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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. Lori----

    Word Origin
    from dur
    Definition
    period, generation, dwelling

    generation

    (Aramaic) corresponding to dowr; an age

    January 2, 2013 at 12:50 am |
    • ----------Lori________

      Can you keep track of your antics against me-childs play!

      January 2, 2013 at 12:58 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Well that makes his "prediction" rather meaningless. He could have just said he would return....later.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:00 am |
  2. Lori----

    If i change my name, the Godless atheists will never be able to keep track!

    Jesus told me to change my ID because His word will NOT be suppressed.

    January 2, 2013 at 12:50 am |
    • ----------Lori________

      Nice try–again as I said anyone who has been on here for a few days knows I would not say these things-but it sounds like you cannot cope with reality so you try to assume my persona and write things I would never say-SAD!

      January 2, 2013 at 12:53 am |
  3. L.H

    I desperately need attention, so I've come here to post as much as possible to fight back the Godless atheists.

    MIGHT IS RIGHT!

    amen

    January 2, 2013 at 12:49 am |
    • ----------Lori________

      Pathetic! trying to be me because you are that insecure!!!! I do not need attention–but unlike others such as yourself I do enjoy a decent phylisophical conversation

      January 2, 2013 at 12:56 am |
    • Sue

      No, actually being you must be pathetic enough, Lori!

      January 2, 2013 at 1:18 am |
    • Bet

      "phylisophical"???? Jeepers creepers.

      January 2, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  4. L.H

    Jesus will NOT be constrained by your petty "reason" or "truth". We, as Christians, can just change things as we go along to fit our own agendas.

    I don't actually read aramaic, but Jesus told me what he really meant.

    January 2, 2013 at 12:46 am |
    • Lori----

      Ahh you missed that I changed my name-LOL

      January 2, 2013 at 12:48 am |
    • Lori----

      I do not need to speak or read Aramaic so long as I have personal revelation from Jesus.

      Our God is an awesome God!

      January 2, 2013 at 12:52 am |
    • James

      As long as you know you're right, you mean?

      January 2, 2013 at 1:17 am |
    • Athy

      Your god is totally fictitious.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:20 am |
    • James

      Athy
      Not just her god. There's no reason to think that any of them were ever real.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:33 am |
  5. L.H

    I the one who spoke of the train crash would never say that people are going to burn in hell if they are not Christian–I already took care of that much earlier today and yesterday– so whoever is trying to change their post name to seem like me must be new!

    January 2, 2013 at 12:43 am |
  6. Lori H.

    If a biblical prophecy fails, all I need to do is claim that the translation is incorrect. There's always a way out for God.

    January 2, 2013 at 12:43 am |
    • Lori----

      Ahhh-you who critisize and cannot even own up to your real name or a different one! you try to take on another persona, you try to take my name Lori instead

      January 2, 2013 at 12:45 am |
  7. L.H

    Lori H.
    All of you Godless atheists will burn in the Christian Hell.

    You must be the same person who tried to mimmick Bob's posts earlier–talk about schizo

    January 2, 2013 at 12:41 am |
  8. Lori H.

    To fix the quandry of Mattew 24:34 you need to understand the Bible has many translations but in Aramaic the main text of the Bible the word does not mean the same as it does in English.In Aramaic Generation comes from another word meaning Age or period of time, not generation in the sense of that of a human time, but that of the generation of man–the age of man– it can be futuristic!

    January 2, 2013 at 12:39 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      If the bible can be that wrong because that tranlslation is misleading....why should anyone trust it for anything?

      January 2, 2013 at 12:45 am |
    • Lori----

      The Bible was meant to be a guide not a finite recipe, the Bible was not even put out for most people to read until the 1600's and their have been many many translations of the original texts which were Aramaic and Hebrew

      January 2, 2013 at 12:47 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      ******And I predict you respond to me by creating an entire new post

      January 2, 2013 at 12:17 am ****

      I WAS RIGHT! I AM A PROPHET OF THE FLYING SPEGHETTI MONSTER!!!!

      January 2, 2013 at 12:49 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      That is just more evindence it should not be trusted.

      January 2, 2013 at 12:55 am |
    • James

      Lori
      That would be Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, or do you not count the New Testament as part of the Bible?

