home
RSS
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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. JohnS

    Some of these comments cause me to wonder if they are not so much questioning whether God speaks to us as much as questioning God's existence. If He exists, why not speak to us? Sometimes it may be an internal dialogue or inspiration that might be attributed to one's Holy Spirit. Or, as on the one occasion I have personally experienced, it can be as distinct as the voice that persuaded an aerospace engineer to become a mental health provider... through a compressed chain of events better described as miraculous than coincidental.
    Even after treating a number of schizophrenics with auditory hallucinations, if someone comes into my office (or as once occurred during a hospital assessment) and reports thinking they heard God's voice, my response would likely be: 'tell me more about that'.
    For those that question God's existence (or my own mental health!), I'll refer you to a world-renowned scientist who was raised as an agnostic – - and probable atheist during medical school. In his book, 'The Language of God', Francis Collins, MD (Director of the Human Genome Project) offers his scientific proof that God exists... and hears our prayers.
    And for those who may be troubled that they haven't heard God's voice – - rest assured He hears us! :-)
    To those critical of our country's mental health treatment and availability, I strongly agree! Obamacare is a step in the right direction and should be expanded to include comprehensive mental heath for every American. Recent events demonstrate how mental illness in any one of us impacts all of us!

    December 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      For a suppossed scientist you make a lot of unsupported comments as if they are fact.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Colin

      As a supposed mental health professional, are you seriously saying that you believe that an immortal, invisible being, powerful enough to create the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, reads human beings' minds (or "hears their prayers" as youe euphamistically put it) and alters what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to answer them?

      Wow. Just...wow.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Bostontola

      Obamacare? Try to stay focused dude.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • NorthVanCan

      There has been an atheist that went religious ? Well, that changes everything. It must be true.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • mama k

      That Collins is an interesting figure. Supposedly he is a former atheist. What's interesting is that supposedly he rejects both Creationism and Intelligent Design. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes, especially with his position as HIH Director and have to explain that mix of belief to people.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • mama k

      ( NIH Director . . )

      December 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • sam

      @ johns
      The non-existence of God is EXACTLY what they are talking about or what they are trying to force everyone to believe.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  2. Zobby

    I pray to the flying spaghetti monster and he told me this article is tripe.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Christian7

      So?

      December 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Bostontola

      You make a totally unsubstantiated assertion contrary to a scientific finding, sounds like religion to me.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  3. Blessed are the Cheesemakers

    How about when you hear what sounds like a good message but is really, bad advice? What catagory do you put that in Ms. Luhrmann?

    December 30, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Really bad advice usually comes from your own ego, as it has all the characteristics of Satan.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Satan does nothing without the consent of your god, therefore he is nothing more than a tool.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Blessed- It is important for those listening to the voice in their head to understand that Satan has 24/7 access and your Ego is not God.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Don Camp

      I've never had that experience. However, often what God says is not something I want to hear. Often God wants me to do something I don't want to do, like speak to someone about a problem between us. My own inclination is to avoid it. God seems always to want me to deal with it.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Tarver your god isn't real, neither is satan.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Don,

      Avoiding problems just makes them worse, that is common sense, god is just an external excuse some people use to motivate themselves.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  4. CNN belief blog process

    Person A: "I am making a statement"

    Person B: "I disagree with your statement therefore you are uneducated and incapable of thought."

    Person C: "I am threatened by person B's verbiage, therefore his statement must be accurate."

    December 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Slartibartfast

      The lameness of your post is exceeded only by your lack of imagination. Or do you prefer to be coddled? That costs extra.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  5. Nana9999

    @Luis Wu... Currently there is no prayer in school nor are we teaching creationism. How does that seem to be working out?

    December 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Lou

      you know that all these killers have religious backgrounds.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • UncleM

      Creationism is made-up nonsense and nobody is there to listen to prayers.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  6. Alrighty Then

    The voice was probably telling the woman in the photo: "You should have washed your hair before going to church!"

    December 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  7. CommonSense

    Alright, it isn't schizophrenia, but it is delusional. Or, it's just wish thinking, or pretending. And, using the ridiculous statement that a fictional "God" character spoke to a fictional "Moses" character as "proof" is just childish.
    Time to Grow Up America. "Where was god" is a foolish thing to ask, and deep down, you know that it is useless.
    Take responsibility for your self and stop asking imaginary characters to "forgive" you and bring you gifts.
    Time to Grow Up America.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • edmundburkeson

      Is your conscience delusional? How do you decide the right path? This is why America is in trouble!! Secularism has taught people to throw off the light of conscience and treat it as prohibitional.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • edmundburkeson

      What is childish is the atheist presupposition that you can "do as you will," whatever the consequences and the government or someone near to you will clean up the mess that results.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  8. Convert to Christianity

    Be Christian or you will burn in hell

    December 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • don in albuquerque

      See ya there!

