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.
Atheists are as angry and desperate to get others to believe there is no God as the Evangelicals are angry and desperate to get others to believe there is God.
Religious people tend to vote for people as deluded as themselves, affecting us all.
Example: Tea Party
Floyd, some atheists are angry, as you say, but many are not. They simply do not believe, and based upon their disbelief, they cannot understand why we Christians "waste our time." I get that. I have been really focusing lately on Ephesians 2:8, trying to read it carefully and understand it. It is a very humbling verse for those of us who believe.
Making fun of silly nonsense is not the same as anger and desperation. Nice try, though.
That's so deep. You should put it on a fortune cookie or something...
copanut, until you can prove that there is no God you are just as silly in your unfounded assertions.
Nclaw proves that Christians can be thoughtful in their discussions. Well done, sir.
I'm an atheist and I'm not angry, nor amy I desperate to get anyone to abandon his delusions about having an imaginary friend. Why do you feel the need to troll the Internet posting false stereotypes about atheists?
I'm so sick of people dying and killing for religion! beliefs! and Fu***&G GOD!!!!!! Look People, Believe it Love it forever!! There is no Scientific Proof of any God Whatever the EFF U WANT !!! How Can You accept the solution of penicillin . the most basic drug in the world, then turn around and ask GOD!!! AHHHH NOOO ! Discovered by accident!!
Floyd, I'm afraid the burden of proof is on those who assert that silly tales are true. I don't need to defend reality, you need to defend unreality. Most religious people can't even define god, which makes him / it hard to prove. Do you mean the Nast beast Yahweh, or are you talking about some generic deistic creator?
FloydZepp – here again – you're clinging to argumentum ad ignorantiam....
the position is untenable....
while you believe you've posited a logical argument which supports your delusional thinking – the truth of the matter is – you haven't.
you are only displaying more delusional thinking – based on ignorance.
copa– you have assumed, as is your right, that those who believe are engaged in "silly nonsense." It is only an assumption, correct?
Well, I knew this was coming. In fact, I was sure this was going to happen that I wish I would have called it beforehand. I haven’t posted on the conspiracy forum in years and you all are badmouthing me probably thinking that I would never see your posts. In truth, I haven’t posted on this particular forum b/c you all thought you exposed me as a government hire but because the debate became tiresome as we were just posting the same information over and over. Furthermore, I have been this site just a few months ago arguing against a Creationist so you haven’t kept me off of this site entirely.
So, you all still think I’m a disinformant agent? I believe I asked you all to prove it years ago and you all pretended that I never asked you to do it in the first place. Do you think the government would even hire agents to argue against you? As I said years ago, you all take yourselves WAY too seriously. I am telling you this not to insult you but for your own good: Outside of the people who agree with you on this topic, there are few people who take what you say seriously. Also, I learned long ago that nobody’s personal convictions change on an internet message board so the point of a disinformant agent is worthless. If you all think ANYONE is hired to argue against you then you’re in denial and just hurting your own cause.
I always wanted to ask the two of you something: If you believe your government is so corrupt, why do you continue to live here? Why do you continue to work, buy food, and rent/buy your home if you know all these items will be taxed and the money will go to such horrible and dishonest people? If you believe the government is as bad as you all think it is, then you have to admit you are part of the problem by continue to live here and fund their enterprises.
ignore my last message. That was for another thread for a different site.
Why is it every time there is something said that is the opposite of a Christian's ideas that non-believers are "angry"? Please pray to your God on your terms and not every one else's. It isn't the worst thing in the world to NOT worship the same thing as you. Chill out.
I don't even need to read the article. Just LOL.
Trollol– and yet you took the time and effort to post here. Of course you have the right to do that, but why spend the time?
@Mary God Bless you Mary, I do believe. God has carried me through some very tough times. He has always been there for me. I will pray that one....just one person here will see the light as we have God Bless you, I will pray for the lost here today
Never underestimate the power of delusion and wishful thinking!
Is this the same God who committed genocide several times in the Old Testament?
Who gave you the power to decide who is lost? Pary to God to solve your own problems. He doesn't need your prayers for others just because you think you are righteous now.
