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My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy
A woman prays in church. Many Christians say they can audibly hear the voice of God.
December 29th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy

Editor's Note: Tanya Marie (“T.M.”) Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University professor in the department of anthropology at Stanford University in Stanford, California. She is the author of "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God."

By T.M. Luhrmann, Special to CNN

(CNN)—In the Bible, God spoke directly to Abraham. He spoke directly to Moses. He spoke directly to Job. But to your neighbor down the street?

Most people reading the ancient scriptures understand these accounts of hearing God’s voice as miracles that really did happen but no longer take place today, or maybe as folkloric flourishes to ancient stories. Even Christians who believe that miracles can be an everyday affair can hesitate when someone tells them they heard God speak audibly. There’s an old joke: When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.

Except that usually it’s not.

Hearing a voice when alone, or seeing something no one else can see, is pretty common. At least one in 10 people will say they’ve had such an experience if you ask them bluntly. About four in 10 say they have unusual perceptual experiences between sleep and awareness if you interview them about their sleeping habits.

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And if you ask them in a way that allows them to admit they made a mistake, the rate climbs even higher. By contrast, schizophrenia, the most debilitating of all mental disorders, is pretty rare. Only about one in 100 people can be diagnosed with the disorder.

Moreover, the patterns are quite distinct. People with schizophrenia who hear voices hear them frequently. They often hear them throughout the day, sometimes like a rain of sound, or a relentless hammer. They hear not only sentences, but paragraphs: words upon words upon words. What the voices say is horrid—insults, sneers and contemptuous jibes. “Dirty. You’re dirty.” “Stupid slut.” “You should’ve gone under the bus, not into it.”

That was not what Abraham, Moses and Job experienced, even when God was at his most fierce.

For the last 10 years, I have been doing anthropological and psychological research among experientially oriented evangelicals, the sort of people who seek a personal relationship with God and who expect that God will talk back. For most of them, most of the time, God talks back in a quiet voice they hear inside their minds, or through images that come to mind during prayer. But many of them also reported sensory experiences of God. They say God touched their shoulder, or that he spoke up from the back seat and said, in a way they heard with their ears, that he loved them. Indeed, in 1999, Gallup reported that 23% of all Americans had heard a voice or seen a vision in response to prayer.

These experiences were brief: at the most, a few words or short sentences. They were rare. Those who reported them reported no more than a few of them, if that. These experiences were not distressing, although they were often disconcerting and always startling. On the contrary, these experiences often made people feel more intimate with God, and more deeply loved.

In fact, my research has found that these unusual sensory experiences are more common among those who pray in a way that uses the imagination—for example, when prayer involves talking to God in your mind. The unusual sensory experiences were not, in general, associated with mental illness (we checked).

They were more common among those who felt comfortable getting caught up in their imaginations. They were also more common among those who prayed for longer periods. Prayer involves paying attention to words and images in the mind, and giving them significance. There is something about the skilled practice of paying attention to the mind in this way that shifts—just a little bit—the way we judge what is real.

Yet even many of these Christians, who wanted so badly to have a back-and-forth relationship with God, were a little hesitant to talk about hearing God speak with their ears. For all the biblical examples of hearing God speak audibly, they doubt. Augustine reports that when he was in extremis, sobbing at the foot of that fig tree, he heard a voice say, “Take it and read.” He picked up the scripture and converted. When the Christians I know heard God speak audibly, it often flitted across their minds that they were crazy.

In his new book, "Hallucinations," the noted neurologist Oliver Sacks tells his own story about a hallucinatory experience that changed his life. He took a hearty dose of methamphetamines as a young doctor, and settled down with a 19th century book on migraines. He loved the book, with its detailed observation and its humanity. He wanted more. As he was casting around in his mind for someone who could write more that he could read, a loud internal voice told him “You silly bugger” that it was he. So he began to write. He never took drugs again.

