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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 • Evangelical • God • My Take

soundoff (7,761 Responses)
  1. nexion

    No... I'm thinking if you can actually hear god speak to you we should likely keep all weapons away from you. That whole "god told me to" has been rattled off in many a court room to excuse heinous. You might say, well that wasn't god it was the devil! No, that was a nut job hearing voices in their head. Just because you're someone who has positive voices in your head doesn't mean you aren't crazy. Now before you call me an atheist I'm actually a bit more of an agnostic. Christian was my old belief system, but seeing how not at all Christ like Christians are kinda killed that for me. Oh, and don't quote the old book to support your ridiculous point. A KKK member could use it to support his belief that he should be able to keep slaves. Not very Christ like now, is it?

    December 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  2. James

    One in ten huh? Yeah, I would agree that about one in ten people are idiots.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • YoHi60

      And some of them are filled to the brim with self-pride.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  3. Geoffrey

    My Dad recounted this story to me 1 week before he passed away: My Dad, 84 at the time was sitting in church in prayer and meditation a few weeks after my mother had passed away. He was concerned about the state of my mother’s soul as she was not of sound mind when she died but she was a believer in Jesus Christ. As my Dad sat there in church my mother’s face appeared to him and right next to her face was a face that my Dad recognized as Jesus Christ. This confirmed for my Dad that his wife of over 50 years was in the presence of God. This filled my Dad with great joy, so much so that he had to call me on the phone weeping as he told me this story. I never ever heard or saw my Dada cry in my entire life. My Dad was not a man given to emotional expression. He was a strong sturdy man, good work ethic and provided for his family. I know that there is a God in heaven and his son Jesus is the way to meet Him. I know that my Mom and Dad are in heaven and one day I will be with them again.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  4. unschoolparents

    You are, of course, free to believe that the voice you hear in your head comes from God and not from your own imagination. You're free to believe anything you want. But it doesn't mean that I am required to believe it was the voice of God speaking to you. Nor am I required to vote for you, or give you my money or anything else because of your visions – whatever their source.

    One note of caution for prayers who are excited about this unspecified "research". It may very well be true that hearing an occasional voice isn't the same thing as schizophrenia (though that doesn't exclude it just being a misfiring of the brain either). Just keep in mind that that would tend to reduce your chances successfully using the insanity defense should you commit a crime and explain that it was God who told you to do it. You know... like God told you to kill your husband. Or God told you to fly that plane into that tower. You're free to believe it was God telling you to do it. And we're free to convict you and sentence you in accordance with the law.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  5. MsMello

    Prayer is when you talk to God. Meditation is a way God can talk to you. Whoever, or whatever your God is. I have absolutely experienced this in meditation. The messages are not ones to harm or judge. They are wiser than answers I come up with on my own and filled with much more unconditional love than I have mastered.

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

      sometimes is a deep seated psychological wish as well

      December 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  6. KinimodD

    Jesus said:"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God."

    December 30, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  7. Michael

    It takes wings to get out of this world when you pass on

    you need a halo and wings

    learn how to see the human aura (google it)

    Look at someone's aura who is a good person (stays away from sin)

    have that person stand 20 feet away and look at their aura

    the halo sits above the head about 7 inches (Christmas time God turns the halo gold)

    boys have blue halos and girls have pink halos and eventually turn white, but gold is what you want

    God will also brighten your aura if you ask

    instantly

    December 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  8. theOracle

    the article is so rife with contradiction. Is the author schizophrenic? Does (g)God only talk to 'normal' people? Is the god in each religion the same god or are there different gods? If there are multiple gods, are each of them all-knowing and all-loving? Do some gods tell their followers to kill believers in other gods? Are those that hear mostly 'bad' voices really mentally ill or is it possible that it is satan that is their advisor? Are there any cases where 'good' people hear 'bad' voices? Do bad people ever do good things? If good people do bad things, are they listening to the wrong voice? So much to contemplate. Back to the fiscal cliff and $8 per gallon milk. Merry Cliffmas congressional dirbags (ooh, the bad voices again)! I mean, peace, love and prosperity to all people of planet Earth!

    December 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Dave

      Maybe it's the God that's Schizophrenic – there's one AND many at the same time.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  9. David

    God told me not to trust this article.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  10. Neal

    I agree this woman is nuts! Jesus and the bible are mythology and as others have noted most stories are copied from other religions!

    December 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  11. Dan

    Talking to yourself and "hearing voices" actually is your mind "dreaming" in its awake state. It is trying to comprehend and interpret experience by conducting analysis vis-a-vis your thoughts, memories and subconscious.

    Hearing God? Well, I guess that would just be the thinker having a high opinion of themselves :)

    December 30, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  12. Go Ducks

    Wow, this person is really trying to make a valid argument about hearing imaginary voices telling you what to do. She makes the most basic of assumptions to base her article on, that a god exists.

