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. Blue Skys

    A true atheist doesn't give one iota that others believe in a Creator. Therefore, a "true atheist" would not make comment belittling others beliefs. So, who are these so-called atheists who excessively attack all blogs related to “Christians or Christianity"? And how come they aren’t attacking other religions- Muslim, Hindu, etc.)? Answer: There are many people who are "unsure" that there isn’t a God. They find comfort knowing there are others out there that are "unsure" as well. BTW: You aren't an atheist, because…again a TRUE atheist doesn't care what others believe. “Seek and ye shall find…”

    December 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      "True Scotsman" logical fallacy

      December 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • sybaris

      "A true atheist doesn't give one iota that others believe in a Creator."

      Except when a President (Bush) takes orders from his "creator" and invades another country causing the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Ken

      True Blue. These God haters I found over the last 25 years of life are truly troubled people. They lash out because of their fears that they can't admit they have and usually all the things they say about people that believe in the Lord are things that they really are in their own heart. It's a troubled life they live and truly it's not normal to spend your time talking about what you don't even believe is real. Sad, but a good example of depravity and how far it can and will go apart from God. But, truly again, they are just doing what their fallen nature leads them to do.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • sybaris

      Islam svcks, happy now

      December 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • saggyroy

      We only respect your right for you to hold these idiotic beliefs. We don't have to respect you or the beliefs.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      A poor and incorrect argument Blue Sky.
      For starters, people respond to this blog. If the article is about Christianity, as they most often are, then that is hardly the fault of the atheists. Post an article about Hindu is the one true faith and trust me, you will get the atheists posting there too.
      Secondly, why does a lack of belief in a god mean that therefore there is no interest or opinion on the subject of religion? using your logic would suggest that no 'true Christian' would be worried about atheists and make a post about them......and yet here you are.
      And lastly.....you make the mistake of somehow believing that because an atheist doesn't believe in god he must therefore not be concerned of the actions and ideas of those that claim to believe.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Kevin

      I used to feel the same way and I still would if Christians would stay out of politics. I'm not even an atheist, but as an American, I recognize that my rights are much more at risk from Christians than from atheists or believers of other religions. I grew up a Baptist. Many family friends believe in the rapture, that Jesus will return, that Armageddon is a good thing, and all the things leading up to this – global warming, war, disease, starvation, environmental disaster – are all part of God's plan and therefore we should not try to interfere. Forget marriage equality or the teaching of science in school. Christianity is one of the biggest threats to life and liberty in America today, and for no other reason that they believe they are 100% right and any means to bring about the happy end times is justifiable.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  2. timothyclee

    This article is proof that saying something does not make it true. Hearing voices means your a kook or mentally ill, end of story.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • YoHi60

      You just proved your own point, tim.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  3. Bruce

    Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear,
    If you had taken the time to read my post carefully you would know my wife was not trying to placate me because she turned and looked at the same time I did. And do you know all the laws of the universe and how they work? I doubt it.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Bruce, is it POSSIBLE that someone was calling your name? Is it POSSIBLE that you heard a sound that sounded like your name? Here's a wild thought: is it POSSIBLE that someone was calling another Bruce?
      What is more likely?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  4. Basher

    If religion keeps you sane, ethical, moral and a good citizen then please continue your righteous practices. Those who abhor any of those qualities please leave well enough alone.

    Grandma said it best, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything."

    That does not stop you from offering solutions or arguing a point but keep it civil.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • saggyroy

      I really feel sorry for the people that need religion to get by. I think this lessens their life experience by thinking they owe it all to some creator. Free your mind and start enjoying what you have for the short time you have it, and stop wasting your time (and money, don't forget the money) on promises that will not be kept.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  5. I play a psychiatrist on the internet

    We may hear voices in our sleep, but in that state of conciousness we call 'awake', it has to be God that is speaking to us? More likely, the mind momentarily drifts into that other realm when we are not asleep. Like daydreaming, with sound.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  6. RAL

    When i went to Ca to visit my youngest daughter who was very sick I had spent the week doing things shopping cleaning and anything I could do to make life cheerful for her and her Husband & young son. That eveningIi took a drive to my favorite place The San Diego Mission in Mission Valley. I had gone in to pray light candles mainly find peace. I also got a few things in the Mission store .I went into the garden to write out a few cards done I got ready to leave. I felt a light touch on my sholders and remained sitting lost in time for a few miutes not sure..Later when i did get ready to leave I felt I was touched by an angel , or God because the rest of the eveningIand knew something good happened. I was so at peace and felt rejuvinated and ready tro help my daughter more.What I felt as a Christian wasn't the first time it happened. anytime it was a brief sort of a sign I would be okay could handle it. I heard Joel Olsteen say God answeres your prayesrs he says Yes & No and if he says No several times a Yes maycome next. If you gi on you goals up how do you know your yes was one more prayer away. I guess Faith is what you need . some have it some don't They need proof ii don't have to I Believe

    December 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  7. sybaris

    "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"

    The bias of the mind is to seek what it wants to confirm or what is of interest to the user at the time. What the author is describing is your Reticular Activating System at work! It's simply a group of nerves in our brains who's job it is to filter information. Once something becomes of interest to us, the brain begins to notice that particular thing more than it did before. For instance, you never noticed a particular make/model of car until you purchase one. Now you see them everywhere. Christians feel like they see/feel their god everywhere because their brains have been trained to interpret and notice certain things as being from their god. This occurs with people of ALL religions which detracts from the experience as being proof or evidence that their particular deity is the right one or real.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Cathi

      Good try but too bad. Those who experience God do not need to prove a thing to anyone, not a thing. It changes our lives and our hearts, not our reticular system. How funny. You are the one who feels the need to DIS-prove and if that makes you feel more secure then I guess that's what you'll keep doing. But the security you truly seek will never ever come through your intellect because you are much more than that. You require and seek the same love that all humans need because we come from the same source. And the day when God "talks" to you (it may be after your death, it may be before it) then the words you wrote will seem so childish and fearful. But it will be OK, because when you are encompassed by that absolute love which transcends anything we have ever known... well, nothing will ever be the same.

