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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 (7,765 Responses)
  1. f4xtrafn

    Many mass murderers heard God telling them to kill – and they did. Well I guess that proves they weren't nuts after all.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:29 am |
    • dale

      seems like you are easily deceived into actually believing they are Christian.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:56 am |
    • apostate

      No True Scotsman fallacy. Yawn.

      December 31, 2012 at 4:00 am |
  2. Jon

    I have no problem with people who believe in god, as long as they know its proper place.

    By "proper place", I mean in your home, privately. An "intimate" relationship with yourself and the god of your choosing.

    It means that god stays out of the government, out of politics, out of our schools, and out of our public spaces (without the proper permits, like everyone else). No more nativity scenes in governor's mansions. No more "Christian Values" being placed on our entire society.

    If Christians can manage that, we can all get along. We've leave you to your faith, as long as you leave the country to us.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • dale

      that was a full loaded statement. so it's ok that you run the government with your beliefs?? what you just said makes no sense. everyone believes in something. even not to believe anything is a belief.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:32 am |
    • Jon

      dale:

      Everyone has ideas or thoughts. That is not the same thing as having a belief in something that lacks a shred of evidence. So to answer your question, yes, I would run a nation without relying upon "beliefs" that I have based on nothing.

      But that's not the point I was trying to make. Rational members of society can not trust people to run the nation who believe (like Mitt Romney did) that "divine intervention" would guide him to the correct answer. Governance is REAL. Not make-believe. And it needs people to run the country who are rational, thinking about reality. Not people who are thinking about what God would want, or what the voices in their head tell them to do. (Three Republican primary candidates believed that God told them to run for president. That's delusional!) How are you supposed to TRUST someone like that to make the IMPORTANT, REAL decisions that are required?

      December 31, 2012 at 3:38 am |
    • dale

      do you believe everything you hear?? Obama calls himself a christian, and look what he's supporting. do you think obama is a christian?

      December 31, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  3. dale

    are these the same people against Lori that say Christians beliefs are discriminatory.......while displaying excellent bully tactics?? interesting how it works. you call us (christians) haters, when you yourselves are displaying the same things you're complaining that we do......

    December 31, 2012 at 3:25 am |
    • tallulah13

      Dale, I went to her site and looked at her pictures. They are nothing more than pictures of clouds. There were no amazing formations, no special messages, no angels, no marlins, just pictures of clouds. Did you ever consider that this woman is unwell and needs help? Do you believe that ignoring a troubled individual is god's will?

      December 31, 2012 at 3:29 am |
  4. mike

    God is a lie, religion is there to control and oppress. Why do you think religion hates science and education so much? It makes people less faithful, and more logical. God is for the weak, people who hope for a "better life" in the afterlife.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:23 am |
    • dale

      look what happens when God is continually being taken out of the usa.......coincidence, i think not

      December 31, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • Jon

      dale:

      The history of Christianity demonstrates that our society shouldn't permit "christian values" to be our guide either. There hasn't been a more murderous group in the history of the world...

      We have problems, but we'll find a way to fix them on our own, without the interference of the god of your choosing.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:30 am |
    • apostate

      What? There are churches on every street corner. What kind of pathetic all powerful deity can get his feelings hurt and run away?? Omnipresence fail.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:36 am |
    • dale

      jon,

      how is that working out for the usa right now??? keep pushing him out, more killings, the weather. (every year you guys somehow seem to get the storm of the century, or hurricane) never mind the countless abortions and how easy it is to get one. God judges nations, and it's showing

      December 31, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • apostate

      Dear nutcase, those are crazy people and natural events that have nothing to do with gods.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:39 am |
    • dale

      apostate,

      do you believe everyone going to church is going to heaven?? i don't care how many churches are in the usa, if the government is going to push God out by allowing all of the abortions, now marriage has changed to not only traditional marriages, and so on. no, i don't hate anyone. i'm simply discussing the sin that's piling up, and how God judges sin. as simple as that. i don't claim to know Gods' plan what He's doing to the u s or anything like that. only stating what the Bible says what can and will happen. I'm not condemning for even Jesus didn't come to earth to condemn it, but to save it. I'm not being mean or anything like that, simply pointing out what has happened and what is happening

      December 31, 2012 at 3:43 am |
    • apostate

      Everything you have pointed out has nothing to do with any gods, all natural events with no gods involved whatsoever. Sin doesn't exist and neither does your god. The US isn't a theocracy. You don't get to force the entire nation to believe in your ridiculous nonsense.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:47 am |
    • dale

      apostate,

      just showing you facts. when God was more involved that is what happened, when He's not involved, well, you know the rest.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:52 am |
    • apostate

      You haven't shown any facts at all. You've simply injected your own delusional beliefs and imaginary space father into natural phenomena that all works without anything supernatural.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:57 am |
    • dale

      so you are unaware how the usa was doing like 20 years ago compared to today? come on, seriously????

      December 31, 2012 at 4:02 am |
    • apostate

      I'm not unaware of anything. I'm perfectly aware of completely natural phenomena which you try to reinterpret as the invisible imaginary space father is controlling things from his space lair. When in reality it's just stuff naturally happening, be it whether, social change, or a psycho with a gun. See the difference? One explanation is CRAZY (yours), one is rational (mine).

      December 31, 2012 at 4:10 am |
    • dale

      yup, got it.
      weather change – God
      psycho with a gun – Satan
      social change – Satan
      and your deception – Satan

      Got it.

      December 31, 2012 at 4:40 am |
  5. The Truth

    Has there been any research on the possible side effects of wearing tin foil hats? Because Lori is making me thinking someone ought to look into that...

