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My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy
A woman prays in church. Many Christians say they can audibly hear the voice of God.
December 29th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy

Editor's Note: Tanya Marie (“T.M.”) Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University professor in the department of anthropology at Stanford University in Stanford, California. She is the author of "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God."

By T.M. Luhrmann, Special to CNN

(CNN)—In the Bible, God spoke directly to Abraham. He spoke directly to Moses. He spoke directly to Job. But to your neighbor down the street?

Most people reading the ancient scriptures understand these accounts of hearing God’s voice as miracles that really did happen but no longer take place today, or maybe as folkloric flourishes to ancient stories. Even Christians who believe that miracles can be an everyday affair can hesitate when someone tells them they heard God speak audibly. There’s an old joke: When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.

Except that usually it’s not.

Hearing a voice when alone, or seeing something no one else can see, is pretty common. At least one in 10 people will say they’ve had such an experience if you ask them bluntly. About four in 10 say they have unusual perceptual experiences between sleep and awareness if you interview them about their sleeping habits.

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And if you ask them in a way that allows them to admit they made a mistake, the rate climbs even higher. By contrast, schizophrenia, the most debilitating of all mental disorders, is pretty rare. Only about one in 100 people can be diagnosed with the disorder.

Moreover, the patterns are quite distinct. People with schizophrenia who hear voices hear them frequently. They often hear them throughout the day, sometimes like a rain of sound, or a relentless hammer. They hear not only sentences, but paragraphs: words upon words upon words. What the voices say is horrid—insults, sneers and contemptuous jibes. “Dirty. You’re dirty.” “Stupid slut.” “You should’ve gone under the bus, not into it.”

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

For the last 10 years, I have been doing anthropological and psychological research among experientially oriented evangelicals, the sort of people who seek a personal relationship with God and who expect that God will talk back. For most of them, most of the time, God talks back in a quiet voice they hear inside their minds, or through images that come to mind during prayer. But many of them also reported sensory experiences of God. They say God touched their shoulder, or that he spoke up from the back seat and said, in a way they heard with their ears, that he loved them. Indeed, in 1999, Gallup reported that 23% of all Americans had heard a voice or seen a vision in response to prayer.

These experiences were brief: at the most, a few words or short sentences. They were rare. Those who reported them reported no more than a few of them, if that. These experiences were not distressing, although they were often disconcerting and always startling. On the contrary, these experiences often made people feel more intimate with God, and more deeply loved.

In fact, my research has found that these unusual sensory experiences are more common among those who pray in a way that uses the imagination—for example, when prayer involves talking to God in your mind. The unusual sensory experiences were not, in general, associated with mental illness (we checked).

They were more common among those who felt comfortable getting caught up in their imaginations. They were also more common among those who prayed for longer periods. Prayer involves paying attention to words and images in the mind, and giving them significance. There is something about the skilled practice of paying attention to the mind in this way that shifts—just a little bit—the way we judge what is real.

Yet even many of these Christians, who wanted so badly to have a back-and-forth relationship with God, were a little hesitant to talk about hearing God speak with their ears. For all the biblical examples of hearing God speak audibly, they doubt. Augustine reports that when he was in extremis, sobbing at the foot of that fig tree, he heard a voice say, “Take it and read.” He picked up the scripture and converted. When the Christians I know heard God speak audibly, it often flitted across their minds that they were crazy.

In his new book, "Hallucinations," the noted neurologist Oliver Sacks tells his own story about a hallucinatory experience that changed his life. He took a hearty dose of methamphetamines as a young doctor, and settled down with a 19th century book on migraines. He loved the book, with its detailed observation and its humanity. He wanted more. As he was casting around in his mind for someone who could write more that he could read, a loud internal voice told him “You silly bugger” that it was he. So he began to write. He never took drugs again.

Now, Sacks does not recommend that anyone take drugs like that. He thinks that what he did was dangerous and he thinks he was lucky to have survived.

