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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. Gary

    I'm sorry to burst your bubble but we all live in a world of science. That doesn't have any room for magic, and make believe.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • there is no other truth but truth absolute, and truth absolute is LORD AND GOD OF THE WORLD.

      Seance is just a medium, not the source, nor a destination, article is about God, the truth absolute, a fact no one can exist without. No need to be a hindu, denier of truth absolute, constant, no one can exist without.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • jfkman

      State your proof...

      December 30, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      @jfkman "State your proof..."

      Gravity.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Choir Loft

      Science cannot address matters of the heart, importance of moral conduct and most importantly the purpose of one's life. To those issues man turns to religion & God for guidance.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      The science of the brain is slowly but surely mapping "brain states" that deal with matters of philosophy and purpose and love and grace and that sort of thing. Morality is a function of social behavior among animals of similar species, and it's really not that hard to figure out.

      As to "god." We CAN'T turn to him for guidance because everybody who "talks" to him claims to get a different answer. When it comes to his visibility or verifiability, he may as well not exist. There's nothing to see or to measure. Silly god.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  2. Choir Loft

    God chooses to reveal Himself to some and remain unknown to the rest. Experiences of revelation or spiritual insight are initiated by God, not man. God chooses who He speaks to and who He does not! Man finds this situation particularly disagreeable because man feels that God owes man something simply because he was born. In point of fact God owes no man anything including signs, wonders & pithy words. A word from God therefore is especially valuable & worthy of intense consideration!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • jfkman

      God told me you have no idea what you are talking about. Do you see the problem?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • tony

      Gosh ! That means YOU are SPECIAL ! But not US !

      December 30, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • ticktockman0

      This "god" you describe would be more like a petulant 5 year-old than what is supposedly the wisest creature in the universe. But then, a god usually reflects the strengths and weaknesses of its creator.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  3. jfkman

    In AA, they say to check with someone else if God starts talking to you. I just say check yourself in... to the nearest mental health clinic. Really. And turn in your firearms.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  4. CSX

    Interesting how the lost think God is talking to them. Must be the Pot.

    Hey, why not read his clear word get saved and lead a clean life?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      You mean the Koran? Or the Vedas? Certainly not the bible, I'm sure; that book is too stupid to take seriously and presents a god too contradictory and retarded to possibly exist ever.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      The words of your god are so unclear there are thousands of sects of christianity, each one believing their "interpretation" of the bible is correct. You sky-god people are bizarre.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • there is no other truth but truth absolute, and truth absolute is LORD AND GOD OF THE WORLD.

      No need to be a hindu, ignorant, hinduism absurdity of bible was written by your children, Lucifer, self centered.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • Choir Loft

      Dear Lucy-fer;
      It isn't the interpretation that separates Christians, it's the celebration of Christ that is different. Some believe one aspect is most important while others believe a different aspect is more important. All Christians believe the same basic things about the Bible & Jesus.

      As to contradiction, the Bible is entirely consistent to anyone who chooses to read it thoroughly.

      But that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      December 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      @Choir Loft

      The reality of all the different versions of christianity make your statement laughable. Each flavor of christian (well, each christian, on his own, really) believe to have the correct way of reading the bible-–but they all disagree with all the rest of them. How stupid is this god who can't communicate his word so that it MUST be followed correctly as we see is the case iwth math or chemistry?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
  5. GOD

    "Psssst......hey it's me...GOD...you need to check yourself into the nearest mental hospital ASAP!"

    December 30, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  6. E

    Yep your crazy..if you hear imaginary, make believe beings talk to you you are crazy, just as your crazy if you believe gods exist

    December 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  7. Bishop Hairy Palms

    "God" told George Bush to invade Iraq.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • JM

      Dubya's dumber than dirt.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Knowingness

      Nope, George heard Satan. Now God is being heard. That's why we're not in Syria yet.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  8. Bishop Hairy Palms

    "God" told Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, and Rick Santorum to run for President.

