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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. larry,oakland,ca

    idn't the son of sam claim to hear a dog tell him what to do. maybe he was he dyslexic

    May 9, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
  2. NTG

    Wow the crazy on this page... grown ups with imaginary friends

    May 5, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  3. De Odorizer

    Luhrmann says that schizophrenics hear things like “Dirty. You’re dirty.”
    That was not what Abraham, Moses and Job experienced, even when God was at his most fierce.
    HOW Would She Know??? We don't even know what voices Einstein, Hitler, Stalin and Bob Marley heard in their heads, how would she know what Moses heard, ... or NOT???
    Besides, the voices told Oliver Sacks (after heavy drug doses) "you silly bugger"... sounds like what schizophrenics hear.
    Stupidest article in a long time.

    May 3, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
  4. meizitang strong version

    Carmen January 7th, 2011 meizitang strong version http://botanicalslimming19.edublogs.org

    May 3, 2013 at 1:21 am |
  5. Joe Shanahan

    Dear CNN. This "Belief" section of your website is interesting. However, since recent polls have determined that the fastest growing segment in this country is the people who say they have "no religious affiliation", I wonder when you will have a section where people like me can go to discuss issues with like-minded people.

    I suggest you call that section. "Disbelief."

    May 1, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • conrad

      It's pretty much the rest of the site.
      I mean, do you really want a place where you can go to talk about how you DONT believe in God all the time? 'Cause that takes place pretty much on any article where someone even whispers the word 'pray'. Full-on bigoted assault on believers.

      Or are you just whining because you just can't tolerate that other people do believe and they get their very own articles and when they do it isn't all about you?

      May 7, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • Nicodemus Grumpschmidt

      Did Joe touch an overly sensitive nerve there, Conrad? Be a man. Suck it up!

      May 9, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  6. Leftcoastrocky

    "Voices may form part of human suffering. They also may inspire human greatness." Do terrorists who are motivated by religion hear voices too?

    April 30, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • jullian smith

      Oh they hear voices but they sure as CCN being bias aren't from God.

      May 9, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  7. Thomas

    True story. I once participated in a commitment hearing of a guy who was living, naked, in a tree eating leaves. He told the judge God gave him the tree and told him to live there. As you would expect, the judge committed the guy. Afterward the Judge turned to me and said, "You spend you life looking for God, society praises you. You find him, it locks you up." Smart judge.

    April 27, 2013 at 7:45 am |
  8. Fred Evil

    If you hear god, ANY god, YOU ARE CRAZY.

    April 25, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  9. thelittleflower

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, send now Your Spirit over the earth. Let the Holy Spirit live in the hearts of all nations, that they may be preserved from degeneration, disaster and war. May the Lady of All Nations, who once was Mary, be our Advocate. Amen."

    Please pray this prayer and spread the prayer to others.

    http://www.marypages.com/AmsterdamEng.htm

    April 23, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      Why do you expect that to work? Has it ever before? Why would you expect it to now?

      April 25, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • Nicodemus Grumpschmidt

      ".....and please grant me the ability to reason sometime before I die."

      May 9, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
  10. Robert Striblen

    Hearing the voice of God is knowing he lives inside you. God created us all and he is the architect of our soul. Listening to God is the foundation of all righteous belief and faith!

    April 18, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  11. hisgoodteenr

    If you think you hear the voice of god, get your head examined by doctors and scientist. Publish the peer-reviewed results to the public to get to the bottom of the issue. The believers will not like the results.

    April 14, 2013 at 2:42 am |
    • Brian

      We already have a name for it. It's called schizophrenia...

      April 22, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
  12. jopair

    When God speaks in the bible, it is as He wishes... Some he spoke to audibly, and some he spoke to in a manner only they could hear... In the bible, there are concise reasons God spake... Jesus said "My sheep hear my voice." ... To me, that involves His word, my conscience that is in line with His word (which He knows completely), coinciding instances of messages and happenings... knowledge of Him in His creation... all of which helps me while clinging to the fact that He loves me beyond my notions of grace... and limited reception of His love.

    April 12, 2013 at 12:42 am |
  13. lizzaaaaay

    YES IF YOU CLAIM TO "hear" GOD YOU ARE REDICULOUSLY STUPID.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • lizzaaaaay

      LOL OKKKK

      April 11, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  14. A Reasoner

    Oddly enough, it's always peoples own gods who talk to them, never one of the thousands other "true gods". Conveniently, they always use their native languages and speak in impressive voices. Ever hear of anyone getting a message from god in a high-pitched squeaking voice? Of course, all of that can be dismissed if it turns out that "Flipper" was actually god.

    Being a slave to your own delusions is no better than being a slave to those of others.

    April 9, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • NON-BELIEVER IN FAIRY TALES

      Well said.

      April 17, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • conrad

      So does that mean we should be a slave to our delusional sense of God or should we be a slave to your delusional sense that there is no God?

      May 7, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
  15. BuckDN

    simply dropping by to say hello
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    April 9, 2013 at 10:34 am |
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    April 9, 2013 at 8:09 am |
  17. KTShamim

    Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge, and Truth is an excellent read that provides a detailed exposition on the nature of revelation, its relation to rationality and the fact that they are eternal knowledge and truth (which is one in the same thing).

    Conversation with God is, in fact, the only solution to humankind's problems. History has shown it has always been the only bringer of moral revolutions (emphasis on the word 'moral').

    April 4, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • Science

      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/07/my-take-how-churches-can-respond-to-mental-illness/#comments

      April 9, 2013 at 8:17 am |
    • Brian

      If you "hear" the voice of God, you are delusional. There's a difference between solitude to think and hearing the voice of God. Solitude is known to be great for reasoning, practice, thinking, etc.. It doesn't equate to listening for God. If you hear god you should probably start taking medicine before your schizophrenia gets worse.

