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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. Pishsoychothed51ty

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    December 18, 2013 at 6:13 am |
  2. TYRANNASAUR

    My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy................

    WRONG......I like this USUALLY WORD....it's so religious in the since that you can PICK AND CHOOSE when, whether and what god is saying to you.....people that hear god knows it's GOD....HOW? Does he show a passport or what....and how do you know it's not the fictional devil impersonating this fictional god?

    December 12, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • Dorian

      Yep, and then one day that devil turns around and say: Kill and BAM!

      LMAO!

      December 12, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  3. Carlos Mojica

    Clinically there is no difference between hearing the voice of Yahweh and that of Napoleon Bonaparte. If one is really hearing voices, you probably are in serious need of professional psychotherapy.

    December 11, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Dorian

      Exactly, but the problem is that these people don't want to admit they have a problem and therefore use every excuse to turn it around into a "blessing".

      Yeah, great blessing that is. WOW

      December 11, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • TYRANNASAUR

      Lot's of therapy to be exact.

      December 12, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • nclaw441

      Carlos, I believe there is a difference, in that God is alive and Napoleon, not so much. I understand that you may not believe in the existence of God, but neither you nor I can make a definitive statement, only what we believe.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:19 am |
      • Dorian

        By way of deductive reasoning, we can state that there is no god with the same degree of certainty as with anything else we believe that doesn't exist, i.e. Santa Claus.

        Your statement that god is alive is based on absolutely no evidence and only assumptions.

        On top of that we KNOW that hearing voices is NOT good, just as seeing things that are not there.

        Lastly, people from ALL religions have this same issue, which means that you can't attribute this voices to a particular god.

        Your case is very weak and so by way of reason, we can conclude that those voices are NOT god and therefore could indeed be Napoleon.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
  4. Juanito

    Wow, this thread still going?

    To answer the author's question: no, hearing God doesn't make you crazy.

    Not only is it a blessing, it makes one keenly aware that there is far more to this life than our five senses can possibly detect, much less our ability to fully comprehend God, the origin of our Existance, and His plan for us.

    In His love, Juanito.

    December 11, 2013 at 4:14 am |
    • igaftr

      yep...Nogomain did a great job creating everything, right?

      December 11, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • TYRANNASAUR

      What CRAP!

      December 12, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  5. x1plus1x

    What is the author's definition of "crazy"?

    If not crazy, delusional.

    Furthermore, does the fact that the frequency of "hearing voices" is higher than you'd expect mean that it's healthy?

    December 3, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • Dorian

      We can't tell because she hasn't said much. She is most likely simply getting this blog to go viral so she can make a couple of bucks. Anything for the green.

      December 3, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
      • SAM J

        I'm waiting! Something's got to change. How dim!

        December 7, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
        • dorianmattar

          If you're waiting for her to respond, don't hold your breath.

          But I did get this other email from another similar post that's even worse...

          http://www.behavioral.net/article/just-accept-it-voices-are-real#comment-4111

          December 7, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
  6. CoolCMo

    So the point of the article is that slightly more than one in five Americans are just plain nuts...

    December 2, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
    • dorianmattar

      Hit that one right on the nail!

      LMAO

      December 8, 2013 at 12:00 am |
  7. goddog

    Therefore_____________(insert your god here).

    And here is a list of things that you should and should not do...

    December 2, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  8. improbulos

    It is unclear what the point of the article is. Is it to say that if I hear voices in my head I am not crazy? Certainly it is a matter of degree. For the dozens of people who sold all their possession thinking the world was going to end a couple of years ago, well that's kinda crazy. If someone prays about taking a new job and hears god tell them to go for it. What if the job turns sour? what about the 50% of marriage that fail? I am sure god told a lot of them that he/she was the one.
    I don't consider 1 out of 100 a small amount. If you work with 500 hundred people that means 5 are hearing voices.

    The problem ultimately would rest on someone sitting next to you during dinner. A voice in their head identifies itself as God and tells them to stick a fork in your eye because you are Satan or a demon is inside you. The religious person would proceed to obey God and stab you in the eye with a fork.

    A humanist would conclude they were hearing voices and see a mental health professional.

    An extreme example, to be sure but it gets at the gist of the matter.

    I M Probulos

    November 30, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  9. Da King

    Blessed not Crazy.

    November 27, 2013 at 4:23 am |
    • dorianmattar

      Blessed to hear voices?

      Yeah that makes as much sense as a car sputtering.

      Do you ever wonder why your god would talk to you in strange voices in your head and not simply appear to everyone without the games?

      November 27, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
      • hearties

        Jesus Before Pilate
        …36Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm." 37Therefore Pilate said to Him, "So You are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice." 38Pilate said to Him, "What is truth?" And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, "I find no guilt in Him.…

        November 29, 2013 at 4:20 am |
      • Jamar Howard

        if you don't believe, that's good for you. You obviously have a voice in your head telling you to harrass people if they think differently than you. What is your motive? Should everyone be like you? Get thee hence Satan, you are a liar.

