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.
and My Take: If you see aliens, you (usually) aren't crazy
hmm You every hear about those loggers that claim one guy was abducted....They have had a really tough time over the years...
I met some aliens the Tuesday before Christmas. They were very nice people and we even played their culture's equivalent of miniature golf. Only they told me that if I didn't worship their god Jaaldarya I would be doomed to an eternal torment of watching bad science fiction movies. But they were nice people aside from that.
some kinda americultian muslim sect is big on space ships.
Google the "Travis Walton alien abduction case"...a interesting read....they even made a movie on this case....strange...
I believe that God truly talked to Moses. Then he stops talking to anyone and doesn't make his presence known for 2,000 years to test our faith. He created us to see if we would have faith in him. Say we are 20 years old and don't have faith, and we die. Then we go to hell for more than 5 trillion years. So you better believe in it! Christianity is not one of those advertisements that tell you to copy and paste 5 times or something bad happens to you. It is real. And God has spoken to Moses and told him.
Hmm the Bible says after Jesus defeats Satan, or the Devil ..He casts him into the bottomless pit for a thousand years..1,000 years...then lets him out again....so why do you say the nonbelievers suffer for trillions of years ..when the Devil himself just gets 1,000 years...
Surely you are not saying every word in the Bible can not be taken as fact....
Because eternity is roughly equivalent to 5 trillion years.
That makes perfect sense.
You know they say Hell exists ...has a form....by It seems the other meaning is to exist without God's presents...Like all the things around us that make life interesting...so is the Bibles Hell really to exist in a void...all alone....Boy that would require a strong sense of humor and a lot of jokes to survive....
Dreamer, if you believe that, you can believe that the whole bible is just a metaphor. I disagree. I believe that the bible is factual
Gee My secretary was soo right ...
Engineers are terrible at spelling... and always in a rush to finish up the papers at the last minute...She would never let us send out anything important without proof reading it first.. and always found mistakes...
Ah the benefits of working in a real office....
" I can't believe you people still buy this silly nonsense...lol! "~Jesus
Jesus is again hanging his head and shaking it slowly...and asking Why are my followers so dumb....
and His Father Explains ..I told them not to eat from the tree of Knowledge...but did they listen to me...No No No...
Their Your problem now son...
They're, not their.
The DSM IV guidelines have something entirely different to say about this.
DSM IV guidelines rely on metrics and hearing God would be normal from a statistical standpoint.
You're not CRAZY if you hear the voice of God
you're just a moronic delusional idiot ...
You're not crazy if you hear voices, you're only crazy if you start listening to those voices when they tell you to start fires.
Creationists are the only scientists Stanford can get who are not Relativity deniers.
Now we know that Stanford made at least one god-awful mistake in recruiting faculty.
You know Stanford is in charge or involved in hiring the countries top scientist for our national labs....ironic...
Academia has done an excellent job of excluding anyone who does not believe in evolution as a means to species as an absolute fact, but the falsing of Darwin's notional hypothesis 40 years ago has finally poked a hole in the equivalent of flat earthers in our modern world. Tht is to say, Academia is often divergent from reality, but what this woman believes might be true.
remember kids – if you believe in an imaginary man in the sky – you're delusional.. and just because delusional thinking is common – that does not mean it's good.
if you suffer from delusional thinking – it means you're out of touch with reality.
So what exactly happened to Karl Rove on election night at Fox News...That was amazing....
NO, Hrolthgar, you are just one thing. an ass.
People that talk like you, thinking you are some mental giant , an elitist, a materialist, are to be dismissed. There 's not much to say about someone that speaks the way you do.
Are your daring to criticize the Tea Party.....
The Athiests are here seeking something they need.
They are seeking lulz
Absolutely. An end to the lies you try to force into the minds of our innocent children in churches and schools. Look at the FDLS to see how bad that gets – Dear 12 yr old. God says you must marry 50+ uncle Pete or you will go to hell.
Yeah like taxes from the Churches.....
A good laugh :D
My dead cat walks around on my bed sometimes
Such manifestations usually come from ourselves.