What interests me, however, is that he allowed himself to trust the voice because the voice was good. There’s a distinction between voices associated with psychiatric illness (often bad) and those (often good) that are found in the so-called normal population. There’s another distinction between those who choose to listen to a voice, if the advice it gives is good, and those who do not. When people like Sacks hear a voice that gives them good advice, the experience can transform them.

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This is important, because often, when voices are discussed in the media or around the kitchen table, the voices are treated unequivocally as symptoms of madness. And of course, voice-hearing is associated with psychiatric illness.

But not all the time. In fact, not most of the time.

About a third of the people I interviewed carefully at the church where I did research reported an unusual sensory experience they associated with God. While they found these experiences startling, they also found them deeply reassuring.

Science cannot tell us whether God generated the voice that Abraham or Augustine heard. But it can tell us that many of these events are normal, part of the fabric of human perception. History tells us that those experiences enable people to choose paths they should choose, but for various reasons they hesitate to choose.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat at his kitchen table, in the winter of 1956, terrified by the fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery bus boycott, he said he heard the voice of Jesus promising, “I will be with you.” He went forward.

Voices may form part of human suffering. They also may inspire human greatness.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of TM Luhrmann.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • God

soundoff (7,767 Responses)
  1. mykel armory

    well, i say this here woman got ugly hairdo and she aint in no bisness coming around to tellng us no nothing bout no noises of god. she needa be back home pleasin a man, not talkin all expert bout nonsene.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  2. Rob for Christ

    CNN for sometime now runs a Hit on Faith every Sunday now. And its always on the main page. Faith is not mandatory its a choice for each person. Why CNN do you make a controversial story about the Christian faith ? What is the real story here ? Is it " CNN wants to edit your Faith "

    r

    December 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Science

      It's much simpler than that: CNN wants your clicks for ad revenue.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  3. jim

    CNN should stay true to its roots and not try to woo the Fox News crowd with religious gibberish. It won't work and it annoys your target demographic.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  4. Buddha

    Please if God is talking to you seek professional help. Do not act on what you hear.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    December 30, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • grieferkiller

      The Templeton Foundation conducted a study on prayer involving over 6,000 participants, consisting of cardiology patients recovering from surgery. One group was prayed for by thousands of fellow believers, and informed of this prayer vigil. The second group was also prayed for by thousands of believers, but not informed of the prayer vigil. The third group (control group) was not prayed over. There was no significant difference in the recovery rate (or percentage that didn't recover at all and died) of the three groups. In fact, the group that was prayed for an informed of it, had slightly worse recovery rates than the other two groups. Conclusion: Either "God" doesn't exist, does not answer prayers, or is so petty that he prefers to let prayers for the health of his flock go unanswered, rather than allow a study to confirm he exists and listens.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  6. a dose of reality

    Top Ten Signs You're a Christian
    10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
    9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
    8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
    7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
    6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
    5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
    4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
    3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
    2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
    1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  7. kcmh4

    With the absurdity of our national skewed reality...reality television shows, reality contests, movies filled with crazy special affects, etc...believing in a God who loves us and wants us to know it makes me ask, "What have we got to lose?" With the increase in medications to induce sleep, why not put faith in a Diety who promises peace of mind and rest? Again, what have we got to lose? Everyone has a choice, and I'll chose to trust in the God of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  8. Jam

    For all you skeptics: you are missing the point; religion is about FAITH, not evidence. If YOU don't believe, that's your deal, but why do you feel you have to make believers look like fools?

    Yes, there are those people who do some terrible things because "God told them to", but don't blame religion for that....there will always be people who use their faith as an excuse for bad behavior; for that matter, lots of them offer NO excuse whatsoever.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • a dose of reality

      You 'believers' don't need help to look like fools

      December 30, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • The Truth

      Thanks Jam. Nicely put.

      I know I'm a glutton for punishment for coming here. My faith actually strengthens. I see bad behavior by the religious and non-religious. But I'll be happy to visit my mostly nice church friends this morning and have my faith in humanity restored.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • JJ

      There's no crime to suffer from delusions but just don't make real life decisions based on what you belief your sky god tells you. When you vote for and make laws that affect all of us based on your faith/delusions then you have stepeed over the line.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • grieferkiller

      Believers make themselves look like fools. We atheists merely point that out, for the sake of supporting critical thinking and sanity. "Science flies us to the moon. Religion flies planes into buildings."