      I know because I had the experience when I was 19 years old. I am 58 now. It didn't make my life any easier by any means, nor perfect. But I am grateful because perhaps I would be doubting like many others like yourself. Maybe. Maybe not. Either way the day will come that you will know without a shadow of a doubt that you are loved immensely by the One who created you and gave you life (and yes, even your reticular system!). And that you are so much more than the sum of your parts. God bless.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • sybaris

      Cathi you can try to spin it any way you like but it's a well doc.umented trait of human behavior. It's a self-validating cycle which makes the religionists bond with their faith so strong.

      The intriguing thing is that people of all faiths experience this. For example if you had been born and raised in central america 1000 years ago you would be speaking as feverishly about your faith in Quezocotl as you do about the god you worship now.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  8. Ed F.

    Dreams have nothing to do with god, silly article.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • Cathi

      Yeah, it kind of left me wondering, now what was the author's point? Oh well, it had a good intention.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  9. Kenny

    Yup, that's what he said to all the little angels at Sandy Hook.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  10. Scientist

    As a fellow academic and scientist, I admire the author for maintaining intellectual honesty in the face of searing criticism. She is not advocating Evangelical Christianity, she is observing that there is a phenomenon of positive and socially appropriate internal dialogue which may be experienced physically in some cases.It may, in fact, be important to the field of psychology to examine this and not ignore it because the initial observation happens to be among a people group with whom you disagree on social issues.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  11. Ballhawk72

    The views of Ms. Luhrmann should be compared with those of another Stanford faculty member, Sam Harris. Between the two I will side with Harris. Almost certainly the perception of a supreme being "talking" to a person is a process created solely by the imagination of the praying person.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • dreamer96

      Why do you assume all people that hear a voice, or get a message are all Christians??

      It was a young Muslim Boy in school across the river from the Twin Towers that told his teacher the Twin Towers would not be there very lone...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Cathi

      Sorry but you are wrong. It's OK though because you are just holding on to what you know and believe me God has nothing to do with our little imaginations. I had an experience with God when I was 19, am now 58. For the life of me I can never come close to re-imagining it, but I only know that the absolute and ultimate divine love I experienced is each and every one of our destinies. Don't need to "prove" a thing, that is really inconsequential. It doesn't matter what we "believe" but how we live and how we love.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  12. Sabrina

    I would readily say that I've heard a voice in my mind on occasion. But I would also readily say that it's a product of my own creation. My mind's imagination manufactured it to suit. Because I know that my mind is real; I know that imagination can make many things seem real. There's no need to take it to the realms of the supernatural.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  13. Marketing Gimmic

    Some tech company should make a smart phone and name it God Speak and we can all.......

    December 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  14. Santi Clause

    NFL is the product of Satan. God is too busy calculating the spreads and which teams to bless on Sunday that He has no time to protect us from evil doers.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  15. Aaron

    Maybe it’s their sub-conscientious telling them what they want to hear.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  16. Richard

    Thank you CNN and thank you Professor Luhrmann. God's still, small voice yet speaks. Amid the raucous cross-talk of fiscal politics, you've brightened my day. I tire of the mean-spirited poitical blame-game so characteristic of Fox these days. Surprisingly, CNN is reaching more Americans where they live. Hearing God's voice starts with stillness and quietness and then requires a believing heart. God always rewards those who diligently seek him. That's the main point. Thank you again.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Al


      December 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  17. Livelystone

    It is not a matter of whether or not God speaks to people but can the people determine the difference between when it is God speaking versus when their flesh is speaking?

    If that is not enough of a problem consider the dilemma associated with the Bible that most followers of God regard to be the spoken word (as in inspired) of God. However, the unfortunate truth is just within the Christian faith we have some 30,000 denominations who cannot make up their mind about what the Bible is teaching us.

    Other than extending mercy and grace in place of wrath and judgment, God does not change. Therefore the same God who worked signs and wonders through his prophets and apostles as well as through His Son, is the same God who lives today. The difference lies in the fact that those who were the authors and scribes of the Bible were all of the same mind believing the same things about God. This is called worshipping in spirit and in truth

    Harmony existed between them and God the same ways it did between God and Adam when man was first created. Back in the days of the Garden of Eden Adam did not have to chase after animals because through the harmony between God and man, when it came time to name the animals Adam sat down while God brought all the animals to him.

    Things have not changed and when harmony exists between God and man God is happy to work signs and wonders also known as miracles of healing and raising the dead today the same as he has all throughout history.

    Where the problem is that the church today has very little in common beyond the name of Jesus with the church that operated under the direction of the apostles.

    Therefore I continue to say, “when the truth returns to the church so will signs and wonders return to the church in the same manner that the first century church witnessed them”.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  18. ErgoSum

    "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."

    I'm not sure how 10% counts as "common"

    December 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Siam

      Do you know any left-handed people? Any gay people?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  19. Raven

    How is this news in any way shape or form....

    Musts be a very slow day at CNN.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  20. illmatico

    CNN Belief Blog – is genius for bringing out the weirdos both athiest and high-octane religious people.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Veritas

      So which one are you?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:31 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.