@Floyd I pray because we are all sinners, Iam a sinner and you also ......because of Jesus Christ we were saved. His sacrafice made that possible
thanks and blessings.
wrong. rude. would you let your moma read this mean stuff you write? i hope not
way to ruin a nice note from harry. go away jerk.
Why don't you just be happy with your personal relationship with "god" and lay off trying to push your fantasies on everyone else. We "unbelievers" don't get angry until you try to push your delusional beliefs into law amd force sane, normal people to follow your beliefs under penalty of fine, imprisonment or denial of basic civil rights.
I cannot say that I have ever audibly heard the voice of God. I HAVE felt His direction of me to do certain things. Many here seem to doubt that it is possible to hear God's voice because they have no belief in God. Although I believe in God, I can understand their unbelief. They are not to be blamed, ridiculed, threatened with Hell, or even pitied. I give thanks every day that God has seen fit for me to have faith in Him, not only that He exists but that He has things for me to do while I am in this world.
If you are a Christian, you believe in the scripture, Ephesians 2:8– "By grace you are saved through faith– and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God." We who believe have no right to condemn those who do not. God will share His gift of faith with those people at a time of His choosing– or He will not share that gift. Our job, in my view, is to be prepared to help, lovingly, those whom God puts in our path who are searching for Him. That is not accomplished by confronting those who do not (yet?) believe and painting a picture of a lake of fire into which they will be thrown at death if they do not believe.
For those who do not believe, it is of course your choice, to some extent. No one can simply force himself to believe something he does not believe. (I think many Christians actually try to do this by attending church and praying, but do not truly believe because they have not done the soul searching that is required.) Does God exist? What kind of God is He, if He does exist? For me, that was a question important enough to research. There is no proof of either the existence or nonexistence of God. It is a question of faith either way (or inattention to the issue).
I can't explain it either NCLaw but God has answered prayers for me. Im not sure about the voices but I have felt the comfort. When I get down on my knees and turn off the noise of the world it seems I can hear God and he hears my prayer
Those are the endorphins, not God, Harry.
Don't you have anything productive to do, or do you spend your life weaving fantasy word games from some old bronze age scroll?
Some people also have visual hallucinations of God in various forms of indulgence, such as toast and potato chips.
Joe, how does one ever know whether what you see is a hallucination or not?
If you hear voices – I mean really – hear a voice or voices talking to you and there is no one else around, then there is something wrong with you. Seek help. If you "hear a voice" which is a thought inside your head that appears to be sensible, or that comes right after you awaken from a dream, then it is your sub-conscious. No need to seek help; you might even consider heeding its advice, if it makes sense. And there is no god or gods. They're made up. Really.
Prove there is no God.
Its impossible to prove a negative.
There is as much evidence for Yahweh/Jesus as there are unicorns.
Kenneth, I love Unicorns... sometimes they speak to me in my thoughts. Good thing this article has given me comfort in knowing I'm not crazy.
FloydZepp "Prove there is no God."
congratulations – you have erected this blog posts first argumentum ad ignorantiam... here is his reward:
the onus of evidence remains wholly and entirely on the shoulders of those who posit gods exist. your argument from ignorance is only the very latest in a long line of attempts using skewed, flawed logic – to shift the "burden of proof" away from those making the positive claim "there are gods".
you have exposed yourself – and you are now compromised beyond your ability to defend...
your position is untenable, sir.
you've vanquished yourself.
@FloydZepp: Prove there is no Santa Claus, that leprechauns don't exist, and that you haven't been abducted by aliens.
Evangelical Christians associating their conscience with God? I for one am SHOCKED. #sarcasm.
Everything we see, feel, hear is illusory. Why? According to scientific peer reviewed publications the universe is a hologram. Your brain in fact contains far more data than the limits of your skull. It too you see is a hologram. You do not need to hear the voice of God. Science will inform you that God is the master projectionist. Why do we like to go to the movies because we were created in God's image. We are fans just like She is.
The universe isn't a hologram.
Religitards tend to vote for politicians as ignorant and as gullible as themselves, effecting us all.
