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.
Its insulting that this women gets paid. If you think you are telepathic and can communicate with a god you are insane and need help.
And Yet every GOP Candidate either openly, or implied, said they were running for the Oval Office ..Because God told them too...
So what University did you study psychology at?
Cal- Did you give up an afternnon of felching to post that drivel?
Hearing something talk to you, even God? That is a sign of mental illness. It's called Schizophrenia. Google it.
I know where you live.
God is a stalker
So do I!
Interesting but talking to God has never gotten anyone out of a speeding ticket...or has it???
Hey, can I borrow your pick-up truck?
You guys are all in trouble.
You should know ....You made US...
People that have to take many medicines, have a problem where the liver becomes saturated with those same drugs, and will dump them back into the blood all at once...this can cause brief "hallucinations"....and that person needs to see their doctor and change their drugs....Ask any doctor about this....
Alcoholics have this happen too and sometimes call these moments a moment of Clarity....
Visual enlightenment via daydreaming are all from our earliest years before we knew any words. It is our being assimilated by wordage that our minds become wordage proprieties and we all become less acclimated to our psychic daydreaming days to the points we no longer are pruned with visual daydreams. Still, we all do daydream no matter one's ages yet most are held to dreaming of one's wants in the material realms. The spiritualized daydreams of anyone are nowadays of wilted spiritualisms never becoming a fruitful rationalism due relevancies of materialized matters.
Baby, that was heavy duty and I read it over a few times. But I got you. On a very personal level. I often dream of what new toy to buy as opposed to dreaming of new ways to have a lasting peace in my life. Because all things(people included) decay on earth.
Hearing God speak can be a handy little tool. I know someone that broke up with his girlfriend using that method. Since she was also a Christiian, she couldn't argue or question his decision.
"Yeah, I really like you and would like to stay together, but God told me to date other women."
How awesome is that?
I truly dislike articles like this. Ignorance at it's finest. If you hear god, out loud, you are insane.
I spend weeks and months trying to get a song out of my head and into the real world. Sounds and rhythms and ideas inky head. I have to make a very concerted effort to bring it into the world.
If you think you hear god, tell someone, so that they can call 911 and save us from hearing about the people you killed...or converted...who will eventually kill or raise killing children.
I meant "in my head" sorry.
What investigation have you done that has lead you to reject Christianity?
@ Chad – why Christianity? You may not like this, but there are thousands of other religions in the world, all claiming to be "the one". Within Christianity there are thousands of sects all claiming to be "the one". You certainly (from your many posts on various topics here) appear to be a very sincere believer. But can you accept that there are millions – maybe billions – of other people who believe just as sincerely as you do, and who are as equally convinced that THEY are correct and everyone else is wrong.
@Chad. As Christian, I ask you why you associate Christianity with crazy people hearing voices? I'm a Christian and if I thought I actually heard God's voice, I'd check myself into a mental hospital. In my opinion, maybe less than 1% of people that call themselves Christian actually act or think like it and are either irrational, easily influenced suckers, or liars. It's rare to find a sane, rational person that's a Christian. The fact you associate a ridiculous thought about thinking you heard God to meaning someone's a normal Christian, says something. I pretty much figure someone's either crazy, or they just want to believe it so much they convince themselves, in which case they might just be stupid.
@chad. Lots for 43 years. I have nothing against believing in god. I do however truly dislike how religious people always have to be right at another human's expense.
Some people misuse philosophy and say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But that is a philosophical argument meant to stimulate discussion based on even small real world grounds. I can not say if god exists or not, but I can say that religion is destroying us all.
Chad, we don't have 1000 pages to tell you all the many, MANY reasons the Bible shouldn't be considered correct. But here's one: if Noah's ark has any truth whatsoever, and Noah and his family were the ONLY people left alive, how, just a few thousand years later, do we AGAIN have primitive African American tribes, Polynesians, Chinese, and all the other varying races of human beings. Shouldn't we all look like Noah? Which of Noah's lineage migrated to repopulate Asia? Which went to Australia to become aboriginal tribes? Or did got turn on evolution AFTER the flood?
What studies have you done to prove what she is saying is wrong? What specifically in the article do you think is wrong?
@Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear, so you rejected Christianity because there are a lot of religions?
@Tim, what investigation have you done that lead you to reject the claims of Christianity?
@Shawn, you reject the claim that the God of Israel is real and Jesus Christ is His Son because religious people do bad things?
