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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 • Evangelical • God • My Take

soundoff (7,761 Responses)
  1. MoronAtheist

    Many Atheists Morons on these boards pretend having a College Degree, and yet none of them seem to have a job. I keep seeing them showing up on these boards either all night or all day. Atheists are full of hypocrisy and are not genuine honest people. Facts are facts Atheists.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Biff

      So are you saying you agree or disagree with this article? BTW posting on a Sunday isn't that against your religion? Most atheists get the weekends off their job to call people who hear god in their head crazy. Facts is facts I love that.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Raoul Duke, Jr.

      A religous person talking about facts? Oh, the irony is making my brain hurt, something, I suspect, with which you are not familiar. I meant the brain, not the irony.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Christians = Gullible people

      You accuse unemployed people of posting here, while you yourself seems to post as much as anyone.

      Personally, I've made enough enough money where I don't need to work full-time for a long time, does that count as being unemployed?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • NikNak

      Face what facts moron?
      That you still don't have any evidence of your sky fairy?
      You have bought into a big scam. You have been lied to since birth but are too scared or too dumb to see it.
      And the best part of the scam, is you don't get the reward of until you die.
      Religion, the biggest, most lucrative and longest running scam every invented.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Not only a college degree, I run my own business. What is your excuse?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  2. Bishop Hairy Palms

    God told Mike Huckaby that he let the CT kindergarden massacre happen to punish America for gay marriage.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  3. Tired of the crazy crap.

    Thanks, CNN. Nice, responsible article there.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  4. Lisa Jones

    Soda pop is terrific.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • NikNak

      SatanSoda is my favorite flavor.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  5. Bishop Hairy Palms

    God told George Bush to invade Iraq.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • NikNak

      And he did.
      See, more evidence that god talks to fools and fools listen.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Brampt

      God spoke to Bush to bomb Iraq?? Lets see if it was God:
      Romanos 12:17-21: Return evil for evil to no one. Provide fine things in the sight of all men.18If possible, as far as it depends upon ​YOU, be peaceable with all men.19Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but yield place to the wrath; for it is written: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the LORD.”20But, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing this you will heap fiery coals upon his head.”21Do not let yourself be conquered by the evil, but keep conquering the evil with the good.

      You see God would never tell no one to kill!! Clearly that was not a message from God, but that was a message from the Ruler of this world, Satan! Rev 12:9 – So down the great dragon+ was hurled, the original serpent,+ the one called Devil+ and Satan,+ who is misleading the entire inhabited earth;*+ he was hurled down to the earth,+ and his angels were hurled down with him

      December 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  6. Bishop Hairy Palms

    If you believe in a God that had the power to stop the mass execution of innocent children in CT but decided not to, you are suffering from a mental illness called religion.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • NikNak

      Don't you get it B, god let it happen to show us how mad it is that we don't have organized prayer in schools.
      At least that is what they said on Fox news.....

      December 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  7. Lisa Jones

    Satan is terrific.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • NikNak

      I really dig him too.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • dreamer96

      Satan or also know as the angel Morning Star was cast out of Heaven for believing he was equal to God..and Took 1/3 of the Angels from Heaven with him...and was cast down to Earth ....Funny the Free Masons really like the Angle 33 1/3....the same ratio of Angels thrown out of Heaven....

      December 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • NikNak

      You are sure it was 1/3, and not 2/7ths?
      Can you provide any proof of your 1/3.
      I think it was 2/7 and you are wrong, again.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  8. jls22

    The other day I was certain I heard Alfred E. Neuman calling my name, thought I was headed for the looney bin. Turns out that I'm not crazy after all........

    December 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • NikNak

      No dude, you are on your way to starting your own lucrative store front church.
      That is how most of these whacko religions started anyway, with some clown (not that you are one) hearing some voice or seeing some vision.
      Man, get in while you can and clean up and retire early off the backs of the gullible.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • jls22

      "In retrospect it becomes clear that hindsight is definitely overrated!" ......Alfred E. Neuman

      December 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  9. Lisa Jones

    Jesus is terrific.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Chikkipop

      What's so terrific about him? Has he told you something you didn't already know?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • NikNak

      Jesus is spiffy!
      He likes me best of all too, cause the talking statue told me so.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  10. Brampt

    If you have "God" talking to you that doesnt mean you have his approval:
    Matt. 24:24: “False Christs and false prophets will arise and will give great signs [“miracles,” TEV] and wonders so as to mislead, if possible, even the chosen ones.”
    2 Thess. 2:9, 10: “The lawless one’s presence is according to the operation of Satan with every powerful work and lying signs and portents and with every unrighteous deception for those who are perishing, as a retribution because they did not accept the love of the truth that they might be saved.”
    Matt. 7:21-23: “Not everyone saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens will. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name . . . ?’ And yet then I will confess to them: I never knew you! Get away from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

    December 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Chikkipop

      Why does this stuff impress you!?

