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. Colin

    As an atheist, I fully I accept that Christians have personal experiences with God. Hindus also have them with Brahma, Vishnu or Krishna, Muslims with Allah, Buddhists tend to have reincarnation experiences and Christians also often hear or see angels, Mary, Jesus etc.

    However, if I were to accept these personal experiences as EVIDENCE of the existence of these beings, I would believe in a lot of gods. I would also believe in the various spirits of Native Americans, the Dreamtime deities of the Australian Aboriginals, the gods of the Aztecs and Incas along with a couple of hundred others who are or have been "heard" by humans.

    You get my point.

    Every culture has its gods and a proportion of its population will always claim to hear voices. It might be evidence of a particular god if we all had the same experience across faiths. If Buddhists, Hindus and Jains regularly experienced Jesus or Mary. But they don’t. Only young Christian women ever seem to experience Mary, especially during the awakening of the $exuality during puberty. The other faiths are busy experiencing reincarnation or their own deity(ies). Christianity does not have a monopoly on religious experiences.

    It might also be evidence if a bystander ever heard or witnessed the “experience,” but they tend to always be purely internal.

    David Koresh and Charles Manson had innumerable personal experiences of voices telling them they were the messiah, while Mark Chapman (who killed John Lennon) had experiences telling him he was Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. Thousands of people also believe they have had personal experiences with angels, sprits, “presences” or ghosts, with aliens who abduct them or with devils that torment them.

    Quite simply, the internal, subjective experiences people honestly believe they have and the voices they believe they hear are not at all probative of external reality.

    To the extent the artice suggests otherwise, it is just another failed grope by a theist to seek evidence for their own particular sky-fairy.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Bostontola

      I didn't see anything in the article that suggested that the voices were other than internal.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • scottca

      You left out all the ancient accounts such as the greek Oracles, we would have to believe in Zues still as well.

      December 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • J.W

      There are some that believe that other gods and religious figures did or do exist, and that they play an important part in leading people to God.

      December 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • scottca

      JW there are some people that believe they can fly as well, without any evidence to support that belief. We call these people lunatics.

      To believe in anything without evidence is to enter insanity.

      December 31, 2012 at 6:24 am |
  2. lol??

    Science says 25% of the prison population are psychopaths. The atheists at CNN are proud to point out prisons are claimed to be 99% Christian. Does not compute. Just goes to show you how slippery the atheistic snakes really are.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Seyedibar

      Not only does it compute, but it's also very simple math.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "lol??", but it does, in fact, compute.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Colin

      Huh? That math makes perfect sense.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • lol??

      Psychopaths are the base sort. 3 bites so far. They can't resist.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • midwest rail

      More delusional idiocy from the Cowardly Liar, lol??

      December 30, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • lol??

      Wow hooked a lunker with midwest rail.

      December 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • scottca

      Congrats LOL you have displayed your own mental illness very clearly for the world to see

      December 30, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Saraswati

      1) Prisons are not remotely a representative population so I wouldn't take these figures very seriously. 2) No one in the scientific community uses the word 'psychopath' and it doesn't appear in the DSM, so again, wherever you got such numbers I wouldn't take them seriously. 3) People in prison are more likely to turn to religion for many reasons, not the least of which is improved odds of sympathy at parole time, so using even accurate numbers of self reporting is very fishy.

      December 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Sara if you know anything about psychology then you should know that Psychopath is just an outdated way of saying Sociopath, and sociopathy does appear in the DSMIV. Your comment is deliberaqtely Obtuse

      December 31, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  3. Primewonk

    46% of adults in the US think their god created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago.

    This shows that half the country purposefully chooses to be ignorant. Is it any surprise that so many folks are schizophrenic about hearing god?

    December 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Zobby

      We have civilizations and written languages going back more than 14,000 years, any archaeologist can tell you this.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Seyedibar

      Sorry,Zobby. Excepting the Nag Hammadi scrolls, there aren't any Abrahamic writings from earlier than the 9th century.

