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.
@JWT : One in 1OOO?
2OOO? Which ONE of you is answering this time?
JWT, it's still TOO high.
People with schizophrenia are less likely to commit a violent crime than the general population.
And they are less likely to commit crimes than Atheists.
Any person who claims scientific intellect, or that it has to be proven, isnt a true scientist if they deny God since he has been proven over and over again. in fact the denial of something being proven so many times, in a factual form is a sign of insanity. To deny how everything is compartmentalized and organized as if a human did it, in a fashion that humans can understand, is ludicrus.
Care to cite who got a Nobel for proving Gods existence? No? But thanks for playing.
You are suffering from extreme indoctrination and delusions. Sadly, there is no hope for you.
God has not "been proven." Please provide the evidence if you wish to make such silly claims.
God has not been proven, let alone "over and over again".
It is ludicrous to believe that a God has been proven over again and again. Please cite your empirical sources.
God has not been proven anywhere near to the degree that we require proof for ordinary things, much less an extraordinary claim. The argument from design also has serious weaknesses.
Intelligent Design, TAG, the Ontalogical Argument, Cosmological Argument etc...none of thesedirectly support the claims of the Christian god. At best they indicate a phylosophical possibility of a deistic god. Zeus fits the bill just as nicely as Yahweh.
I'd be very interested in this proof you have.
I'm with Jason. Proof would be cool.
Hearing is always better than being deaf, dumb, and blind. Then again, there's always pinball.....
mental illness in the middleness was theorized to be possession of demons...with modern psychiatry have invented powerful chemicals to keep demons awayl..which is same as old shaman, witch doctor medicine .
Strange! You equate medicine for mental illness as "witch doctor hocus pocus" but not drugs for cancer or flu etc?...............
How convenient for you!!!
todays psyhicatris are like voodoomen or witches prescribing psychotic drugs to keep the demons away.
Trust me, if you ever do hear some kind of audible voice talking to you or speaking inside your head, that voice is NOT the voice of God talking to you. It is only the Devil trying to deceive you. And if you believe or think that it is God, then you have been deceived…
The most critical thing being overlooked in regards to God speaking to people in the bible is that in every case, those people whom God spoke to in the bible were always "preachers". Most people don't realize that. They were not just ordinary people. They were always either a prophet (like the Old Testament prophets), or an apostle (like Paul, Peter, etc), or a true sent preacher like we have today (yes, prophets do still exist today). God has never at any time spoken directly to lay members or to an ordinary person. He never has and he never will. And that is not how God works...
For example, all those people you've read about in the bible – Adam, Isaiah, Abraham, Noah, Job, David, Solomon, Lot, Jonah, Moses, etc. – every one of those men were in fact Old Testament preachers. And God considered them as preachers. They were God's forerunners to the apostles of the New Testament and the prophets we have today. All throughout the bible, whenever God wanted the people to know something, he always gave instructions to the apostles or the prophets. And those men then gave instructions to the people. That is how God works. He always has worked that way and he always will. God operates through his system and chain of command, and he never has spoken directly to the people. If that was the case, and if God talked to people directly, he wouldn't need preachers. Only Lucifer speaks to ordinary people directly in an attempt to deceive you. That's because Lucifer knows that most people are ignorant and are unaware of the truth. And he uses that ignorance against you. As a consequence of ignorance, Lucifer has convinced countless people today that it is God who is talking to them. when in reality, it is nothing more than the "the voice of the devil" they are hearing. They are even too ignorant to realize God doesn't work that way…
Ephesians 4:11 – And he (Jesus) gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
As the above scripture confirms, God has a system and chain of command he works through. That system is the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Although God works with all five of those positions, he only speaks directly through the first and second order – the apostles and prophets. That means, even evangelists, pastors and teachers do NOT hear the voice of God speaking directly to them but must get their instructions from the apostles and prophets. And since there were only 12 apostles (and they aren't alive anymore) nowadays God only speaks directly to his remaining prophets on earth (yes, prophets still do exist today, although they are rare). God communicates directly with his prophets, and he does not speak directly to anyone else. If anyone says otherwise, they are a liar. If an ordinary person tells you they hear the voice of God speaking to them, rest assured, it is not God, but is only the devil they are hearing…
Gullible's Travels. -Uncut edition.
There was no God, There was no Satan, There is no God, There is no Satan, There will never be a God and there will never be a Satan.
Ok, so there we go, if any of you jackwagons claim to hear the voice of a deity, Perfect Truth says it is not the deity you are thinking of, it is the arch-nemesis of that deity. So you have been duly warned by Perfect Truth.
So now you have at least 3 people in your head, one of them being Perfect Truth. Creepy.
"Ooooh that smell
Can't you smell that smell
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you
Angel of darkness is upon you
Stuck a needle in your arm
So take another toke, have a blow for your nose
One more drink fool, will drown you
Ooooh that smell
Can't you smell that smell
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you"
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine....