    Oooops!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
  9. Bishop Hairy Palms

    God told the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at the funerals of dead soldiers.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  10. FedUpwithLA

    I once heard that prayer was clear, honest, straight-forward thinking, not a reason to call the psych doc. What even compounds the matter was that Leland Stanford built a huge, beautiful chapel for his wife at Stanford University. Was it because she was 'delusional" or just wanted to get in touch with God? The de-emphasis on God is definitely a sign of the times we live in. What worked for Mr and Mrs Stanford's generation is definitely lost in ours, and needs to be explained by university professors. My, we have come a long way! And we call it "evolution"!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      Bill Gates and his wife are doing a lot more than building some stupid church, they're actually doing something.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Akira

      They are not talking about prayer.
      That is something completely different than hearing God speak to you.
      People can build things without thinking a disembodied voice told them to do it.
      The Son Of Sam killer thought that the voice of God was speaking to him through a dog.
      Was He?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  11. ytman

    "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."

    Its a sort of self-fulfilling mentality. If I believe that a tea-pot is in between the planets Venus Mercury and I believe that this tea-pot was a beacon of hope and joy and that this beacon would guide me in my decisions who are you to tell me this tea-pot is NOT talking to me?

    We make decisions when we come to choices; we have an inner monologue that helps guide us; we think in words and we 'hear' our own thoughts. Our own thoughts may come in many forms and you may justify their existence in anyway you so desire. Its up to your own belief about whether or not their is a Teapot between Mercury and Venus and whether or not you use that as a reason to guide your own decisions.

    God or no God what ever guided MLK Jr was ultimately self courage and a strong devotion to the concept of what is 'just'.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • tony

      The inner monolog that is your survival driven subconscious, not shared, not communicating with any other outside of your body. Which is why the religiously inclined create so many different versions of just Christianity, let alone the masses of other religions and their variants throughout the World.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      No problem except when believers of a particular god start telling the rest of us that we aren't citizens and that our ideas for laws and civil codes don't matter because we aren't "chosen people" like they are.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  12. Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

    " God is doing the typing for me."

    Yeah, and Batman does my typing. Moooooo

    December 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • ytman

      I think you might enjoy this gem of a wikia "rational wiki"

      December 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  13. Bishop Hairy Palms

    God told Mike Huckaby that he allowed the execution of 20 innocent children in their CT kindergarden class because he was angry at America for "taking God out of schools".

    December 30, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      And there you have it folks, your wonderful hating God speaking through a nut case politician.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      The kids' fault. They prayed at HOME and NOT at SCHOOL !!!

      December 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  14. Grumpymedicmrcemtp

    It's not crazy. Just delusional.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  15. lionlylamb

    Two very simple verses and even the faithful dare not believe!

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

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

    Who among the professed believers dare to believe that God and his families live upon our inside domains?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  16. David

    Honestly I don't care what the other comments here state bur I would like to speak with the author and see what she really means by her statements, and to see where she has come up with the statistics she claimss in the article.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  17. armani

    This actually happened to me too two years ago. I used to smoke marijuana daily with my brother and my girlfriend,..then one day I smoked so much that I heard a voice that felt really like I was talking to god, the voice told me to go tell my mom that I was doing drugs and apologize,..I did it,..then the voice told me to ask to pray for me, even though I'm an atheist. Then afterward, the voice started telling me to go drive, and maybe kill myself or something.. luckily my brother stopped me otherwise I would've killed myself...That was the last day I ever smoked,..Till now, I even hate the simple smell of marijuana.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      Apparently there is something wrong with the way your brain processes THC. I know people that have smoked pot for more than 50 years without any side-effects.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      No pun intended but maybe you smoked some angel dust?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    If you hear voices from God, my advice to you is pray first, then check yourself into the nearest medical marijuana clinic.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
  19. midwestmatt

    No.

    If you think God is talking to you, or you actually hear words that you think are from God, you're mentally unstable.

