voice of GOD, or feel him or see him....the point of all the negative backlash associated with this story goes to the heart of the question of the slowly but surely path of society as a whole going down hill...It is taboo now to speak about one's experience of GOD or religion for that matter because you are than "imposing" your views onto someone else..to lambast these individuals is flat out wrong....whether or not you believe in a pepsi can as your GOD or hear GOD's voice..the way in which you live your life is of paramount importance and to give testimony about why you live the way you live should not be attacked as mental illness...any moran can tell the difference between being afflicted between a mental illness or believing in GOD...grow up and smell the roses that are sprinkled with GOD's sheer earth shattering beauty....

    December 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  7. don in albuquerque

    Or how about...........next time you find your self in divorce court and during the child custody hearing you try to convince the judge that God spoke to you and said you should get the kids and raise them to hear talking snakes. Any guess what his decision might be?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  8. Har Dav

    The Truth is an Offense but not a sin.God spoke to some of our founding fathers. God speaks to many who did not even ask from Him to speak. Only those people who cant and done believe in God would be there is no God. Many so called intelligebt people cant receive God they believe in man, Ok look what man has done, and science does not have the answers. Even Eistein believed there is a God and do many very intelliegent people. The trick to get God to understand YOU. ! Thats what the Bible calls GET UNDERSTANDING you should read it some time.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  9. Republicans Are The American Taliban

    God told some people to fly airplanes into buildings to kill thousands. Why did he do that if he loves us all so much?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • intply777

      You obviously don't believe in the Devil...that is his greatest trick onto mankind...to make us all think he doesn't exist.....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Har Dav

      That would be Satan. If you read the Book of Daniel. God's people never retaliated, God did and He did it much worse.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • ??

      @inply77..And god's greatest feat was visiting earth,2000 years ago in the form of a human and allowing humans to kill him,leaving ZERO proof that HE exists.Can you see why people may be a little sceptical?Can you see a problem?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Republicans Are The American Taliban

      intply777 and Har Dav

      So Allah is the Devil?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  10. vidal808

    All here is, the Creator of all that exists, Spirit and Matter, that Creating Energy...you may want to call it GOD or whatever you want to name it, is the underwriter of "All there IS" – so if you hear a voice, feel a touch or have an experience that you can not explain in terms of your normal everyday living, well, then it was given to you by the Creating Force of all things, GOD. He speaks in all languages and communicates in all possible and impossible ways. Even in the mentally deranged as we call them and in the psychiatric wards, you find that the same communication is taking place on a different level some of us may not understand. Everything is somehow connected and has it's meaning and purpose, not knowing is the "normal" existance and very few are lucky to be blessed with the understanding of this connection between past, present and future. "If you know, you don't tell, and if you tell, you don't know" – Listen to the voice and make some choices – it is all part of a bigger picture.....
    Blessed be the Creation and All the Things that are In It......Have a great life everyone :)

    December 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  11. SanePerson

    The flying spaghetti monster told me this article is tripe, he is the one true god.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • teste

      are you that person i knows that believe in fyling spegetti monster

      December 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  12. JJ

    Apparently this sky god told numerous folks to run for president in 2012 (Santorum, Perry, Bachmann, etc.), all mostly Talibangelicals but then they didn't even win the nomination. Either this god of theirs is just fucking with them, they are crazy or they were trying to convince their fellow crazy frothing at the mouth Talibangelical Christians to vote for them. You see Christians, being skeptical is a good thing.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  13. Ian Boucher

    The writer should have noted that while she studies altered states of perception amount evangelical Christains, these expierence she writes about occur in people of all faiths. Hindu, Buddhist, Tao, Jews. Altered states are a human universal, filtered and interpreted through culture (if a Christian has an experience in prayer, it's seen as God. If a Buddhist has a similar one, she is close to Nirvana). Since its clear through research done on her own field of anthropology that this is a cross cultural, faith spanning phenomenon, it shouldn't be written about through the lens of a fundamentalist American sect of Protestantism..

    December 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  14. teste

    for godsake just join a not religious religion already!

    December 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  15. peterz

    Did it mean that whom God did not talk to was not believing in Him. Because God did not believe in them during praying. I thought the article was not writien from the writer whom qualifying for writing about faith.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  16. Christian7

    The American Journal of Psychiatry

    "Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt"
    written by:
    Kanita Dervic, M.D.; Maria A. Oquendo, M.D.; Michael F. Grunebaum, M.D.; Steve Ellis, Ph.D.; Ainsley K. Burke, Ph.D.; J. John Mann, M.D.

    Concluded:
    Our study showed a relationship between religious affiliation status and suicide attempts in a clinical sample of depressed inpatients. It seems that the constellation of religious beliefs and lower aggression level, together with a higher threshold for suicidal thoughts in religiously affiliated depressed subjects, reduces risk for suicidal acts.

    In other words: Theist commit suicide less than Atheist.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • the AnViL

      no – theists don't kill themselves... statistically speaking – they prefer killing others.

      zoop!

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

      If uisng psycho-analysis then belief was the mean to release the suppress which causing the depression. As result could control the sickness from its consequence. The thing here was belief trying to control people instead of people's sickness.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Christian7

      the AnViL, Statistically speaking from to different scientific studies, atheist do commit suicide more often than others. You are wrong.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • the AnViL

      scroll up and re-read, dumba$$ - i was clear... no – theists don't kill themselves... statistically speaking – they prefer killing others.

      atheists may kill themselves...

      but...

      theists prefer to kill others.

      evidence: prisons are populated by far more theists than atheists.

      xianity made you careless and ignorant.

      evolve, son.

      January 12, 2013 at 1:22 am |
  17. A10128

    Sorry but this tripe has no business being on CNN at all, let alone it's home page. Let Fox News pander to the nutjobs.

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

      The best method of protest is by making fun of the tripe.

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

      another sociopathic book burner.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  18. Wes Yoder

    I am sure I would scoff too were it not for the fact that during my youth, at the point of my greatest despair, I "heard" two things that became true, one in a few years, the other over the past 35 years. One I did not want to hear, the other became comfort as the years passed. Neither message was in character with the way I say things, or the way I was thinking then. There is a quiet voice, unlike our own, that is the voice of God. But fellow Christians, stop this nonsense of ascribing to God what is NOT his voice, and cease saying "God told me" when all you want is to cut off conversation about your own questionable behavior. When the angel spoke to Mary about the coming birth of Christ, she was careful NOT to speak immediately about what she had heard, "but took these things and pondered them in her heart." The Christian church in America could use a whole lot more pondering, a lot less saying out loud the first thing that occurs to us.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  19. Instant Gratification

    God talked to Jobs and tell him to build an iMac!

    December 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  20. SanePerson

    I talk to the flying spaghetti monster every day, he is in heart and prayers.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Instant Gratification

      This is not funny! The writer needs to be treated immediately!

      December 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • don in albuquerque

      I thought it was very funny and very appropiate.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.