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My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy
A woman prays in church. Many Christians say they can audibly hear the voice of God.
December 29th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

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

Editor's Note: Tanya Marie (“T.M.”) Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University professor in the department of anthropology at Stanford University in Stanford, California. She is the author of "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God."

By T.M. Luhrmann, Special to CNN

(CNN)—In the Bible, God spoke directly to Abraham. He spoke directly to Moses. He spoke directly to Job. But to your neighbor down the street?

Most people reading the ancient scriptures understand these accounts of hearing God’s voice as miracles that really did happen but no longer take place today, or maybe as folkloric flourishes to ancient stories. Even Christians who believe that miracles can be an everyday affair can hesitate when someone tells them they heard God speak audibly. There’s an old joke: When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.

Except that usually it’s not.

Hearing a voice when alone, or seeing something no one else can see, is pretty common. At least one in 10 people will say they’ve had such an experience if you ask them bluntly. About four in 10 say they have unusual perceptual experiences between sleep and awareness if you interview them about their sleeping habits.

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And if you ask them in a way that allows them to admit they made a mistake, the rate climbs even higher. By contrast, schizophrenia, the most debilitating of all mental disorders, is pretty rare. Only about one in 100 people can be diagnosed with the disorder.

Moreover, the patterns are quite distinct. People with schizophrenia who hear voices hear them frequently. They often hear them throughout the day, sometimes like a rain of sound, or a relentless hammer. They hear not only sentences, but paragraphs: words upon words upon words. What the voices say is horrid—insults, sneers and contemptuous jibes. “Dirty. You’re dirty.” “Stupid slut.” “You should’ve gone under the bus, not into it.”

That was not what Abraham, Moses and Job experienced, even when God was at his most fierce.

For the last 10 years, I have been doing anthropological and psychological research among experientially oriented evangelicals, the sort of people who seek a personal relationship with God and who expect that God will talk back. For most of them, most of the time, God talks back in a quiet voice they hear inside their minds, or through images that come to mind during prayer. But many of them also reported sensory experiences of God. They say God touched their shoulder, or that he spoke up from the back seat and said, in a way they heard with their ears, that he loved them. Indeed, in 1999, Gallup reported that 23% of all Americans had heard a voice or seen a vision in response to prayer.

These experiences were brief: at the most, a few words or short sentences. They were rare. Those who reported them reported no more than a few of them, if that. These experiences were not distressing, although they were often disconcerting and always startling. On the contrary, these experiences often made people feel more intimate with God, and more deeply loved.

In fact, my research has found that these unusual sensory experiences are more common among those who pray in a way that uses the imagination—for example, when prayer involves talking to God in your mind. The unusual sensory experiences were not, in general, associated with mental illness (we checked).

They were more common among those who felt comfortable getting caught up in their imaginations. They were also more common among those who prayed for longer periods. Prayer involves paying attention to words and images in the mind, and giving them significance. There is something about the skilled practice of paying attention to the mind in this way that shifts—just a little bit—the way we judge what is real.

Yet even many of these Christians, who wanted so badly to have a back-and-forth relationship with God, were a little hesitant to talk about hearing God speak with their ears. For all the biblical examples of hearing God speak audibly, they doubt. Augustine reports that when he was in extremis, sobbing at the foot of that fig tree, he heard a voice say, “Take it and read.” He picked up the scripture and converted. When the Christians I know heard God speak audibly, it often flitted across their minds that they were crazy.

In his new book, "Hallucinations," the noted neurologist Oliver Sacks tells his own story about a hallucinatory experience that changed his life. He took a hearty dose of methamphetamines as a young doctor, and settled down with a 19th century book on migraines. He loved the book, with its detailed observation and its humanity. He wanted more. As he was casting around in his mind for someone who could write more that he could read, a loud internal voice told him “You silly bugger” that it was he. So he began to write. He never took drugs again.

Now, Sacks does not recommend that anyone take drugs like that. He thinks that what he did was dangerous and he thinks he was lucky to have survived.

What interests me, however, is that he allowed himself to trust the voice because the voice was good. There’s a distinction between voices associated with psychiatric illness (often bad) and those (often good) that are found in the so-called normal population. There’s another distinction between those who choose to listen to a voice, if the advice it gives is good, and those who do not. When people like Sacks hear a voice that gives them good advice, the experience can transform them.

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This is important, because often, when voices are discussed in the media or around the kitchen table, the voices are treated unequivocally as symptoms of madness. And of course, voice-hearing is associated with psychiatric illness.

But not all the time. In fact, not most of the time.

About a third of the people I interviewed carefully at the church where I did research reported an unusual sensory experience they associated with God. While they found these experiences startling, they also found them deeply reassuring.

