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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. Dl

    Right... an omnipotent, eternal, Universal being who's very existance is impossible for our little minds to comprehend is whispering into someone's ear?... does He whisper in a dog's ear too?... what about an Alien in far off space?... more arrogant, self agrandizing religious nonsesense

    January 7, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • jknbtjknbt

      @DI & other skeptics....believe it or not, valid prophecy can happen these days...to refuse to believe in something like this out of your normal world view boundaries just means you are limiting your experience of life.

      ....I know of many examples where the words spoken were later independently validated as true...unfortunately, this is rare....what is a lot more common is a lot of crazed counterfeits....

      January 7, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • Troy

      I agree with you, DI. This opinion is another attempt by believers to make everyone else believe. People that hear voices actually ARE CRAZY, despite this crazy persons attempt to convince you otherwise.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • Troy

      @jknbtjknbt

      Trust me, if you let go of all that spiritual junk, you will see the real magic in the world. Prophecy is not real. God does not speak to us. Unicorns do not exist.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  2. jknbtjknbt

    what I have learned after decades in the charismatic & pentecostal movements is to take with a very large grain of metaphorical salt anything said that begins or ends with the phrase, "God told me so...."

    to be valid, anything said like that has to be clearly scriptural and of the Holy Spiirit....sad to say, many people have confused a verbose subconscious with the voice of God....

    reasonable skepticism is very healthy when some prophet is speaking in the name of God...so beware!

    January 7, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • Troy

      So, you are all for skeptasism as long as it doesn't actually inculde being skeptical of the things you think are real but have no proof of, right?

      Please don't use the word skeptisim so loosely. You either are or you aren't. And you aren't.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • jknbtjknbt

      @troy the skeptic of my skepticism.....hey buddy, I have had a lifetime of miracles and the supernatural as part of my normal existence day-to-day....I just got enough of the spiritual junk that is so easily passed around, so I developed what I call a "healthy skepticism". For example, I know that healing miracles happen, but I have to see a medical report where a real M.D. doctor verifies and validates that the healing really did take place....the same way with these so-called little prophecies, words, and leadings....there has to be a validation and verification for my to buy into it. And yes, they do happen and are available for certain spiritual occurances.

      Your worldview is shockingly limited if you can not accept the possibility that such things can ever happen. I am willing to discuss some of my personal miracles if you are willing to take the discussion private. Reply with a valid email, & we can continue....

      or do a google search for Sid Roth healing miracles....you will be surprised at the you tube videos that come up with testimonies. Search for Sid Roth Delores Winder for an example or a medically verified healing.

      January 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  3. .

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNbdUEqDB-k&w=640&h=390]

    January 7, 2013 at 7:34 am |
    • End Religion

      We understand NDE. It is sometimes the fight or flight release of adrenaline or the body's release of dopamine during trauma that cause hallucinations perceived by @3% of the general population. Half of the people experiencing it aren't actually near death. One can experience the same effects with various drugs.
      http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=peace-of-mind-near-death

      January 7, 2013 at 9:23 am |
    • Bahareh

      U believe in what pleases u u can be an atheist or radical fundamentalist who are we to think we know better than the next person respect each others beliefs and humble urselves

      January 7, 2013 at 9:43 am |
    • .

      End you moron if you had taken the time to look at the video the doctor was there telling of how she was hooked up to monitors and dead also she recounted the instruments they were using to operate on her. You are true to form a bigot hater liar atheist.

      January 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  4. 2357

    Writing is supernatural.
    Think about it.

    January 7, 2013 at 5:57 am |
  5. raeafdd

    you fools.
    You haven't even a clue when your greedy government's filthy claws are piercing your flesh.

    The remote manipulation of bodily organs is real.

    January 7, 2013 at 5:07 am |
  6. William

    The topic is hearing from God butt hole atheists get the hell off this site unless you can stay on topic

    January 7, 2013 at 12:57 am |
    • Athy

      Make me.

      January 7, 2013 at 1:52 am |
    • sam stone

      billy boy: go fvck yourself

      January 7, 2013 at 4:19 am |
    • William

      I would reason with you both if I could see you face to face lets hope that someone has the ability to do just that.

      January 7, 2013 at 7:17 am |
    • sam stone

      how do you go about reasoning about faith?

      January 7, 2013 at 9:12 am |
    • sam stone

      if your arguments fall flat online, how do expect them to fare any better in person?

      January 7, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • End Religion

      i didn't realize the topic was "hearing from god's butt hole." Can someone point me to non-fart discussion area?