@@Renegatus "But here's one: if Noah's ark has any truth whatsoever, and Noah and his family were the ONLY people left alive, how, just a few thousand years later"
@Chad couple problems right off
1. it isnt clear from the bible that the flood encompassed the entire world as they knew it, or the entire planet.
2. we have no idea when the flood occurred. Adding up the family trees is a gross misuse of OT genealogies which are preserved to establish lineage, not as a way of providing a chronological reference. Google "telescoping genealogies" for examples.
you can see, given those problems with your base assumption, that your later difficulties cant really be drawn..
Bear in mind, I am a theistic evolutionist. I believe in common ancestry.
No Harry-Even in the wizard world, hearing voices is not a good thing!
LMAO, god speaks to people from the back seat? Like what, he hides in their cars? Wow what a creeper!
Sort of proves what Dawkins has always maintained. God is a delusion and the more deluded a person is, the more they "experience" God.
Or, put another way, Christians ARE, to varying degrees, bat sh.it crazy.
@Colin, what investigation have you done that lead you to reject Christianity?
Evolution as a means to species is a delusion and Dawkins is a fool; like that Relativity denier Hawkings.
I don't think Darwin actually said that. But either way, we don't need Darwin's approval. Plenty of evidence (or lack of) right here, right now.
Hey, Chard, how'd that Inflate-a-Date work out for you?
Dan- As we know from Dr. gould's work and the Glogal Geological record, species occur rapidly following a mass extinction, the opposite of evolution. Less than 1% of species exist from the last mass extinction barrier and your denial of hard physical evidence for the purpose of some philosophical goal is a sing of mental illness, or religion.
John, denial of physical evidence? Like the fossil record?
John, you're a real tool. I haven't once called anyone mentally ill. If anything, I've been calling out other non-believers for being narrow minded and attempted to provide alternate explanations on hearing God's voice. But you jump right into evolution, like that is somehow going to justify that the voices people here are God's voice. And my logic is faulty?
John, what mass extinction events are you referring to?
@Colin, what investigation have you done that lead you to reject Christianity?
Dan- Archiology does in fact have many relics that support evolution as a means to species, but the Global Geological Recod of the mid 1970s ended that fraud as science. Today we know from DNA fact that man and Neanderthal are not genetically compatable for mates, yet archiology has a folsil record claimed to be Humand Neanderthal hybrids. Fraud is not science.
Read some of John Tarver's other posts and you'll realize he's trolling.
You are way behind the times in your Neanderthal facts:
First of all, I find it hard to believe that anyone would find it that surprising to learn that experiencing brief "hallucinatory" phenomena is common and does not necessarily indicate severe mental illness. Nearly all of us have experienced thinking that someone called our name, or a phantom phone vibration, both non-religious examples of non-psychotic hallucinations/illusions.
However, at a time when our country is finally having a serious conversation about the appalling lack of emphasis upon recognizing and appropriately treating mental illness in our health care system, I am disappointed that a fellow mental health professional would write an article minimizing the potential significance of experiencing auditory hallucinations.
First of all, schizophrenia is not the only illness that can lead to hallucinations; those suffering from severe bipolar disorder or major depression, among others, can also experience hallucinations. Moreover, the hallucinations of bipolar disorder often ARE of a religious nature and include such "positive" and reassuring messages as being told that one is a prophet, for example. To suggest that people should simply think about whether or not the hallucinatory advice they're being given is good or bad and act accordingly is the height of irresponsibility. The last thing message we should be sending at this time is "Hey, if you start hearing voices, don't worry about it, it's probably no big deal."
I think you missed the clear distinction she draws in the nature (involuntary vs in response to prayer) and character (evil vs good) between identifying mental illness, and hearing Gods voice.
She only proves the bromide that all psychologists became interested in the subject to solve their own psychological problems and failed.
Chad, the mentally ill may not be able to differentiate between "good" and "evil". Consider Andrea Yates. She thought she was saving her children from hell when she murdered them.
@tallulah13, the author points out that the good vs evil distinction was made by the interviewer, not the interviewee..
@Chad, the author writes: "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," thereby indicating that the determination of the goodness or badness of the voice can be determined by the person experiencing the hallucination.
I have treated many bipolar patients who have experienced auditory hallucinations of god's voice telling them that they need to leave their worldly possessions behind and go preach the scripture in the streets. They think that they are doing the right thing, but end up doing harm to themselves in the long run.
