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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. Happy

    For everyone that HEARS g-od have it be your DENTIST and have it take out your wisdom teeth and let us know how it went...
    Read this the other day here is whats good about science is it is the truth no matter if you believe it or not !

    December 30, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  2. Jonathan

    Why can't we just accept the fact that we have brains and that they're wonderful, if not difficult to understand things. It's not God telling you to be nice to people, or the Devil telling you to do bad things, or your dead grandmother telling you not to touch that iron because it's hot. The cat staring up at you from the floor isn't actually telling you, "Feed the cat". Sure, we all have an imagination, and it's fine to pretend, the problem arises when people actually start thinking their cat is talking to them...

    December 30, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  3. Colleen Kelly Mellor

    Here's my problem with the so-called God voices from Biblical times, meant as instruction to His earthly leaders (Abraham, Moses, etc.): God generally comes off as a tyrannical, narcissist who demands crazy blind obeiance from his subjects, while He knows they'll screw up (Moses' people who walked the desert for 40 years and finally came with him to the Mount). I mean he instructs folks to kill the only son the poor man's waited 80 years to have (Abraham). He's omniscient so of course He knows how things will turn out, just as He did when Judas betrayed Him or when Peter denied Him. That said, why am I capitalizing His name?

    December 30, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  4. DocHollywood

    There's also a percentage of people who say they have seen UFO's and Aliens. It really proves nothing either way. Personally, I would have a problem believing anyone who said "God" spoke to them. I'm not saying it's an impossibility, but I will say it's more likely a fanatic, a person who desires some type of power, or someone looking for something other than reality. You'd think that if "God" spoke to so many, why wouldn't he hold a group meeting? That way he could let everyone know what he/she wanted. Of course, there wouldn't be any need for doubt and then where would we be?

    December 30, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  5. Angela

    I sometimes hear Gospel singing, even when there's nothing on in the whole house. I have looked for the source. The only thing I do know is it's coming from inside the house cause when I check outside the sound stops.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Paul

      Is it really really good gospel, or just so-so?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  6. bobbie

    True statement/opinion. He still speaks to us today; question is, are we listening? His voice will not tell us anything wrong; will not tell us to do wrong.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • JJ

      Tell that to Andrea Yates.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Chikkipop

      This article was about the power of the imagination; IT is real, but that doesn't mean what is imagined is real.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  7. Jeff

    To those who rush to judgment about religious people who pray and hear from God, you are sadly missing out on a large part of life. Some of your comments are tongue-in-cheek humor and some are laced with sarcasm, and that' s okay. But I hope that in time you'll give the subject a little more thought.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Kebos

      I've given it much thought and much research. Those voices one may hear....chemical imbalances. As for Abraham, well, he was a raging lunatic.

      As for God or gods, none exist. Absolutely none.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Chikkipop

      "Rush to judgment"

      "Give it more thought"

      You should know that it is those people who have given it some thought that have concluded there is nothing there. This is supported by the fact that folks who propose such magic never have the slightest evidence. In fact, it is they who have rushed to judgment, falling for magical stories before they had the wisdom to examine them more fully.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  8. NJreader

    I disagree. Religious societies make exceptions for religion, so if the voices you hear are the FBI or KGB, you are schizophrenic, but if the voices you hear are deitical, you are blessed, holy, saved, etc. I think any voice in the head except one's own train of thinking should be treated the same way by society at large. The psychiatric interview question is, "Do you hear voices?" And if the answer is yes, that's it, you are ill. Just what the voices might be saying doesn't enter the conversation until you have been admitted to hospital. It is the hearing of the voices that is diagnostic. Religion gets a pass on this. You can turn on a television almost around the clock these days and find some preacher saying that he has just received a word from on high that Mrs. Magillicutty of Albany has just been healed, healed!, of what had been ailing her. The preacher and his assistants for echoing amens and thank-yous are never thought to be crazy . . . except crazy smart . . . because it's your "gifts" that keep them on the air, healing arthritis from Maine to California.

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

    You have Free Will so you can believe or disbelieve anything you like. Why should it bother you that other people are spiritual? You made your choice - let us make ours.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Chikkipop

      What is our will "free" of?

      Why does it bother us!? Because we want to live in a society that uses reason and rationality instead of wishful thinking. We have a stake in our culture, too!