      January 7, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • sam stone

      perhaps billy boy's version of heaven is like the campfire scene in blazing saddles

      January 7, 2013 at 9:38 am |
  7. Mel

    Such silly words from those who do not believe in God and his son. If you didn't care so much, why would you even read the article plus responding here. None of you, not one, knows the true God and yet, he will probably continue to love you. All this stuff about proving something is silly. Jesus and God are and always were. For you non-believers, I have pity on your soul, that thing that God gave you, but yet you know nothing about.. I pray that you all will be saved and how shocked you will be one day when God has to prove it to you. Yet we who believe don't have to be given proof. We have it in our hearts and in our souls. As whether or not you believe, I could care less, except as a believer, I feel sorry for your future. I have no interest in proving there is a God and that he came to earth in the form of a mortal man, Jesus. If you don't believe, then quit pestering the rest of us.
    Go back and hide under your little rock until the day comes when you will call upon God for help, and indeed you will. It happens over and over. Let's hope he hears you. But that is between you and him. I believe; thererfore, I believe. Nothing more needs to be said.

    January 6, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • Athy

      A great post to further atheism. Keep it up. And could you care less, or couldn't you care less? You seem confused on this.

      January 6, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I'll write here if I wish and will say whatever I want, Mel. If you don't like being pestered with the posts of those who don't buy your brand of belief, you have a choice: you can scram or scroll. Nobody will care.

      January 6, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Dark_Forest

      So, let me get this straight. You pity us for not believing in your religion, but you pray for us. You feel sorry for our futures, but you say God loves us. And you believe... because you believe? I'm not trying to be a jerk, but Christian logic doesn't make sense to me. Could you explain your statements to me a little more?

      January 7, 2013 at 2:22 am |
    • sam stone

      "None of you, not one, knows the true God "

      And you do?

      January 7, 2013 at 4:43 am |
    • sam stone

      Also, Mel, the god you describe is a vindictive punk. Get back on your knees and grovel, slave boy

      January 7, 2013 at 4:45 am |
    • sam stone

      Mel: We will stop "pestering you" when you stop trying to force your religious beliefs on us through our secular law. Sound like a plan, little fella?

      January 7, 2013 at 4:51 am |
  8. Known Observer

    Good story. It happened to me once about 30 years ago and it was in response to a rather cynical question uttered during a prayer. It was nine words and I had instant and complete understanding. When or if this happens to you your life will never be the same.

    January 6, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
    • Dark_Forest

      What was this amazing question?

      January 7, 2013 at 2:25 am |
    • End Religion

      religion is so loving and awesome he's afraid to post the prayer or the response. Nice religion!

      January 7, 2013 at 9:29 am |
  9. maria

    Some people didn't nothing to write really? how come this people had this kind of jobs? I am looking for a job and I am more smarter than this writer ........ if you hear voices you a schizophrenic for sure or you are in meds!.

    January 6, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • Dippy

      The way you write, Maria, you're dumber than this writer's dog.

      January 6, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • Dark_Forest

      It's OK Dippy, she was making a point through sarcasm.

      January 7, 2013 at 2:26 am |
    • Dippy

      Well, maybe. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

      January 7, 2013 at 3:09 am |
  10. Danko Ramone

    The author never addresses that "hearing voices" in and of itself is not diagnosable as schizophrenia, but is considered a delusion.

    January 6, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  11. Mickey Weedon

    test

    January 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
  12. Mickey Weedon

    worship some dead guy on a stick wishing he will come back on a piece of french toast after 2000+ years eat his flesh, drink his blood talk to some invisible space daddy in the sky.....Christians are nuts!

    January 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
  13. Captain Crunch

    Have you ever considered the notion that Jesus may have very likely been a schizophrenic?

    January 6, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
  14. pbuotte

    STOP – All this notion of voices, external, schizophrenic or other is BS. In the end, it is the internal voice of oneself that one hears. Remember, the only thing that is 'super' is the natural !

    January 6, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
  15. The time is now

    Opposing view..... scripture says God's sheep know his voice. Satin is very cunning and if the Christian does not dweel were he should not with whom he or she should not hang out with then he will be safe. We know evil when we see and hear it.... All unsaved people talk , walk like fools and do foolish things.... they are not too hard to distinguish. Most of all these sad souls that don't know God and do not acknowledge Jesus are very unhappy people, no matter if they have the best in life, they are not satisfied with nothing put before them, they go to bed miserable and wake up and stay questionable all the day long about who they are and why they are....so sad... this feeling will always haunt you unless you ask Jesus to come into your heart and you decide to live for him....without him you have nothing to live for and you will never know real real love or true happines. Although you long for it, your against God spirit continues to keep you in bondage and like a slave (not matter your culture) you will never be free except you allow Jesus to free you. Your marriages will not work, your children will grow up confused, taken for granted...... a hot mess. Ye cannot do anything right without Christ in your life and your success is only temporary, short lived and destined for hell. Get saved, Jesus is not a controlling force he is a choice one should want for to know real peace, love and joy. Money cannot buy these three things...Life, health and strength, cannot be bought either but Jesus can give you a long happy life, good health, keep your strengh into your days of old and truly allow your heart to love someone unconditionally and make you feel like you are love. If you don't live for Jesus....do you truly feel loved.....you do not believe you really have felt that....it is not words.... It is a peace that passes all understanding and no matter what someone says to you or does to you, you have nothing but love in your heart for them and know to pray for them. This is love. If you live for Jesus he will let you know what real, true love is all about and this is why the non-believer stays so mad...because he/she does not feel love and does not know how to love in return....no one should have to go through life feeling this way and with Jesus you don't have to. That's the choice....love (heaven bound) or misery (hell bent). Save your self, enjoy life.....accept the Christ. He love you more that you will ever know, and I do too.