Now, Sacks does not recommend that anyone take drugs like that. He thinks that what he did was dangerous and he thinks he was lucky to have survived.

What interests me, however, is that he allowed himself to trust the voice because the voice was good. There’s a distinction between voices associated with psychiatric illness (often bad) and those (often good) that are found in the so-called normal population. There’s another distinction between those who choose to listen to a voice, if the advice it gives is good, and those who do not. When people like Sacks hear a voice that gives them good advice, the experience can transform them.

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This is important, because often, when voices are discussed in the media or around the kitchen table, the voices are treated unequivocally as symptoms of madness. And of course, voice-hearing is associated with psychiatric illness.

But not all the time. In fact, not most of the time.

About a third of the people I interviewed carefully at the church where I did research reported an unusual sensory experience they associated with God. While they found these experiences startling, they also found them deeply reassuring.

Science cannot tell us whether God generated the voice that Abraham or Augustine heard. But it can tell us that many of these events are normal, part of the fabric of human perception. History tells us that those experiences enable people to choose paths they should choose, but for various reasons they hesitate to choose.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat at his kitchen table, in the winter of 1956, terrified by the fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery bus boycott, he said he heard the voice of Jesus promising, “I will be with you.” He went forward.

Voices may form part of human suffering. They also may inspire human greatness.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of TM Luhrmann.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • God

soundoff (7,767 Responses)
  1. LouAZ

    If you hear the voice of god . . . no matter which one . . . RUN !
    Lightening will surely follow . . .

    December 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  2. Bob N

    Once again the media is arriving at conclusions most of us have reached long ago. Unless you're atheist,then you're really crazy.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • sam stone

      how so, bob? because we do not believe in things for which there is no evidence?

      December 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Ruby

      They are not crazy, just ignorant. By denying the possibilty they deny themselves the opportunity to experience something new to themselves and enjoy new learning.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      @Sam

      Calm down Sammy, maybe you'll catch a vampire tonight.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  3. dale

    Domacles

    watch 'The Case for Christ.' This shows so much evidence that proves the Bible is what it says it is. This talks about the Bible being the most accurate book, takes a look at Jesus' life on earth, the prophesies that are being, and were fulfilled. Just so much info to put on a discussion forum.

    If a person is really bent on finding out the truth, and willing to look at it from all angles, watch this. It's about an atheist journalist that is looking at the evidence about Christianity, and making an educated decision. All he is doing is seeing where the evidence takes him. If anything, it's a biased look from an atheists' perspective.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      @dale

      No, those arguments fail miserably, and I'm surprised when someone admits to being convinced by them. Read "The Case Against the Case for Christ" if you'd like to understand why and how you've been duped.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      @Dales

      Dales don't waste your precious time with Domacles, he has a shallow mind just like any other atheists morons anyhow.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • sam stone

      dale: how is that second coming going?

      December 30, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • sam stone

      moron atheist: go fvck yourself, punk

      December 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ dale – the bible is the most accurate book. Really? In the whole world? What about all of the times the bible contradicts itself? What about Leviticus? You know – bats are birds, insects have 4 legs, hares chew their cud – good accurate scientifically valid descriptions. The story of Noah – right! Sure it's entirely possible to put two of every animal on Earth in a boat that small, with that few people to look after them, and with enough food, water, room to move. Sure! The bible is staggeringly accurate.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • dale

      People that have made up their own mind will do and say anything to discredit. Even when logically proven. It takes more faith to be an atheist than it takes to be a Christian

      December 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      @Sam

      Hey Sam, keep getting stone you're getting mad.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • dale

      sam

      you know the second coming hasn't come yet. why waste your time asking me when only God knows when it is. Well will know the season and year, but not the day and hour.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      dale, why are you so afraid of logic? If your belief is based on sound reasoning, why not read The Case Against the Case for Christ?