Your dead cat is not walking around...The mice are parading him .look under him next time..It makes them feel good to carry that dead cat around your bed after he has killed and eaten their fellow mice....
Atheists of the internet unite! We all know you unemployed liberal clowns have nothing better to do with your life.
Using strawman arguments really makes you look bad you know.
That gives a pretty good description of what these atheists are.
God is speaking to me. He's telling me you're an idiot. I agree.
Calm down David, take two tylenol and change your diaper and then go to bed.
Coming from someone that own more guns then Bibles no doubt....
Enjoy your dead end manufacturing job, or whatever mundane task that is your career.
Meanwhile, I'll be enjoying my engineering job. Man, being a liberal thinker really has its downsides.
Atheists have a book in their pockets of Bill Mayer which they keep as their Bible, and they have stakes for the imaginary vampires they're seeing everywhere.
That's hilarious! It's hysterical! Say something else, please! I'll give you a bear hug if you make me laugh again!
You're not in bed yet David?
I love you
Me too David, but not in a gay way.
Brothers in arms.
Don't push your luck David lol
What ever happened to GATORpride, we need him to come back so we can have a fondue party whilst insulting each other in the most creative and witty ways the voices in our heads tell us.
While you're at it just bring in Bill Mayer. I would love to meet him face to face and having him calling me a religious nut case.
God sent me an email last week. He told me (and asked me to keep it secret) that another BIG flood was coming and that I should build a HUGE boat. Then, I am to go and collect two of every single animal in the world and put them on this boat.
Then, at the end of the letter he told me was just joking around. And, then I remembered that Mike Huckabee actually has a following in the US. That scared me so much that I almost dropped a deuce in my pants.
Steve, are you ok?
Why do you have such interest Bill Mayer? He's kinda of a jerk like you. Oh wait, is that why you like him!? He'd be such a hit at our party!
This is a beautiful article. It's amazingly well written. I agree: these experiences happen, they are rare, they're brief, they are beautiful and I believe they confirm our faith to those who believe in God an love Him.
I don't think atheists can honestly comment on this article, because FIRST of all, you have to show respect for God before He's going to bother with you. So of course they're going to get absolutely nothing; their disrespect is unbelievable.
Jesus told a story about a rich man who went to hell, and a poor beggar who went to heaven. The rich man wanted Abraham to send the beggar back to earth to warn his brothers of judgment to come. But Abraham told him that wasn't possible. And besides, those brothers already had the prophets to warn them, and if that wasn't good enough then nothing else would make a difference either.
So: Abraham was telling the rich man that the TESTIMONY of the believers was all the PROOF those brothers were going to get. Atheists demand proof, and scoff at personal experience: this is the worst thing they can do because they are dismissing the only proof God is willing to give them. That, and Nature itself speaks of the glory of God. So God doesn't think that scoffers and blasphemers will have any excuse.
This lady has some very interesting things to say. I'd pay attention! The majority of people believe in Angels and God. Many of them report precious, beautiful experiences with God and His messengers. We should show respect.
Be kind to the Spiritually impoverished Annie, for you will be judged upon how you treat the poor.
You come across as even more arrogant when you adopt a passive aggressive approach you know.
DavidV, maybe I'm actually trying to warn you, to help you. In that case, I stuck my neck out for you here, KNOWING that atheists were sure to mock and insult in the most clever ways they could think of. But I did it anyway. Because I really DO wish that everyone would know Jesus. For all it's many faults and flaws and mistakes perpetuated by misguided people, Christianity is still the most joyful of all religions: and that's because Jesus is worth knowing.
Sorry to break it to you, but no where in this article does she make the claim that these phenomena represent hearing the voice of a god that actually exists. She simply states that it is apparently common for religious people to experience brief, sensory phenomena that do not necessarily indicate mental illness.
A perfect example of psychosis.
Also, AnnieCee, and I'm being serious here, do you know what the punishment is for failing to believe in Allah, the one true god, according to Islam? It's not good, let's put it that way. Given that, have you ever gone to a mosque, or read the Koran? If not, why? People have made the same, well meaning, impassioned pitches to save the souls of non-believers for thousands of years. The only thing that changes is the god in question.