        December 4, 2013 at 11:32 am |
        • dorianmattar

          Who said i want people to be like me? That's very childish.

          Hearing.voices that are actually not there is a decease! What part of that do you not understand?

          If the voice is not telling you to kill anyone, that is good, but since they are not real, how do you control them? What happens if they change and tell you to kill? Now you have no control and you think god wants you to kill. Great combo.

          This is what faith does to people, they loose the ability to tell what is real and what is not.

          Sad in deed.

          December 4, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
        • dorianmattar

          Additionally, your satanic statement shows how out of touch with reality you are.

          I don't hear voices, i reason based on a thought process, not on what some insane voice tells me. See the difference?

          December 4, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  10. Ralphie

    Santa spoke to me the other night while I was doing some intense, introspective, online shopping. He told me that God is a myth

    November 26, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Da King

      That was Satin. You should hang with a better crowd.

      November 27, 2013 at 4:36 am |
      • SDC

        Are you sure it wasn't Corduroy, or Velveteen, or Lace, nutjob?

        November 29, 2013 at 3:25 am |
  11. Be cool

    Oh, I see. She wants you to buy her book. What a silly topic.

    November 21, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
  12. andrew

    I don't have a problem with people who claim God spoke to them in private. However, when such a person expects us to go to war because "God told him to tell us," well – nope; sorry dude.That's not going to happen again – not around this place anyway. We'll need a phone number and a conference call for that one, buddy.

    November 11, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
  13. i believe not

    answer to the article is "yes". if you answer "no", then you are a nutjob.

    November 11, 2013 at 1:48 am |
    • Dorian

      Your answer is unclear.

      Are you stating that it's OK for people to hear voices and that those voices are the voice of a God?

      November 11, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • Da King

      Blessed not crazy.

      November 27, 2013 at 4:26 am |
      • dorianmattar

        Why do you defend your god?

        Doesn't he have super powers?

        A god that needs humans to spread his word. LMAO!!

        You are kookoo

        November 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  14. JonathanL

    If you don't know you are crazy, then you are dangerous. In either case you can imagine hearing a voice, and being that it is an imagining, you can also imagine it is God, a group of Gods, or a choir of frogs. The possibilities are limitless. The less insane people are more able to distinguish between what is reality and what is fantasy.

    November 1, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Sandra

      I would very much like to hear a choir of frogs talking to me 🙂

      November 19, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
      • Da King

        You can do better!

        November 27, 2013 at 4:27 am |
        • dorianmattar

          Frogs are just as likely to sing as your god is to be real.

          November 27, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  15. オススメ カバン

    paul smith ベルト オススメ カバン http://www.bagsoinsect.info/

    October 29, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  16. Royal Mitchell

    If you hear Gods voice, it's a blessing. He speaks to me often and it's amazing. It's called the gift of hearing. Some people can communicate with The Lord thru telekinesis on a normal conversation, all the time. It's a peaceful comforting voice and if you hear it often, you will want to hear it more. Yes, finally someone who understands and speaks publicly about this matter to let people know they're not crazy, they're guided and blessed by God.

    October 19, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • dorianmattar

      Well if you where right, then yes, but unfortunately, you are WRONG.

      If you where RIGHT, then MUSLIMS wouldn't HEAR their god because YOUR god would be the real one, but THEY HEAR IT TOO.

      Which means that BOTH CANNOT BE RIGHT.

      So who is right? Who is hearing GOD and who has issues?

      Looking at it from the outside, you are BOTH WRONG and have issues.

      This gift of hearing was made up by none other than the church! Those same people who used to say that the earth was flat EVEN after it was proven to be round!

      Your idea of telekinesis has NEVER been proven in a CONTROLLED environment. Anyone can FAKE this stuff, you can see it on TV with all the CRAZY Evangelicals and FAKE healers.

      You can continue to hear peaceful messages in your head, but one day they can tell you to kill you son or daughter just like the stories in the bible and the stories of mothers that kill their child and then say God told them to do it.

      Same hallucination different outcome.

      You want to put your life and the lives of others at risk?

      GO get help!

      October 19, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
      • Asterix

        Great response : May I add the following lines :

        Humans created Religions,
        Religion created Gods,
        Humans, Religions and Gods together
        divided our lands
        fragmented our intellect

        October 25, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
        • dorianmattar

          Sad but true my friend, sad but true.

          There is hope that things will change as there are more and more people getting educated thanks to the WWW.

          Ignorance is being attacked in all fronts.

          Let's hope we are not to late.

          The war is not over, Islam wants nuclear power and unless we can educate their masses soon, who knows...

          October 25, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
        • Da King

          Yes you may, even if they are foolish.