      December 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Christian7

      Sinners should ask for redemption through Jesus Christ or a just God will give you the justice you deserve. You do not want justice; you want mercy and forgiveness. Ask for forgiveness today, for tomorrow may be too late.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • don in albuquerque

      See you there too, Christian7.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Bryant Lister

      Only in your fairy tales and your dreams, little one.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  9. The King of the Jews

    "God" should spend more time saving 20 children from being slaughtered in Newtown and less time "talking" to loonies.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Slartibartfast

      The number you have called is no longer in service. Please check the number and try your call again.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Christian7

      So you have better judgement than God?

      December 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • don in albuquerque

      Christian7===In the above stated case, Yes.. Most compassionate do have better judgement and would have taken action.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  10. NorthVanCan

    If I could save just one person from religion it would make my day.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Amen to that.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      If you have children or are thinking of having them, don't raise them to believe in any god and you'll have saved one person.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Don Camp

      Me too. Religion has seldom resulted in a relationship with God. But that relationship – that I would recommend to everyone.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  11. oldman100

    god crawls into my window every night and touches me in my naughty place. he tells me its our little secret and not to tell anyone else because they just won't understand.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Zobby

      God might be a perverted old man, you might want to call the police.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  12. larry,oakland,ca

    All normal functioning human beings have internal voices, dreams and thoughts... our own. It is our brain processing. How you define what is going on may be in part based on your world belief system. One who believes in gods and the supernatural might perceive something different from the experience than someone who does not.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  13. Reality

    The 21st Century Apostles'/Agnostics' Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

    December 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  14. Zobby

    The same people who talk to god are the same ones that see Jesus in their toast.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • frank

      It's really hilarious when Christian try to make Jesus face in pumpkins at Halloween, using a pattern that you can buy, and inevitably they wind up looking like Charles Manson.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • frank

      I hope you don't work for Hobby Lobby, Zobby.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Zobby

      Nah, but it does rhyme.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  15. Daniel

    sorry, but if your hearing voices in your head from fairy tale figures...you are crazy

    December 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  16. kd

    Many of these comments complain about atheists and non-religious posting negatively and knocking religion as if they're on some kind of crusade themselves. No, it's just that religion is responsible for so many problems today: prejudice against gays, the death penalty, racism, war – the list goes on. Of COURSE atheists are going to protest. Religion is the problem.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Exactly. And they call us intolerant, when Christians are the most intolerant people on the face of the Earth.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • dude

      @kd
      How do you figure religion is responsible for all the crap going on when so many use it as a shield? I could easily use your name when I do something wrong and blame it on you. Does that make you a bad person? No. About the only thing it does is it destroys what good reputation (assuming you had one to begin with) you had.

      It's all perception. It would be the same thing as everyone using your name instead of religion to do bad things around this world. A lot of good is done in this world by religion yet nobody sees it, only the negative is pronounced.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  17. Lou

    what does' usually not crazy" mean? Is it like 50% of the time?

    December 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Jung claimed that 90% of what most people think is nonsense.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  18. One Man Among Others

    And what "IF" you're all wrong? "Humor me for a moment, please".

    What if God IS true? What if He showed his face today? Then what would you do? I'm simply curious of your response.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Lou

      Where were you?

      December 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Which god? Buddha? Allah? Zarathrustra? Krishna? Manitou? Yaweh? Zeus? Thor? There are so many sky fairies, you need to be more specific.

      All the gods that have been worshiped throughout history would fill 10 football stadiums, but of course YOURS is the only one that's real.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • One Man Among Others

      @ Lou-

      Interesting. That's it?

      December 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Slartibartfast

      There is no god. Therefor anything you currently experience in the way of hallucinations is entirely your own problem.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • One Man Among Others

      @ luis wu-

      I never said anything about "my god". I simply asked a question. To answer yours so you can answer mine, any god will work.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • One Man Among Others

      @Slartibartfast-

      You assume without knowing fact first.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • SkepticalOne

      I would stop taking those drugs.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • JWT

      If your god showed up as real – that still would not make it my god.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Slartibartfast

      Were I in charge of your education, you would quickly realize how foolish you are to say such a thing to me.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Bryant Lister

      Yawn, look up Pascal's wager and see why your comment is simply nonsensical.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • One Man Among Others

      Interesting how Slartibartfast and SkepticalOne gave sarcastic answers when all I did was ask a simple question. I never stated I believed or didn't believe in God or a God. I simply asked if a God showed up today what would your reaction be. Neither of you could even provide a reasonable explanation.

