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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. RichardSRussell

    Something like 40% of the population believes that the world is less than 10,000 years old, too. Just because there isn't a name for this in the DSM doesn't mean that they aren't nuts, too.

    2000 years ago, almost everybody thot the world was flat. The fact that it was a common idea didn't make it RIGHT.

    If you think God's talking personally to you, you ARE nuts, even if you can find some sympathetic doctor to write you up an excuse saying "Oh, heck, it happens all the time, must be normal." (Here insert anecdote about mom, friends, cliff, and lemmings.)

    December 30, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • lol??

      Doesn't matter what dustballs think. Are you a demobocrat?

      December 31, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  2. EuphoriCrest

    "23% of Americans have heard the voice of god" tell us that at least 23% of Americans are liars.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  3. InFormed

    My Take. If you hear voices on a regular basis, be them kind or insulting, you probably need help from a doctor, not clergy.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  4. sociopathdoctor

    It seems that this god likes to play games.
    All he has to do, is tell everyone that He is for real.

    Why 'contact' a few people.
    In the early days, when there was less than a million people in the world, God sent His son but now
    that there are BILLIONS of people, we don't hear from Him.

    All the events in the bible happened in the Middle East.
    God destroyed the world before (Noahs' ark). If that was true, it means we all are from the Middle East as
    the only people alive where in the Ark.

    Why is it that the 2 main religions are from the Middle East?

    December 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Y

      "Why is it that the 2 main religions are from the Middle East?"

      Loud-mouthed, violent, drama queens - just wily and intelligent enough to spread the stuff.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • Angel Moronic

      Monotheism is product of massive egos

      December 31, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  5. Extra Medium

    It is very true: Religion NEEDs prophets. ... Oops, I mean to type profit$

    December 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • InFormed

      lol

      December 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • lol??

      Obama Mama Healthcare The Loving Beast Act VIVII tailored for atheists in Plan G Section 4565 Part VY subparticle a(38) notes i,k,p (ask your personal advisor for help before signing anything in the ER)

      December 31, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  6. Andy Christensen

    Interesting article.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  7. lol??

    "2Th 2:10 And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved."

    December 30, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      And here I thought Dan was being too harsh.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • Dan

      I find it amusing when people quote fiction.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Shawn

      It is a form of narcissism I guess that would make you have an infinate and transending understanding that the book he holds dear to his heart is fiction. For YOUR sake if you are wrong you are the only one that looses between you two.

      December 31, 2012 at 12:03 am |
  8. Dan

    I have no respect for anyone that believes in this nonsense.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Shawn

      Kind of like spitting in the wind isn't it. If it really doesn't matter why do you waste your time. The fact is your bitterness towards people that believe is a notice that it really does matter. Do you realize that many of the hospitals and universities were built by people of faith? Resources that I am sure you have taken advantage of that were formed by people that believed in a transendant goodness; and please dont give me crap about the crusades or something like that. These people that did these things weren't following the teachings of the new testiment.

      December 31, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  9. richunix

    You can hear anything you want, as long as you believe it.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • Dan

      It's the placebo effect. I haven't figured out why yet but some people want to believe that there is some invisible guy watching over them.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  10. Dan

    If you are dumb enough to believe that everything was created a few thousand years ago by an invisible man in the sky than you probably do hear voices in your head.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  11. Dan

    Deaths in the Bible. God – 2,270,365 not including the victims of Noah's flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, or the many plagues, famines, fiery serpents, etc because no specific numbers were given. Satan – 10

    December 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Dan

      That was meant for Christian7.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      What an incredible deception and exactly the sort of thing christians would understand: if the god of the bible is really Satan

      December 30, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • Shawn

      You realize that many of these people partook in things like child sacrafice? I find it sort of reasonable that you get rid of a generation of people than allow many more to continue evil. If there is indeed a Christian / Jewish God then is was an act or mercy in the long run, even giving that generation of children a safe eternitiy. There may be other areas of conflict that I may have but I think is a bad argument, since you are using a Jewish / Christian morality to try to proove that same morality is wrong (That there is a moral good, that life has value). Given the chance would you have killed Hitlter?

      December 31, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  12. Emid

    Culture of utter nonsense.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  13. Nate

    Leave it to an anthropologist to be so politically correct about "the other" that even hearing voices can't be interpreted as what it is: Being Loony. Sometimes when I'm half asleep, or still in a dream state, I "feel" that there is someone, like an alien, in the room with me. That's when I wake up, shake my head, and realize that it was my brain in a state of half-consciousness, and I laugh, and go back to sleep. Did I actually feel the presence of the almighty in my room? Well if I went to church for my entire life, there's a good chance that the "alien" would be "God" and my half-awake brain would be interpreted not as being a little behind, but actually having some sort of life changing spiritual experience.

    I love anthropology, the study of man (excuse me: people) culture, the interaction between belief, culture, and biology. But this is where I personally draw the line between academia and wacky. It's also probably the reason that I didn't get anything past my B.A. in Anthro. I'm liberal, but in Anthropology, especially in the non-biological departments, it can be an "anything goes" sort of discipline. This article falls into that category, in my opinion.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
  14. hairy_fedd

    Haven't had a prophet of god in a while.

    Advances in understanding of the brain and chemical imbalances have come a long way in the past few hundred years.

    Wonder if the two are connected.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  15. The Flamingo Kid

    If someone thinks that God is talking to them they are either 1. Schizophrenic or 2. Hearing from Satan and the Demons.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Texan

      If Satan and his demons can speak to people so can God.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Ummm... morons.... God, Satan, and the Debil............DON'T EXIST!!! Stop being retarded.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • jeff

      very sad that you are so ignorant..one day you will you will learn the truth and i promise you that it will bring you to your knees

      December 30, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      jeff, why should I believe in something so invisible and undetectable that it's completely irrelevant whether or not it exists?