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

      She doesn't make that assumption. She explicitly takes no position on the issue as is clearly stated in the article.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  13. Name*partypeanut

    If people would shut up and be still for two seconds they might be able to hear God when He speaks to them. It's no great phenomenema or mystery. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. It's just what He does.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • The Truth

      You can't be too dumb to get this.

      But you can be too smart.

      "Too smart for your own good." is another way of putting it.

      God doesn't make it too hard for those who want to get to know him.

      Drop your self-righteous baggage at the door.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Coyote Fish

      And which "God" would that be?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Humberto

      What differentiated Nobility from the common man.
      The the right to bear arms

      December 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • The Truth

      .Coyote Fish

      .And which "God" would that be?

      Noooooooooo! He outsmarted us.

      Oh... you... and your clever little questions. Foiled by the "Religion Blog" bandit! He always gets us. Darn.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  14. Julian the Apostate

    "That was not what Abraham, Moses and Job experienced, even when God was at his most fierce."

    According to biblical myths, god told Abraham to kill his own son. I'd classify that as worse than if god had merely insulted him, even though the myths say god was "merely testing him".

    And by the way, scholars have concluded that the story of Job is a pagan legend from what is now Uzbekistan. Like much of what's in the bible, it's just borrowed tales from other cultures.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Name*partypeanut

      JW?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Bernard Webb

      For example, the "Savior" story occurs in many early religions, most prominently in Mithraism, whose story sounds strikingly like the Christian story.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • The Truth

      God's story that was predicted by prophets... appeared in other culture's stories? Kind of a God-consciousness thing happening. Cool!

      December 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  15. YoHi60

    Consciousness is a marvel, little understood or truly appreciated by the angels of Earth.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  16. Chris

    CRAZY......so if "GOD" talks to me and tells me to murder my son, it's OK, I'm not crazy, I'm just hearing the lords voice in my head. This is the lead story today on CNN. SAAAAAADDDDDDD. with the 1 in 100 stat, that means 3.5 million us citizens are crazy, not that common. Go back to school and learn mat cnn.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  17. edmond lee

    Please visit this following website:

    http://www.shenyun.com/

    It will help you a LOT.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  18. BG's

    Jive talking, I hear in my head
    Jive talking, makes me feel good

    December 30, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  19. Andrew

    This is a perfect example of the value of skepticism and critical thinking.

    When you read her claims of real "audible voices" from god(s), did you notice the vacuum of evidence? Not once does she mention recordings of these "audible voices". Not once does she mention getting the people into a sound booth with sound measuring equipment. Not once does she mention getting the people into a lab where the claims of voices can be duplicated in a controlled environment.

    This "anthropologist" is a total fraud. And if you didn't sniff that out on at least an instinctual level as you read her fantastic claims then you could use a little bit more practice at critical thinking. Never stop thinking in spite of the attempts from the religious to get you to stop.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Go Ducks

      Not only that but with all teh reording devices today, one would naturally assume we would capture god's voice on acccident-a lot.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • are122

      Yeah, it 's like the "vacuum of evidence" when you ask an atheist how the laws of physics that govern the universe came about.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Julian the Apostate

      @Andrew – What you're referring to is the scientific method. And everyone serious knows Anthropologists, Sociologists, etc. have zero clue what the scientific method entails. It's embarrassing that these individuals can get a PhD, call themselves "Dr.," and command any sort of respect.

      Then again, there's an old saying: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," so I'm sure to John and Jane Siblinghumper from Bible-belt U.S.A., this article is a crowning achievement of intellect.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Bernard Webb

      are122 wrote:

      "Yeah, it 's like the 'vacuum of evidence' when you ask an atheist how the laws of physics that govern the universe came about."

      And what do religious people say when asked the same question? "God made them." And you are satisfied with THAT? Wow wow wow.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Julian the Apostate

      @are122 – I assume you believe in god. Just curious, how did god come about?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Ted

      She's not studying whether people are hearing voices. She's studying people who say they hear voices. She doesn't require a sound booth to do that. You should let Stanford know that you think they are employing a fraud. I'm sure they'll be very interested in your ideas about sound science and research. Perhaps they'll offer you a position.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Andrew

      I hear what you saying Julian, but I would disagree with you somewhat. I think there is real value in the "soft sciences" such as sociology. Sociology has the potential to improve the quality of people's lives in significant ways, answering questions like "What can communities do to reduce crime rates and what do they that increases crime rates." I think there are some very good sociologists who practice the scientific method, it is just that this quack is definitely not one of them.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  20. rdeleys

    When an academic begins talking about religion in a positive sense, it cast doubt on the quality of all their research.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Ted

      When an academic is tenured at Stanford it vouches strongly for the credibility of her research.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:10 am |
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