    Civil War 2 – America attacked by a bunch of hillbillies with a bible under one arm and an AR-15 under the other wearing bullet proof vests and tin foil hats so the "gubmint" and Satan can't mind control them...

    December 31, 2012 at 3:18 am |
  6. Lori

    But I still believe!

    December 31, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • apostate

      In crazy, Your fully stocked up.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:33 am |
  7. Jon

    Ok, so the point of this article is: People who hear god speaking to them are not schizos. They are just wrong.

    When they think god is talking to them, or that they see a sign, or that they see something no one else can see, they are mistaken. Now, if you continue to believe it, despite evidence to the contrary, then you're deluded.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  8. Lori

    by the way I am on heart medication and and singulair–God didn't fix everything!

    December 31, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Lori", but "God" is an element of mythology, therefore it cannot fix anything. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book can help you:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...

      December 31, 2012 at 3:23 am |
    • apostate

      Thank the humans who made that medicine. Apparently your perfect god is so incompetent that he gave us flaws in our bodies and he is unable to come up with cures for said flaws unlike us humans.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:28 am |
  9. Lori

    Ok but when the #@* hits the fan don't say I didn't warn you!

    The Truth
    You should dial emergency Lori because i'm pretty sure you have taken too many of whatever medication you are on...

    December 31, 2012 at 3:13 am | Report abuse | Reply

    December 31, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • The Truth

      Lori, I have read revelation many times but much like Dr. Seuss I don't expect to ever meet an actual seven headed wild beast or a Lorax. The religious zealots the world over have stubbornly grasped to each of their apocalyptic predictions and sadly if given enough rope they will hang us all...

      December 31, 2012 at 3:25 am |
  10. Lori

    Yes I go to church every week, yes you can call this faith crazy, but in these times having no faith is crazy!!!

    December 31, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  11. Lori

    Peteyroo
    Did you and George Washington get along?

    December 31, 2012 at 3:10 am | Report abuse |

    I never met George but I am certain God has!

    December 31, 2012 at 3:14 am |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Lori", but "God" is an element of mythology, therefore it could not have met George Washington. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book can help you:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...

      December 31, 2012 at 3:25 am |
  12. The Truth

    You should dial emergency Lori because i'm pretty sure you have taken too many of whatever medication you are on...

    December 31, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  13. Lori

    tallulah13
    Lori, you need professional help. Really.

    Well fortunate for me that I have had that help really it came from God and it healed me twice...sorry you have a hard time, but faith is a choice, you can think that faith is crazy and cloud formations are mother nature and Revelations isn't happening and medjugorje is a lie and my medical records lie by some great consipracy from the hospital to fool you, but then who is the fool?

    December 31, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • tallulah13

      I went to your website, Lori, and all that is there is a bunch of pictures of clouds. They are not profound. You are seeing what you want to see, not things that are actually there. Honestly, you don't seem to be well.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:23 am |
  14. Lori

    Jonathan Edwards of the 1700's not the modern day one. He was the 1st pastor of this old New England town.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:10 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Lori, did you take your medicine today? Do the attendants know where you are? Are you hiding somewhere on the grounds?

      December 31, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  15. Lori

    You can call it mother nature but she didn't write Revelations oh and by the way most of these cloud formations came from the same site as Jonathan Edwards the old religius man who inspired words in The Declaration of Independence....it is the spot where he had his Great Awakening and where George Washington camped–I played here as a girl and go there often

    December 31, 2012 at 3:08 am |
    • tallulah13

      Lori, you need professional help. Really.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:10 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Did you and George Washington get along?

      December 31, 2012 at 3:10 am |
  16. Jessica

    Or maybe all these people are delusional.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:08 am |
  17. Peteyroo

    If you hear voices, you are crazy. It makes no difference if the voice is God's or the janitor's.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:08 am |
  18. Lori

    You can call it mother nature but she didn't write Revelations

    December 31, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Of course not. She stays away from fiction.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:09 am |
    • joline

      What is Revelations? Is that some romance novel?

      December 31, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • Tia

      Of course mother nature didn't write Revelations...imaginary beings can't write things. Human beings passed tales from one generation to another until writing came along and some men wrote down those stories as they remembered them and claimed them to be the word of god.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:23 am |
  19. Lori

    I'll take that bet Hairy__fedd

    hairy_fedd
    Lets see that million dollars if your miracles can be reproduced under controlled conditions.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Randi_Educational_Foundation

    December 31, 2012 at 2:58 am | Report abuse

    December 31, 2012 at 3:05 am |
    • Info

      Lori,

      You're on, Lori. Be aware that you will have to PROVE your claims. Be sure to let us know how it turns out...

      http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/1m-challenge.html

      December 31, 2012 at 3:25 am |
  20. Lori

    the AnViL the dillusion lies in denial– which is not a river in Egypt, but if you wish to not believe its ok, but I caution you against seeing and still doubting when so many signs are here upon the earth. As for my medical anyone who has a near death experience and lives will tell you much of what I have said. as for the clouds they speak for themselves so does Revelations!

    December 31, 2012 at 3:00 am |
    • the AnViL

      lori – it is clear that you are delusional.

      why are you seeing a licensed mental health professional?

      December 31, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • If you truely hear voices....

      Near death...assuming the person isnt outright lying.... as i explained a few pages ago, The brain when under abnormal stress can produce visual and audio effects, as well as dream like sequences as oxegen and nutriants slow to a stop.

      If you are out too long, past 4 min i believe, brain damage on an increasing scale starts.....which means you no longer are the person you were only a few minutes before.. (so much for a soul eh?) across the board god/religion is absurd.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:32 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.