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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. snowdogg

    "accounts of hearing God’s voice as miracles that really did happen"

    Wrong premise from the start.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  2. Nutjob

    I TALK TO GOD EVERY DAY! But also spacemen, the loch ness monster and lord xenu. They got into an argument yesterday and the voices just won't stop! Arggghhhhhhhhhhh my straight jacket, why won't it come off!?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • snowdogg

      You might ask god...

      December 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  3. lol??

    Who told all the psychopathic atheists to hang out at CNN's belief blog?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Santi Clause

      G_d works in a mysterious way!!!

      December 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • niknak

      loloser,
      It's Sunday, shouldn't you be kneeling at some communicator to god speaking your magic spells?
      What are you doing here?

      December 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Lou

      A psychopath believes that they are above the human condition which allows them to minimize the lives of others. Much like the righteous who believe that they are special and placed above others because of their faith in their particular deity.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  4. GAW

    When I was an Evangelical many years ago I prayed many times that God would talk to me. There never was a voice that came to me, an impression or anything else that would imply that the infinite mind was revealing something to me. I am now convinced that those who claim to hear these voices are of a certain personality type and are prone to experience such psychological events. Some are downright liars such as televangelists who claim that God spoke to them to extract money from people.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • El Flaco

      I had a similar experience of nothing. No prayer was ever replied to, nothing ever 'came into my heart', I saw no visions, no little bird came to rest on my shoulder. As a boy, I had a complex that God had rejected me when he 'came into the hearts' of everyone else I knew.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  5. The Mockingjay

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_xl_AR0IRs&w=640&h=390]

    December 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Butthead

      Uh huh huh . . God speaking thru Bubba in a suit. .. huh huh huh . . huh huh

      December 30, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  6. Frank Knarf

    What should I do if the Flying Spaghetti Monster talks to me? Should I do what it demands?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • dreamer96

      Write a Screen Play and sell it to HollyWood.....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  7. Chris Gose

    As a scientist and researcher, anti-religious zealotry strikes me as being no different from any form of fundamentalism. I read and enjoyed Richard Dawkins' work as a younger man, but find his recent proselytizing to be a bit silly. Apparently none other than Higgs-boson theorist Peter Higgs agrees: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/dec/26/peter-higgs-richard-dawkins-fundamentalism ... So much of hyper-skeptical thinking is just so jam-packed full of logic fallacies and hysterical polemics, it is honestly hard for me NOT to ignore it.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Instant Gratification

      It's hard to be perfect.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • dreamer96

      Kinda like science 300 years ago...

      December 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • GAW

      Unfortunately Fundamentalisms often define themselves or emphasize what they don't believe.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • niknak

      Chris, we non believers are not against what you beleivers believe in.
      You want to waste your time having a make believe friend, then that is your time.
      What we have issues with is you beievers, from any religion, trying to force us to believe along with you.
      Stay out of our government, our medicine, our science, our laws and out of our bedrooms.
      That is all we ask.
      You are free to go out and howl at the moon all you want, just stop trying to force us to howl with you.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  8. Christian7

    "Rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God." - John F Kennedy

    December 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Christian7

      That quote from JFK is from his inaugural speech if you would like to verify that he did in fact say that. You can even hear him say it because a video of his speech is on youtube.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • snowdogg

      So...... ?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • mama k

      He also said:

      I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Lou

      Wow quoting a serial adulterer to prove a point? Getting desperate?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  9. niknak

    Hey fundies, what are you doing here?
    Isn't it Sunday, the day you go to your big communicators to god and kneel down and speak your magic spells?
    I was thinking, since the muslims pray 5 times a day, and you only go to your communicators once a week, then their god must be more powerful then yours.
    And they must believe more strongly then you do.
    So islam will eventually win since they are stronger and tougher then you are.
    So you better get even more guns, so you can kill them before they win.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • dreamer96

      China has 1.3 Billion People and India is around 900 million....and how many are Christians or Muslims.....

      December 30, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  10. Instant Gratification

    God told me to get rich, but it's not working!

    December 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • niknak

      Yeah me too.
      Mine must be busted or something......

      December 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Yeeeehhawwwww!

