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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. the AnViL

    for the delusional among you – if you believe you can prove the existence of your imaginary gods... james randi has some money for you.

    http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/1m-challenge.html

    December 31, 2012 at 2:59 am |
  2. Lori

    tallulah13 so you would rather God not be the creator of these cloud formations– ah who did then?

    December 31, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Mother Nature, of course!

      December 31, 2012 at 3:00 am |
    • hairy_fedd

      http://www.howstuffworks.com/dictionary/meteorological-terms/cloud2.htm

      December 31, 2012 at 3:00 am |
    • the AnViL

      your cloud formations are similar to rorschach ink blots.

      you see what you want to see in them.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • tallulah13

      http://www.universetoday.com/46489/how-are-clouds-formed/

      There you go, Lori. That's how cloud formations are made.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:02 am |
    • Maya

      I suggest you also Google "cognitive bias." The fact that you perceive something as orderly and therefore created does not mean it is so.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • The Truth

      You might as well pray directly to the sun if you want to worship the one most responsible for our rain system, much as most ancient cultures did.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • apostate

      Proof of god = clouds!!??! LMAO

      December 31, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  3. Lori

    utalkintome I have a friend who is a counselor who has witnessed quite a few of my miracles, she has made an audio about it. She is a licensed counselor- she is also a believer now!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:49 am |
    • the AnViL

      confirmation bias has reinforced your delusion.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:51 am |
    • hairy_fedd

      Lets see that million dollars if your miracles can be reproduced under controlled conditions.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Randi_Educational_Foundation

      December 31, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • Peteyroo

      She's as crazy as you are in that case. BTW, watch for the comma splice.

      "my miracles, she has made" <= use a period, not a comma

      December 31, 2012 at 2:59 am |
    • Maya

      The fact that she is a licensed counselor means nothing. Red herring, Google it.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:59 am |
    • the AnViL

      The fact that she is a licensed counselor means – you're seeing a mental health professional... for ??? reason????

      these sorts always tell on themselves.

      lolz

      December 31, 2012 at 3:02 am |
  4. Lori

    Sorry cheesemaker, I am simply proving God exists not that I am the "Best", believe me I have had a tough time of it many many times. I simply have a great deal of faith.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • tallulah13

      No offense, Lori, but cloud formations and competent medical care are not signs of god. But your need to believe (and convince others) that god is communicating directly to you appears to be a sign of your need to feel important.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:56 am |
    • Peteyroo

      You have not proved God's existence in any way. He doesn't exist anymore than leprechauns or unicorns exist.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • The Truth

      It takes a great deal of faith to believe something without any evidence. But why gild the lily, why insist that the universe is more amazing than it already is by deciding it must have an eternal all knowing all powerful "male" deity ruling it? It only makes sense from a scared little mouse perspective skittering around bowing to this and praying to that, anything to stave off the fear of death for that is the one burden of being self aware, it is also understanding that we are but mortals and, just like the stars themselves, must one day expend all our energies and die. Anyone who believes God talks to them is merely hearing the echo of their own self awareness. No more, no less, for it is still an important conversation to have with oneself. I recommend taking that journey but accepting it for what is it and not deifying your own ego out of fear and to stop being a little mouse.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:03 am |
  5. Lori

    The clouds speak for themselves. My healed body spoke for itself, there is no doubt of that! Sorry you have a hard time and revelations reality is not by me, and not my reality but The Reality sorry if you don't like that but I didn't create it!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • apostate

      We know how clouds are formed naturally sans any gods. A body healing happens sans gods as well.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Do you know how to use a "period"?

      December 31, 2012 at 3:02 am |
  6. Lori

    The clouds speak for themselves. My healed body spoke for itself, there is no doubt of that! Sorry you have a hard time

    December 31, 2012 at 2:42 am |
    • joline

      "My healed body spoke for itself,"

      They sell this stuff called Gas-X. You should give it a try, Lori

      December 31, 2012 at 3:28 am |
  7. Lori

    If you were laying on your deathbed and you heard your dead father speak would you be crazy?

    December 31, 2012 at 2:40 am |
    • hairy_fedd

      Could be random neurons firing in your head, caused from cellular death.

      You know, scientists have reproduced many of these same kind of hallucinations in labs by using strong electromagnets attached to peoples heads.

      http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/curiosity/topics/big-question-near-death-experiences-hallucinations.htm

      December 31, 2012 at 2:54 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Yes, you would be a total moron and very crazy. BTW it's "lying" on your bed.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:54 am |
    • apostate

      Your brain can generate all kinds of strange things outside of normal operation like your body shutting down. This is not evidence of anything supernatural.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:02 am |
  8. t3chn0ph0b3

    You've got to be kidding me. We have enough of an untreated mental illness problem in this country as is, then someone has to come along and talk about how hearing voices in your head is fine as long as that voice is God.

    If you're hearing voices, seek help, especially if that voice claims to be God and starts telling you what to do.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:39 am |
  9. utalkintome

    for someone who has studied this for this for the last 8 years, i can tell you that when someone is talking to, or is hyped up on god, it is no different than talking to themselves....brain patterns are identical in someone with some mental disorders(schizophrenia, bi polar etc)....i would think the author of this article would have known this....it seems her agenda is to promote her beliefs rather than science

    December 31, 2012 at 2:39 am |
  10. Lori

    Cheesemakers you are afraid– but what will you do when all is said comes true?