Science cannot tell us whether God generated the voice that Abraham or Augustine heard. But it can tell us that many of these events are normal, part of the fabric of human perception. History tells us that those experiences enable people to choose paths they should choose, but for various reasons they hesitate to choose.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat at his kitchen table, in the winter of 1956, terrified by the fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery bus boycott, he said he heard the voice of Jesus promising, “I will be with you.” He went forward.

Voices may form part of human suffering. They also may inspire human greatness.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of TM Luhrmann.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • God

soundoff (7,767 Responses)
  1. MagicPanties

    "... [science] can tell us that many of these events are normal.. "

    That is utter nonsense. Science does not tell us that hearing imaginary voice is "normal".
    This from an alleged academic? She should be ashamed.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • niknak

      She is just trying to sell more books and make more money for herself, like any self respecting religious scammer.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • dreamer96

      And yet the CIA had their Remote Viewers....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  2. ScienceMatters

    The author should have had her article peer reviewed. It's full of anecdotal evidence, which is not sufficient for drawing her conclusions, much less for providing advice.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      You know CNN is in trouble when they start posting articles you would normally find on Fox "News".

      December 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  3. SanePerson

    HO HO HO! Merry Chris....

    oh wait, different myth

    December 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  4. dr bip

    Why do we have to assume the "god" of these voices is the Christian patriarch? There's other ways of understanding a voice of intuitive clarity that are metaphysical and yet have absolutely nothing to do with any established religion.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Every religion tries to claim they own the "real" god.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Dionysus

      dr dip
      Right you are, me and some of the guys get together and chat up some of the christian lot just for laughs. It is amazing what hoops you can make those sheep jump through.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  5. GregtheThird

    What is described in the article is consistent with my experiences. I was blessed with a divinde encounter many years ago with what would best be described as an angel. It was nothing like what has been depicted in scripture. I sensed it's presence from several rooms away and was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. It radiated a strong sense of joy, a visceral feeling like I have not felt before or since. It felt as if I had jut hit the game winning home run game 7 of the world series. I could see this being but it was more like a ball of energy only roughly in the form of a human hovering above my infant daughter's bed. It did not speak audibly, but rather through my mind. It spoke to me through my inner voice and I could respond back to it with my thoughts. There have also been a few times before and since when I have encounterd foul spirits who seem to be able to speak through my inner voice, trying to disguise their influence as my thoughts. Over time I have come to believe that the old addage of the angel and devil on the shoulder of an individual trying to influience their actions may have a hint of truth to it at certain times.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • MagicPanties

      Yes, I too had similar experiences, but I was doing acid at the time.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  6. don in albuquerque

    During the last solar eclipse there were several of us standing outside watching and one guy said, "Look...I see a space ship coming around the ring of fire and someone is waving." Another woman standing there said " It is Jesus coming to take his world back." My answer was "No I think it is William Shatner."

    December 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  7. Instant Gratification

    Dumb! It's not God talking to people. Normally, one would call it an inspiration (a sudden intuition as part of solving a problem). It usually happens in 99.9% of the people, but only a few get rich!

    December 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      So the whole point of life is to get rich?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Instant Gratification

      The only purpose in life is to get rich! God told me that!

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

      And you know this for a fact and as an expert, how??

      December 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  8. Terry Cairns

    My gracious Triune Lord spoke to me when I was a little girl bewildered by my sorrowing parents and told me He would never leave me. He spoke again when I was broken by sorrow as an adult. We who believe–will hear Him, if we will but listen, praise His holy Name!

    December 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Have you thanked him for allowing all the suffering and sorrow to happen in your life?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Steve Wilson, Canada

      You are insane. Stay away from all children so there is no chance of you brain washing them.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Thaddeus Alexander Pickering, Esq., Brigglesham-Brixley, Yorkshire, England

      You can create hallucinations if you strain your brain hard enough. Tinnitus is a real physiological condition, as is epilepsy.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  9. Grampa

    The obvious answer is that these people are hearing the voice of their own subconscious. The "god" they think they hear is nothing more than their own brain talking to itself.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • the AnViL

      it's called "confirmation bias".

      December 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • RW

      The obvious answer is they are schizophrenic.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  10. Happy New Year Everybody

    No Need for religions to say a thing they should be answering the statement below!
    ORIGIN OF LIFE: Hypothesis Traces First Protocells Back to Emergence of Cell Membrane Bioenergetics
    Dec. 20, 2012 — A coherent pathway – which starts from no more than rocks, water and carbon dioxide and leads to the emergence of the strange bio-energetic properties of living cells – has been traced for the first time in a major hypothesis paper in Cell this week.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  11. SanePerson

    I pray to bigfoot and santa clause, they tell me I need to post my experience online so sane people can point and laugh at me.

