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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 (7,766 Responses)
  1. Ralph Russell

    Some christians when they heard the voice of God harmed their loved ones.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  2. Hw

    A question to the none believers. If God doesnt excist why does an article like this get everybody ticked? Because deep inside every humans heart they know that God is the creater of the heavens and the earth and every living creature. And every knee shall bow before him and call him Lord

    December 30, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • midwest rail

      When you ask a question that you've already formulated a (wrong) answer for, you don't really want a response.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • cnn addict

      It is amazing. There are people who 'don't believe' that spend a lot of time here. And, to me, they are pretty much just 'spinning their tires in the mud.'

      They have a lot of free time. A lot.

      Ironically, they talk about God a lot more than my Christian friends. I bet God laughs at this.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Jolly Toes

      It gets us ticked because while we were paying for our college and trying to learn and improve ourselves in order to make a better, more informed world, you sit around being half illiterate and believing that the invisible thing in the sky talks to you. We try to battle and defeat ignorance. You perpetuate it. It frustrates us when we see a fellow human being led about life by religion and they have never even questioned why they believe what they believe. To see people turn their backs on common sense and instead follow a largely edited book over a thousand years old makes me sick to my stomach. Does this help a little?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • mique

      Wrong. We get ticked because there is a big difference between reality and fantasy and we prefer to run our lives by realistic principles rather than religion.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Bernard Webb

      I hear the familiar right-wing combination of certainty and ignorance in this comment. If this worldview works for you, go at it buddy! But it just sounds silly to me.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  3. Happy

    Where Does All Earth's Gold Come From? Precious Metals the Result of Meteorite Bombardment, Rock Analysis Finds

    G_OD DID NOT MAKE THE GOLD BUT HAPPY TO FIND SOME
    Sep. 9, 2011 — Ultra high precision analyses of some of the oldest rock samples on Earth by researchers at the University of Bristol provides clear evidence that the planet's accessible reserves of precious metals are the result of a bombardment of meteorites more than 200 MILLION YEARS after Earth was formed.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  4. Jim

    The people that hear gods voice are only crazy when they hear something the religious people disagree with. If you say that god told you to shoot your family, you are crazy. If you say that god told you to shoot an abortion doctor, then it must be true.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  5. Advice

    ~~~Mary

    Don't feed the trolls Mary! But yea, I wonder how their Mom's would like how they treat others, too.

    Not all, but enough ag/ath/non-believers in here are pretty bad that I doubt they have a good relationship with their parents.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  6. Miguel Caron

    If you hear god then you probably are crazy, since god is not real and is a social construct created to tow the status quo.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Bill

      So tell me if there is no God who created the universe and the world? man? prove to us that God does not exsist

      December 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Leif

      I love this game!! Who created God? If the Universe is too complex to not require a creator, then where does that leave the creator-deity?

      December 30, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • Muncie Birder

      I don't think people who hear God are crazy. I think that they have talked their mind into to believing that they actually did hear him. Sort of like self hypnosis if you will.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • johnS

      Bill, You've got that backwards. It is impossible to prove that God does not exist. (Prove that the tooth fairy does not exist). However, if a God does exist, then it should be possible to demonstrate it. For good or ill, this has never been done. It is up to the believers to demonstrate thier so called "truth".

      December 30, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Happy

      @Bill
      Ask go-d to be your DOCTOR then and see if he can take your wisdom theeth out...

      December 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  7. Bill

    We are all sinners even in the womb!

    December 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • Leif

      I was a sinner before my mother's womb appeared on this Earth. I sinned when God sinned. It is all his/her/its fault, after all.
      You break it, you pay for it, that's what my grand-pappy always used to say.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Jolly Toes

      Show me your proof of god creation. I want a film, pictures or to speak to your god. Other than that, you can't prove it was made by a god. It seems that we (humans) are getting to the point that we can recreate most of what your god did. We have made life in a laboratory primordial soup. We know how to create a black hole. We even decoded our genome. We have found that the average human has over 400 DNA flaws, yet we were created in his image. I think it falls on you to prove the existence of something that we cannot see/hear/smell/taste/feel.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  8. Karloff

    Ms. Luhrmann, you're joking, right? This preposterous twaddle put forth as a serious article can't be from the mind of an educated academic. Sounds as if you're listening too much to those voices in your head.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  9. mutt999

    Sorry people, but functional MRI studies have already solved this one. Schizophrenics when auditorily hallucinating are using the same areas of their brain as so called normal people when they talk to themselves in their minds...so it's no surprise that the so called normal can hallucinate...the "source" attribution is the only difference, and it's still an interesting difference, but it has nothing to do with god or religion.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  10. AngelWhispers

    The women of my family going back far down my lineage has always had an intimate relationship with a spiritual being, an angel, God. Yes, we hear a voice. It is usually a one sentence statement and occurs every few years. This voice has predicted accurately the death of several of my family members a year in advance and meeting the person who was to become my great love.

    For years I was deeply troubled by these powerful experiences. I searched endlessly for those who have had similar situations and found none. I spoke about it to only a few close friends and family as I hold a very public and professional position. This acticle is profound to me and I thank the author greatly for having the courage to write about this "taboo" topic.