      January 2, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • Bet

      I don't know who wrote this, so I can't give proper credit, but it seems to fit right in here:

      "If a bible verse furthers the cause, it is to be taken literally. If a bible verse is detrimental to the cause, it is either: taken out of context; is allegorical; refers to another verse somewhere else; is an ancient cultural anomaly; is a translation or copyist's error; means something other than what it actually says; Is a mystery of god or not discernible by humans; or is just plain magic."

      January 2, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  9. Lori H.

    All of you Godless atheists will burn in the Christian Hell.

    January 2, 2013 at 12:39 am |
    • L.H

      Ahh again you try to be me!!!

      can't even say who you really are?

      January 2, 2013 at 12:40 am |
    • LoHi

      Who are these people and what have they done with my moniker??

      January 2, 2013 at 12:41 am |
    • James

      As long as it's the New Age Christian Hell, and not Medieval Christian Hell, OK? It's like doing time in Canada vs Texas.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:08 am |
  10. Lori

    Jesus told me to come here and teach you Godless atheists a lesson.

    January 2, 2013 at 12:35 am |
    • Lori H.

      ahh there is someone now trying to be me–nice–I never said that

      January 2, 2013 at 12:37 am |
    • Athy

      We don't need lessons. We can actually think. Try it yourself, Lori, if you can.

      January 2, 2013 at 12:40 am |
  11. Lori

    http://www.banglanews24.com/English/detailsnews.php?nssl=070299e301fd3659bcc06897572f696f

    No –I have the correct date I just used 2012 in my first post–but it happened tonight 2013 6:25 pm

    January 2, 2013 at 12:17 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      So you predicted a train crash would happen in 24 hours and you did this at 7:01pm,,,,,,and the crash happened 36 minutes earlier...wow neat trick.....hey....wait a minute....that was the PREVIOUS 24 hours.

      That's kind of dishonest Lori.

      January 2, 2013 at 12:28 am |
    • James

      It's a woman thing. Whenever something goes wrong my wife always claims that she just knew that it would happen. 🙂

      January 2, 2013 at 1:03 am |
  12. Lori

    Ancient Biblical Babylon is Baghdad

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/21/world/middleeast/21iraq.html?_r=0

    the wall separates the city into two religious sects and the green zone for coalition troops

    Revelations 16:19And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.

    And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every unclean spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. (Revelation 18: 2)

    January 2, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • James

      This ... makes ... sense to you?!?

      Wow!

      January 2, 2013 at 12:59 am |
  13. Lori

    At 6:25 pm January 1, sorry - 2013-not 2012

    , a woman was killed in a train crash in Dhaka

    January 1, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
    • == o ==

      Can you also give me the current weather in Wala Wala, Lori?

      January 1, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
    • Lori

      been to Walla Walla Washington–beautiful landscape though not as beautiful as Wyoming traveled alot of America–great country–

      The woman dying has to do with me saying at 7:01 pm that if I said there would be a train crash in 24 hours and then there was one would that count as a prophetic sign?

      January 2, 2013 at 12:06 am |
    • == o ==

      No. Plus it looks like you messed up the date anyway.

      January 2, 2013 at 12:10 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      "if I said there would be a train crash in 24 hours and then there was one would that count as a prophetic sign?

      Lori,

      If you gave the exact time, place, and name yes. Otherwise you are just playing the odds.

      And I predict you respond to me by creating an entire new post

      January 2, 2013 at 12:17 am |
    • PaulB

      Lori
      If it comes true that would make you a particularly compelling suspect in the lady's murder.

      January 2, 2013 at 12:54 am |
    • tallulah13

      There are thousands of rail accidents every year. Predicting one is rather like predicting that a college football team will win the Rose Bowl.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:40 am |
    • Laurie

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GAGFngepGA

      January 2, 2013 at 1:50 am |
  14. Lori

    At 6:25 pm January 1, 2012, a woman was killed in a train crash in Dhaka

    January 1, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
    • PaulB

      Yes, many people undoubtedly died today, but more were born. Is there some special significance to this death?

      January 2, 2013 at 12:51 am |
  15. Lori

    Revelations 20:13

    January 1, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • == o ==

      What is "Revelations"? Is that a website?

      January 2, 2013 at 12:04 am |
    • == o ==

      OK, so I have to assume you are speaking of the Biblical book of "Revelation".