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

      Fail.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  12. xMoonWitchx

    WAIT! Without religion, here's the thing! As I said, you're 13 billion years in the making. As bleak as Atheism may sound, get this - you have won a greater cosmic lottery. Think of this - being made of heavy elements, most of you is composed of the remainders of super novae; long extinct suns who have exploded. You are but one egg, composed of these elements, carried by your mother her entire life. In that chance opportunity, your egg dropped into the uterus on the off-chance it may be fertilized that month. If not, you're flushed away. In your case, you were fertilized by a sperm who was made recently and you, as unique as you are, came to be. That is your gift. You already won the lottery. You have another 13 billion years at least to be non-existent, so why kill yourself? Despite whatever pain, this is so incredibly temporary, so incredibly chance that it's better to enjoy the sunset, no matter what your pain and realize how temporary and beautiful it really is. Who needs religion when you have reality? What are you going to be when you die? What you were before you were born. For more, consider Kahlil Gibran, "On Death".

    December 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  13. Bob

    Really CNN, this is your reporting. I looked for an article about FISA you know one of the many acts that destroy our rights as Americans. And you come up with a preachy BS about hearing God? Why don't you try some reporting? Why not something about your fake pretenses to go to war with Iran, cutting off speeches when it doesn't fit the Governments agenda. Why not report news instead instead of taking money from brutal regimes like Bahrain to report their advertisements as news?

    Belief in a supernatural natural being is not news, but then most of your reporting has bias, so it's not news either. Your actually doing a analysis from a book that encouraged slavery, murder, incest and talking snakes. And you wonder why you have a declining user base.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      I think their ratings have been so low that they are now caving in to the millions of Americans who still believe the planet is only 6000 yrs old and the "Adam and Eve" story is actual history. It's obviously a desperate move.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • dreamer96

      You Mention the secret FISA court....their own records show people that have warned our Government before events and the Court has has held secret trials over them..and said they do not deserve to be locked up for life for it...Ironic...since some people are tried in a secret court and never even know that it is happening....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  14. Gnuut Jensen

    "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."

    And so the author apparently believes that an imaginary being is not being imagined by those persons who use their imagination?
    Grow up. Try to imagine yourself as the creator of these imaginary experiences.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • dreamer96

      It happens to non Christians too......believing in one God or another is not the main issue....Strange things have been recorded in our own history....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  15. Candace Peters

    Hearing voices is a sign of mental illness not a message from a so called God. (Of which there have been many over the centuries). That a professor at Stanford should espouse such nonsense is appalling.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  16. Peter Bishop

    God is beyond anything our peanut minds can comprehend. Just because something happened a long time ago and was framed in that time, does not make it less valid. Time and space are creations of God, yet he works outside of these limitations. If he had come to this world today, instead of thousands of years past, he would easily speak our scientific lingo and converse on our level to explain things. To expect God to discuss with even more primitive humans of ancient times, the science around quarks, energy and matter etc. is foolish. The ability to convert matter and manipulate energy is an advanced trait that God did easily. Some people have no problem with the fact that a computer can do billions of calculations, yet have a problem with the concept of that which we know as God could be in contact with each and every human on some level. It is up to the receptor to accept it or deny it.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  17. TexasTexasTexas

    CNN used to represent professional, unbiased, important news. Now it's just another arm of Fox News. Can someone please reply and tell me where to go for an intelligent news source? BBC, NPR? CNN is not much above tabloids these days.
    To have such a nonsense "news" story on the front page is dumb. Why not feature Batman, Santa Claus, SpongeBob, etc.? Those characters "talk" to people. There needs to be a 100 million person march to represent the non-idiots that aren't afraid to say emperor isn't wearing any clothes.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  18. DeeCee1000

    Most obnoxious people in the world: people who try to force their own religious beliefs on others; biggest turn-off in the world.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • justageek

      I think it ia anyone who belittles anyone else for no reason...like a lot of the kids on this site do.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  19. TheVocalAtheist

    Flying saucers, Big Foot, The Lochness Monster, Voice from God. All placed in the same category. Not real.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  20. Kanageloa

    When you read scripture in the Bible, God speaks to you. I don't believe that God does or has to speak vocally to anyone. If he needs to send a message to you personally he uses the Bible or an Angel. Read the Bible and if you have questions then you do research to seek the answer. Remember too that God will take his time to answer your qestions.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      OK, how do you know this to be true?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      lol. That's funny. "God takes his time". Maybe you should tell that to every starving baby, "God takes his time". Tell the millions of starving babies (before they die from lack of food) that "god takes his time".

      December 30, 2012 at 10:41 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.