    My family and myself are not religious in a sense of having a designated religion; we do however, believe wholeheartedly in God. I personally think that the one God calls people to worship in different ways and respect everyone's right to their own beliefs.

    To those of you feel that there is something wrong with people that hear a spiritual voice, please note that there is no history of mental illness anywhere in my lineage. I have had extensive testing in all aspects, combined with multiple MRI's and have been determined to be in perfect healthly both mentally and physically.

    I will end this as such, believe whatever you wish to believe, just know there is a higher power beyond this world who is touching your life in some fashion. Sometimes it doesn't hurt to listen.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • Miguel Caron

      Actually Autism and Schizophrenia have genetic markers typically passed down through the mother. Your female family lineage may be suffering from a disorder considering you say the "voice" spans generations.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • AngelWhispers

      Sorry to disappoint you Miguel, we are all clear.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  11. Jolly Toes

    1 out of 10 people does not make it common. That is 10% of people. Not all schizophrenics hear voices and of those that do hear voices they are not all 'evil'. Sometimes it's mumbling, sometimes it seems as if the voices come from another room. But one thing is for sure, if you hear voices in your head YOU ARE CRAZY.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Hiram

      While hearing the occasional voice in your head may be perfectly normal, believing it (or, god forbid acting on it) marks you as crazy, and potentially dangerous. See your Doctor IMMEDIATELY.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  12. albert yester

    The fool hath said in his heart "There is no God".

    December 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • Leif

      The God has said within his heart, "There is no fool."

      December 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  13. Geoffrey

    For those that doubt and "cast stones", how would you know? Do you not have personal experiences. I love the way those that would TELL and demand me to be tolerant can be so completely insulting and intollerent. "Evetything is going to be OK", God

    December 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  14. Bill

    Without God in your life you are like a ship without a rudder. NO GOD! NO PEACE****** KNOW GOD KNOW PEACE

    December 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • Jolly Toes

      This is not at all true. I don't have a god in my life, but I am very much at peace. Quit being a parrot.

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

      @Bill If you have so much peace what are you doing hear attacking people?

      December 30, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Scrutiny

      Bill if you think a human being has sin even as a foetus in utero, I urge you to get tested for dementia.

      To everyone – ever notice how the posters in here with the worst spelling and grammar are inevitably the religious ones, and the most conservative ones? Coincidence? Don't bet on it.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  15. Bernard Webb

    Most of the Clown Car riders in the 2012 republican primaries said that "God had told them to run". They all lost. Sarah Palin said that "God told her" to run for VP. She lost. Is God just messing with these people? Or is it possible that they decided to run on their own and "God" had nothing to do with it?

    Why is it that only republicans hear from God about what to do? And why are his suggestions always so perfectly aligned with what they were going to do anyway?

    December 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • mojosavings

      Silly, silly boy. God doesn't give us what we want he gives us what we need. And right now the U.S. needs to hit rock bottom which it is doing on a terrifyingly fast pace. See France, Greece, etc...

      December 30, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  16. SugarKube

    This most smoke you athiest nuts

    December 30, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  17. james

    Its ironic how people think that all children should be spared. Even in biblical times, children often would parish. There is a reason for it and only god knows. But in the end, if you look at the total population of mankind, it has continued to strive and populate the planet. I could not even imagine what the population would be today if every man, woman and child were to live to 80 years old. The total population would be significantly higher then 7 billion people. I have been fortunate that I have had blessing happen to me in prayer, and through vision. I once had a vision that a great disaster would happen on Christmas day, that untold would parish. For three days, we checked the news and sure enough, it happened.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Jolly Toes

      If you had to check the news for three days it must not have been a major happening
      .

      December 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  18. Reality

    Hearing voices of any kind is a strong indicator you need some medical assistance. The following prayer should help in the cure. (only for the new members of this blog):

    The Apostles' Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

    December 30, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • NClaw441

      I know you meant it as a joke (good one /sarcasm), but this would be the Atheists' Creed and not the Apostles' Creed. What is a creed but a statement of belief. I agree that many believe as your creed states, but I don't think the Apostles ever believed that way. Most of them died pretty horrendous deaths, which could have been avoided simply by recanting. These people claim to have witnessed some pretty amazing things, even miracles. If they were lying (to themselves as well as others), surely at least some of them would have recanted before facing the gruesome treatment they received.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • hehe

      Thanks for clarifying that. Made me giggle at "Reality"'s mistake.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Reality

      There was no mistake- We should all be Apostles of the 21st century who have put away childish things like hearing voices of any kind.

      And the "martyrdoms" of the first century CE apostles are so embellished that none are believeable. And there are the Holocaust victims of the 20th century.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  19. Sam A.

    If you (think you) hear God speak audibly, he (certainly) isn't the one speaking.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  20. janava

    I find it hard to believe that god speaks in english. When I saw him he appeared as a figure that I can only best describe as "rare" in that figure I saw a language written in its design. Upon seeing god I knew what he wanted me to know. and as I get older, I look back to that situation, and learn more about what he wanted. Like having some advaced book, that as I become more wise, I can better understand.

    I didn't believe in god before that experience. But know I know.

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

      Language isn't even in the top 10 reasons I question the Imaginary Friend In The Sky.

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

      I hear people and things talk to me all the time. The other day I heard my house yell at me to "get out"... think I should stick around?

      December 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.