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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. Zaphod

    When a christian, driven by their faith implores someone to accept Jesus into their heart in an attempt to save their immortal soul, this is not an attack.

    When an atheist, driven by their desire to open someone's eyes to the truth, implores someone to realize that their religion is fiction, this is also not an attack.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • reasonable

      Agreed. However when someone is unable to communicate their thoughts without the use of profanity or gross generalizations, that becomes an attack.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • FloydZepp

      No but what it is on both sides is desperation to get others to believe the way they do in order to bolster their own weak faith in what they each believe.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • reasonable

      True. Alot of frustration takes place on the CNN blogs. See theory of mind in psychology, it make help end "some" conflict.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • cnn addict

      It is funny how much they have in common. They seem blind about their own fault, but quick to point out the others.

      And then when there is name calling and insults... no one wins.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  2. christians are very dumb

    are you kidding me with this???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

    December 30, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  3. Andrew

    " I swear there ain't no Heaven...but I pray there ain't no Hell"....

    December 30, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  4. Joe

    As there is no God, anyone that hears God is crazy. That is 100% true. Having a PHD is no indication of sanity.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  5. morovia

    Anyhow, a voice has just cried Bullsh!t in the Wilderness. Prepare ye the barfbag of the reader.
    Where were the brain scans while these events were supposed to have taken place? Where's the science?

    December 30, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • EJ

      It is sickening the way that major news outlets continue to perpetuate this nonsense. This researchers subjects are liars, or, they are mentally ill. Anyone who is hearing disembodied voices of invisible beings or is seeing things that no one else can see needs to seek help immediately. I don't mean that you should go see your pastor. I mean that you need to see medical or psychiatric professional. There is no spiritual world. It is sad that someone who is teaching at a major university is perpetuating that hog wash. It is no wonder that our university system is losing prestige world wide.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  6. Andrew

    I think she is actually serious. I am speechless, absolutely speechless...

    Okay, after 5 minutes I have recovered. This is a perfect example of what happens when the religious become scientists – they become really, really bad scientists. Their delusions inescapably pervert and corrupt the process of science-based reasoning yielding pseudoscience that causes real harm to people.

    Not once does it occur to this priest-scientist to conduct a scientific experiment such as trying to record the "audible voice." I wonder why?

    This quack should be ashamed of herself. She has gotten a science degree, has infiltrated the halls of science, and now executes her sabotage mission of delusion.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • FloydZepp

      You obviously have little to no experience in Science. Quantum Mechanics, the Core of Physics, says that reality itself is undetermined until it is experienced. Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • Reality

      Mathematical equations few if any understand do not define reality.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • Andrew

      And what does that have to do, FloydZepp, with her claim that there are "voices" from a god that are "audible" and "[not] symptoms of madness... [nor] associated with psychiatric illness....most of the time"?

      Like her, you are having trouble staying on the plane of reality.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • reasonable

      Generalizing "religious" persons assumes that the author is speaking for all of them. Each religious person would experience his or her experience differently. See "theory of mind"

      December 30, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  7. DJinx

    Wow. From Stanford even. Wow.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  8. morovia

    Bad Evan and the Gelicals, a rock band.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  9. mique

    Good news for the nut jobs! Thanks, lady.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  10. Mary

    mean spirited folks in here. peace and love to you. it gets better. dont be so bitter. you cry out against god and people who love god. you are really crying out for help for god. and he can help. i know you say 'i don't believe in god, prove it'

    ask god to, not me.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • Notstupidny

      It's not bitterness, it's common sense and the ability to not automatically believe a ridiculous story that pretends to be scientific just because the word God is used. Achieving peace and happiness is not dependent on your belief in God; in fact, I would argue that many religions work hard to strip it's congregation of the skills needed to be an emotionally and mentally happy person. Believing that you are a sinner from birth, or that you have no control over your own happiness are just two examples. I find my "salvation" in truth, and this article is just a load of bs.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • mique

      I am not mean spirited. I am a realist and it is just hard to reason with nonthinkers.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  11. S Kopfter

    "Honi soit qui mal y pense" – Satan, Lord of Darkness and Emperor of Tartar Sauce in the Small Packets

    December 30, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  12. FloydZepp

    Atheists have faith that there is no God, because they certainly have no proof.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • Lou

      where's your proof? If something does exists the he doesn't care...what good is that?

      December 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  13. GetReal

    When God stops talking.....Watch Out...He is the only thing holding a lot of people together nowadays.....Without his voice......They will turn on humanity in a hearbeat!

    December 30, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • Lou

      the righteous are good out of fear for themselves and deity brownie points. Atheist are good because empathy it makes our civilization work. Which one is more virturous?

