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.
Hello American Christians.
Hear my words as I talk to you!
First, I do not exist. If I did, I would hate you for being so fvcking stupid. I would probably smite you. The concept of a 13,700,00,000 year old being, capable of creating the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, monitoring simultaneously the thoughts and actions of the 7 billion human beings on this planet is ludicrous.
Second, if I did, I would have left you a book a little more consistent, timeless and independently verifiable than the collection of Iron Age Middle Eastern mythology you call the Bible. Hell, I bet you cannot tell me one thing about any of its authors or how and why it was compiled with certain writings included and others excluded, nor how it has been edited over the centuries, yet you cite it for the most extraordinary of supernatural claims.
Thirdly, when I sent my “son” (whatever that means, given that I am god and do not mate) to Earth, he would have visited the Chinese, Ja.panese, Europeans, Russians, sub-Saharan Africans, Australian Aboriginals, Mongolians, Polynesians, Micronesians, Indonesians and native Americans, not just a few Jews. He would also have exhibited a knowledge of something outside of the Iron Age Middle East.
Fourthly, I would not spend my time hiding, refusing to give any tangible evidence of my existence, and then punish those who are smart enough to draw the natural conclusion that I do not exist by burning them forever. That would make no sense to me, given that I am the one who elected to withhold all evidence of my existence in the first place.
Fifthly, in the same vein, I would not make about 5% of the human population gay, then punish them for being that way. In fact, I wouldn’t care about how humans have $ex at all, given that I created all of the millions of millions of species on the planet, all of whom are furiously reproducing all the time. Human $ex would be of no interest to me, given that I can create Universes. Has it ever occurred to you that your obsession with making rules around human $ex is an entirely human affair?
Sixth, I would have smited all you Christian activists, and all evangelicals and fundamentalists long before this. You people drive me nuts. You are so small minded and speak with such false authority. Many of you still believe in the talking snake nonsense from Genesis. I would kill all of you for that alone and burn you for an afternoon (burning forever is way too barbaric for me to even contemplate).
Seventh, the whole idea of members of one species on one planet surviving their own physical deaths to “be with me” is utter, mind-numbing nonsense. Grow up. You will die. Get over it. I did. Hell, at least you had a life. I never even existed in the first place.
Eighth, I do not read your minds, or “hear your prayers” as you euphemistically call it. There are 7 billion of you. Even if only 10% prayed once a day, that is 700,000,000 prayers. This works out at 8,000 prayers a second – every second of every day. Meanwhile I have to process the 100,000 of you who die every day between heaven and hell. Dwell on the sheer absurdity of that for a moment.
Finally, the only reason you even consider believing in me is because of where you were born. Had you been born in India, you would likely believe in the Hindu gods, if born in Tibet, you would be a Buddhist. Every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always seem to favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. What, do you think we all exist? If not, why only yours?
Look, let’s be honest with ourselves. There is no god. Believing in me was fine when you thought the World was young, flat and simple. Now we know how enormous, old and complex the Universe is.
Move on – get over me. I did.
You Atheists have a God, and your God is Bill Mayer.
MoronAtheist: MORON is rather fitting for you, Atheist not so much! Are you jealous that someone we may happen to like is real opposed to your imaginary friend god being imaginary? Does your Mommy know you skipped your Sunday Brainwashing classes?
My goodness! Moron - A theist - can read a nice long comment like that, and the best he can come up with is a silly child's rebuttal about a comic whose name he can't spell, & who wasn't even born when lots of us knew we didn't buy religious nonsense.
the guy with the nukes, bombs, assualt weapons is god
the church sell salvation etc..there is no salvation...the punishement is death for offending the gods.
damn athest and heathens offending the gods...rain death. the gods take their revenge.
So overly religious folk often confuse their own inner voice with that of God? I can understand why they would choose to do that since it gives them justification to continue to make poor choices based on ignorance.
why should God care if you demons, evil doers die, evil witches die! angel of death is to kill! it's time to die demons!
My dog has always given me better advice than her god.
Some words of wisdom from Robert Heinlein:
"The most ridiculous concept ever perpetrated by H.Sapiens is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of the Universes, wants the sacharrine adoration of his creations, that he can be persuaded by their prayers, and becomes petulant if he does not recieve this flattery. Yet this ridiculous notion, without one real shred of evidence to bolster it, has gone on to found one of the oldest, largest and least productive industries in history."
