Just over a week after four planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania, President George W. Bush initiated what would become a deadly, expensive and unrelenting “War on Terror.” He later revealed that God told him to make that decision. “I’m driven with a mission from God,” he claimed. “God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George go and end the tyranny in Iraq,’ and I did.”
God would have to be quite the talker if we believed everyone who said, “God told me to.” Many have declared that God commanded them to do evil. Serial killers, for instance, are infamous for blaming the voice of God, and people who kill serial killers are, too. The inmate who bludgeoned Jeffrey Dahmer to death famously said, “God told me to do it.”
Of course, some have proclaimed that God demanded them to do good, too. Martin Luther King Jr. insisted that God told him, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” King, of course, went on to change the world.
Then we have Kanye, who made even the faithful question their beliefs when he announced that God told him to run for president earlier this year. (God, pls stop.)
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As a society, we hold some clashing ideas when it comes to hearing God speak. Sometimes we call it mental illness, and other times we call it a miracle. But where does that voice really come from? “It’s a big question you’re asking, opening up the possibility of a grand search for religious truth, a quest for life, so to speak,” says psychiatrist Larry Culliford, author of The Psychology of Spirituality.
In other words, this could be perceived as a question of God’s existence. But whether God exists or not, we can still accept that many people claim to have heard a voice from above, and that it must have come from somewhere.
Maintaining that thinking, Culliford suggests that we go ahead and eliminate examples where mental ailments, sicknesses or any kind of intoxication may have produced a “false” voice from God. “It helps to think in terms of ‘authentic spiritual experiences,’ of which ‘hearing the voice of God’ might be one,” he says. “These are more likely to be authentic if they happen to a relatively stable personality and are of benefit in some way to them, to others and/or to humanity at large, especially to the extent that they can be called ‘transformative.’ By definition, then, ‘horrible deeds’ cannot be considered the result of authentic spiritual experiences, unless you also think in terms of demons, devils, djinns and Satan himself. Against this interpretation, I prefer to think that such an experience is unlikely to be authentic (although it still could be) whenever it occurs under conditions of stress, anxiety, depression and other forms of mental ill health, also of sickness and deprivation (hunger, thirst, fever) or through intoxication with alcohol or other forms of mind-altering substance.”
As Hungarian-American psychoanalyst Thomas Szasz once said, “When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.”
As for what leads to an “authentic spiritual experience,” such as “hearing the voice of God,” there are a couple ways to think about this. The first, as Culliford explains, is a natural spiritual evolution that all humans undergo throughout life. “Positive spiritual experiences may be characterized by a person behaving out of character, such that he or she experiences the impulse as coming from somewhere other than who they normally think of as ‘me,’” he tells me. “I refer to this locus as the ‘everyday ego.’ As a person grows in terms of wisdom and spiritual maturity, what I call the ‘spiritual self’ (sometimes also called the ‘true’ or ‘higher’ self, or even ‘the soul’) becomes increasingly influential. The spiritual self can be thought of as somehow permanently attuned to the seamless greater whole of the universe, the sacred unity, which some people might like to refer to as ‘God.’”
Following this explanation, then, we could argue that the voice of God comes from whatever esoteric feeling and experience that makes us human, and that connects us to the world and people around us. It doesn’t necessarily come from any one God, but more so something deep within our connected psyche, which may or may not be godlike and is certainly not fully understood. “The voice of God, if there is such a thing, is full of contradictions,” Culliford says. “It comes from everywhere and nowhere, as if both inside the head and outside at the same time, from a source that represents the totality of the universe, but a totality paradoxically endless, infinite in time and space. It emerges out of silence, and so, because nothing else is heard, it seems as loud as anything you’ve ever heard. But the voice of God isn’t always silent. You can hear it in the bleat of a young goat, the rustle of leaves stirred by the wind and the babbling sound of a mountain stream. All we have to do is listen.”
A more cynical explanation, proposed to me by consciousness researcher Sue Blackmore, is that the voice of God comes from years and years of what could essentially be defined as religious brainwashing. “Those you describe may well hear their inner voice, and because of their indoctrination, will interpret it as the voice of God,” she says. “Many other psychological factors are at play: Cognitive dissonance prevents people giving up their ‘faith’ when they’ve invested so much time, money and effort into sustaining the memes [as in ideas] and obeying the people who promote it (vicars, priests, imams).”
“Most of these people will have been infected with religious memes from birth,” Blackmore continues. “Some picked them up later in life. Either way, they’re very powerful. These memes are designed (by memetic evolution — natural selection among memes) to survive in people’s minds and coerce them into doing things they’d never otherwise do, from kneeling on the floor with their bums in the air and praying to a God they’ve been taught exists, to protecting the religious memes from competition. The religious memeplexes use threats and promises (invisible heavens and hells) to make people comply, and lots of tricks, such as convincing them they’re ‘good’ if they have faith, or that faith is better than doubt (and better than evidence and science and human happiness). Once religious ideas like this are deeply embedded in a person’s life, they’ve effectively given over a lot of their decision-making to their imaginary God.”
In this case, you can see how a person with a long background of religious teachings could easily confuse their own inner voice for the voice of God. “Sometimes, in the present day, but especially eons ego, when humanity had little to no understanding of cognition, metacognition, consciousness or ‘inner dialogue,’ folks used to think that their own inner voice or dialogue was an external voice to be taken seriously and literally,” says psychotherapist Pesach Eisen, who focuses on the intersection of religious disaffiliation and mental health. “Think about the biblical story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son. For example, if I experience hating my boss, and a playful, raging thought crosses my mind — ‘I should kill that guy’ (we’ve all been there) — I’m aware that it’s just my own thought and that I should let it go. Some people today think, and many in the past thought, that their inner voice is external instructions to be taken seriously and acted upon.”
The final explanation would, of course, be that all of these people really are hearing the voice of God, but we have no way of proving that. Or, it could be that all of these people are lying. “Some people intentionally misuse religious, supernatural or metaphysical concepts to harm others,” Eisen says. “They know that no voice told them to do anything. They’ve made up that part to guide or to justify their misdeeds.”
I suspect that when we look at everyone who’s claimed that God spoke to them, all of them are experiencing something a little different. “There probably isn’t a neat, one-size-fits-all answer,” Eisen says.
But what I can say is, if you do hear “the voice of God,” think very hard about what it’s telling you to do. You don’t really want to start a decades-long war, do you?