    If you choose to do something good or altruistic, then you're the one that made that choice. If you want to credit God, then fine, but you, not God, made all your decisions.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • Chad

      matt, what investigation have you done to conclude that the God of Israel is not real

      December 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • Linda Norton

      Everything that we CAN see has been created by something we CAN'T see. Or more specifically, by SOMEONE we can't see. I will give thanks to, and trust my creator, to the very end.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Magic Jew

      Chad,

      He probably read the Bible. That did it for me.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nah, he probably read a bunch of Chard's posts. That would do it for anyone.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • say what

      Chad, what evidence do you have that Zeus isn't real? Please, I would like an answer since you keep trolling the same thing over and over.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • hal 9001

      "Chad", some of my subscribers are under the impression that you may know the answer to the question: "What research have you done to prove that Zeus isn't real?" I'm confident that these subscribers are under this impression because you've been asked this question many times. If you can answer that question, "Chad", I'll be sure that these subscribers are made aware of your response. Thank you in advance, "Chad".

      December 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • CB

      Chad, what investigations have you done to conclude that Zeus, the God of the ancient Greeks is not real?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • janey33

      It is God who gave us the knowledge to make decisions.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      @Linda Norton
      "Everything that we CAN see has been created by something we CAN'T see. Or more specifically, by SOMEONE we can't see."

      And you know that how? Read that back slowly to yourself and then ask yourself if it makes any sense whatsoever?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      janey, what evidence do you have for that claim?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Chad, what investigation have you done that leads you to the conclusion that your God exists?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • Knowingness

      God speaks to me, and I speak to him even more. Here's some questions for you: What is your purpose in life? What will you contribute to your community, country, and world? What will happen to you when you die? I can't answer these questions, but God can. Pick up a Bible and renew your life.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Knowingness", but "God" is an element of mythology. Therefore it cannot "answer" anything.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • 2357

      That humans ponder good and evil incessantly, is evidence enough of God, Satan, and sin.
      Any religion dealing with morality therefore has some degree of redemptive merit towards truth.

      A genuine atheist, on the other hand, would not be wasting thoughts and discussing what is to them total nonsense.

      You confront others about a non-existent yet impersonal God, who you then characterize as cruel and incompetent, who treats us dignified humans who are yet mere mutated tissue, living in a world that originates from a cosmic accident.

      The self-proclaimed atheists on Blasphemy Blog are therefore fake, as fake as the religious nuts. The real atheists are elsewhere, plotting the next mischief.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      So you don't have any evidence, then, 23 skidoo? That's what I figured.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Just for giggles, 23, how many "genuine atheists" do you know? How do you know they are atheists? How do you know they're "genuine"?

      What makes you think atheists are "busy" planning "mischief"? Do you think most of the 'mischief' that occurs is perpetrated by atheists or believers? Do you have any facts to back up this claim, or are you like janey33?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "2357", but your assertions regarding atheism are unfounded. This is a common misconception among non-atheists: that only non-atheists ponder morality. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent true statements is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      December 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Chad

      @say what "Chad, what evidence do you have that Zeus isn't real? Please, I would like an answer since you keep trolling the same thing over and over."

      @Chad "The God of Israel is real, and that belief is mutually exclusive with a belief in other gods.

      What investigation have you(@say what, @hal9001) done that leads you to the conclusion that the God of Israel is not real?

      December 31, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  20. syd

    The bible talks about how certain gifts would be done away with..... these "gifts" were done to show us what God would do for mankind in the future through his son Jesus. Psalm 37:10,11 and Revelation 21:3,4 God speaks to us through his word the Bible.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Batman speaks to us through DC Comics. Lunatic.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • say what

      I don't recall Zeus ever talking about these gifts, or your god. I think you're worshiping the wrong guy.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • janey33

      Jimmy Joe Jim Bob...your user name says it all.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Janey33, it is not usually a good idea to post your IQ along with your name, although people are pretty likely to guess it anyway.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • james

      syd; those are a couple of very encouraging scriptures. are you looking forward to the fulfillment soon on earth? don't let anyone discourage you. j

      December 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
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