    December 31, 2012 at 2:39 am |
    • The Truth

      And what will you do when it does not? Oh, that's right, you'll keep doing what you have been doing for thousands of years, predict the imminent destruction of those the religious deem wicked at the hands of whichever groups otherworldly deity apparently wins, or loses, or whatever...

      December 31, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  11. Lori

    The Pope and Billy Graham have been hearing God for years and they are considered quite sane!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:38 am |
    • Peteyroo

      No, they are not! They are deluded fools.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • joline

      Obtaining wealth neither makes one sane nor a "God-whisperer".

      December 31, 2012 at 3:07 am |
  12. Lori

    The children who are now grown of Medjugorje hear Mother Mary and they are deemed quite sane!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:37 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Wrong again!

      December 31, 2012 at 3:04 am |
  13. Lori

    God cannot stop man's free will Moby Schtick

    God healed me because I asked and believed and listened–Blessed are the Cheesemakers

    December 31, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • joe

      My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy
      --------–
      Sorry, yes you are. If you heard God a little, you're a little crazy. If you hear It a lot, you're a lot crazy.

      Get help.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:38 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      And you think you are the only one? Believers ask and pray every day....but you are the lucky one. It's kind of arrogant.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:41 am |
    • tallulah13

      Doctors healed you because they spent years studying protocols shown to be effective, then practicing and improving these protocols in order to be able to help more patients. Then you gave credit to god instead of them, because you are an ungrateful religious zealot with delusions of grandeur.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:08 am |
  14. VladBudapest

    He or she who hears God speak is suffering a psychotic episode. To paint it any other way is either misguided or malicious.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:33 am |
  15. Chernabog

    So, the point of this article is to ask people to reconsider how crazy they feel someone else is for hearing voices?

    Sorry, just because they are a fairly morally sound person does not discredit the notion that they might be neurologically disturbed. If you hear voices in your head and you decide to drown your kids, you're malicious, but if you did it with your hands together, you're not crazy because it might just be faith-based?

    Sounds like a terrible list of nuances to sift through simply to try and rationalize mental instability.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:30 am |
  16. Lori

    did you know that Babylon is Bagdad–That Appolyon is an island in Iran, that Megiddo is a mountain in between SYRIA and Israel–all Revelations all now!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:28 am |
    • apostate

      Megiddo isn't near the border of Syria.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  17. Lori

    I can prove all I say is real!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Then do it!

      December 31, 2012 at 3:05 am |
    • apostate

      So far your "proof" can be summarized as your imagination and your reinterpretation of natural phenomena as somehow supernatural. = Not proof of anything.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:06 am |
  18. Lori

    Are you so afraid of the truth?

    I can also prove my medical records–and there is much more–do you fear life and death?

    Did you know the burning lake of sulfur in the Book of Revelations is Yellowstone's supervolcano–it is a subterranean volcanic lake. Did you also know that the sea gave up its dead during the two tsunamis? go to http://www.abrahamsinfo.com

    December 31, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      You are a loon

      December 31, 2012 at 2:34 am |
    • utalkintome

      i suggest for you to seek out professional help....and yes you are talking to an actual doctor

      December 31, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • joline

      Oh – lol. Now I see what you're talking about. The Bible. lol. As it turns out, dingbat, there is no such book of Revelations in the Bible.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  19. Lori

    ahhhhhhhhhhhhh–let's see you compare a formation spot on an animal to up to the day clouds that appear! I can prove they occurred at the exact time of the news stories.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      Why would your god do such stupid sh!t? Because if he can move clouds around to make shapes at the same time as current tragedies, perhaps you could talk him into actually helping dying children or feeding and hydrating starving children in other parts of the world.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Lori you think god favors you personally over thousands of other people by healing you. And then he communicates with YOU through cloud formations. Do you know how that comes off?

      December 31, 2012 at 2:31 am |
  20. Moby Schtick

    Just think. If god exists, THESE are the people he's chosen to represent him.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:22 am |
    • Wisdom4U2

      Way better than the ones Satan easily uses; you for instance.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      Satan does not exist, but he's far, far more moral and righteous than the god of the bible. Read your bible, and you'll see I'm correct.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:31 am |
    • dale

      moby,

      you're leaving me hang here or what? thought we had a deal? Show me your biggest problem with the Bible.......

      December 31, 2012 at 2:40 am |
    • If you truely hear voices....

      truly.... sometimes i think these people have no concept for just what kind of being they ve created.. Can control space, time and matter.... but no mention of the sciences, any of them, no math, chemistry...nothing that would really help a backward stone age people get a good launch. Is fearful of Idols and the worshop of other gods.....

      Im not the brightest star in the sky...and even as a kid the whole mess reaked..the miracles... Raising the dead? and it was common occurance... Joshua stopping the sun? for 3? days ....really?

      December 31, 2012 at 2:55 am |
    • Maya

      Here's a problem with the Bible: God tells his followers to brutally sacrifice animals and kill their disobedient to satisfy him. Now, I know what you're going to say. You're going to say it is all about context, that he was talking to a specific group of people, Jesus makes the Old Testament irrelevant, blah blah blah. I don't care. Anyone, human or deity, who would EVER encourage that kind of behavior for ANYONE is a psychotic sadist and worthy of only contempt, certainly not worship.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • tallulah13

      If these are gods chosen children, then god is either crazy or has a wicked sense of humor.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:59 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.