      Many different people wrote this stuff a long time ago; what have you learned from it that you couldn't figure out?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Bill

      Couldn't you possibly wrap your head around the fact that any divine being, eternal in time and omniscient in wisdom, here before the foundation of the universe and loving to us as His children..may just be over all the psychotic nonsense so many people attribute to His character?

      This article makes a lot of sense and goes a long way to relieving the stress many people experience when trying to resolve their personal experience with the "instructions" issued by the various churches. "T.M." is to be congratulated and encouraged to continue her investigation. It comes as a great personal relief that someone is lighting a single candle rather than encouraging us to continue cursing the darkness.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  11. lionlylamb

    For one to envision or daydream is a direct connection to one's psyche, the soul of impartation. Anyone can envision but alas, few dare to so do. As a child dares to daydream, they are instructed by teachers to abstain and get with the 'programing'!

    December 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • dreamer96

      OOOhh

      Pink Floyd the Wall.....

      December 30, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      dreamer96,

      Just another brick in the program of inst itutionalized forebodings,,,, :-(

      December 30, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  12. lol/religion

    NO, ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE GOD DOES NOT TALK TO HUMANS ANYMORE, THERE ARE SEVERAL VERSES THAT STATE AS MUCH AND EVEN SAY THAT THAT IS THE VOICE OF THE DEVIL NOT GOD!!!!!!

    December 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      It's gotta be true because it's all in upper case

      December 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Chikkipop

      Dag!! Had a feeling it was the devil, but I was too embarrassed to ask!

      December 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Barry

      Several verses huh? Care to elaborate?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  13. MoronAtheist

    What? You Atheists Morons haven't hit page 60 yet? Running out of arguments Atheists?

    December 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Chris Mankey

      "What? You Atheists Morons haven't hit page 60 yet? Running out of arguments Atheists?"

      Hi! Do you have any proof that god exists? Other than insults? No. Shut up!

      December 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Christians = Gullible people

      Look at me, I believe I can telepathically communicate with a bronze-age, middle-easterm, genocidal deity named Yahweh and his illiterate son named Jesus.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      Just give me a single evidence of proof that he doesn't and i will shut up.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Peter

      Aren't religious people suppose to be forgiving? Obviously, they are hypocrites using you as a prime example.

      Why call those who oppose your view as "morons"? Aren't they also created by "God"? Therefore you must respect their views?

      To belittle them and mock them is going against the very teachings of "God".

      You should be ashamed of yourself for not being consistent. At least the atheists are consistent in what they preach.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • lol/religion

      what a devout chritian you are, spreading hate instead of love, turning people away from the path instead of trying to welcome them upon it.
      GJ going against ALL of Jesus' teachings in ONE paragraph.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Christians = Gullible people

      @Moron

      Its impossible to prove a negative as there is as much evidence for your deity as there are for leprechauns and unicorns.

      However, why doesn't your deity prevent the slaughter of children in natural disasters?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      Hey Peter, are atheists any better? Everywhere there is a subject about religions you find atheists babbling their big mouths at religious people.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      MoronAthiest

      Prove that God exists or shut up.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Are you running out of baseless assertions?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • NikNak

      MoronA is just mad that he is being called on his god myth, and has no way to back it up.
      No evidence of any kind.
      The religious are not used to being called on their fairy tale. They used to just kill us, but they can't anymore, and they hate it.
      So they react by calling us names.
      Your god is myth moronA, and you are a fool to believe in it.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      @Christians

      However, why doesn't your deity prevent the slaughter of children in natural disasters?
      Go ask that same question to your so called scientists, none of them have a solution to this problem either. Maybe your idol Bill Mayer have one.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Christians = Gullible people

      @ Moron
      Why don't you answer the question as to why your deity allows innocent children to die.

      Science would say that the processes of nature, regardless of humans.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  14. Jeff from Columbus

    Reading the comments to this article is really sad.

    The hatred and bigotry of some Atheists towards Christians is abominable. The hatred and bigotry of some Christians towards Atheists is abominable. Why can't you just accept that others are different and they may not share your belief system? What's to be gained by belittling and insulting those who don't think like you?