My real problem with this article is the same problem I as a physician have with CNN and other news agencies constantly putting out blanket statements of medical advice to the general population. The author mentions that many of those she interviewed worried if they were "going crazy" when they thought they heard the voice of god during prayer, and her article attempts to provide reassurance that, no, such experiences likely do not represent illness and shouldn't be worried about.
Well here's the thing, medicine cannot be practiced at a distance nor in generality. Medical professionals should not be giving these overgeneralized pieces of advice to everyone in the country. You cannot rule a diagnosis in or out without first evaluating someone in person. So my real gripe is this: if someone experiences something that makes them worry "am I mentally ill?" they should be encouraged to seek an evaluation with a professional rather than told "eh, don't worry about it."
"When people like Sacks hear a voice that gives them good advice, the experience can transform them"
I think you misunderstand, the "good advice" judgement is coming from the author. I dont doubt that some people do experience real mental illness, and ascribe voices to the God of Israel. I also dont doubt that if a person wants to do something bad enough, they can convince themselves of divine guidance.
The thing that distinguishes real from unreal, is the fruit that is produced.
So a third party can decide if god is speaking or not. Hm. This sounds like a delusion all by itself.
Some people call it "God". Other people call it their "Conscience". It's probably the same thing. How it manifests, be it audibly, visually or sensually I think probably depends on a persons imagination and sensory makeup.
Some call it EQ.
Brain's Problem-Solving Function At Work When We Daydream
"When you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal – say reading a book or paying attention in class – but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships," says Christoff.
The research team included members who are now at Stanford University and University of California, Santa Barbara.
the problem with this article is that it ignores the many, many examples of people who have prayer, meditation, dream or impression experiences that end up directly tying into the external world. This is not just a case of hallucinations or mental issues. there is a spiritual, psychic world around us all the time that we do not fully understand. I myself have had an experience of being tapped, more like thumped on top of my baseball cap covered head while talking about spiritualism with a group of people. it completely startled me. People are lead to specific places where they meet someone in need, impressions or sudden inspirations, crazy timings on events, all kinds of crazy things go on around us.
I don't fully understand what it is, the patterns do not favor one religion over another but there is more to the material existence we live in.
The way I see it, if we throw out all experiences which could have a natural explanation, we should still have a pool of evidence which is irrefutable. Where is this irrefutable evidence? If it's out there, I would like to know about it.
Dan- reation is all around you and random chance could not have produced the complex system that support life on Earth.
Wow. For starters, you went completely off topic. Secondly, I suspect you do not read positions against your own argument. Complexity is simply small changes on top of small changes, evolving and building on each other over billions of years. Dishonest young earthers craft this "random chance" argument in order to woo you into believing them, then try to convince you to not look any further (which is why many of them get their degrees from degree mills, then accredit their own degrees for the sake of calling themselves "experts").
Less than 1% of species exist from the last mass extinction barrier and until you can deal with that paradox to evolution as a means to species in your own mind, it will be impossable to discuss biology and Creation with you.
I remember talking to a guy that was arguing if there was proof God existed and a bird pooped on his head...It that proof...It sure was funny at the time...
Completely off topic. And like I said, you need to read up on arguments against your own position. But to refute your point, two words, "Fossil Record." The arguments I've heard to refute the fossil record are beyond ridiculous. Evolution happened. We may not know every intricacy and science still has a way to go, but it happened.
John P. Tarver: This is a living, changing planet. Those species that are extinct could not adapt quickly enough to survive those changes. This planet was not "built" to sustain our lives. We evolved to survive on this planet.
John, you are correct about one thing. It is impossible to discuss Creation, specifically Biblical Creation, with me. I'm not saying evolution is an open and shut case (although it's pretty darn close), but the conclusion that if evolution can be proven false equals biblical creation is true, is known as a false dichotomy, excluding any other possible explanations. Keep fishing.
If you are hearing God, and it is an infected mind, then do some studying and practicing to keep your mind healthy. The values have to have both a postive value to yourself and others (neighbor and yourself) and value to aggregate life within the scope of your groups, towns/cities, counties, states, nation, world, and up. If it is not God and a Psychopath connected to your mind, and some of us know who the Psychopath is, then having a good value to life will protect you. Since psychopath's have no empathy for life. This also will help you heal if you have been growing any Self-Centered, Naricissitic tnedencies.
Another, problem that you must watch out for is the logic defects. Look up online, lists of cognitive biases and fallacious reasoning, and work towards correcting any problems that some unhealthy mind connected to yours can expoit. This should keep you healthy.