Bob Heinlein. RIP
God told me that the rest of you r crazy.
I am hearing more voices. I just have to figure out which one is God's. Keep on praying
america was not as athiest. the founders of america were free masons who worshipped a wide multi-religion. Secular US has gone too far like making abortion legal and offending the Gods by abandoning the Churches etc and offending the gods with their atheist and arrogance of humans. humans are inferior beings.. The Sun God is the only God that cultures worship. Withou the Sun's energy , all living things on earth die. Humans are the creation of the energy from the sun. Offending the Gods result in death. angel of death. Satan is the god of punishment.
This is what happens when you double dose on your meds; you run out too soon.
that is reality.
Keep on going Atheists fools, you will hit page 60 within 15 minutes from now. Oh the winning prize is a nice little Gothic Figurine of Bill Mayer.
God damn atheist offending the gods with their garbage...speak for yourself...bow down to satan or die!
What does that mean? Are you implying a fool that belongs to an atheist? What a strange notion.
"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."
My O My . . . what a great example of the scientific method ! NOT !!!!
You hit it, she's totally biased. No doubt she's a smart woman but deluded as well.
We have so much science now. No gods. No miracles. We have so much academic information on the bible/Dead Sea Scrolls/Big Three Religions, where it all comes from, how to trace it back, how to watch it change and develop. No prophets, no messiahs, no virgin births, no resurrections, no sea monsters, no zombies, no vampires, no witches, no angels, no demons.
If you have to believe in something extraordinary, magical or mystical, why not space aliens? Doesn't it make more sense to imagine something a bit more sci-fi, rather than a leftover god from the ancient near east (with the flawed personality of an alpha male tribal warlord of that same day and age)?
Pearls before the swine. The prophet is considered a fool & the spiritual man insane b/c of the greatness of your iniquity & great enmity. That said, the root of the problem is within those who claim to be God's people. He never had a problem with the people of Ninevah once Jonah did the right thing.
John-Mark, what's the difference between an invisible and undetectable god and one that doesn't exist? Isn't it interesting how god believers can believe anything at all about their god, but they all MUST use the same math and chemistry? Why won't god give us something to measure to settle the issue?
The prob is u read something in an ancient book of no historical evidentiary process and believe everything in it. There's a movie playing now. Go watch it. It's the same as what u call the irrefutable bible.
How does a person's face glow with the perceptible glory of God, o great god, science? Doxa, is the Greek word for it. How do 500 people simultaneously begin weeping when a young man comes up from the water in which he was baptized as the presence of God fills a place? The evidence of The Lord in our lives & experience is a daily occurrence. I pity the emptiness of the human experience apart from it. Praise The Lord!
Gee, John-Mark, how do the Sufi dervishes do their whirling dance without the power of their god? How do you account for similar circ um stances in the experiences of other religious meetings where their god is completely different from yours?
You only have the emotional argument that people of other faiths in other gods have to the same degree, so it's pretty useless, wouldn't you say?
Actually, yes it is always a sign you are crazy, or off your meds. Maybe both.
yes it is always crazy
Why are people so taken with mythology. It allows them to be manipulated by an unscrupulous clergy who can offer nothing more than a meaningless 'have faith'. Look at the history of religion in the world. The millions of people murdered because some god spoke to their slayers. Millions more locked up and tortured. All the while the clergy live in excessive opulence that their flocks could never hope to attain. The pope in the Vatican. Your Baptist minister down the street that drives a Cadillac when all around him ride the bus. Hypocrisy. No god, no problem.
Doesn't the history of religion in the world include literally billions of people who subscribed to a faith, helped out their fellow man, and raised their children with a set of values that recoomended treating others as you would like to be treated? A huge majority of religiously inclined people have not waged holy war of any kind. They haven't killed, maimed, or otherwise infringed on the rights of anyone else. Why do the statistically insignificant few become the focal point of religion for you? That argument is silly.
