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. Jason

    Why would Christians chose to worship a god as described in the bible? He is a sadistic tyrant capable of the vilest of acts the likes of which haven't been seen since Hitler. Does “The Flood”ring any bells? He wiped out the entire human race aside from a select few. But I digress. In the beginning...
    God created the Garden of Eden and all plants within to include the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If he didn't want man to eat from it, then why did he put it there? He set man up for failure and then punished him for it when he did exactly what was expected of him.
    If you open up a snickers bar and put it down in front of a fat kid and walk away, what do you think is going to happen? And if that kid is your child would you then punish him for eating it? If you would, you need your head examined.

    January 21, 2013 at 2:32 am |
    • Russ

      I think what you're ultimately asking is, why would anyone believe in something that is clearly fiction?

      January 21, 2013 at 5:52 am |
  2. Joel

    Thank you to SOME of you for your kind comments. Most of the others are clearly hostile towards God and His people and are really very predictible. Anything they see as a threat to their world view is dismissed as a delusion. How convenient. Yeshua says "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I asked Him into My life and have total confirmation within my being, that YES, He indeed is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I am sooooooooo glad I listened to Him and not to the naysayers. Thank you Lord.

    January 20, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
    • sam stone

      no, joel, we just don't like pompous jacka$$es

      January 22, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
  3. Doug

    Religion is an unstoppable tidal wave of idiocy in America.

    January 20, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • Jane

      And yet people have died so that we might still have the right to talk about it.

      January 20, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • david esmay

      I'll second that. The single greatest obstacle to human evolution.

      January 20, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • sam stone

      jane: people have died so we can talk about whatever the hell we please

      January 22, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
  4. Disenfranchised

    I thought I saw a ghost once. I spent about two grand on shrinks and stuff later. They couldn't tell me what was wrong with me, so there I sat, no diagnosis and one wierd experience.

    Now, looking over this religion blog and seeing just how much drama there is over God, ghosts and what not I wonder if probably I did see one only everybody has said for so long there is "no such thing".

    January 20, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  5. Smarter than U

    Praying to god in order to make a decision is what clear minded people call thinking.
    When GW Bush was asked if he consulted with his father Bush 41 about invading Iraq, he said that he did not. He spoke to a heavenly father. We know how good a decision that turned out to be.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Dreamy the observing solopsist

      If I could only hear the voice of God, then maybe He'd tell me if the rest of you actually exist.

      January 20, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
  6. deko


    Science has also proven that spontaneous generation does not exist

    January 20, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  7. Flying Spaghetti Monster

    If you hear any voices in your head telling you things, please surrender your firearms for the safety of everyone around you.

    January 20, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • Linda

      How much do you make pushing the anti-gun agenda?

      January 20, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • Jeff

      Linda, that's not anti-gun that's being correct. If you hear voices telling you to do things then you're nuts and you don't need to own guns. I'm a gun owner and carry my .45 every where that I legally can.

      January 21, 2013 at 8:31 am |
  8. jan buyck

    Personally, i find that she makes a way to huge logical leap concluding that hearing voices is a proof of the existence of any god and thus uses an enormous fallacy. We hardly know how our brain functions. Systematic research in this area it is less then 150 years old. The hearing of voices may ( and probably will) not having to do anything with a god speaking to humans, but with our brain that is deluding us.

    January 20, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • Linda

      There was an article, and I wish I could remember the name and location of it. It was something along the lines of years ago human beings literally heard voices more so than they do now. But alas I can not find it, relevant as it may have been.

      January 20, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  9. Maria

    What I find strange is that folks who are non believers seem to be experts on the who what and why of faith? I found the artiicle to be refreshing and freeing for those who pursue a faith life with thier creator. Those who don't believe should be reading other blogs that pertain more closely with their own lives. Just saying.

    January 20, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Nina, Pinta & Santa Maria, absolute nonsense. You post it–we pillory it. It's for your own good.