Ohhh, and last but not least, always work at correcting your errors and mistakes, don't ever stop! If you are following God, how could he not want you to learn great error correction methods and strategies?
And be sure to turn off your radio and TV at night...or you might have strange dreams about an amazing new product for just $19.95....
I once went to sleep with the TV on and had the strangest dream about Tony and Carmella Soprano redecorating their bathroom in a nautical theme. It was unsettling.
God talks to me all the time and I know I'm crazy... He just keeps saying to me "Love Unconditionally"! :P
Love hope and faith are all delusions to the spiritually impoverised. Remember to be kind to the poor of Spirit.
My conscience speaks to me all the time. It tells me to seek the truth, because there is no virtue in believing even pretty lies.
If there is no voice in your head, it is an indication that your ego has convinced you that it is you and you should seek help. The movie "Revolver" demonstrates this psychological concept in an easy to understand entertaining format.
Frank Sinatra had just finished making the Movie "The Manchurian Candidate", and was horrified to learn Oswald had seen it before he killed John F Kennedy...He bought the rights and and refused to show it...
yeah john, except its just a movie. There are people with psychological issues and there are also real spiritual experiences.
Also, to consider Faith, Hope, and Love negatives just reveals your own poor internal state. Atheism can be just as bad of a "delusion" as you would consider any seriously religious person. The only true "Free thought" stance is to actually be a "Free thinker" and honestly evaluate all the evidence without an axe to grind.
Tim- If we are going to discuss what is normal human psychology vs insane I think my injection of a little human psychology knowledge is hepful to the discussion.
Loved that movie... Just watched because of your suggestion... THANKS!
And in the days of the caveman...the one caveman that knew how to make fire...was valued about all others..and had his pick of the best looking women....
Tht has been my experiance, these past 55 years.
and the on cave woman that wrote a character for the sound ah (+)
was driving out of the village
There is not a moment I enjoy more than to hear a woman praise the Lord ... Oh God .. Oh God ... Oh God ....
John, and for a second I thought you were serious. You got me. Nice one, troll.
Dan- To the Buddist this is a spiritual state of Zin, the balance of the chi. It is a spiritual experiance your spiritual poverty will rob you of.
Well that certainly helps to explain belief, which is a mystery to me. If people actually perceive a voice, I can see why they are insistent that their belief is valid. It doesn't convince me by any stretch of the imagination, but I can see how it would convince them.
And it doesn't change my opinion that belief is all in your head, and has no corresponding physical component in the real world.
I used to believe that Jesus would speak to me in a telepathic way, I would feel something that would automatically translate to words in my head. I wasn't delusional, I simply took certain feelings and emotions out of context. I wanted to believe. I no longer believe, but I do empathize with those who feel God speaks to them. To them, I say, are these feelings any different than finding answers in a song, book, poem, movie? Point being, not only do we have the power to answer our own questions and emotionally manipulate ourselves, others have this power over us also. Just because it's moving doesn't mean it is of divine origin.
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'! Just another brick in the programs of inst itutionalized forebodings cluttering away any and all child’s minds ever tightening the mind’s eye of its psychic connections of soulful impartations,,,, :-(
There is a time to daydream and a time for learning. Daydreams that teach can only be manifested upon those whose souled impartations are relevant of tutorial euphemisms. A child whose daydreams are not of lives commonalities are censored and made de-amplified and turned to being nonexistent except for the daydreamer’s soulful impartations. God knows all souled impartations within one's psychically envisioned endorsements.
I can't get myself to believe that this indoctrination you speak of has been successful 100% across the board. Any adult today who claims to have access to the supernatural, under scientific conditions, fails the experiment every single time. As for my personal experiences when I was young, I recall seeing Jesus. I also recall seeing cartoon characters, my grandmother with fangs, witches, and ceramic figurines moving (I had a high fever).
The art of the enemy my friend
Not saying you are deceiving, just that maybe you have been deceived
Like I've said before, remove all experiences which can have a plausible natural explanation and we should still have a body of evidence with is irrefutable. We don't see that. People have conducted scientific studies on psychics, mediums, tarot card readers, palm readers, weegee boards, ... and they fail every time. Outside of that, I'd be interested if such irrefutable evidence is out there.
My invisible pink unicorn hears leprechauns speak in her head.
I don't see anything unreasonable with that.
Ohh...Please write a screen play ...and make a movie....that is how Shrek got started....funny movies...
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