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Tanya Luhrmann on How Gods and Spirits Come to Feel Vividly Real to People

How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others (book cover)

Shermer and Luhrmann discuss:

  • What is the anthropology of religion?
  • What is “that still small voice” we all hear in our heads?
  • When people say they “hear the voice of God” what does that mean?
  • What do people mean when they say they are “walking with God”?
  • normal “voices within” vs. hallucinations and psychoses
  • psychiatrist Milton Rokeach’s book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
  • mystical experiences
  • anomalous psychological experiences
  • sleep paralysis and other cognitive anomalies
  • belief in angels and demons
  • absorption and religious beliefs
  • prayer vs. meditation vs. mindfulness
  • sensed presences
  • What is faith?
  • What is religion?
  • why people believe in God
  • Charismatic/Pentacostal religions
  • empirical truths, religious truths, mythic truths
  • how people come to religious belief vs. how they leave religion
  • theodicy, or the problem of evil
  • kindling
  • magic and superstition
  • witches and witchcraft
  • shamans and shamanism.

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is the Albert Ray Lang Professor at Stanford University, where she teaches anthropology and psychology. Her books include When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others. She has written for the New York Times, and her work has been featured in the New Yorker and other magazines. She lives in Stanford, California.

About the Book

How do gods and spirits come to feel vividly real to people — as if they were standing right next to them? Humans tend to see supernatural agents everywhere, as the cognitive science of religion has shown. But it isn’t easy to maintain a sense that there are invisible spirits who care about you. In How God Becomes Real, acclaimed anthropologist and scholar of religion Tanya M. Luhrmann argues that people must work incredibly hard to make gods real and that this effort — by changing the people who do it and giving them the benefits they seek from invisible others — helps to explain the enduring power of faith.

Drawing on ethnographic studies of evangelical Christians, pagans, magicians, Zoroastrians, Black Catholics, Santeria initiates, and newly orthodox Jews, Luhrmann notes that none of these people behave as if gods and spirits are simply there. Rather, these worshippers make strenuous efforts to create a world in which invisible others matter and can become intensely present and real. The faithful accomplish this through detailed stories, absorption, the cultivation of inner senses, belief in a porous mind, strong sensory experiences, prayer, and other practices. Along the way, Luhrmann shows why faith is harder than belief, why prayer is a metacognitive activity like therapy, why becoming religious is like getting engrossed in a book, and much more.

A fascinating account of why religious practices are more powerful than religious beliefs, How God Becomes Real suggests that faith is resilient not because it provides intuitions about gods and spirits―but because it changes the faithful in profound ways.

Show Notes

On January 19, 2023 I received a letter from a reader of my work related to what might actually be happening when people claim that they hear the voice of God, sometimes through prophecy but more often through prayer and otherwise daily occurrences. Here is the letter:

Hi Michael!

I am a big fan of your work and appreciate your careful thought. Your ability to charitably and critically consider all sorts of views, even wild claims is inspiring! I am really trying to apply the same kind of critical thinking you encourage to my own worldview. In brief, I grew up Christian but have come to really question most of the worldview I grew up with as I have learned more about critical thinking, cognitive biases, science, history, etc.

However, I am still very much a part of a Christian community, since my entire family is still Christian. An issue that comes up often, that I would love to hear your input on, is the idea that God “speaks” to people individually and regularly. Also, that God gives “prophetic words” to people today about future events. I sincerely doubt this myself.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially after reading the latest issue of Skeptic magazine on Christian Nationalism. As I am sure you are aware, many Christian leaders claimed to hear from God that Trump was going to win the 2020 election. When he did not, very few of them admitted they were wrong or mistaken. This is just one example of a very pervasive problem in Christian culture. Many people base important life decisions — or even insurrections — on their perceptions, or those of their leaders, of God’s personal revelation to them. This can come in the form of an “impression,” a confident feeling, a “still small voice,” a personal interpretation of a cherry-picked Bible verse, a picture in their mind, unique circumstances, etc.

Do you have any past articles or podcasts on this topic? I could not find any. Specifically, about how to evaluate claims of hearing from God? I want to find a better way to help people in my community consider the likelihood that they are not hearing from God, but in a charitable way. My own opinion is that cognitive bias and motivated reason most likely account for the majority of these claims. This also, in my view, accounts for much of the Bible’s claims that God commanded terrible things like sacrificing Isaac, acceptance of slavery, the Canaanite genocide, etc. — fallible humans believed they heard from God, but were mistaken. Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks for your great work and your generous spirit!


One hypothesis is that there is a God and this deity communicates directly to and through people for a variety of claimed reasons, from love, reassurance and comfort, to answering prayers, delivering prophecy, and announcing forthcoming events. How a presumably incorporeal deity could “speak” to corporeal humans is never explained beyond the ubiquitous “God works in mysterious ways.” This is a variety of the “God of the gaps” argument: where human understanding or explanation is lacking to answer some question or explain some phenomenon (the origin of the universe, life, morality, consciousness, the eye, DNA, etc.) that is where God still operates in human affairs. Some theologians who follow the science chase the ever diminishing gaps in search of God’s providence; other believers are comfortable attributing everything that happens to God, from life-changing world events to the fall of every sparrow; still other religious people allow that the laws of nature, which God designed, account for nearly everything that happens, save a rare miracle attributed to the deity; still other and more “liberal theologians” think God created everything and then stepped back and does not act at all in the world. So many options from which to choose and no agreed-upon methodology among theologians as to determine which position is the likeliest one to be true. What is a critical thinker to think?

I am reminded of psychiatrist Milton Rokeach’s book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, the story of three of his patients, each of whom believe himself to be Jesus Christ. Inspired by another case where two women who both believed they were the Virgin Mary met each other, Rokeach brought his three Christs together, each of whom instantly recognized the other two as delusional. Hoping the encounter might attenuate his patients’ delusional state, Rokeach admitted that the only thing cured was “my godlike delusion that I could manipulate them out of their beliefs.”1

  1. Rokeach, Milton. 1964/2011. The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. New York: Knopf/New York Review Book.

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This episode was released on May 6, 2023.

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