      December 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  4. The Mockingjay

    We all get inspiration. When I was a child, I watched cartoons where a cartoon character had an angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other that gave him suggestions what he could do. I believe that is a true principle. We all hear suggestions in our minds every day. They could be from the devil or from God. We make a choice and act.

    How do we tell the difference? That is easy. If the voices are positive and tell us to do kind and loving things, or if it is pure knowledge as is in inventing something, the inspiration is from God. If we keep God's commandments and live good lives, the voice we hear will usually be from God. If we do not live the commandments and/or use harmful drugs and alcohol, you can bet the voices you hear are from the devil.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Primewonk

      Poe? Troll? Or just deluded?

      December 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Skeptimist

      An old Cherokee variation:
      A good wolf and a bad wolf struggle for control of your spirit.
      The wolf that wins is the wolf you feed.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  5. Skeptimist

    My spiritual education has been guided by a lifetime of bumping into my own mistakes and misconceptions. This has culminated in the realization that I have habitually taken myself far too seriously and thereby blocked my appreciation for the Creator's sublime sense of humor. Now, as a better informed and more receptive Christian, the statue of Buddha on my nightstand sends me off to peaceful rest each night, singing "What a friend we have in Jesus".

    December 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  6. Alyson

    I became an atheist when I was a kid because I couldn't hear God's voice and I thought I was supposed to and I just simply could not imagine God or a God with any sort of power in the real world (many other reasons add to it, but the main thing is that I simply cannot accept the idea of God).

    Although, I asked my religious Muslim boyfriend how he hears God, and he looked at me like I was crazy and responded, "I'm not a prophet. I don't hear God."

    So I understand myself and I understand my boyfriend's beliefs, the beliefs of a religious person who unquestioningly believes in what he cannot see, something I simply cannot do. But if even someone as religious as he is can't hear God, then I'm pretty well convinced that it's just people's conscience speaking to them ,or in MLK's case, what he imagined and hoped Jesus would say to him.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Seyedibar

      Many would say that blind faith is more than just seeing what is not there, but also having the unwillingess or fear of challenging a notion.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Skeptimist

      Alyson, I'm impressed with your honest inquiry, a path I myself have traveled. Along the way I was fortunate to meet a fellow who helped me see through the entanglements of language and labels.

      You quite reasonably express difficulty believing in something (God) for which you see no firm evidence. However, you do refer to people having a "conscience". We can't "see" or measure conscience but I'd guess you have the evidence of personal experience that suggests it is a real and reliable guide to right and wrong. When I follow it and perform an act of kindness or resist a selfish temptation, the result is an inner feeling of well being – of "goodness". If that makes sense to you and you tend to behave accordingly, then you are likely to be a good person of sound mental and spiritual health that I would be glad to have as a friend and neighbor. Simple, huh?

      Others, however, like your Muslim boyfriend and me (a Christian) though likewise motivated by conscience are, for various reasons, inclined to complicate simplicity with elaborate religious explanations for our spiritual expression. But, I believe, when you strip away the tortuous meanderings of theology and the tyranny of language, we will find we're all in the same pursuit for Goodness. Sometimes, it only takes a good sense of humor to see through the nonsense.

      There once was a rabbi renowned for his brilliant scholarship and wisdom. One day he was challenged by some smart-alecs to summarize the entirety of the Torah (aka, The Law) while standing on one foot. He agreed. While holding one foot off the ground, he said: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. All the rest is commentary."
      Simple, huh?

      I suspect the God I believe in doesn't mind a bit if you believe in Goodness. She probably finds it charming.