God just told me to do it. Now let me find the .... oh pray ?
Hearing the voice of an invisible man in the clouds for which you have absolutely no evidence of existing, is utterly stark raving insanity.
Just as it is insane to believe in the 6ft tall green monster in my closet for which I have no evidence of existing, so is it insanity to believe in god with no evidence.
ScottieCA – To deny God ovcer and over again without intelligent thought , proof or reasoning is of itself a form of insanity. Atheists are not the brightest candles on the birthday cake; as Sir Isaac Newton said – Atheists are so stupid. When you look at the earth's placement in space at the exact distance from the sun to create and maintain the right amount of heat and light for life to flourish, there must be a Supreme ly intelligent Creator. [NOT a big bang and a muddy puddle!]
1 (ONE) in
1OO (HUNDRED) AMERICAN PEOPLE is a SCHIZOPHRENIC!
I'd call that more COMMON than RARE,
Multiply that by any number of different personalities a schizo may have and you get a frightening number of deranged Americans owning guns. Wait. More than one gun for many of them.
It is extremely rare for a person with schizophrenia to have multiple personality disorder as well.
Your article is fascinating and I have to say that I am one of those people who have definitely heard God (or some very strong good soul from beyond) speak to me.. just once. It was in a half-dream state, but it was as real as life. It was so real in fact, that my little (at the time) daughter woke up from a deep sleep and came into my room to ask me if I was alright. Neither of us ever figured that out. BUT one comment in your article does not sit well with me: "In the Bible, God spoke directly to Abraham. " That is the one single event that tipped me away from religion. Abraham hearing God tell him to sacrifice his son to prove his love is really sick to me and is as deranged as the Son of Sam hearing God tell him to kill. Just as people audibly hearing the voice of God does not necessarily mean they are crazy, so recounts in the Bible of people hearing God speak does not necessarily mean they were sane.
You really should be evaluated.
well. just as well you tipped away from the Bible because God asked the willing Abraham to make the ultimate sacrifice, knowing all the while it would not be required, unlike the sacrifice of God's only begotten son, Jesus, who willingly was sacrificed for humanity.
Anne… You judge God by your own evil standards, but who are you to judge God? For God is God. He is the lawgiver. Therefore, he is not subject to our laws and rules. Not only that, but God could kill all day long and it would be "right", and "pure", and "holy" and it would NEVER be sin or wrong in a million years. But yet if you do it, it is "sin". Why? Because God says so, that's why. He is the lawgiver. So you need to get your priorities in order and realize that you're not on the same level as God. You need to stay in your place. You don't know the mind of God. You don't know his reasons and his motives. So who are you to judge him? You're worse than a young baby only a few months old looking up at their parent and wondering why the parent is always eating pieces of meat and solid foods and is only giving them milk. That parent knows what they are doing even if the baby doesn't (that parent knows the baby could choke on solid foods). So the baby should just enjoy being a baby and keep their mind out of it. In the same like manner, you should keep your mind out of God's business and out of the things he does. If you don't understand something God has said or done in the scriptures, the best thing to do is to keep your mind out of it and not deal with it. Because by putting your mind into it and by fooling with things you don't understand, you will only risk sending your own soul to hell. That is all you will accomplish. And long after you've been in hell and the lake for a million years for getting an evil thought about God, God is still going to be God. He's still going to be eternal. And he's still going to be perfect. And nothing you ever said or did or thought in your mind is ever going to change that fact. So why fool with things that are above you…
For your information, yes, God did tell Abraham to sacrifice his son (as a test). But you overlook the fact that the same God who told him to do that, also had the power to raise his son back up if he was killed. You overlook that fact and misjudge God foolishly…
Lastly, consider this, you judge God by your own evil standards and feel he does not measure up. So tell me this, when Judgment Day arrives (and it shall indeed arrive) and he then judges you by his holy standards, how shall you measure up?…
2 Peter 2:12 – But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption;
reality: humans are not the ones in the universe. that is reality.
Well Tanya... "you take" is absurd. If you are hearing "God", then you are insane. This ridiculous concept of the all knowing, all powerful invisible man in the sky needs to end. This article is just perpetuating the myth.
if you hear voices of any kind, you need to seek professional help! If you act on those Voices, you need to be locked up!
If they lock them up, those places would be full of Atheists in no time.
And yet Michelle Bachmann told the World God told her to run for the Oval Office....and she sits on the House Intelligence Committee....Whoa....a supporter of Intelligent Design and the Dumbing down of all of America's children....
modery psychotic drugs sames as the drugs that witches and voodooman give to zombies...made of mushrooms and chemicals.. LSD derived from magic mushrooms...withces used mushrooms to get closer to gods..surprisingly LSD or magic mushrooms cures mental illness and alcoholic addiction. but the gov't banned LSD in the 60's
the concept of God since cave man ages,,,something this long cannot be fantasy. The gods the ancients worship ain't no wussy with suits selling holy water on TV
I've seen an Atheist one day, he was in a cage at a circus. Poor little monkey.