      People should always speak up about bad ideas. Why in the world wouldn't they!?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  10. nf

    After reading the article. These people are predisposed to entertain thoughts of God calling out to them. It is a brain condition or conditioning even. It is no surprise that those who prayed longer were more likely to hear God. Monks reach salvation. Hippies reach the astral plane. Now those are interesting topics. Being an anthropologist (the author), I can understand her studies.
    Anyways, thanks for the entertainment.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  11. Tom

    Wow. I enjoyed reading this article but some were apparently offended.As so many mentioned, it is an opinion, but the author and cnn were attacked for doing that. I guess an opinion is OK if it agrees with yours? I don't think so. I would love to talk to some of you face to face and see how you react. I think I already know the answer to that.

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

      What do you want to talk about?

      Give me your thoughts and I'll tell you what I think.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  12. Faisal

    Another sacrilegious abomination by CNN. When God talks to you, it's not schizophrenia, it's God talking to you. End of the damned discussion.

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

      When a person hears voices, it's time to see their doctor! End of story!

      December 30, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Kebos

      When a person hears voices, it's time they see their doctor! End of story!

      December 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Stephen Daedalus

      Right... said Berkowitz to his dog.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Jeff

      Faisal, please relax a little. The article was not an "abomination." Your vitriolic response was as closed minded as those who commented that religious people are crazy. I know God speaks to people, but you have to admit, some people who claim they hear from God are not always legitimate. Let's have a discussion, not a jihad.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Chikkipop

      Well. That was easy.

      Strange how if you doubt magical stories, you're asked if you've read old books and if you know everything there is to know about them, but if you believe, you don't have to know anything!

      Not surprising, when you think about it.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  13. me

    So, if you hear voices and you are a devout christian, you're blessed – but anybody else who hears voices is crazy?

    December 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Stephen Daedalus

      Hmmm... yep, that seems to be her point. It is what you'd expect of the culture-bound belief in magic after all, but if you stick someone in an fMRI, they don't appear to be hearing anything at all. In a Schizophrenic brain, there is a real auditory hallucination.

      This is an unfortunate article, which is harmless to most except for those who are vulnerable... a pity that CNN supports this. There are very responsible ways to discuss religion, even as an op-od, but this is not one of them.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  14. TurtleChurch

    It is somewhat disingenuous of Ms. Fuhrmann not to mention that Oliver Sacks is an atheist. His anecdote hardly supports her position.

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

      Why do you suppose he's an atheist?

      Could it be that he understands the power of the imagination?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  15. us_1776

    The Sky Fairy does not exist.

    Get over it.

    .

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

      Well said.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  16. André

    God is imaginary. There's nothing that can change that.

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

      Imaginary? Was hurricane "Katrina" imaginary? Was Barak Obama & Hillary Clinton running to be Presidenit of The United States imaginary? Then the prophecy published in April of 1974 must be imaginary of "The Last Christian" Every person I meet I treat as "The Last Christian!" But then again guess i just imagined posting this to you!

      December 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Chikkipop

      I tried to imagine Joseph's comment made sense, but it didn't work.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  17. Chris

    Bunch of paranoid skitzo sheep. Congrats on making your cult leaders... err .., pasters / priests so wealthy

    December 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  18. Tamur

    Ted Turner... did the planet run out of news?

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

      I like the truth of the news! And not the distortions of the news! If anyone is unable to tell u the news it is because our days r about how much money I make, or how much sum1 else makes. Some days are spent being silent, only to hear people, neighbors, friends, & family. I speak when spoken to. The news u seek is knowing if Jesus Christ, and God will take the prayer of a child left behind, and give thier Swords to anyone other than the child left behind? Is America so good that its leaders are blind to a childs prayer to Jesus Christ, and God that on a certain day something aksed for would happen? Now that would be news!!!

      December 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  19. Unintelligent Designer

    I once felt like the author, believing that these moving moments were God speaking to me. But I also felt such emotions when listening to my favorite song, watching a great movie, hearing a moving poem, reading a great novel, all which very well may have been works of fiction. I've also had eureka moments when I've figured something out and a surge of emotion runs through my body. Point being, we have the ability to manipulate ourselves emotionally, others have the ability to motivate us. Just because it's touching doesn't mean it is of divine origin.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • NJreader

      Nice. Thanks.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Chikkipop

      You're a great example for others!

      People can grow out of comforting stories, and learn about the power of their imagination and emotions.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  20. tom LI

    Why does this voice never seem to be at least a little critical?

    December 30, 2012 at 8:21 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.