"…I don’t think that anthropologists can pronounce on whether God exists or not, but I am averse to the idea that God is the full explanation here.…A questionnaire posed to 375 college students found that 71 percent reported vocal hallucinations of some kind, according to a study published in 1984 (a finding consistent with my own research). A 2000 study found that 38.7 percent of the population reported visual, auditory or other hallucinations, including out-of-body experiences."
T.M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God," writes about her experience studying Charismatic Evangelical Christians in the NY Times:
…I don’t think that anthropologists can pronounce on whether God exists or not, but I am averse to the idea that God is the full explanation here.…A questionnaire posed to 375 college students found that 71 percent reported vocal hallucinations of some kind, according to a study published in 1984 (a finding consistent with my own research). A 2000 study found that 38.7 percent of the population reported visual, auditory or other hallucinations, including out-of-body experiences.
Schizophrenia, or the radical break with reality we identify as serious mental illness, is also not an explanation. The people who reported these events simply weren’t ill in that way, and schizophrenia is not common…Moreover, the patterns of their voice-hearing are quite unlike the patterns we associate with schizophrenia.…
The unusual auditory experiences reported by congregants just weren’t like that. They were rare. Most people said they’d had one or two in their lifetime. They were brief — just a few words. They were pleasant. And they did not have that sense of command.…
I eventually discovered that these experiences were associated with intense prayer practice. They felt spontaneous, but people who liked to get absorbed in their imaginations were more likely to experience them. Those were the people who were more likely to love to pray, and the “prayer warriors” who prayed for long periods were likely to report even more of them.
The prayer warriors said that as they became immersed in prayer, their senses became more acute. Smells seemed richer, colors more vibrant. Their inner sensory worlds grew more vivid and more detailed, and their thoughts and images sometimes seemed as if they were external to the mind. Later, I was able to demonstrate experimentally that prayer practice did lead to more vivid inner images and more hallucination-like events.
There’s plenty here to alarm secular liberals. A subject in the prayer experiment recalled that she was watching TV when “God told me, ‘Vote for Bush.’ I said — I was having this argument with God. I said out loud, I said, ‘But I don’t like him.’ You know. And God said, ‘I didn’t ask you to like him.’ ” She thought she had heard this exchange with her ears. She voted, in 1988, for George Bush.
The more interesting lesson is what it tells us about the mind and prayer. If hearing a voice is associated with focused attention to the inner senses — hearing with the mind’s ear, seeing with the mind’s eye — it suggests that prayer (which today, the National Day of Prayer, celebrates) is a pretty powerful instrument. We often imagine prayer as a practice that affects the content of what we think about — our moral aspirations, or our contrition. It’s probably more accurate to understand prayer as a skill that changes how we use our minds.
What Luhrmann does not make clear is that whatever a person is predisposed to "hear" is what he will "hear."
If your god is Jesus, you hear Jesus or his father. If you you worship many gods, it is one of those you will hear. If you think Chabad's dead rebbe is the messiah and demigod, it is Menachem Mendel Schneerson who will "speak" to you.
This is the "god" who spoke to the clergy who started and ran the Inquisition, the "god" who spoke to Muslims fighting Hindus in India, and the "god" who spoke to Hindus fighting those Muslims. It is the "god" who tells terrorists that it is good to kill and maim innocents and the "god" who told clergy from various pagan sects and religions in the Near East and South America that it s good to sacrifice children. It can even be understood as the voice of the god who told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, and the voice of the god who told him to stop.
These voices display a person's own personal bias, his psychological predispositions and, often, his need on a deep level for change or for growth.
But to religious people who suddenly have this type of auditory hallucination, it their god speaking personally to them telling them what should (or could) be done.
Luhrmann fails to mention the ink-blot-like quality of these voices, the Rorschach test quality that says more about the person hearing the voice than about the voice or about God (or His existence).
And there really is no excuse for that.
[Hat Tip: Yochanan Lavie.]