      December 30, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  7. Scott

    Most people cannot audibly hear cries for help from friends and family members, hear warnings of impending storms from weather forcasters, hear or care to hear co-workers issues or problems at work, hear the messages at chruch and a whole host of other audible elements in daily life. So to suggest and then believe 1 of 10 has heard the voice of God is not even close to being true. Morover, Abraham, Moses and Job sacrificed dearly in their belief in God and had been rewarded for that steadfast belief. To even mention the three of them in this article makes the article invalid. Becuase simply hearing God still doesn't even come close to making someone as relevant as Abraham, Moses or Job.

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

    Why put stock in something that you can never prove? That's crazy. Spain did that with the Spanish Armada. They put more Catholic priests onboard and fewer cannons. Many of their ships are resting peacefully in the English Channel. The rest high tailed it north and west to Ireland. Few made it back to Spain. Is this the kind of God you're talking to?

    December 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  9. Bostontola

    I don't get the hostility to the author. She never said it was actually god talking to people, she said her research showed that it is somewhat common for ordinary people to have mild hallucinations (brought on by intense imaginatory thought). That doesn't seem far fetched at all. The perception systems of the brain are quite fallible, there are many illusions that can be deterministically stimulated. In fact, it is probably our overestimation of our perceptive ability that is at the root of belief in god, we "feel" god's presence so it must be real.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  10. Harry Potter

    I can talk to god directly in my crystal ball, we chat like BFF's.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  11. Guy Baez

    "Hearing God not always crazy"

    Yes it is.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  12. Ryanj

    In any study the membership of sample is key to any interpretation of outcome. Does fundamentalism in any faith, or specifically Christian fundamentalism, attract people who are predisposed to experience psychotic symptoms? And 'voices', while common in the illness of Schizophrenia, are not pathognomonic for the disorder and essentially are a symptom found in many psychiatric as well as medical conditions. We all have the genes which predispose us, some greater or lesser than others, to the experience of 'voices'.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  13. Luis Wu

    ANY time you hear the voice of God, Gods, angels, devils, demons, unicorns, etc. You definitely ARE crazy.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  14. Nana9999

    In a perverse way, the comments to this article have given me peace in my faith. The non-believers are much more adamant (in a nasty way) about tearing down my belief in God than I am in tearing down their belief that there is no God.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • mama k

      And let's hear just how you successfully tear "down their belief that there is no God."
      (This will be interesting.)

      December 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Really? Would you vote to bring back school prayer? Would you vote for teaching so-called "creationism" in schools? If you answered yes to either of those, then you want to FORCE your idea of religion on innocent children. That's why atheists are so vocal, we don't want your ignorant superst!tions forced on our children.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Nana9999

      @Mama K, I don't need to tear down your belief that there is no God. I'm covered either way. If you're right, when I die, there will be nothing left...it will all be over. If I'm right, then I will be in heaven forever and you will burn in hell forever.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • mama k

      I had a funny feeling you would shy away from your claim. lol.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Nana9999

      @mama k....yep, you scare me alright. Since all of my theory is based on the Bible and Christianity (not religion) and you have already denounced Bible and Christianity, why, on God's green earth, would I waste my time trying to convince you otherwise? As I said, I'm fine with my belief and hopefully you can come to terms with yours in a more gracious manner than you display now.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  15. yoda

    It's a shame that so many people here are commenting about goat sacrifices, bombings and hatred by people. Did they miss the whole part of the article about people sensing feelings of encouragement, comfort and love?

    December 30, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • ??

      Sensing feelings and hearing the voice of god are two different things.One is considered quite normal and the other should be considered-A,a bold faced lie,B a hallucination,C you're crazy or D god exists,he speaks to a chosen few,but allows untold suffering to continue,unabated on the rest of the planet,while chatting to his few.Any way you cut it,it's not pretty.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  16. jclough

    To all who don't believe, I wish you could just open your eyes,,,,'
    As far as the whole evolution vs creation thing is concerned, I'm confident that evolution is real. I think things have had some "divine" guidance from time to time. Years ago we had to stop using DDT because it was making Bald Eagle egg shells just a little bit thinner. The change was very small, just a couple of thousanths of an inch. All the chicks were dying because the egg shells were breaking before they were ready to come out.