      January 20, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • sam stone

      What i find strange is that the faithful feel the need to use their personal faith as a vehicle for others to accept it. It is as if they are saying "it is MY truth, so it has to be yours"

      January 22, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
  10. thiagan

    I have absolutely no doubt that you can hear God. But so can you 'hear' a billion other voices. But there is a very simple way I know to prove conclusively if the voice from God. But since I am sure a billion more or less persons will similarly be willing to 'prove' that no such thing exists, why should I begin my proof? On the other hand, if you really want to know, why not find a way to get your question to me. I will certainly try my best to explain why I have this "crazy – according to this world" notion.

    January 20, 2013 at 8:22 am |
  11. Bob

    God is a God of relationships, in the end we are to be with Him in fellowship with Him, but while we are here we are also to be in fellowship with Him. Religion puts distance in between man and God which God has never wanted that. I always had heard about God but never in the past took time to find if all the information and stories were true. I wanted to be personal with God and one on one but didn't know if that could indeed happen or even who this God was. So one day with a bit of time on my hands, I picked up the Bible and started to read with the intent of finding who this God really was to me. With all the stories and people saying things about Him and the churches, just so much said there is a God. No one really told how to have this relationship or find who He is or on what terms. I think this is the most tragic failing of the church to preach rules and regulations and not relationship and love. For it is not the church that brings forgiveness or allows us to conform to what God says is a good walk but the Holy Spirit that helps us. The church today has lost sight that it is not them but God that started, establishes and walks a person into a relationship with Him. You can be anywhere and anyone and call on His name and He will start to guide and led you to understanding Him and having that relationship with Him. He calls us all and says come as you are. What a comfort that in our mess or high position we can come and call on Him and ask Him to reveal Himself to us. What is this elaborate prayer or mantra that has to be spoken, ready; "help" that is it. Just say I want to know you and find out who you are but please help me. There has never been a time that I have not asked Him for help and not received it. Now sometimes we ask for help and that help comes and we forget about the crisis of the day and who it was who really did deliver out of that crisis. Have you ever not been thanked for helping someone out of a bad situation? Jesus did that all the time and one occasion spoke His hurt at that. He said ten were healed and only one came back to thank Him. If we are aware of how He changed the situation for us, thank Him and continue to call on Him there is nothing that will be withheld from us. That is the way the walk with the Lord is not magic not religion just a relationship like any other relationship. This is what is forgotten today that it is a relationship and as any relationship there are rules and expectations on both people’s parts. God is no different but the rules are not there without any reason like some rules, they are there so we don’t hurt ourselves and we can heal and lead a good life. But ok let’s get to the good stuff what do we get in return. I must admit I am pretty selfish and if I can’t get something good out of something then I’m not into a one way street. He promises us the ability to hear Him, heal the sick the lame. Open blind eyes and give a word of encouragement to those that need it. This is all while He takes the time to heal support and love us personally and individually. It is unlike anything you have experienced when people start to walk a good life with the help of the Lord. God has a plan for you He made you and wants to have a relationship with you today, just ask Him.

    January 20, 2013 at 8:17 am |
    • Really??

      There are no gods. I lead a good life, free from that delusion.

      January 20, 2013 at 8:20 am |
    • Bob

      Oh really
      Well good for you but what about death?

      January 20, 2013 at 8:27 am |
    • thiagan

      May God be with you Bob, I know! You do know Him. What a shame that so few do. So now we are now, according to the popular notion of this planet, we are confirmed nuts, are we not?:-) Welcome to the club.

      January 20, 2013 at 8:29 am |
    • thiagan

      May God be with you Bob, I know! You do know Him. What a shame that so few do. So now we are, according to the popular notion of this planet, we are confirmed nuts, are we not?:-) Welcome to the club.

      January 20, 2013 at 8:29 am |
    • Bob

      Thanks and peace to you also it would be my wish that the ones that they call themselves Christians would go deeper into what God has called them to do. Unless you get into the game you will never know the true relationship the Lord has for each of us. The military trains hard but a soldier never knows if he is going to make it till he gets into the battle. When he realizes the training pays off he goes back gets some more and then goes out to the battle again. So should it be with Christians, faith without works is dead, not faith because of works but works because of faith. In this we will realize our gifts that each of us have and how good our God really is.

      January 20, 2013 at 8:39 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Boob, too long!

      January 20, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • sam stone

      what about death, blob?