      April 22, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
    • Science

      KTShamim....................

      Surprising New Function for Small RNAs in Evolution.........time to pound sand maybe ?

      Apr. 19, 2013 — An international research team in including Christian Schlötterer and Alistair McGregor of the Vetmeduni Vienna has discovered a completely new mechanism by which evolution can change the appearance of an organism. The researchers found that the number of hairs on flies' legs varies according to the level of activity of a so-called microRNA.

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130419075909.htm

      April 26, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • conrad

      Brian,
      So in otherwords, since you haven't had the experience everyone else who has is delusional.
      Did you read the article? It clearly pointed out that many people who have claimed to hear the voice of God and yet they are in fact NOT mentally ill whatsoever.
      Also, there are plenty of crazy people out there doing horrific things that don't believe in God at all. So perhaps there just isn't a 1 to 1 correlation between religious experience and mental illness.
      Perhaps you are simply a non-believer. Which is fine, but don't force your perspective on other people by calling them crazy because they are different from you. You sound intolerant.

      May 7, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Nicodemus Grumpschmidt

      It all is a product of the human psyche. Some of us, however, don't need an imaginary friend to guide us. We already know. It's pretty much summed up in The Golden Rule.

      May 9, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  18. Mark Gerardy

    Those with religious furor tend to turn spiritual upside down: then create their own God in their own image and play god. Whatever they think, feel or whatever words that their conscious utters, with subconscious arrogance, somehow becomes "the word of God". So essentially anyone, from a serial murder, the cult leader Jim Jones, to the soccer mom, to the preacher – if they "hear God", they feel that they have every right to this legitimacy, and some in the religious community will sanction the legitimacy of the same based on the person's social standing in society, but not on the merits of the supposed phenomon.

    Hearing the word of God is nothing more than a self-deluded exercise in spiritual arrogance as to have the sheer audacity to hear the word of God. Anyone can put thoughts into their own head and then re-label them "God", so they may thrill themselves with a spiritual melodramatic moment to turn their little metaphysical crank. Hearing the voice of God is the ultimate cop-out, as this shifts the burden of proving the same to be cloaked in the spiritual reverence of others to be forced to respect something than no one can prove or disprove, but "has" to be just accepted as fact or be labeled as supposely anti-religious. Therefore, essentially this spiritual trick then gets to be played on society, in the form of "my God said this", "my God is bigger than your God" and establish a system in which anyone can usurp any law or rule because their
    god" allegedly spoke to them, when it was really their own selfish motives speaking, and under this guise, essentially do whatever they please in society, lest anyone upset their delicate sacred cow spiritual sensitivities.

    Stop the spiritual phoniness and accept the fact that no one has any magical powers and if such as God exists, no one will hear or understand such as God until after they are dead. To presume otherwise only creates a power grab for anyone arrogant enough to make such a claim as to hear the voice of God. Get over yourself. If you honestly feel that you hear the voice of God, then apply it to your own life and have some self-respect by not cheapening the sacred by evangelizing the private spirituality in to some ugly blind public political crusade.

    April 3, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • conrad

      Isn't it a bit arrogant for you to claim that God isn't speaking to people? Are you definng what God is and is not capable of? Are you claiming that because you don't hear him that nobody else can because you are the highest beacon of spiritual knowing? Ok so he hasn't spoken to you, but that doesn't make you an authority. It simply makes you someone who doesn't personally know that side of human experience.

      May 7, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
  19. glorla

    AM GLORIA

    I WANT TO GIVE THANKS TO Dr Oyinbo THE GREAT SPELL CASTER WHO GOD HAS BLESS WITH HIS SPIRITUAL POWER TO HELP PEOPLE.I NEVER KNOW THAT THERE ARE STILL GREAT MEN LIKE THIS IN THIS WORLD UNTIL I CONFIRM MY SELF,MY HUSBAND LEFT ME WITH 3CHILDREN TO SOUTH AFRICA FOR ANOTHER WOMAN AND SEANCE HI LEFT US HE HAS NEVER CALLED TO KNOW HOW MY CHILDREN AND I IS LIVING UNTIL ONE DAY I CONFIRM THAT MY HUSBAND WHICH I CALL MY LOVER WAS HAVING AN AFIRE WITH ANOTHER WOMAN IN SOUTHAMPTON THAT WAS WHY HE NEVER THINK ABOUT US ANYMORE BUT,UNTIL ONE DAY I WAS ON INTERNET CHECKING OUT SPELL CASTER ONLINE I MET ALOE OF PEOPLE TESTIFYING WHAT Dr Oyinbo HAS DONE FOR THEM SO I QUICKLY CONTACT HIM WITH MY PROBLEM AND I WAS ASK TO FORWARD MY DETAILS FOR THE WORK SO I QUICKLY DO THAT AFTER 6DAYS OF THE SPELL MY HUSBAND RETURN BACK TO ME WITH THE POWER OF Dr Oyinbo , THAT WAS HOW I GOT MY HUSBAND BACK I MUST CONFIRM THAT Dr Oyinbo IS THE BEST SPELL CASTER I HAVE EVER MEET.THANKS
    contact Dr Oyinbo VIA;prophetoyinbojesus@yahoo.com

    GLORIA

    April 1, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • conrad

      After all that mistreatment, why would you want him back?

      May 7, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
  20. plnsfrd

    Relationships do indeed require communication. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Mt. 7:22 Therefore, it seems logical to assume that knowing Jesus is not nearly as important as Him knowing you.

    April 1, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
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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.