I honestly ask you, what makes you so sure of yourself? (I'm sure you will appeal to some combination of the words of the Bible, as well as profound personal experiences, and direct observations of the power of god in the world all around us, but once again that's the same song that's been sung over and over for as long as humans have existed)
I was talking to John P. Tarver by the way. CNN is too lazy to update their comment section.
And there are people more deserving of saving than me BTW. Do nice things, don't just say them. Kind words will only carry so far.
You sound like a very sweey person, but PLEASE stay away from ALL children...
"...you have to show respect for God before He's going to bother with you. So of course they're going to get absolutely nothing;..."
Translation: you must be throughly indoctrinated into the cult and accepting the delusion, continue to drink the kool-aide, always ask your pastor how and what to think and then you will start hearing voices in your head just like me!
My neighbor a 'good christian' has been telling me that he is the 'Son of God', no kidding. like his father is not his real father and that he has a big mission. He ever told me that he will be elected president of the US in 2018. I reminded him that the election is in 2016, but he keeps telling me that it's God telling him all that. You know, like God told Backman, Herman Cain, Rick Perry , etc.. to run for president.
Have you tried giving the retard a handy to calm him down?
There was only one true "Son of God" so your neighbor is seriously messed up if that's who he thinks he is. I'd keep an eye on him... Unfortunately it's the fruitcakes who make normal Christian experience to seem like crazy or delusional. Most churches would be very wary of such a person.
What's really a shame is when delusional people convince others they really are God. I don't get it, I don't understand why anyone would follow such a person. Maybe they don't know their Bible well enough to see the lies that are in it.
"They were more common among those who felt comfortable getting caught up in their imaginations." It took research to figure that out? lol These people are hearing their own fantasies.
"They were also more common among those who prayed for longer periods."
Praying for long periods of time is like meditating. In both cases you can see and hear weird things. Nothing even particularly interesting here.
Wow. CNN has turned into such a joke. Please, keep perpetuating these myths. Religion has been such a great service for humanity so far.
The problem is just how many different favors of Christians are there....They keep breaking off into weird branches....I have lost count of them.....
If it's just a 'Myth' why do you keep coming here and commenting?
Because our society is being harmed by these myths. To many people will die in 2013 due to religion. It's time for a change. The idiots must be ushered out. It's a new day and a new year.
How do you plan to "usher us out"? It's not going to happen. You can blog all you want, throw us in jail, call us idiots, etc etc, but we will continue to tell people about the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and how he told us that he came to give us life, and life abundantly.
You remind me of an ancient guy in a toga and sandals, throwing himself onto the steps of the Roman Forum, bitterly bewailing the passing away of the myths of Jupiter and Juno, etc.
(p.s. I, Janus, will be revived in your memory for a whole month, coming up soon, though)
d96, the problem is your beast gubmint inc'd the body of christ and forced them into something convenient for the Public Servants and your kind........"Luk 12:53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law."
RIch. Christians will continue to believe as they always have, and there will be doubters and mockers like you always. Judeo-Christian 's history and those that believe in it dwarfs the false Roman gods, with a little "g".
I see that a few hours later those atheists morons are still babbling their big mouths again. I thought they were all out there hunting vampires. Gothic freaks.
You're not even trying now...
You keep talking about people hunting Vampires....Is this something you are seeing yourself...I found the Jehovah Wittiness and their strange behavior at their revivals more then enough proof they were nuts....
David you should be out there dressed in a long black trench coat chasing vampires. Hurry up or you will some actions.
Dick Cheney has someone else's heart inside him....Does that make him a walking Frankenstein...a man living with the parts of other people...Some people out there have other peoples liver, lungs, kidney...Who has the most organs from other people...
Nope, Dick Cheney is even more an atheists now than he ever was.
I find it strange that an atheist would waste a Sunday blogging or babbling about what they claim they don't believe is even real. Talk about unstable people. Wow!!