Indeed a few have done good deeds in the name of their unknowable gods. My experience has been that the clergy, and more than a few of the laity, are quite ready to take advantage of their mythology to see how much money they can squeeze out of the sheep that follow them. It is right to do good. Why can we not have a rational conversation about doing good because it is the right thing to do, not because Thor, Jupiter, Jesus or Buddha said we should?
The problem with religion is that it does more harm than good. It separates everyone, creates hate and makes people believe that someone is helping them, and therefore they don't need anyone.
If you don't need anyone, why should you care about them?
When people realize that we are in this on our own, then people will unite to help each other in greater and greater numbers.
Absolutely right, Dorian.
We are in this all together. Once god is out of the formula, there are no more excuses to delay action.
Thanks for the link to Quora on Jon Steward. Love him and watch the show every day.
What can you expect from a chick that goes to an Evangelical Church? Biased? I'd love to hear her story on evolution.
She's not a church member, she studies the church members.
Does she ever once claim it to be pseudo-science? I am highly skeptical of her intentions.
If you hear your dog talking to you, you are crazy. But if you hear an invisible voice speaking to you loud and clear everything is just fine ? And we wonder why people are not getting the mental health evaluation they need before one of these two voices tell them to go out and shoot up a school, a mall or a theater. The FACT is, If you are hearing voices that are not there, YOU need to seek help.
So far, and correct me if I'm wrong, but all of 2012's mass killers in the media were devout christians. They ate a man's face off, shot up a Shiekh temple, shot up a mall, shot up a school, shot up a theater, and a few of the classic drown-the-kids-so-I-can-meet-them-in-heaven parents. Each of these murderers was later revealed to be active practicioners. And of course, we could count the failed attempts, such as the 6 abortion clinic bombings and two sniper attempts this year from fundamentalists.
It's ludicrous to try to reason with an atheist. Don't allow yourself to be drawn into their maze of lies. They should all read the book Mere Christianity before replying to any blog on this forum. It takes courage to turn your will and your life over to the care of God as you understand him. If you notice, the replies of most atheists are reduced to unintelligible venom against the eternal spirit of God, because deep in their collective souls they know they are WRONG!! In order to truly hear His voice, one condition is required-and that is silence!! He speaks in a deafening whisper to our conscience. Only He alone can open the door to your mind and heart. Then and only then will you feel the peace that everyone in the world strives for but are unable to attain because they heed the advice of imperfect human "prophets" and their outlandish claims of spiritual power over us, when the truth is that each and every person has that connection to God without anybody's help.
You sound pretty desperate. Too bad you are also clueless. It's a bad combination, but oh so typical of religious idiots.
Your book was never meant to be a religion. It's nothing more than a workbook for early readers of history, fiction, and folklore collected together as a teaching tool. Your gods are nothing more than rambling, everchanging legends of ancient heroes. Genesis didn't even purport to be the beginning of the story until the King James version added the phrase "In the beginning..."
I agree it would take courage to accept god, but courage doesn't make it true.
I have read the book, Mere Christianity, and The Case for Christ, and a bunch of others. The bible is fantastic as a book of myths and stupid as a book of spiritual truth. Just because you've decided you're hot sh!t because you can ignore all the stupid stuff in there with 'faith' doesn't mean that it's the thing to do.
treble: you are a punk. the god you have in your head is a punk. i suppose it comforts you. now, boy, go home and get your shinebox
You make me snort !!! You claim you cant reason with people who prefer testable observations versus hand-me-down fairy tales. Please look up the verb "reason" in your favorite dictionary.
Why should we read that book? I've been told by Christians that everything we need to know can be found in the Bible(s). Like that God is a hypocritical murderer and aborter of babies.
It's a good book. The atheists are all abuzz now.
@treblemaker: There's some reading that you ought to be doing as well, perhaps before you leave the house today. Seriously. Look into...R Carrier, J Loftus, R Price, JD Crossan, B Mack, M Borg, E Pagels, G Vermes, EP Sanders, P Fredriksen, A-J Levine, R Funk, H Bloom, just to name a FEW that I have read in my recovery from the delusion I was taught when I was an impressionable child, which turned me into a nasty religious fanatic, especially as a dumb High School kid with no absolutely worldly experience. What a total idiot I was. Put away the childish things, buddy. You'll be so glad you did.
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