    January 6, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • End Religion

      Until I see your extraordinary, tested and peer-reviewed proof of God, proof of every absurd assertion in the bible and proof of Jesus, it is entirely a fraud.

      The abrahmic god does not exist. That, plus zero independent proof for jeebus means his "son" never existed either. The christian church itself admits the bible is a fraud. On 2013-01-05 anglicans allowed gay priests to become bishops when Leviticus 20:13 (the supposed word of an inerant god) clearly advocates killing gays. If the fact your bible advocates such killing isn't enough to keep you away, perhaps its hypocrisy will?

      The church is nothing but a pathetic, incongruous shell game that exists now only to sustain the power of its top echelon and to keep bringing the tithes in.

      January 6, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • Andy

      Satin may be bad, but polyester is truly evil. :-)

      January 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • JPX

      "Satan" not "satin" you dopes.

      January 6, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • JPopNC

      "The christian church itself admits the bible is a fraud"....just because one church sect decides it wants to go against the Bible doesn't equate to the Bible being fraudulent, it just means people will try anything to justify their sin.

      January 7, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  16. rabidatheist

    Why is it when one says they hear the voice of god talking to them it is not only accepted, but commendable, but if I was to say I talk to god through my hair dryer I am labelled crazy, and put on medication? I fail to see how the introduction of a hair dryer changes anything.

    January 6, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • DustyOnes

      Because you're an atheist and everyone knows that atheist don't talk to God.

      January 6, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • Ken

      It would be accepted and commendable only if the message agreed with what people think God would say but, as we all know, you can never get all Christians to agree on anything, so for every one who says that God told him something a bunch of other Christians will call him deluded as well.

      January 6, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • rabidatheist

      @ Dusty Ones I wasn't always an atheist. That came with time, education, and an open mind allowing me to take a critical look at what I was raised to believe was true.

      January 6, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  17. Arthur King

    "God" is actually a world-wide supercomputer that utilizes subconscious portions of all the physical brains on the Earth, all of which communicate with the whole electronically. It has no 'language' that is understandable as words by humans but when something seeps through into a human conscous it is in the form of impressions or knowledge that seems to have no source. There is always one 'node' that can communicate between human conscious and this subconscious portion of the brain and in effect can 'communicate' directly with 'god'. Jesus was actually one of these 'nodes', becoming the spokesperson or 'voice' for 'god' to the world while he lived. His purpose was to exterminate human slavery which was killing all human progress as it expanded throughout the expanding civilization. That fight is still going on today against the capitalist's slave society. "Voices" are usually generated by one's own creative imagination and coincide with some 'belief' that has been imposed on them. The 'bible' is a Roman work of fiction that was designed to control the Roman's slaves as 'serfs' allowing the Roman 'lords' to discard the chains and whips that caused so much rebellion among the slaves. Many 'voices'; heard by 'believers' are generated by exposure to the 'bible'.

    January 6, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • End Religion

      Why would exposure to fiction cause one to hear non-existent voices? Where today is this "node" you claim always exists, and please provide proof it is the one and only one which communicates with your supercomputing whatever. And of course, there is no proof jesus ever existed so you'll have trouble proving your new age garbage there as well.

      January 6, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  18. Lou

    I found this blog entertaining. lol...I just get buy into the idea of faith. Extraordinary claims, require extraordinary proof- Christians follow that rule with every aspect of their life- except for their faith in the existence of god...What if I told you I was Jesus Christ ressurected? Would you believe me?....If not, what would it take for you to believe me?

    January 6, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  19. Tom

    God's not real, so anything you hear in your head is mental illness or wishful thinking.

    January 6, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  20. Anony

    If a mass murder kills because God told him to, then, he is not crazy?

    January 6, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • .

      Hitler a atheist and gay was the all time mass murder supporting that atheists have no morals regardless if Christians hear from God

      January 7, 2013 at 7:13 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.