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. HouTex

    I'm sorry, if anyone can hear god speak. They are crazy! Matter of fact I think 99% of religious ppl are nuts!

    December 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Christian7

      So you think 3/4th of the humans on earth are crazy?

      December 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • ??

      Perhaps CNN could stop Sunday morning ping-pong,and televise a serious 1-2 hour debate on the existence of god.Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins vs. any religious apologists.I'm sure the veiwer-ship would be huge and both sides will have a chance to gain exposure to other views and perhaps some enlightenment.This would be quite difficult,as the religious folks will be offended if they were even asked to share the stage with atheists.This would take courage on the part of the believers and CNN,which I am sorry to say,is lacking in this area.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  2. BOB th Prairie Dog

    This article is delusional and dangerous. It's become increasingly difficult to have adult conversations in this country and junk science like this only steepens the incline. Shame on CNN for substantiating this kind of madness.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • xMoonWitchx

      I couldn't agree more. How incredibly irresponsible this is. It's similar to posting a screen with alternating color patterns to cause epileptic seizures in those that have them. It's exploitation of the mentally ill, pitting the sane against the mentally ill for entertainment and advertising.

      I'm onto you CNN - many, many of us are.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  3. Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

    A Scientist became so arrogant that he claimed that he could make objects and living things without God.
    The day came when he was able to claim such before God.
    The Scientist proceeded to prove his point; then God interrupted him and told him to make his own dirt.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  4. Lisa

    I can't help but wonder... If one is spending that much energy on their faith to the point where it takes on an inner-life of its own, their lives could probably improve if that energy is directed toward the day to day issues and their family.

    December 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • ladyofthelake

      The idea is that when one spends inner time focusing on God and working on one's interior life, their relationships with family and friends flourish. I reality, this often works quite well.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  5. Moroneist

    I haven't read any of the comments, but i bet a hundred dollars that a whole bunch of half brain atheists twits jumped on this like sharks.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • ShingoEX

      And you also have people belching out stereotypical nonsense as if all atheists are that way.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Moroneist

      If the hat fit you, wear it.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  6. phil

    If you hear God you are probably Schizophrenic

    December 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • ladyofthelake

      Did you read the article? She debunks that notion.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  7. juno

    Conflating "good" and "God". Not good. There is zero evidence that some God produces voices. People hear voices and other noises that have no external source. Fine. Let's recognize that, and not pretend there's any sort of divinity involved. "I just told myself to ... " is very different than "God just told me to ...".

    December 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  8. Just a guy

    @deadlyserious – is trolling the Belief section and criticizing those who are believers your main function in life- you don't want to believe – fine – your choice – but intolerant of those that do – pls get a life

    December 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  9. J.R.

    When God talks to you – or if you believe in magic guys in the clouds – then you need a psych ward. So glad I believe in science and not religion. You all are crazy!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Ed Downs

      Ever hear the saying.."there are no aithesists on deathbeds.." how will you feel if when you die you are wrong about this? Oh, ooops there is a God after all..

      December 30, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  10. john

    Only very ill people can have conversations with non existent individuals.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • GOD

      You want visions? Eat moldy bread like Moses did. Locusts and wild honey works, too.
      Then, when you're totally wasted and spacing out near a creosote bush, you'll hear me make shit up while you are having a major head trip, only it's not me but your hallucination giving you the trip..I'm busy in the Bahamas sorting grains of sand on the beach and will be doing this for the next 12 million years. It's a hobby of mine.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  11. blake

    More Christian bashing from the far left, atheistic, secular humanists at CNN. If hate crimes laws were ever applied to include evangelical Christians, far left politicians and the far left media would be in real trouble.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Veritas

      Define "far left". You sound over opinionated and under educated.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      If hate crimes were expanded to include evangelical Christians then evangelical Christians would be in trouble

      December 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Mike

      Congratulations, I never thought someone could shove the phrase "far left" that many times into one sentence. I'm impressed.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Reason

      Much like yourself.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  12. allenwoll

    The issue seldom if ever explored : The mechanics of God's connection to us - I see two possibilities -
    (I present it in technical jargon, for at least technical people MAY be able to comprehend these ideas).
    1. IN REAL TIME - One's connection to his Creator exists ACTIVELY, individually and in "real time", thru the Ether,
    2. ANCIENT PRE-RECORDED, WITHIN OUR BEING : Part of our "Operating Guide" (Also called our "HUMANITY") which is prerecorded in our consciousness dating from the original creation of our species and genetically handed down, non-altered, during our natural reproduction processes. The OG also (if not defective - or distorted or erased by others) contains the collective set of RESTRAINTS on our actions called our CONSCIENCE (which I think is also the whole or at least a large part of our SOUL).
    No magic in the ideas of Item 2. - Just plain old, boring common sense - and, in my opinion, these ideas fit the apparent facts of our existence quite well.
    Item 2. accounts for the fact that most human cultures have very similar patterns of conduct when one strips away the superficial.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  13. michiganandy

    I just wish some people who claim "God told me" are called out when their responding actions cause mass devastation and human suffering. George W Bush for instance. I would think there were enough rationale people out there and I could end this with "enough said," but what is remarkable is there is enough people out there who either don't get what I am inferring, or actually think Bush is even close to the type of human being God would speak to. The devil on the other hand, he speaks through the likes of Bush and most right wingers who claim to be Christian, but are way wealthier than an eye of a needle would allow to pass through.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  14. Diego Homans

    "If you hear God speak, you're (probably) not crazy."

    . . . yes you are

    December 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • cpc65

      Crazy AND / OR genius, getting others to do your bidding for you because you're special enough that God "talks to you" and just happens to share all your views on things.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  15. Anon

    If one of you psycho religious nuts hears god talking to you you need to seek mental help immediately as you have serious mental problems. But then we already knew you religious idiots brains aren't working quite right. KEEP YOUR !@#$%^& RELIGION TO YOURSELF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  16. aelfscine

    What nonsense. This is CNN's front page now? Mindless, baseless religious trolling?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • scribblingthinker

      Kudos...my thoughts exactly. Front page? Really? then I thought...they wrote a book...CNN get's a piece. And nobody races to the cash register to buy reinforcing clap-trap like the oppressed Christians.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  17. Linda

    I you are poor and hear the voice of god, you have schizophrenia. If you have money and hear the voice of god, you are Michelle Bachmann and you sit in Congress. The big dividing line between crazy and a good christian soul is made of dollar bills.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  18. Palustris

    I think this whole article can be translated into "gut instinct. We all have had this. You trust your gut feelings, your inner voice if you will, to do "what it says (aka god??) " and the outcome turns out in your favor.

    Conversely, you ignore it but you feel deep down you should not. You do anyway and that outcome is not what you hoped.

    I consider myself agnostic. Not sure if there is a God, but admittedly not sure if there is not and I "hear" – feel – these instincts all the time. I've always trusted it and it has served me well.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  19. Tman

    If you talk to God, that's prayer and is a normal, accepted behavior. If God talks to you that's schizophrenia and you should seek the help of a medical professional immediately...

    December 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  20. Hutterite

    There's an article about warren jeffs right below this one on the website. Don't sell the religious short; many of them truly are nuts.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
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