      JWT–I never said it would be "your" God. I simply asked if a "god" were to show up how would you react? I'm trying to be as neutral as I can here to simply see what everyone's mind set would be IF a god WERE to show themselves today.

      The two I mentioned first can't even respond with an intelligent answer.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • One Man Among Others

      @Bryant Lister
      Why? Because you don't have the intelligence to respond?

      December 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • I’ve been looking for evidence of god all my life

      haven’t found so much a scrap. So if solid evidence were presented tomorrow I’d reevaluate my entire understanding of reality.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Hawk

      First, which god are you? There have been over 10,000 gods worshiped by man. Second, You have a LOT to answer for mister! I want to hear your excuses, now!

      The god of the bible is one that even should it exist, would not deserve worship. It is a petty, jealous, evil, murderous, genocidal thing.

      Does a god exist? I cannot prove that one does not (you can not prove a negative), but I am highly dubious. And even if one does exist, I highly doubt that it wishes to be worshiped in any way, as it appears to not care about humans in any way. Thus, I live my life as an agnostic atheist, 99.99% certain that no god(s) exist.

      If god(s) exist, and it is a just god, I have nothing to fear, for I will be judged by my actions and the content of my character. If god(s) exist and they are unjust, then it does not matter what I do for they will judge me as they will. If there is no god(s), then I will have lived a good life and done good, knowing that this is the only life I have in which to accomplish anything. Thus, I have nothing to fear.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • therealpeace2all

      @One Man Among Others

      For me, it would depend on how this God demonstrated itself, and what its intentions were...to answer your hypothetical question.

      Peace...

      December 30, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Lou

      Then i'd ask him for super powers or an intergalactic spaceship.

      December 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • JWT

      Depends on what you mean by god – given the general definition of a religious god such would not be possible as I would never acknowledge such a god. A supernatural being may even exist but it would never, and could never be my god.

      December 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  19. John P. Tarver

    Now that Obama has let us know his idea of negotiation is a side deal of what he wants, it may be a good time for God to contact him. Lord, you promised us in Romans that this would not happen.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • don in albuquerque

      God too Obama. God to Obama. Knock it off or I will reverse my vote and give it to Romney.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      The fiscal cliff looks a lot like the romney economic plan, with it's 200,000 federal jobs cuts. Obama must learn to rule in the US form of Governmnet with three co-equal branches.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  20. Luis Wu

    CNN is slowly but surely turning into Fox News. It seems they're trying to push the Christian religion on all the people that visit their website or watch their broadcasts. Why would a modern day news service try to push ancient mythology and ignorant superst!tious nonsense on their subscribers?? CNN is doing a disservice to America by pandering to silly myths and superst!tious nonsense. If you want to help this country, give people more stories on SCIENCE instead of mythology.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      i would be very pleased to see a series of modern science stories from CNN. The mere mention that Evolution is not a means to species would set the folks at Fox into a frenzy. Where Murdoch comes from the entire social structure is based in Darwinism.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Seyedibar

      I noticed that all American news outlets have ignored last week's paper that quite possibly provides conclusive evidence for the origin of life in deep sea vents. The formula for creating life is sweeping the rest of the science world by storm, but American media outlets care too much about revenue to chase a story that would upset the 46% of citizens who believe in creationism.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Colin

      Seyedibar – post a reference.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • SkepticalOne

      CNN is not doing this to help the country. They are doing it to make money. That means attracting readers and articles on religion do that. Unlike Fox, they give you the opportunity to disagree with the article.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Colin & @Seyedibar

      Here's at least one very recent article/link that speaks to the possibility of "Deep Sea Vents"

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121220143530.htm

      Peace...

      December 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Colin

      thanks peace...

      December 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Relativity and Quantum Mechanics require a sentient being outside the niverse to make the universe real and therefore Creationism is under no pressure from science; outside a few Relativity deniers.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Seyedibar

      Colin, it was published in Cell journal last week. Any bio-science site worth their salt should have an article on it. It describes the process that naturally forces a variety of molecular changes under extreme pressure and the evidence that allows us to trace that. Simply put, even if human life was created by a god, deep sea life would have developed on its own (and continues to do so).

      December 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Advertisement
About this blog

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.