    Its especially disconcerting for the supposed Christians. Jesus commanded us to love one another as you would love yourself. Judging by some of the comments on this board, that commandment is being broken left and right.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Tohrm

      There is much "waaaaaaah" in your post, Jeff. Christians are anything but victims in this country, so you can shut up now.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Christians = Gullible people

      Christian tend to vote for politicians with similar, idiotic views, which affects us all.

      As long as religitards vote, their idiotic beliefs should be ridiculed.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • NikNak

      What are you talking about Jiff?
      It is you "believers" that are continually calling us non believers names, and saying how we are going to burn in hell, and how if you ever met us you would kick our butt_s.
      I know it hurts to have your imaginary friend challenged.
      You can shut us all up by just providing us some proof of your sky fairy.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  15. Christians = Gullible people

    Every time a Christian gun-nut uses a gun to take their own life, an angel gets their wings.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  16. independentlyowned

    While yes, it has been proven that the human brain is capable of hearing and seeing things that aren't real, especially when in a deep state of meditation or "prayer," what the author left out was that that doesn't prove a God exists, and that these experiences can happen to those who don't believe as well. It's just something the human brain is capable of, and has nothing to do with religious belief. Just because they think it's God talking to them doesn't mean it actually is.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  17. humansarelowlifeforms

    the fastest growing religions in america is wiccan, the occult like voodoo.hoodoo and shamanism and islam. these religions don't have the same values as christian faith like protestants. as for the occult were talking about witches with no organizer religion worhip of idols and demons or satanic religions. on the rise in america.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • James r. Hunt

      As a Ordained Druid Minister, your understanding of "disorganized faiths" is rather naive, you know not all of Gods names or faces nor shall you.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • sam stone

      what values are those? convincing your child that they are flawed and must beg for salvation from the flawed being that made them?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • youhavegottobekiddingme

      you don't have the slightest clue as to what wicca really is, do you?
      wiccans and pagans don't even believe in "satan" or "demons". they don't worship idols, they worship their gods and goddesses, just as you choose to worship your god. and actually, wiccans have wonderful values as well, such as "harm none". the tri-fold law states that anything you do will come back upon you three times as intensely. if you do something negative, you will get something 3x more negative, and vice versa for positive. i have met several pagans and wiccans, and ALL of them have been incredible and caring people, whereas i have come across many christians who are deceitful, rude, and rotten people. your religion doesn't make you a better person. YOU make you a better person.

      christianity isn't right for everyone. you should research things before you speak mindlessly (and negatively) about them.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  18. Christians = Gullible people

    Religitards tend to vote for politicians as ignorant and as gullible as themselves, effecting us all negatively.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • John Cram

      Word of the year > Religitard

      December 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  19. John Cram

    I love that people that have "faith" are all able to get behind one another and join in the bull sihting.

    GOD – SANTA – EASTER BUNNY – ELF on a SHELF. All have one thing in common – they are ALL made up.

    It's too bad that people are so desperate to follow that they have to follow an imaginary person just so that priests and other "men of the cloth" can live the high life.

    December 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  20. dale

    Attack

    Yes, Noah did all of the with God's help. You have so much stuff going on in that question, just to discuss all of them in a forum is difficult. Somehow I think you already know the Christian response and are just testing my knowledge about Christianity. If your heart is hardened towards Christianity, I can't help that. It sucks that you feel the way you do, but that's life. There are for sure answers to those questions, but getting to the rout of it, is you just don't want to believe. Take care!

    December 30, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Christians = Gullible people

      Dale,
      Imagine how your life would be if you actually graduated college?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • MoronAtheist

      And you are graduated? What are you doing here then?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ dale – you said the bible was the most accurate book. I pointed out some the contents that were clearly not accurate. A simple question: If your god created all life, including all animal life, and if the Bible is god's word, why did god refer to bats as birds? Why did god say that hares chew their cud? Why did god say that insects have 4 legs? All of that that is in Leviticus.
      That is in your bible. Do you have an explanation?

      Oh, and the Noah question? "God helped him" is your answer? There would physically not be enough space on the Ark for two of every animal, let alone for the space needed for all of the food and water required for the animals.

      It's simply a book written by bronze age men in order to attempt to control other bronze age people.

      Just a book.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Chikkipop

      Why is it always "hardened hearts" and not being "open-minded" when atheists challenge belief!?

      How dare you suggest that because we didn't swallow your comforting story of a highly improbable, magical & invisible being, we are somehow angry or have no feelings?

      Why can't you accept that folks have a hard time understanding how anyone could be susceptible to such mythical stories nowadays?

      December 30, 2012 at 2:48 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.