      December 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • The Truth

      > a dose of reality

      As Usual 'a dose of reality' missed the point. A 'fool' to the end eh?

      Thanks for illustrating Jam's point. Good job.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Jam

      JJ, I gotta disagree with you there. Don't we all have the right and obligation to vote our consciences? Isn't that the way the system is supposed to work? If you don't like the results of that system, you are in the minority. That's the way it works.

      For a supposedly LIBERAL site (Liberal meaning people are accepting of a wide range of points of view) I'm seeing a lot of downright FACIST POVs.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  9. Coyote Fish

    There is only One God
    He is the Sun God
    Ra! Ra! Ra!

    December 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  10. Sam

    Anyone that believes in religion is a nut.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  11. Chaos

    Lady, these people are both gullible and irrational. They may not be schizophrenic but, there are, indeed, nuts.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  12. Dave FL

    It is sad to see how low CNN has sunk trying to compete with Fox. Will they next sue to allow themselves to broadcast lies as Fox did so successfully??

    December 30, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  13. Jim

    I remember when we uses to just call this daydreaming. As America embraces the idiocracy we now call it the voice of god.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  14. Alan

    Yes you are crazy. If not crazy then in denial, or plain stupid.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  15. Jolly Toes

    Let's all remember this is an OPINION piece, not fact.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • truth be told

      Nope it is fact, sorry about you.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Shee

      Thank you, Jolly,
      Opinion pieces are exactly that – one person's – or a group of people's – considered opinion, often based on experience, scholarly research or trained observation. Allow the folks here on BELIEF to express themselves, without belitting them .One sign of an advanced society is reasoned discourse.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • legeisyaj

      yes, true, and my opinion is that it shouldn't be the main page and largest attraction on the Sunday paper, anywhere.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  16. Davydenko

    It's really nice of CNN to publish the work of insane people. Keep following the voices in your head, Tanya!

    December 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  17. nf

    Why is opinion on a news site? To stir controversy? News/Politics/Religion. I question the articles that CNN posts. As a young man this is unappealing. CNN is hurting itself in the long run.
    It saddens me that this happens because you have such a nice format.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  18. oh look...no citation or references...who would have thought...

    ...and that's why this article is in the opinion category.....nothing citable...no references....no evidence....alll hearsay...just somebody spouting off....faith means – belief that is not based on proof...i found that here...... http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faith ... science has been proven over, and, over, and over again.....

    December 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  19. Red

    This only tells me that there are more people capable of schizophrenia. They don't know what causes schizophrenia and the author only assumes God really exist but the characters/voices that schizophrenics talk to do not exist?????? Do you see the problem? Lately I've been reading that microchip implants by the government and aliens for years have been causing schizophrenia. The only thing this author has right is that there is a channel of communication lodged in the brain somewhere between the conscious state of mind and unconscious state (sleep). It could be that same communication channel that these high paid schizophrenic Psychics have been using all these years. It is the same channel that schizophrenics complain are a satellite channel hitting their brain. There is something out there but we don't know what it is and for someone to say some people are crazy and others are not is ridiculous.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Rich

      So let me see if I'm understanding your point of view correctly:

      God does not exist because there is no proof.
      Aliens DO exist, despite no proof.

      Does that about sum it up?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  20. Neal

    CNN shouldn't even be posting an article from a nut who is simply trying to give bible mythology some credibility!

    December 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • The Truth

      God forbid they allow a point of view that you don't agree with.

      This is America, we fight for freedom of religion.

      I can not stand bigots. Oh, you and your intolerant ways.

      We stand up for each other here. Understand!

      December 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • a dose of reality

      As Usual 'The Truth' missed the point. Dumb to the end eh?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • *hoser dude*

      But its like TV, the movies, or most anything else, if ya don't like it, why are you reading, or watching it? Its a blog on religion. What did u expect? A discussion on hamburgers?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:25 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.