      December 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • dale

      Moby

      I have no problem reading that. If i was to ask someone to look at something i referenced them, I would expect myself to do the same.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  4. MoronAtheist

    Hey Atheists morons, i will be back in about 15 minutes. By then i bet you will roll your big mouths until you hit more than 60 pages.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  5. scottrodo

    There is nothing wrong with believing in anything....Santa Claus, one god or another, leprechauns....as long as you don't push it onto anyone else or hurt others or yourself. When you range into the realm of hallucinating, the you need professional help.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      And that includes atheists people who dress in long black trench coats lurking streets at night hunting vampires.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  6. Dyslexic doG

    enjoy it while it lasts Christians. Another 10 or 20 generations and the human race will look on your God and Jesus the same way as we look on Zeus and Thor and Ra (and santa claus and the tooth fairy) today. What a giggle!

    December 30, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  7. Dyslexic doG

    The bible is like a "Nigerian Email" from the bronze-age.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • JJ

      Yes, except 95% of the population caught onto the Nigerian scams within a few short years. The Christian cult scam virus has thrived and continues to take in the gullible even after 2000 years.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  8. Kebos

    Hearing voices from God = Crazy

    Of that, I have no doubt.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  9. Dyslexic doG

    My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you are without a doubt, crazy!

    December 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  10. BIgD

    So it wasn't crazy when the 19 heard the voice of Allah instructing them to fly airplanes into buildings???? Or when Andrea Yates drowned her 5 children. Or.... the list goes on and on...

    The "Voice of God" reverberating in the empty skulls of the Faithful has caused much of the misery in this world.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Saraswati

      First, the author used the word "usually" and made clear that there are still a lot of cases where it is a sign of mental illness. Second, I am not familiar with a claim that all of the 911 killers had heard the voice of allah. Please provide a reference for that.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • dreamer96

      You Know NORAD had drills like the real 911 attack....and John P. O'Neill was driven out of the FBI bin laden team and was working at the Twin Towers as head of security...and Dick Cheney was in charge that morning..While GWBush was away...and Dick Cheney probably held a high National Security Clearance then GWBush...After all in the 1980's when GWBush was running a small Texas oil company...Dick Cheney was running a supper secret supply system ...sending WMD's to Saddam in Iraq..selling weapons and parts to Iran and Libya and using the CIA to transport and sell illegal drugs to fund the CONTRAS.....Funny Grover Norquest's first job in Washington DC was to find funding for the CONTRAS ..and now we know the CONTRAS received funds from WMD's sales to Iraq , weapons sales to Iran and Libya..and illegal drug sales..right in the USA in Arkansas....

      December 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Dan

      Liar. Muslims do not believe ordinary people can hear from God. Andrea Yates did not claim that God told her to do it. She said that she feared Satan would take them. There is big difference. She was mentally ill.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • sensable christian

      i think you need to reread the article – the author was pretty clear when defining the vioces that schizophrenics hear. " relentless sentences...paragraphs....insults... sneers... threats "etc. This accurately describes the speech that the murderous people you mention sense. i have witnessed schizophrenics relating auditory hallucinations and they are scary, awful voices -Tthink Gollum. The "God"voice the author describes is comforting, offers solutions to problems, etc. Whether this is God or our mind thinking creatively is no matter – that"little voice"inside gives hope and is helpful in moving us forward

      December 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  11. chica

    Jesus says not to feed pearls to the pigs......

    December 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • JJ

      Then why are you here?

      December 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Calgon

      chica,

      Trouble is... what you think are 'pearls' are really those sweet-smelling, globular bath-beads, which dissolve in water.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • sam stone

      jesus also said he would be back in a generation. how's that working out, p-u-t-a?

      December 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      @Sam

      Hey Sam, you're mad because you couldn't catch a vampire last night? Keep trying tonight.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  12. joe

    This is a dangerous article. Hearing voices is a serious problem, seek counseling.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • dreamer96

      And stop watch Fox News....