      December 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  14. God

    Hrolthgar, come my way. Leave TLDR alone. You obviously reject my son Jesus who I sent to save sinners who believed in him and me, and the Holy Spirit. You are obviously sent by Satan. You do not know because you do not believe. You do not have because you do not believe. You live as your father, the father of lies, Satan. Of course, you do not know that believers can pray to me and I will speak to them through the Holy Spirit, my word the bible and other christians. When I reveal the truth of a situation to my children, it's called discernment. It's not crazy or schizophrenic. It is simply communicating with my children in the spiritual world. For the battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and the spirit world. You have a soul, a spirit and flesh and blood and I am in control of all of it. I do not send pain, grief, murder and sin. But Satan is allowed, by me, to rule the world for just a little longer and the world will be no more. The end times are coming. When my son Jesus returns, the righteous will be sent to heaven and Satan and his followers will be judged and sent to the Lake of Hell. I allow what I allow him to do to sort the believers from the non believers and for other reasons I will disclose to you in heaven. In the end, there will be no more tears or pain in heaven. All that will be behind you. Now go back, Hrolthgar, to the one who sent you and tell him his time is short on earth and he and all his followers will be no more.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • Jolly Toes

      Same rhetoric for over 2000 years. How truly crazy do you have to be in order to still wait for the rapture? Or maybe 'how brainwashed do you have to be' should be the question.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • My name is Legion

      God
      Ya, good luck with that, hasn't worked for you so far, wimp. Go ahead try and zap Hrolthgar or make him stop posting, I've got his back covered, HAHAHAH.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • S Kopfter

      "I do not exist." – The Real God™

      "Yeah, he doesn't exist you idiot!" – Jesus, Son of The Real God™ and Amateur Yodeler

      "What they say is True™, my son, for I have written it down on this piece of dead animal skin." – Paul of Tarsus, Confirmed Ankle-biter and Foot Fetishist

      December 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • Mary

      -My name is Legion

      I pray for you and your moma. i hope you treat her nice atleast. i hope you not hurt her

      December 30, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Sue

      If the end of the world is coming it has nothing to do with Satan or lack of belief in god. Humans will cause our own undoing because of our failure to live and let live. We kill and oppress each other by the masses over stupid differences, the main one being religion. Now that's irony. You rapture types seem to welcome the end of the world so you can shout out "I told you so!" Yet you seem to do nothing to encourage peace and tolerance to help make the world a better place. Your hollow threats are sad and counterproductive to a peaceful Earth.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  15. john Doe

    WoW , So MLK heard a voice that said he was with him is a bad example. It"s not funny but where was Jesus the day he got assassinated.. Another bad example was Abraham , having a voice telling you to kill your kid isn't good anyway you want to spin it . Especially since God is supposed to be all knowing , who was the test for and why scare and traumatize the kid. Was this research done on any other religion, I quite sure every god has a worshiper who hears him speak. Humans are god manufacturing creatures.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • Iynwood Palmer

      If you spent time researching the Bible, you would find that, not only did Martin Luther King die without God intervening but also Moses, King Saul, and all great men of the Bible and modern day men. God even turned his back on his son Jesus when he was being killed. Why? Because every one is born to fulfill a certain quest in life and die at a certain time in life. Once that quest is done, God raises up another to take over and lead until his/her time is up. You see no one is put here forever. We all make our mark in the sand of time, whether it be good or evil, but no one is sure of how and when they will die except those who commit suicide. Seek the Lord while you still have time. For your time is also coming for to die.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  16. YellowBird OnWing

    15 Oct 2012, God had me to Himself, I was driving from CT to Boston. I heard clearly, "Stop complaining about not living at home in Boston. I put you where I wanted you to be." Hubby had moved me from home to NJ [loved it]. He died. Then I was talked into moving another 1000 miles south by my Dad's kin. [HATEd it] I came within 4 days of moving back but a drunk driver did me in. It took 27 years of surgeries and Rehabs to walk independently. Had I moved in Boston, I could not get around in the cold and bad weather. Had I stayed in NJ I'd have no place to live. I'm sure Hurricane Sandy took the house I built on a lake. I know I'd have my law enforcement job, but no house. So I'm happy in my great house. Now I understand the admonishment on the drive home to Boston. Hurricane Sandy was no lady.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  17. chris

    I think this article COMPLETELY sends the wrong message! As a physician, hearing ANY voices from inside your head is a sign of schizophrenia. ESPECIALLY is they are directing you to do something. I've personally met Jesus 4 or 5 times in the psychiatric hospital during medical school. All started out as hearing or seeing things (mostly hearing) that other's couldn't. (Or in their mind DIDN'T want to see/hear).

    Sorry CNN. BOO! BOO Tanya, as well, for not checking with a physician before writing this article!

    December 30, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • chris

      **Correction***

      Hearing voices may also be a sign of Schizo-affective disorder. Not necessarily schizophrenia. Never the less, it is still not on the spectrum of "normal".

      December 30, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • reasonable

      I think you are expressing the differences between inner dialogue and auditory hallucination. Yes auditory hallucination is bad, inner dialogue is something everyone has (self talk).

      December 30, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • KG

      Sorry Chris, but the arrogance of physicians is mind boggling. As a group, they cannot accept what they did not first hypothesize must be fact. Having first hand experience in medical research, I witnessed the lead research physicians toss out reams of data because it did not fit what they thought should be happening. Maybe this is why there are so many drugs on the market that end up doing more harm than good. Regardless, physicians are NOT all knowing and do not come anywhere close to understanding the complexities of the human mind and definitely not the human spirit.
      Physician, heal thyself! Open your mind to possibilities beyond what you've been trained to believe.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  18. Kevin

    Here we go again.

    No one ever said you had to be crazy to be stupid. Sometimes being stupid is it's own survival instinct.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:13 am |
  19. alpinequeen

    You should listen to your heart, and not the voices in your head. ~Matt Groening, The Simpsons, spoken by the character Marge Simpson

    December 30, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  20. lucid

    Humans made up god, and now they are inventing the experience of hearing his voice. Once society evolves beyond the need for religion we will see an era of peace. Killing for a fantasy is so 3rd century...

    December 30, 2012 at 7:10 am |
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