          November 27, 2013 at 4:31 am |
        • dorianmattar

          The only one being fooled into believing in an invisible useless being is you.

          November 27, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
      • rev. henry w.

        it's the other voices that you hear and what they tell you to do!

        November 5, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
        • Dorian

          Can you elaborate on that? Because it doesn't quite make any sense to me.

          What other voices and what exactly do they tell you to do?

          November 7, 2013 at 12:12 am |
      • koliver922

        @dorianmattar, in response to your comment: "If you where RIGHT, then MUSLIMS wouldn't HEAR their god because YOUR god would be the real one, but THEY HEAR IT TOO. Which means that BOTH CANNOT BE RIGHT."

        In the bible, Jesus worships the God of the Jews. Muslims worship this same God. All three religions believe that this is the God who created heaven and earth; therefore, all of these individuals claiming to hear God are referring to the same one.

        November 14, 2013 at 10:33 am |
        • dorianmattar

          Although many say they are, this argues to the contrary: http://allaboutmuhammad.com/allah-vs-jehovah.html

          Additionally, they don't believe in Jesus as one of the heads of your God, their god has one head.

          and furthermore, why would muslim call christians "infidels", if they where worshiping the same god?

          This drops you into the same bucket as you would not be able to explain how people have a "personal relationship" with Jesus, since Jesus according to Islam is only a prophet and nothing more.

          The spaghetti keeps getting tangled.

          November 14, 2013 at 11:51 am |
        • dorianmattar

          and more stating that it's not...

          http://www.answering-islam.org/Shamoun/god.htm

          November 14, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
        • dorianmattar

          This one states that the Quran clearly says that Allah has NOTHING to do with the Trinity.

          http://www.baptistpillar.com/article_665b.html

          November 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
        • dorianmattar

          The more you read about it, the more you realize that it's a bunch of garbage put together by men and NOTHING more.

          What a spaghetti monster it is.

          November 14, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
        • koliver922

          Just as you have pulled up articles claiming that they are not one in the same God, I ,too, can do the same – Except with information stating the opposite. And you're right, Christians believe Christ is the Savior while Muslims believe he was only a Prophet. However, if you follow the story in the Bible (instead of picking 1 out of a million articles on the web), you may have a different opinion. I'm not here to judge as I respect your opinion; (after all, many Christians, Muslims, and Jews believe the same thing)I just wanted to put in my two cents as I thought this was an interesting article. And yes, I agree that Christianity can be quite of a "spaghetti" bowl. Have a good day.

          November 14, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • M. Antoinette Adams

      I'm sooo happy to hear that others have the gift of hearing God's voice. I prayer constantly throughout the day and can hear Him as if he right there in the room. When I have told people about these experiences they look at me as if I was schizophrenic...now I know I'm not...thank you so much.

      Antoinette Adams (Loving God always)

      November 20, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
      • dorianmattar

        Actually you probably have a problem. I'm not sure what this psychologist agenda is, but she is doing a great deserve to everyone.

        The mind is NOT supposed to hear things that are NOT there.

        That's why people who hear voices are called schizophrenics.

        Many mothers have killed their child because a voice told them to do so.

        Go get help.

        November 20, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
      • naomilyrah

        hmmmmmmm

        November 24, 2013 at 9:29 am |
    • William Bramblett

      I believe you need professional help.

      November 22, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
  17. sybaris

    This article is quite simply a repackaging of "one man's delusion is a society's religion"

    October 18, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  18. Family Christian Stores, Inc.

    In the Bible according to the Book of Isaiah and in the Book of Luke, Muslims and the Islamic Foundation were in the Garden of Gethsamane and on the Island of Patmos where John the Apostle wrote the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation mentions in the archaiac script that al-Qaeda is Muslim and islamic Christian and needs to create a One-World-Government or a 666-Mark-Of-The-Beast so that the world will be made christian. The Beast is a good Islamic-Muslim Christian Beast and will make the world right. For comments, call our store in Gaithersburg, Maryland at 301–990-6611 or cell number at 240–344-1323 for details on this important topic. We thank you for your service if you will help us get the world to make the Muslims their personal Gods and Messiahs!

    October 14, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      FCS is fairly evil all on its own, but I'd be surprised if they wanted you using their trademarked name for your personal opinions on a blog such as this one.

      October 19, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
  19. Family Christian Stores, Inc.

    The Bible mentions that Muslims are the ones that wrote the Bible and that Jesus Christ became Ayman al-Zawahiri in Yemen so he will come to America to teach us good moral values. For comments, call us at 301–990-6611 or our cell at 240–344-1323 for details. We want Ayman al-Zawahiri to be our next American president because He is our personal Lord and Messiah too. He is Jesus Christ made modern for the world so the world will understand His deity!

    October 14, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  20. RoyHill

    I just made a little saying today:
    I know you are crazy because you have little floaties stuck in your imagination.

    October 8, 2013 at 3:53 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.