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. Adam

    Organized religion is nothing more than a system of social controls. T.M Luhrmann seems to a very intelligent woman. Certainly if people hear voices that are not "crazy" then hearing some voices is not necessarily abnormal and you would be able to find examples of such in healthy human populations not influenced by popular monotheistic belief systems. We know it's not "God" talking to anyone, they are hearing "things". You can believe it's whomever you want, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, your 3rd grade teacher, your deceased parents, loved ones, Yoda, you pick. These voices and sounds are originating in your brain, they are not coming from some outward source. Constantine the Great would be so proud today to see his will still breaths and his legacy is one of the most powerful in the world.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • freep211

      I would include money in your comment. Organized religion is more about money than anything else, in my opinion.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Leif

      Organized religion is about the need for connection with ourselves, with our family, with our shared heart.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Adam

      Freep211, Money, politics, and religion are all tools used to control human populations. We are nothing more than family of great apes and not the only one to have existed, just the only one to have survived and come so far in our evolutionary process. The purpose of all of us here on Earth is to reproduce, breed better, stronger, and smarter children. We need to maintain social order to preserve life and create an environment that will allow us as a species to thrive. Organized religion allows the implementation of laws, rules, commands, and guidelines that are beyond question and to be believed to have originated from God or Gods. This is not an easy and simple process and wars are constantly being fought because it's not about an actual God, God doesn't lose wars, God doesn't lose, God is infallible. It's about social control, power, money, and domination. When we speak of God and the actions of God, we are speaking about men that presented their own ideas and have represented them as the will of God.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  2. roy

    It's important that we share our experiences with God without fear, I always used to wonder why God stopped speaking to people, because there is no recording of the fact by the Church other than that given in the Bible. Do the Church believe that God do speak, if so, its time to acknowledge and proclaim. God is speaking to us daily, that is why I am writing this opinion.
    May God Bless the readers.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Leif

      God stopped speaking to people because they never listened in the first place.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  3. a dose of reality

    A few questions should help shed light on the relationship between religion and rational thought.
    The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in the “afterlife” comes from the field of:
    (a) Astronomy;
    (b) Medicine;
    (c) Economics; or
    (d) Christianity
    You are about 70% likely to believe the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with only one man, one woman and a talking snake if you are a:
    (a) historian;
    (b) geologist;
    (c) NASA astronomer; or
    (d) Christian
    I have convinced myself that gay $ex is a choice and not genetic, but then have no explanation as to why only gay people have ho.mo$exual urges. I am
    (a) A gifted psychologist
    (b) A well respected geneticist
    (c) A highly educated sociologist
    (d) A Christian with the remarkable ability to ignore inconvenient facts.
    I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am
    (a) a delusional schizophrenic;
    (b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly
    (c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or
    (d) your average Christian
    Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:
    (a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;
    (b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;
    (c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or
    (d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.
    I believe that an all powerful being, capable of creating the entire cosmos watches me have $ex to make sure I don't do anything "naughty". I am
    (a) A victim of child molestation
    (b) A r.ape victim trying to recover
    (c) A mental patient with paranoid delusions
    (d) A Christian
    The only discipline known to often cause people to kill others they have never met and/or to commit suicide in its furtherance is:
    (a) Architecture;
    (b) Philosophy;
    (c) Archeology; or
    (d) Religion
    What is it that most differentiates science and all other intellectual disciplines from religion:
    (a) Religion tells people not only what they should believe, but what they are morally obliged to believe on pain of divine retribution, whereas science, economics, medicine etc. has no “sacred cows” in terms of doctrine and go where the evidence leads them;
    (b) Religion can make a statement, such as “there is a composite god comprised of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, and be totally immune from experimentation and challenge, whereas science can only make factual assertions when supported by considerable evidence;
    (c) Science and the scientific method is universal and consistent all over the World whereas religion is regional and a person’s religious conviction, no matter how deeply held, is clearly nothing more than an accident of birth; or
    (d) All of the above.
    If I am found wandering the streets flagellating myself, wading into a filth river, mutilating my child’s genitals or kneeling down in a church believing that a being is somehow reading my inner thoughts and prayers, I am likely driven by:
    (a) a deep psychiatric issue;
    (b) an irrational fear or phobia;
    (c) a severe mental degeneration caused by years of drug abuse; or
    (d) my religious belief.
    Who am I? I don’t pay any taxes. I never have. Any money my organization earns is tax free and my own salary is also tax free, at the federal, state and local level. Despite contributing nothing to society, but still enjoying all its benefits, I feel I have the right to tell others what to do. I am
    (a) A sleazy Wall Street banker
    (b) A mafia boss
    (c) A drug pusher; or
    (d) A Catholic Priest, Protestant Minister or Jewish Rabbi.
    What do the following authors all have in common – Jean Paul Sartre, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, and Blaise Pascal:
    (a) They are among the most gifted writers the World has known;
    (b) They concentrated on opposing dogma and opening the human mind and spirit to the wonders of free thought and intellectual freedom;
    (c) They were intimidated by the Catholic Church and put on the Church’s list of prohibited authors; or
    (d) All of the above.
    The AIDS epidemic will kill tens of millions in poor African and South American countries before we defeat it. Condoms are an effective way to curtail its spread. As the Pope still has significant influence over the less educated masses in these parts of the World, he has exercised this power by:
    (a) Using some of the Vatican’s incomprehensible wealth to educate these vulnerable people on health family planning and condom use;
    (b) Supporting government programs that distribute condoms to high risk groups;
    (c) Using its myriad of churches in these regions to distribute condoms; or
    (d) Scaring people into NOT using condoms, based upon his disdainful and aloof view that it is better that a person die than go against the Vatican’s position on contraceptive use.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • mique