      December 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Ruby

      Stupidity is a serious problem, seek education.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  13. Dave O

    Hearing voices is ALWAYS crazy. Seek help. And, I hope for a day when you people get the mental help you need and not discussions on CNN.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Saraswati

      It's actually very commn, and in most people no greater a predictor of mental illness than the ear ringing of tinnitis.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • dreamer96

      Hmm and GWBush took a walk before attack Iraq....and God gave him his answer....wage war....

      December 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      @Dreamer

      Yup, and he was the president of the United States Of America.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Ruby

      Paranoia is debilitating, seek help rather than blogging.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  14. albie

    Yes, it is a sign of being crazy – christians scare the hell out of me

    December 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      Probably the scariest people on earth.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • joe

      Other than Muslims.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      They're less scary than Atheists lurking the streets at night trying to hunt down vampires.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Dan

      LOL...They "scare" you? Seriously. Give me a break, Drama Queen.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  15. Micheal49

    The next time god speaks to you, please ask for a good 10-line proof for Fermat's last theorem. When you can produce said proof, then I might start to begin that you really are hearing the voice of something other than your own sub-conscience.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      Good idea, i will first ask him why female atheists don't shave their armpits and legs and why male atheists are shaving every parts of their body.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      MoronAtheist is about 12 years old and should get to their Sunday Brainwashing classes and let the adults talk now!! Such a horrible little troll of a christard!

      December 30, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Sharon Shipman

      I just saw something amazing. Senators were "Praying" on the senate floor, then they recited the pledge of allegiance. Is this something that they do always or just on Sunday or even because of the Fiscal Cliff????? Why is it then so unethical or not politically correct to pray in schools? I remember when there was prayer in schools, people of other religions just remained quiet. They also did not respond to the pledge of allegiance even though they were on the land of the "Home of the Free". So I am just curious if these are the principles that America was founded on why do we have to compromise in order not to offend. Second question is why are they so confused as to what helps the country if they are indeed praying, hmmmm? okay well, last question is – Is God really in the room?

      December 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      @TruthPrevails

      Wrong i'm 50 years old. But i thought you would have had matured since last time i saw you on these boards. You still have no jobs and living in your parents basement?

      December 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  16. LouAZ

    Note: This article (and her book) has been digitally altered to better reflect perceived reality.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  17. lionlylamb

    The dogged bitterness on those shoulders who ridicule God and our godly-reasoned are mere reflective aids to those who do cherish God-granted afterlives. Our life here is but a moment in time while our next life lasts for eons of cherished moments in our coming hereafter of our soon to be afterlife measuring. Even the ridiculers of godliness ideas and ideals godly will find their places upon and within the afterlife of our deaths. God dare cannot forget even the lowliest of creatures within mankind's commonwealths! For it is how one leads upon one's creeds that God and God's kinds will adjudicate life in its passing away days. Believing in God is not needed to obtain and afterlife for Christ Jesus bought for us all our afterlives!

    December 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • psych ward staff

      Uh oh, someone threw up their word salad again. Clean up on page 34.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Dan

      Psych ward...I'll give you that the post was a tad wordy, but I have seen as bad, if not worse, from atheists. Others are not immune.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • alpeaston

      Religion, god, the "afterlife" are nothing more then our feverish attempt to escape the unavoidable reality, supplied by our advanced brains, that we will definitely, sometime in the future, die! In order to survive death we created the delusions of gods and afterlifes and all the absurd dogma beliefs such delusions seem to allow. It's all really just fanciful imagination gone wild !

      December 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      @lionly, congratulations, you must surely be at the front of the line for the Nobel Prize in incoherence.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  18. ScottCA

    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.
    .

    December 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • LouAZ

      Hey, I don't know anything about that green monster in your closet . . . but I saw Santa Claus at least a dozen times this month !

      December 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Ruby

      Did you read the article at all, or is your reading comprehension poor? That "no evidence" is just what is being addressed.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  19. Jack Dawson

    CNN's resident atheist population will have a field day with this piece while telling people of faith how foolish they are. No matter. When the scriptures talk about the still, small voice of God, those who have experienced it understand exactly what is meant.