      January 22, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
  12. Randy

    If you hear voices, you should seek psychiatric help.

    January 19, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
  13. Bob

    In prayer we ask God for help and our needs but also in this time allow God to speak to you. Be quiet and listen let Him give you the encouragement and love that you need. Listen for the next step of the Journey with Him.

    January 19, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Boob, are you crazy? You hear voices? God's voice? How the hell do you know if it's him?

      January 19, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
  14. Hank Tuesday

    It's gonna be bad if your wrong and hell is real.

    January 19, 2013 at 10:15 am |
    • Randy

      No worries, there are no gods.

      January 19, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      ShankTunesday, I'm not worried. BTW, it's "you're" not "your."

      January 20, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • david esmay

      I'm not going to live my life based on the irrational fear of reprisals from your magic sky daddy.

      January 20, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
    • G to the T

      Would a truly loving and just god rather I harbor honest doubts or believe in him out of fear of hell? Until I'm shown otherwise, I'll continue to keep my doubts thanks...

      January 25, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  15. Shadow

    1) Therapists get their degree because they are trying to figure out why they are messed up inside.
    2) If you are hearing real voices inside your head, you have schizophrenia or have taken too many drugs at the moment.
    3) Due to #1 on here, it is recommended to be surrounded by those who love you unconditionally and find the 1 in 500 therapists that don't have their own mental issues, so you can get on the proper medication.
    4) If you hear real voices inside your head, steer clear of doing behavior patterns that aren't typical for you when there are no voices in your head. It's not demons or angels speaking, it's an electrical connection in your head that has short-wired.

    January 19, 2013 at 2:07 am |
    • Randy

      Agreed, if you hear voices you should get medical help, rather give a religious corporation more money.

      January 19, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
  16. meifumado

    Dude whats wrong with you leaving a post like that

    January 18, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  17. meifumado


    January 18, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  18. Diane

    Reblogged this on Northern Lights Cafe.

    January 18, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • ???????

      Reviewing the comments noticed someting interesting. Science PROVED it does not work the way the bible said it did !!!
      All the facts are here on this tread. Peer reviewed !!!

      January 18, 2013 at 9:17 am |
    • Science

      At its best here and peer reviewed .No go-d(s) required. Proven right here on this tread!!!


      January 18, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • midwest rail

      Good grief, how many times are you going to post, repost, and post again ? Nothing original ? Anything ?

      January 18, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • LinCA

      @midwest rail

      You said, "Good grief, how many times are you going to post, repost, and post again ? Nothing original ? Anything ?"
      The "Report abuse" feature works again. It takes 5 clicks for a post to disappear. I've started using it on these posts. I suggest you do the same.

      January 18, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • midwest rail

      LinCa – yes, I noticed it was working again. I reserve that for posts that try to use this site as free advertising.

      January 18, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • Bob

      Thanks guys something we agree on.

      January 18, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
  19. raised Agnostic

    The idea of a "spirit world" of any sort existing seems so messed up it is beyond reason...however, sometimes I suspect it might and the idea is just creepy.

    January 17, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
    • Bill from Dover

      Am I normal if I hear God speaking to me through my fish tank, or does it have to be strictly mano on Godo?

      January 19, 2013 at 7:01 am |
    • Southerner01


      Mano means hand. The phrase mano y mano means hand to hand, not man to man. Mano y godo actually would translate to hand to goth. So are you suggesting that people hear god by beating up goths?

      January 19, 2013 at 8:57 am |
    • Bob

      Agi Just like the movie the matrix people go on with lives such as yourself never understanding the real world as we see the atheists testify to this. Denial doesn't make it not true it just makes you ignorant. Spiritual understanding is real understanding, it is moving from darkness into light and to deny its existence is only like sticking your head in the sand. Jesus is the way the truth and the life and there is nothing to fear except fear itself. It is the stopping force just as atheism is to finding fulfillment in your life.

      January 19, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
    • G to the T

      Holy jebus Bob – you a christian quoting the matrix in favor of their stance? I think my irony meter just exploded...

      January 25, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  20. Observer

    You guys posts are too long.

    January 17, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
    • meifumado

      That guy or girl is a maniac

      January 18, 2013 at 11:04 am |
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