      January 2, 2013 at 12:12 am |
    • Lori

      Yes the Biblical Book Revelations

      January 2, 2013 at 12:22 am |
    • == o ==

      Lori: "the Biblical Book Revelations"

      no such book in the Bible

      January 2, 2013 at 12:23 am |
  16. Lori

    Keep watch seems to me though you can't see it yet he is the one who said the sea will give up its dead-

    The December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was caused by an earthquake that is thought to have had the energy of 23,000 atomic bombs

    By the end of the day of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, it had already killed 150,000 people. The final death toll was 283,000.

    January 1, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” – Matthew 24:34

      Ooops!!!

      January 2, 2013 at 12:11 am |
    • PaulB

      Blessed
      Don't you know the story of the Wandering Jew? Jesus, of course, cursed a Jew who mocked him on the cross to be immortal, and to witness all the tragedy that his people's denial of him would cost them throughout the centuries until, you know, he returns ... some day. Nice, neat, albeit anti-Semitic as hell, little fix to that little problem, wouldn't you say?

      January 2, 2013 at 12:47 am |
  17. Lori

    The God who sends prophecies that tell of things yet to be, and then they come to pass–I would say that God would have quite a bit on the other Gods.

    January 1, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      I still waiting for that god.

      January 1, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
    • Sue

      Lori
      All I see is a God that people wrote stories about sending prophecies predicting events that had already happened. It was the Jewish way of making sense of all their weakness in being conquered. The Greeks had their oracles that did the same thing.

      January 2, 2013 at 12:22 am |
    • Athy

      Verily I say unto you, it's all bullshit. Crapola 247:673.

      January 2, 2013 at 12:43 am |
  18. Bob

    Here is the list for scientists that believed in God http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_thinkers_in_science Also lets point out that the most diabolical murderous leaders like Hitler and Stalin did not believe in God.

    January 1, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      The reason people can disbelieve in god but not gravity is because god's existence is irrelevant. I mean if you're invisible and undetectable, who gives a fvck if you actually exist or not? How many scientists don't believe in the existence of gravity?

      January 1, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
    • Bob

      Actually, Hitler was a devout Christian.

      January 1, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
    • Lori

      Bob there is another Bob posting on here so you might want to add an initial

      January 1, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Here is a list of scientists that have been able to find one piece of detectable evidence for god.

      ....

      January 1, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Lori you found the button!!!!!

      January 1, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
    • == o ==

      LOL cheese. Yes the empty list; the null set.

      January 1, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
  19. Lori

    If the smartest scientists in the whole world–Galileo, Einstein and Edison the best and brightest of all men known to mankind believe in something far greater than themselves a diety, a supreme being-what does that say about atheists?

    January 1, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
    • Bob

      Many considered Edison an atheist. But many of today's top scientists are atheists.
      For instance J. Robert Oppenheimer, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan just to name a few.
      Check out this list:

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

      The number of Nobel laureates is astounding.

      January 1, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • Kay

      Nothing. You just *want* it to mean something. So you've convinced yourself it does. So?

      January 1, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
    • It says that until very recently admitting you were an unbeliever would get you burned at the stake

      " what does that say about atheists?"

      January 1, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • Bob

      "It says that until very recently admitting you were an unbeliever would get you burned at the stake"

      Not sure what is says about atheists. But it says that Christians burn people at the stake. lol.

      January 1, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
  20. Lori

    God does show non believers and God does deal with sinners- but whether or not they believe after they see is often a huge personal choice of soul–God shows non believers and then they believe is the Apostle Paul....

    "And in order for God to do that, you must get saved first. That is how it works. God does not deal with sinners. He will not show you the proof you seek beforehand. For example, I am someone who is truly saved. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God exists. "

    January 1, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Lori", but "God" is an element of mythology, therefore all of your assertions to date have been either unfounded or falsehoods. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "CHRONIC TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book can help you:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...

      January 1, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Lori, throughout the ages, humanity has worshiped literally thousands of gods. There is no evidence that any of them have ever existed, even yours. There is no logical reason to believe in any god, only emotional reasons.

      January 1, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
    • Kay

      If your faith brings you comfort, I think that's great. But it's called "faith" for a reason. So why do you keep trying to "prove" you're right?

      January 1, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
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