    An egg shell has to be just the right thickness. Too thick and the chick can't get out. Too thin and the the shell breaks before its time. The logical mind would realize that an egg with just the right thickness didn't or couldn't have evolved. Any deviation from optimal thickenss would have resulted in the extinction of the species.

    I believe that bodies do change to better adapt to thier surroundings, but keep in mind that they're still just crappy clunky bodies, prone to injury and disease....not who we are...not our humanity.

    Though it has no mass, surely no one would disagree that our humanity exists (I'm not using the word soul for fear of scaring the hell out of the agnostics). It's what we feel, what we think, how we feel. Our humanity is affected by how we react to others.

    As far as evidence is concerned...open your eyes! Can you see love? Can you see fear? All you can see are their effects. Things don't have to have mass to be real.

    There have been a few times in my life where I've been certain that God has "touched" me. For that I'm thankfull.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Nana9999

      Love your comments. Have you ever had an opportunity to attend the study, The Truth Project? The most outstanding piece of information I took away from this study was that it takes much more faith (in something) to believe in the scientific theory of creation without God than it does to believe that it occurred through God.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Dedamyre

      Is your argument that Evolution is real and the eggshells are an example of divine intervention?

      You almost answered your own question there. Any mutation that made the eggshell thinner or thicker would have led to the death of that chick, hence the eggshells with the right thickness would have continued on. Mutations sorted by pressures from environment. That is natural selection.

      Also, I have seen people die of dementia. As their neurons degrade, a piece of their humanity dies with them, until they become husks with no personality. The uniqueness of that person is gone. It is pretty obvious to me that the soul attributed to God is really emergent properties of our vast and complex system of neurons.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Aletheya

      Interesting post, however there is a flaw in your logic regarding the egg shells. Egg shells are exactly the right thickness because the shells that were the wrong thickness all failed. Those chicks all died, leaving only those that came from shells of the right thickness, who passed on the genes for shells of the right thickness. Even today there are no doubt mutations that result in bad shells, which in turn fail. That is merely the mechanism of natural selection. It doesn't invalidate your point, but you need a better example.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • pazke

      I am one of those non-believers you are writing to. My eyes are wide open, sister. The bible is a book of fairy tales that was written to explain things that we couldn't understand. There are lots of things that we still don't understand, but I, for one, don't need to make up stories to explain them. If you had a true understanding of evolution, you'd see that your eggshell theory doesn't hold water. It's no better than Kirk Cameron's banana bit.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  17. Alrighty Then

    CNN headlines crack me up! First we have: "Hearing God not always crazy." Then we have: "Science leads to danger and discovery." As though science is the real danger we need to be concerned about, not crazy people hearing non-existent voices!!

    December 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  18. luvlar

    I hear the devil sometimes. He says, one more tequila won't hurt. Does that make me crazy?

    December 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Capt. Trask

      You are alcoholic. A form of mental illness if you lack too much self-control. Otherwise enjoy your vitamin T.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Nana9999

      At best, you're just an alcoholic... If you're not already crazy, it will come..just keep ingesting that tequila.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  19. Judi Van Emmerik

    Also, Atheists don' wanna believe in God, but they sure do like to blame him for the worlds troubles...

    December 30, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • mama k

      You obviously don't understand the basic concept of atheism. Let me be the first to tell you – it makes you sound stupid.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • MercuryCrest

      No, atheists typically blame the people who claim to be serving their god's will in often times twisted ways. They are blaming the people responsible, while the people responsible point at the sky and say that god's the reason they did what they did.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • mama k

      To clarify my remark, by it, I mean your lack of knowledge about atheism.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  20. lol??

    When chitown's mob speaks the people listen. ill i noise Here's the scoop. In Illinois they get elected, then convicted. With God it's the opposite. One gets convicted, then elected. illynoise puked out the Big O.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:09 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.