Christianity: 2000 years of worshipping a deity that is either unwilling or unable to prevent the slaughter of children, by the hands of man or natural disasters.
Plus 2000 years of those worshiping nothing and achieving the same result.
@FloydZepp: So you're saying all that believing in and worshipping God has done nothing more than not believing in God. So why believe? Because you find it comforting?
even in the times of the bible, the slaughter of children occurred. Remember when ramses refused to let Moses people go? I placed plagues on his country. One of the last ones was when every first born would die. On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn — both men and animals —and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD.
The power of reason (knowing with mind, body, and soul) whether and act is right or wrong, good or evil, is given by God as a grace to children aged seven years and above.
With absolute certainty, only God knows who shall hear his voice and who shall not, when, where,
Why defend that which needs no defense?
If someone, anyone, hears God's voice, it is a unique message of strength, wisdom, or grace for
that unique creation of God's.
Iff, in fact, one is so blessed, why ask why? More importantly, why WORRY about it?
Lots of baseless assertions. Not very compelling, sorry.
copanut is right. You have nothing here but a bunch of unsupported claims.
Out of the tens of thousands of deities to exist in human minds, do you have single shred of evidence your god exists?
I find it ironic how many people who believe in God lack the ability to reason...
I don't worry about it, but any rational person who knows anything about history is concerned about billions of people around the world basing their actions and societies basing their laws on the imaginings of people who can't discern between fantasy and reality.
Religions start innocently enough, as narratives that explain the otherwise explainable, offer comfort to those having difficulty dealing with injustice or loss, allow us to deny the finality of death, even believe we have an invisible friend who will control the elements for us and assure us victory in battle.
To the extent these beliefs give people comfort and inspire them to be better people, it's all good. But there is a dark side. When something bad happens, such as an incident like this, a drought, an earthquake, a flood, a plague, or other natural disaster, in seeking explanations believers often conclude the problem is that God is not pleased with them. Of course it's never that he isn't pleased with them, it's that he isn't pleased with the nonbelievers, the atheists, the people in false (i.e., "other") religions, sinners, gays, witches; there has always been a group of people to blame for making God so unhappy that he's punishing everyone.
The next step is to correct the problem by persecuting, punishing, or even eliminating the people who have offended God so he'll be happy again and stop the plague, make it rain, not let anymore earthquakes happen in the future, whatever. This is where it gets ugly. History is replete with examples of people who were killed, persecuted, tortured, burned at the stake, had their rights taken away from them, all in the name of protecting the people from the wrath of a being no one could even prove existed. This is the truly dark side of religion.
Why worry about it? Because many of the murderers that have heard voices in their head that they assume is devine have stated that the voice told them to kill their children or other people and that they were compelled to obey. Abraham, comes to mind, untill he was told to forget about it. What a load of crap.
Crazy maybe no, STUPID without doubt. You can quote me.
"Life evolved!" the secular sheeple have been sayng. Then they built powerful microscopes and discovered the unimaginable complexity and interdependancies of the cell and genetic information, but kept up their droning anyway, like someone refusing to acknowledge there's an elephant in their livingroom. "There was a big bang!" they said. But when all of thier theories of cosmic origins had massive holes and didn't work, they invented "dark matter" and "dark energy" to fill the many holes. "The Bible is jusy mythology!" they said. But since the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of archeological discoveries have verified the Bible as history and even forced them to make egg-faced admissions to university students to that effect, and ignored the tremendous foreknowledge of the Bible which would be impossible to fabricate. "Religion is a psychological thing!" they say. . .
Secular folk are laughable. Don't worry about the elephant in your livingroom. Not now anyway. But when the livingroom dissapears and all the elephant remains, they will remember their intellectual laziness and childish disdain that amounted to nothing in the end.
Sadly, you have no understanding of science. Ignorance is bliss.
When an atheist is all alone and not in the comfort of other atheists that make them feel important, they too become religious.
Franco, your statement (which of course is false) only confirms that the primary motivator for religion is human fears and frailty. It's a very poor argument for belief in nonsense.