    No one can prove the existence of God, and no one can prove God does not exist. That is why it is called faith. As for me, when I see a sunrise in all its splendor or sit and quietly watch the evening sky, I cannot believe it is all just a wonderful accident. And yes, I am one of those who has heard that voice over my shoulder at a time of great trial.

    Others may believe differently, it is their choice, but please stop labeling people of faith as uneducated rubes. In the end, we will find out for sure, but until then let's stop all the antagonism.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      Well, let's call a spade a spade. You are an uneducated rube. It's pretty easy to read the facts about nature and educate yourself. It will all make sense to you if you just take your time and question.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Jack, two things.

      1. It is not necessary to think that the universe is some "accident" to simply be honest and say, "We don't know." To say, "Big invisible sky wizard did it with magic spellz" is lazy and stupid.

      2. Yes, "faith" does not require any proof, which means it can be used for belief in anything, no matter how ridiculous. That's why a person who relies upon faith has no argument against any other god believe or any other belief. You have no reply to the believer who uses faith to say that your country, community, or family should be destroyed for the will and pleasure of his god. Such a tool, then, is silly for determining belief in any gods.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • LouAZ

      What do you do on the overcast days . . . get drunk ?

      December 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • PS

      Nicely said, Jack. I'm not sure you'll get those who are so hostile against believers of various faiths (but really, let's be honest – they are attacking Christians, even if they say "all religions") to listen or respect what you have to say... pearls before swine, right? But I think what you said was well thought out and worthy of respect.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      PS: Using the god of the gaps argument and not comprehending how the human brain functions in times of trial is not well thought out.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      Jack Dawson,

      I for one being an affirmed believer in God and God's kingdom domains knows well our godly truths. We all are the buildings conceptualized by God's servants in our motherly wombs. Our seeds being from our fathers domains is given to all our mothers inside domains where we are conceived thru Godly conceptualizations from inception onwards toward being birthed to become a building for many godly beings to take residence deeply inside our body as a building even so much a temple of Godliness.

      Mathew 6:33 "But seek ye first the kingdom of God!"

      John 18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world!"

      Luke 17:21, "The kingdom of God is inside you!"

      1Corinthians 3:9 "For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building!"

      December 30, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      One cannot prove that gods don't exist, but we can easily prove that certain gods never existed. All the gods mentioned in the bible have been disproven. Archeological finds have given sufficient evidence to prove the gods of Abraham were the Canaanite pantheon, and before that actual living rulers of that region. Conversely, the Greek Olympians are now evident to be based on actual Phoenician and Egyptian rulers.
      So yes, your god was real, once, but he laced his sandals up just like everyone else.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Dan

      @Vocal Atheist. Mere childish name calling. It is clear from the post that the writer is no rube.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Faith is belief in that for which there is no evidence. There is far more evidence for Santa or the Tooth Fairy. Millions of kids believe in both because they have received tangible gifts from both; when they grow up, they stop believing. Theists believe despite having received nothing tangible in evidence and even after growing up.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  20. JGwentworth

    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 ludicrous.

    December 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Damocles

      So aside from 'it's in the bible' or 'because I feel like it's true', what other proof can you offer??

      Yes, it is my money and hell fvck no I wouldn't trust you with it.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • JJ

      You dropped this same turd on the previous page and flew away with nothing to bolster your claims. Have you found evidence in the past 15 minutes?

      December 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • BIgD

      Nonsense.
      As a scientist I can state, unequivocally, that there is no evidence for the supernatural or the afterlife.
      This is your one shot at existence. Make the most of it.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      Hey, JG! I have a structured settlement and I need cash now.

      December 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • dale

      Watch 'THE CASE FOR CHRIST'

      loaded with evidence proving Christianity

      December 30, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.