About 18% of the people living in the US today are atheists, this number will only grow as reason and logic always win over witchcraft and ignorance. Most likely somebody seating next to you at a restaurant any day is an atheist and most likely is not going to try and sell you a bible or a qran
I agree he wouldn't do that. But i surely would hear his big mouth babbling over religious people all day. Atheists have nothing else to do with their life.
I've seen an atheist one day??
Who let you out of the zoo, MoronicAtheist ? The other monkeys I bet
Sorry morons, only applies to Atheists.
@Moron, are you 12?
See... atheists do not insult believers, simply use empirical evidence to reach a conclusion. Your beliefs on the other hand, make you insult people that don't think like you. I think you follow some god, but very likely is not the right kind of god for your mental health. You may want to visit a Dr. and seek help for your condition
"JJ". Based on previous posts by "MoronAtheist", I have computed the approximate age of "MoronAtheist" to be ten years old.
Yeah sorry my post probably went over your head. I would say I'd try to dumb down my responses so you have time to catch up, but why should I be held hostage to your ignorance?
Oooooh, Moron. You are one hot little number. Stupid, but hot.
Frank Alacci – You are RIGHT – Atheists will increase – but only because thay are lacking intellect, logic and reasoning [all of which prove there is a God]!
Any old fool can deny something they can't understand, It takes intelligence to understand AND accept the wonders of God. I'll pray for you.
why should God care if millions die? Satan was laughing when millions die!
The author is quite right. Hearing "god" doesn't mean you are "crazy". There are hundreds of other things it could possibly be. The one thing that you can be sure of, it's 100% NOT god.
If you commonly hear and see things that have no basis in reality, you should go see a doctor. No matter what this author says, she doesn't know you or your medical condition. And contrary to her baseless statement, hallucinations are not "normal". They are a sign that you need to seek help from someone other than a CNN opinion writer.
You fail to tell us which god do these people listen to. There are over 3,500 deitys in modern history and they have very diverse teachings, so; which one is the one that talks to people, have you figured that out yet?. I personally would love to hear from Zeus, it's the coolest one but so far he ain't talking to me.
The Family Channel runs a disclaimer before each show of the 700 Club...Pat Robertson has made too many wild predictions that never came true.....and he did not like the Teletubbies .....
Ronald Reagan saw a UFO....and believed in aliens.....so does that mean they exist....well now we now the Universe is much bigger and mathematically other planets could have intelligent life.....Maybe God is really ET....
I think you have confused Ronny with Jimmy. It was Carter that claimed to have seen a UFO.
Check again Reagan did too...and don't you remember his speech at the UN ...about how the world would come together if we were attacked by aliens...or forces from beyond our world....and then he ended by saying haven't we already been attack?....Reagan believed in aliens...the Star Wars Program had more the one use...as a guard against alien attack too...
"Religion has convinced people that there's an invisible man... living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn't want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and he needs money." ----– George Carlin
I miss George Carlin....Why does God need money?...Oh so the high Priest can drive a Caddy....
I miss Carlin too. He was a bright light of reason shining on the strange, funny and not so bright things we do as a society.
god doesn't need the money, so do something useful with it.
Atheists don't need money, they don't worry about the poor and the needy. They just don't care anyway.
Maybe George Carlin misses not being in hell.
Why do the states that get millions to help people stop smoking only spend less then 10% for that and use the rest of the money on other things...Too many Churches and so called Charities spend too much money on their own salaries and not using it to help the poor....
Where's your evidence for saying so? Even if you're right, at least a little percentage of that goes for the poor and the needy. It's better than receiving nothing from Atheists anyhow.
You Know it is the Atheist that have done more for the poor....The Christians often called the poor sinners and God was punishing them.....It has been the Atheists that tried to help..believing life is too short and this is all there is..so help one another....Mitt Romney was going to cut unemployment and social services....
You know that is BS, give me evidences that Atheists gave to the poor and needy. Even when those 20 poor little kids were shot by an idiot i was seeing moronic comments from atheists, not one of them offered their supports or a little compassion. Atheists were attacking people on all forums, they were too busy opening their big mouths instead of shutting up and helping those in need. Atheists your actions shows who you really are. Like the old saying, you recognize a tree by its fruits.
And the NRA a strong religious group that works hard to supply guns....What did they do......
And what most president of United States Of America did? How about Vietnam, Iraq and so many others?
And by the way NRA are a bunch of guns lover twits who are paranoid about everything.
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