      Get rich? Without telling you how? The voice was just fucking with you, man. I once heard a voice in a dream that sent me to a website that did not exist. It was like someone whispering right in my ear. And what does anyone expect from dreams anyway?

      December 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  11. The truth isn't always convenient...

    The answer may be simpler than you know. Scripture says "You will find me when you search with all of your heart." Now, if you aren't up for that, that's fine - but just because you haven't experienced it yourself doesn't mean God doesn't exist. It means you haven't experienced Him and so can't count yourself among the 'authorities' on the subject. Why not pick a topic on which you are knowledgeable if you would like to advise and direct others?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • niknak

      Your scripture is meaningless.
      Your god does not exist.
      No amount of praying or believing will make it real.
      If you want to waste your time howling at the moon, that is your thing.
      Just stop trying to force the rest of us to howl along with you.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Alex

      If being bat**** crazy is a requirement for understanding those others who are bat**** crazy, then I gladly admit my ignorance when it comes to religion.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Lou

      Am a recovering deist, My life has been improved once I let go of all that mambo jumbo.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  12. Don Van Nostrand

    Must be true... I felt a twinge of nausea reading this garbage.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  13. Jim Jimson

    You spent 10 years of your life on this junk?

    December 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  14. Jimmie Moomaw

    I have been in a dark depressed place struggling to make a difficult decision and asking God for guidance and to help me choose the path to take. Yesterday...not through hearing God's voice audibly...but through convergent conversations and messages, he answered me and I made a decision based on what I believe to be God's will for me. Yesterday's depression is today's' hope and anticipation. And as an additional answer to affirm my belief...comes this article. So much of what was written here...is as if God used you to answer me. When we pray, I believe God answers in one of two ways...as the inner voice in my head...or though messages that converge in time so startlingly that it is impossible for me not to interpret it as God's way of answering. It pretty much has to be a way for him to answer...I know he isn't going to call me on the telephone. Thanks for this article "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God."

    December 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Instant Gratification

      You are nuts!

      December 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • niknak

      You need some serious therapy Jimmie.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  15. don in albuquerque

    This is sooooo much fun. CNN is posting anything no matter how stupid it is.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  16. Dan

    Hallucinations are common, even in people who are mentally healthy.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • dreamer96

      Karl Rove on Election Night.....Wow...

      December 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  17. It is in their head

    From what I read, it looks like we have a psychological anthropologist either trying to explain the voices in her own head, or is trying to make a name for herself in her own litttle world. Who says the "voice" they hear is that of God? I am a non believer so it will take a lot to convince me. I hear my subconcious voice sometimes, I hear people talk to themselves and sometimes answer themselves, I don't think they are crazy but rather talking things through.. but it is not God they are talking to,

    December 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • niknak

      She is just trying to make a buck off the sheep.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  18. Timothy C

    I wish this article had examined non-Christians who hear voices of "god" or "gods" as well. This phenomenon isn't limited to Christianity. By narrowly focusing on Christianity, the article comes across as a narrowly-disguised proof-of-the-Christian-God sermon. If that's the intent, I wish the author hadn't gone down that road. Hearing voices in one's head crosses all cultures and faiths and is worth examining, but not through the lens of only one culture & religion.

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

    If there is a god who created a universe consisting of hundreds of billions of galaxies each containing hundreds of billions of stars each surrounded by a dozen or so planets, I don't think he gives us much thought.

    There is an ant colony in my back yard. I spend zero time wondering if the ants are happy and listening to their prayers. In a week or two, I'll pour a bottle of poison on them without a thought.

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

      It would be more like there is an ant colony in Bornio.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  20. Christian7

    "God existed before there were human beings on Earth... He holds the entire world, believers and non-believers, in His omnipotent hand for eternity" - Max Planck (founder of quantum mechanics).

    December 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Radnom Kuote

      "The internet is the reason our nation was created with independence and liberty!" – George Washington

      December 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • the AnViL

      "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this." - Albert Einstein

      December 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • the AnViL

      "God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand."
      – richard feynman

      December 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • niknak

      Could Max prove that?
      No, he couldn't.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:00 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.