      December 30, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  16. Dan

    You would think that a professor would be smart enough to know that god is an imaginary being created by man.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • Truelegend7

      Why is it so hard to believe God really exist? You believe in the Big bang theory probably but some scientist thinks otherwise. It is a supreme being that does exist because look at the way things are and how they are so organize(In place). We as human are unorganize until we order things ourself. Can we remove a planet out of it place,can we tell the stras to move. Look beyond what man say about what really exist and believe it yourself. We have become accustomed to science so much that we believe in everything they say. Can science explain why people die and why they choose to kill. We as people can look and see that we know the answer. What make a person choose to do evil acts.What trick they minds to do it.If evil exist does good exist. Would it be obvious that the world would be good and not evil.What cause this to happen.It's beyond our human thinking because we think we have all the answer but we don't. We all been taught to what to believe.If I believe God exist I am crazy but if a person believe he don't is normal. You been taught not to believe because those who taught you do not believe. Find out yourself and you will see but you have to believe it is real. Put aside of not believing and put your faith in the Almighty God. Let him reveal himself to you. Choose for yourself and not what you heard so much. Jesus Christ is the way and eternal lif is in him(believe). I have encounter an experience that was not put together by human and my mind was not playing tricks on me. It was powerful,believe me. I would not reply to you and I did not want you to be save and discover the truth yourself. One Love my brother

      December 31, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  17. Ktb05

    Looking for proof, evidence, voices, and something concrete is human. Many seem to forget that Christianity is entirely based on FAITH. I encourage anybody to take their problems to God through prayer. If something doesn't turn out like you'd hoped or prayed, you have to go outside of your human logic to understand the answer. I think many people give up on faith because they don't "hear" the answer or they can't rationalize it.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • Dan

      Prayer is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Faith is useless in that it works equally well for any belief and any believer.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  18. peterhawkins1

    I don't like to attack religious people. It kind of feels like it's a bit too easy and the battles already been won... But really it just sounds rude, like if you're at a party and some one in conversation is like "Oh, I'm a Christian, I'm a Muslim, I'm a Jew", it's very rude there to say: "Oh how ridiculous!" I feel at this point we have to treat people with kindness and love and respect in the same way you treat a child running around a party saying: "I'm a helicopter!!!" So I say "Good for you! We're all having fun, I'm a choo choo train!".

    Simon Amstell

    December 30, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      I would agree with you if that was all there was too it, but it's not. Beliefs matter, acting like beliefs are no more significant that the clothes one wears is ignorant.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • lifelonghockeyfan

      I would agree with you but the helicopter doesn't try to tell you how to live your life or threaten to kill you if you don't start acting like a helicopter too.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  19. lifelonghockeyfan

    "Science cannot tell us whether God generated the voice that Abraham or Augustine heard." This single comment betrays a total lack of understanding of science.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  20. Christian7

    God is not going to put people in hell for not believing in Him. You're already deserving hell because you're a sinner and that is where you belong. Jesus can correct the situation by paying for your sins in full, but to not face the consequences you deserve because you are evil, you can accept redemption through Jesus Christ. If someone does not pay for your sins for you, you will go to hell and pay forever. ALL sin is punished one way or another regardless of what you believe. If you think I am a nut job and don't think I am right, that changes nothing.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      God is the most disgusting azzhole fvckwad terrorist ever to ALLOW a place of eternal torment to exist at all. Class dismissed.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • lifelonghockeyfan

      You may well be a nut job and you are correct, that changes nothing. What does matter is that your claims are nothing but fabrications with no evidence what so ever, that does change things.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • Christian7

      Moby Schtick, Allow? You mean created eternal torment. God created hell. There is a way to avoid it. You fail to acknowledge the way to avoid it.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Basically your religion gives us the disease (original sin) and then offers us the cure (Jesus)....well isn't that convienent.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • peterhawkins1

      God sacrifices himself unto himself to appease himself for the creation he made for the punishment he demanded. Makes perfect sense...

      December 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Mrs. Pepperpot

      So it's a sin not to believe? How can you just assume I'm a sinner? Bullsh!t. Oops. Venal sin. Guess you're right.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Yes, god's a fvckwad azzhole for creating hell and also for allowing it to exist. Thanks for helping me out. I want to make sure god gets the total credit for being such an azzhole.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • Christian7

      Mrs. Pepperpot, Not believing in God is not stated in the Bible as a sin. Sinning has a consequence. The way out of the consequence is a gift from Jesus Christ if and only if you accept Him.

      "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life."

      December 30, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • InFormed

      Fascinating point of view, but if Jesus KNEW he would arise again after supposedly dying, is it really a sacrifice at all? I am sure that are MANY humans who have suffered horrible pain and torment, certainly worse than being nailed to a tree and speared with a knife. Some suffer for years.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Christian7

      InFormed, NO! Jesus had the sins of over 100 billion sinners placed on Him. We have no idea how bad that was. We do know that He prayed all night that He would not have to bear it if there was another way. It was the greatest sacrifice ever. It was proof that God loves you and does not want you to go to hell. Astonishingly, people choose hell.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • tallulah13

      The god of the christians is not a logical god. Or a rational god. Or even a nice god. Good thing he doesn't exist.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • Mrs. Pepperpot

      I'm not sinful by nature, and all that I've sown is love and kindness.
      I guess I'm doing just fine.

      December 30, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
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