      Please run for president.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • TexasTexasTexas

      I second the motion. I nominate you for President.

      December 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  4. freep211

    I don't have a problem with people believing that they heard God's voice. As a life long Christian, I believe that this is in the realm of reality. However, what I do have a problem with is the constant barrage of BS from the extreme Christian right claiming that they heard God telling them that they need take over the government, take away our freedom to chose lifestyles for ourselves and anyone who doesn't fall into line with their thinking are just God's discards and don't matter.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Jim

      Are you always nothing but a political-power animal or are you really a Christian?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Leif

      Exactly. But do not expect the religious right in this country to admit that you are a Christian. That would tax their intellect.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Leif

      Like Jim's.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Howard

      The fundamental problem here is, how does one know that the voice you hear is really god's, and not merely your own self-motivated darker angel speaking to you? Best to always proceed on the assumption it isn't god, and then he won't get the blame for your own self-interested impulses.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Leif

      Howard has a very good point. You have to trust your self. In the end, that is what we all have to go on. Either we believe in ourselves, or we don't.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • skytag

      I have a problem with any belief in God for the same reason you have a problem with those issues.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  5. Leif

    I heard the voice of my dead mother the other day. She told me to clean my kitchen. It was good advice.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Cathi

      I tell my son that all the time and I'm not even dead! I'll probably just continue this even after. Oh well. : }

      December 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  6. Russ

    26,000 children will die of starvation today. Why should god answer YOUR prayers?

    December 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Mike

      As they say....HE is testing your faith. hahahahahahahahaha

      December 30, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • veggiedude

      Because YOU are special, and those 26,000 children, nothing special about them.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  7. Michael

    Good job!
    Yes we hate sin only because it hurts you and yes because we do love all of you .and yes we are at the door and if you let us in you will never be alone even in your darkest hour.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • skytag

      More fantasies. Don't worry about me. I'm never alone because Santa Claus lives at my house.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  8. rdeleys

    The worst thing about this article is that it is an obvious and desperate attempt by someone who is a clearly Christian believer to give this religious nonsense a cloak of academic and scientific respectability. Sorry folks, but those "voices" originate in the believer's own head.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • Russ

      No sane person has has both read the Bible and believes it.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Joe

      I disagree with both points.
      It is not obvious that Luhrmann is religious. She's not, or at least she was a skeptical social scientist at the outset of her study.
      She also does not say that the hallucinations originate anywhere other than one's brain.
      What she IS saying is that the hallucinations are not usually a sign of mental illness.
      I am an atheist and a psychiatrist, and I found nothing untrue about what she wrote.