I totally agree Ken.
I kinda find it interesting...and funny, to post and engage others in discussions...Some times....Many times I have learned something very interesting here on the comment section at CNN...
Is this what passes for trolling these days? You're not even putting any effort into it at all.
No one hears "God." People who THINK they hear the Sky Fairy speaking to them are just hearing their own subconscious thoughts, which have come to the surface at last. Or they're just crazy. Either way, there is no reason for those of us with more brain power to pay any attention to what they say.
I suspect you have used your endorphins for recreational purposes and from a biological standpoint have less brain power. The intended purpose of endorphins in the human brain is to kill the pain of thinking, but recreational abuse of endorphins leads to scaring of the surface of the brain and a reduction in brain power.
All the atheists that i know are on some kind substances one way or another. That explains why they are so retarded.
Yeah, just ask Carl Sagan.
Do you have any arguments that are not ad hominem?
"More brain power" LOL..... self acclaimed smartness .... what a hoot.
If peoples dieties are fighting, does that mean the people themselves should also fight?
Frank – 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 Jehovah.”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. Romans 12:17-21
Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. 2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy[a] all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” I Samuel 15:3
Chessemaker – Amalek were opposed Gods people, so God had to make justice. But After Christ came Christians are reminded to leave justice in Gods hands!
1 Tess 1:7-9 – This takes into account that it is righteous on God’s part to repay tribulation to those who make tribulation for YOU,7but, to YOU who suffer tribulation, relief along with us at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels8in a flaming fire, as he brings vengeance upon those who do not know God and those who do not obey the good news about our Lord Jesus.9These very ones will undergo the judicial punishment of everlasting destruction from before the Lord and from the glory of his strength.
What a pile of garbage. Way to pander to the lowest common denominator, CNN. When can we move past this need to believe in a paternal sky god and start doing what is best for humanity? When are we going to stop making excuses for people with absurd beliefs, and move forward as a species. I'm so tired of this...
My sister was into the Jehovah Wittiness for years would come back from one of their Revivals all excited because someone fell down on the ground and started talking in a strange language...and someone else stepped forward saying the language was an ancient extinct dialects..but he knew it and would translate it for the group...Man how far can this go I would think and she rambled on.....Hook Line and Sinker I would think to myself...We really argued back then when the Jehovah Wittiness predicted the end of the World and told all it's members to sell everything they owned and give the money to the Jehovah Wittiness Church...I told her she was crazy for giving every dime she had to the Church and I was not buying in to the big Con Job....of course the world never ended and she never got her money back...but still kept going....
More and more atheists pretends to be believers in God and they disguise themselves as preachers to steal money from people.
Dreamer96 – The Religion your describing are NOT Jehovah's Witnesses...That sound like some evangelical church!!
Well she was in the Jehovah Wittiness and that is what I heard from her.....And the Jehovah Wittiness did predict the end of the world ...in the 1970's I believe it was....Google it ...I have found stories about that....it did a lot of damage to the Church's reputation at the time...
Can I get an amen? I, too, am so sick of this drivel. If you believe in god, any god, you are simpy not thinking rationally.
Dreamer96 – Yes some people sold there stuff in the 70s cause they thought it was the end of the world. But the teaching that the world would end wasnt tough! It was said that 70s would be 6000 years since Adam was created, but some believers took it as an important date so it would be the end of the world!!
Dreamer – For example my grand Parents were Witnesses during that time and they did not sell there belongings so as many other! And if the end of the world would come...Whats the points on selling your belongings..??!!
The act of giving the money to the Jehovah Wittiness Church was to show ones faith and belief in the end of the world...like buying forgiveness from the Catholic Church ...which was common and the reason Martin Luther posted his notice on the Church Doors....I remember that was part of my argument with my sister..she wanted me to give my money too so we would both be saved....I simply told her it was a Con Job to raise funds....
Dreamer – What?? LOL Were did your sister get that story. Jehovahs witnesses never said to give them money in order to be saved??!! We cannot earn Gods salvation with material things!!
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.