@copanut, what do you need to understand about science, other than it always changes as new information comes up and that is what the above poster has said.
@copanut , All I can say for myself is that when I was younger and headed on the path of destruction, I turned to God and I was guided by simple audible voices as the author in the article has stated. That may not be scientific, but it did happen to me and my life is proof of that.
Franco, science doesn't "always change". Science is just a model of reality based on evidence and conjecture built logically from that evidence. As evidence mounts, the model evolves to accommodate it. There may be false paths where evidence is incomplete, but science acknowledges this and is inherently self-correcting. Religion will not tolerate such humility. Religious people simply "know" regardless of evidence. It is the ultimate in human-centered arrogance. All religion is man,ade, therefore worship of it is worship of man, not god.
@Franco: "When an atheist is all alone and not in the comfort of other atheists that make them feel important, they too become religious."
These are the kinds of fairytales believers tell themselves to convince themselves a person can't truly be happy without believing in God. This is just another example of a believer trying to keep reality at bay.
@Franco: "All I can say for myself is that when I was younger and headed on the path of destruction, I turned to God and I was guided by simple audible voices as the author in the article has stated."
I'm happy you turned your life around, but you have no evidence that what you "heard" had any supernatural explanation. Perhaps it was part of your own mind driven by self-preservation becoming more dominant in your thoughts.
Let's be honest here: no part of your experience was "audible." No one else ever heard any of those voices and had there been a recording device on at the time no voices would have been recorded. Believers love to rationalize, and this is a good example. Because the "voices" you "heard" prompted you to do something good people will claim they were God speaking to you. If those voice had told you to kill your children, believers would claim it wasn't God speaking to you.
This is how it always is with believers. If it's good, God did it. If it's bad, God had nothing to do with it. How convenient.
"Secular folk are laughable."
What would Jesus do? Well, based on what's written about him in the Bible, he would never say something like this. People like you are some of the best evidence that Christianity is a fraud.
If you hear a voice from something that doesn't exist. You are crazy. Stop sugar coating mental illness.
No, it means you're crazy.
Don't go to the devil for advice on God
You just advised us not to seek advice about one imaginary being from another imaginary being. Okay, I will take your advice.
Similarly, don't ask Santa Claus for advice about leprechauns.
Hearing a voice doesn't make you crazy, since the cause may be physical. However, believing it is the disembodied voice of the creator of the universe does indeed make you crazy. Suggesting otherwise is wishful thinking.
I love how atheists demand that those with faith respect their absence of faith. Then, they turn around and mock those with faith. No thanks, I'll take my faith any day and will not take the time to defend what is mine to believe. Being respectful of others, unlike your comment, I will refrain from mocking you in return.
You are more than welcome to follow whatever silly sky fairies you wish, so long as it does not intrude on my life. I mean that sincerely. However, I do have the right to identify nonsense when it is presented to me by CNN, regardless of whether it hurts your feelings.
@East Coast: I don't demand anyone's respect. If you or anyone else wants to look pathetic by being condescending toward me because I don't believe in something for which there is no evidence whatsoever I'm really okay with that. I don't believe in God, Satan, hell, Santa Claus, leprechauns, or alien abductions, and all for the exact same reason.
All I demand is that beliefs for which there is no evidence not be imposed on people via laws or various forms of persecution.
sames voices that told G W BUSH to go to IRAK....thanks for the good advice ,god....
"I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. What it was doing in front of my gun, nobody knows." – Dick Cheney
The voice you hear is probably the sound of your own conscience. All of us (or at least the non-psychopaths among us) know the difference between right and wrong. But there's always a battle going on in our brains between what you WANT to do, and what you SHOULD do. Yes, I occasionly wish I could take all the money in my employers' cash registers...but the little voice that I hear in my head is the sound of my conscience telling me that stealing is wrong. Unless of course, you're certifiably crazy – then the voice you hear is the sound of your own warped brain JUSTIFING theft or killing or whatever act you're considering.
"Insert Tab A into Slot B" – 1001 Kama Sutra Positions, pg. 233
"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" – K.C. and the Sunshine Band
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