      Of course, there is a danger that the immense numbers and collective wealth of America's devout will prove to be tempting reasons to pander to them such that it corrupts her analysis of her data, but that has not happened here.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • TexasTexasTexas

      If God or Jesus or any of their fiction characters were to ever show up and announce themselves, the Christians would all demand a miracle to prove it. Jesus the carpenter or god disguised as a beggar would be ignored. Hahaha they'd probably put god in the looney bin. Actually he'd probably put himself there if he poked around and saw what was going on in the ole name of god. Oops, forgot. He DOES already know, because he has a personal relationship and knows the actions 24hrs a day of all 7,000,000,000 people. (as another commentor pointed out).

      December 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  9. Humberto

    Sounds like southern religion, a criminal cabal trying to play God.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  10. Vera Waitress

    This headline is so cra-cra, so pandering, so embarrassing. There's a difference between conscience and mental illness.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  11. Coco

    In some cases, I would call it psychic/6th sense

    December 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  12. Carl

    Sorry, but all that is hogwash. People who talk to god are nuts.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  13. YoHi60

    One thing that is 100% certain is that those who think they know everything are wrong.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  14. Brad Simmons

    Um, it's yourself talking back. You're having a conversation with yourself in your head. 😉

    December 30, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  15. symen tjeerdsma

    I am a believer in Christ Jesus every days. God found abraham as righeousness so was moses, elijah,stephen,and so on. need prayer fervently without ceasing.Pray all days and nights. Being true and love with God without sin do something very special and relationship with Jesus Christ beautifully. You don't need education skills to understand because spiritual knowledge outrun sensual knowledge big times.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Mike

      Oh goodness. I really hope these people benefit from this prayer and talking to god if that is all they have. But wow is this totally silly.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • david esmay

      You believe in god, but apparently you don't believe in correct grammar.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Carl

      Pray to a god that condones the murder of women and children (Deuteronomy), a god that curses the black man and condones slavery, a god that shows no mercy or love when it comes to killing animals (sacrifices?...are you kidding?), and a bible that can be translated in such as to allow idiots like Westboro Baptist Church to thrive. Jim Jones was a man of god, too. Remember? Hogwash...all of it.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • skytag

      In other words, belief in something for which there is absolutely no evidence trumps fact, reason, and logic. Got it.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • Bernard Webb

      "You don't need education skills"

      Have to differ with you here, Padre.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  16. M

    And here I always believed that religious fools needed more imagination, not less. I stand corrected.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  17. john the atheist

    You may not be crazy, but you would be certifiably batsh.t looney. With all the mental cases in the news lately shooting up their communities, this article is criminal telling people who hear god talking to them that there's nothing wrong with them. It's the 21st century - time to evolve a brain.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Carl

      I agree completely. In this modern day, it's time to put away imaginary friends. If god is really there, and is so powerful, then he must be a real coward and not worth worshipping. If prayer really worked, why are there still children murdered n schools, and 2000 religions all claiming to be the real one? Besides, according to the bible, god already has a plan and prayer for change is useless. I find it hard to believe people fall for that trash. Dropping to your knees for imaginary things is not very mature.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  18. So the Story Goes

    So there was this guy named Abraham, back in the day, and he heard these voices in his head that he should ritually sacrifice his only son on an altar, see. So he got all the sh it together and told his son Isaac, that there was no lamb, like you are it. Now the voice in his head told him because you fear me, the voice, and are willing to be you a good sheepie, you can call the whole thing off; I love happy endings. The sad part is many have not got the no go message since then.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • So the Story Goes

      Yew, not you.....

      December 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • david esmay

      And it all happened out on Highway 61.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  19. are122

    I have had experiences in my life that I firmly believe came from God. It bothers me that two of them had nothing to do with anything in my life and I've never figured out the meaning. Somewhere in the Old Testament God "opened" the eyes of people to reveal things the eye could not normally see. I believe the old saying,"there's more than meets the eye" is quite true.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • skytag

      Firmly believing something is not proof it's true. I discuss politics online and on a nearly constant based I am bombarded by firmly held beliefs that are known falsehoods. One of my issues with religion is that it tells people it's okay to believe something even when it's inconsistent with facts, reason, and logic.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  20. Matt

    "You talk to God, you're religious. God talks to you, you're psychotic."

    This article makes me miss House

    December 30, 2012 at 7:44 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.