‘Voices are not proof of God but evidence of psychological neurosis.’ Discuss. (35)


Here is my attempt at doing this question. I have to say, if a question on voices came up, I think a lot of students would avoid it, as the text-books have very little to say on this topic. It is tempting to just fall into a generic template for or against religious experience, but the topic of voices has some issues specific to it. For instance, and I didn’t say this in the essay, voices are usually linked to prophetic apparitions such as those of Fatima. The prophetic element is obviously explained by the need to convey a message. One of the strangest examples of voices is that of Pope Leo XIII on October 13 1884, 33 years to the day before the Fatima visions, hearing two voices – one kind and gentle, the other guttural and harsh, conversing. The conversation was supposedly between Christ and the devil, over how much time would be given to the devil for him to do his work in bringing down humanity.

Voices or locutions (from the latin locutio – speech) are a common aspect of certain types of religious experience, and are seen by the Catholic Church as a supernatural communication to the ear, imagination or directly to the intellect. They are supernatural in that the locution is meant to have its origin in a spiritual realm either heavenly or demonic. In most examples of this type of experience the voice is only heard by one person or a few individuals. Occasionally though, the locution does come from sound waves travelling to the ear, and thus has an external source Often, voices are accompanied by visions, but not always. A clear example of this is the revelations of the Virgin Mary to the three children Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco at Fatima in Portugal in 1917. The children saw a lady who showed them visions, for instance of hell, and they were also instructed by her as to the meaning of the visions. However, only Lucia and Jacinta heard and saw all that was revealed, whilst Francisco just saw the visions but did not hear the speech.

However, according to Teresa of Avila, voices should be tested to see if they have a natural or supernatural source. If natural they should be rejected as the result of an overactive imagination. If they are supernatural it is still to be discerned whether they are from God or the Devil. The only way this can be decided is in the effect it has on the person. St Teresa describes some of the effects of true locutions: they have a sense of certainty, power and authority, they bring calm and tranquility, and they are remembered for a long time. On the contrary, voices from the devil produce agitation or over-excitement in the recipient and make him fall prey to pride and other sins.

The issue that is often raised in connection to voices is the possibility of a non-supernatural origin, indeed skeptics would say that there is always a psychological explanation for this kind of religious experience. This is particularly the case with voices as they are very commonly reported by people suffering from certain kinds of mental illness such as schizophrenia or other psychotic episodes. The most common psychiatric explanation for psychosis is that part of the conscious mind of the person becomes overwhelmed by unconscious contents and seems to take on its own significance over and against the conscious ego-centre of the individual, such that they feel powerless to control it, and experience the psychosis in the form of voices or hallucinations which are usually unpleasant and which interfere with the autonomy of the mentally ill person.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James gives a psychological explanation for voices which seems at least sympathetic to this view. Firstly, he outlines the passivity of someone undergoing a religious experience, so that it seems to come from the ‘other’ and the receiver can do nothing about it. This would seem to echo the psychologist’s understanding of what happens in psychosis. Secondly, in James’ discussion of what he calls the ‘sick soul’, he explicitly draws parallels between a certain religious type, and certain kinds of mental illness in which voices occur. For instance, he describes the melancholy temperament of John Bunyan, who was ‘sensitive of conscience, beset by doubts, fears and insistent ideas, and a victim of verbal automatisms…these were usually texts of scripture, which…would come as if they were voices and fasten on his mind…’.

James goes on  to link the crisis that often comes to the sick soul type, and how they can become ‘twice-born’ ie. flooded with a newfound conviction in God, after much despair, and he says that these conversions are often linked to voices and visions. He relates how many religious founders or important figures such as George Fox or John Wesley heard voices because they were of ‘exalted sensibility’. He leaves open the question of whether these ‘incursions from beyond’ have their origin in the unconscious mind, or whether they have an ultimately supernatural origin.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had a purely reductionist view of religious experiences, and locutions would have been for him a psychotic or neurotic manifestation of unresolved trauma from childhood.

Freud felt that Religious experience is explicable in terms of psychological factors acting on the personality, factors that are ultimately based on childhood traumatic experiences involving the parents. For Freud the human condition is one of fear in the face of our mortality, and helplessness in the face of nature. Thus we need comfort – as children this comes from the father, later in religion the father-in-the-sky. This religious comfort is wish-fulfilment – Freud believed that powerful wishes could find outlets in dreams, but also in other delusory states – essentially then religious visions, voices and experiences are hallucinations which come from our powerful need to feel control over our own helpless state.

With this interpretation, it must be remembered, Freud did not mean to dismiss religious experience as untrue, he said that just because religious experiences are illusions, it doesn’t mean they are false, an illusion like this is not an error, as it is based on one of the oldest, strongest wishes of humankind. Presumably he meant by this that there is a certain meaningfulness or significance to religious experience because they come from such a deep-rooted and universal source, but it is hard to see how I can retain my belief in the veridicality of my experience whilst also seeing it as a wish-fulfilment. If it is caused by my desire for security and meaning in my life its source can’t be in the divine or supernatural realm.

It seems to me that St. Teresa could very easily be updated for modern times to critique Freud. What she called voices from the devil, could be seen to be the voices that mentally ill people hear, as their effect is usually disconcerting and negative. Whereas if we apply her and James’ criteria of positive emotional and behavioural impact on the believer we have a way of easily distinguishing ‘real’ voices from false ones.

Freud’s disciple Jung claims that the divine reality cannot be a ‘nothing-but’ – voices have important psychological benefits which can lead to the integration of the personality – a wholeness that the conscious mind usually resists at its peril.

Equally, Swinburne argues we cannot just dismiss voices and other religious experiences with an automatic skepticism, indeed, his principles of credulity and testimony turn the tables on the skeptic and challenge him to take voices seriously.

In conclusion, it cannot be stated that voices are evidence of psychological neurosis, as this is a blanket statement, assuming a reductive materialism which ignores the epistemological problems with all experience, and which doesn’t do justice to the ‘fruits’ of the experience of the voices in the life of the believer. Clearly, there are many cases of voices being heard in neurotic episodes, but as stated above, and as James attests, unlike voices in religious experiences these do not lead to an integrated, stable, compassionate and insightful individual, capable of ministering to others and organising practical matters such as St. Teresa or John of the Cross (who both founded and led religious orders), but rather to individuals who sadly are unable to function well in society.

However, just because voices are not always evidence of psychological neurosis, by no means proves that they are from God – and it may be that there is some depth psychological explanation which is the best explanation for them. Both Jung and James thought that if there was a divine reality on the other side of the experiences of the mind, then it can only be known through that experience, and both remained essentially agnostic (with some qualification) on the matter.



  1. Thanks for the post. I’d like to point out that our religion needs an experience of God. While the Catholic Church speaks most authoritatively, God can be capricious and speaks to the hearts of anyone.

    As a person who has heard voices and had psychotic episodes, I can say with conviction that Our Lord speaks to me in a conversational way all during the day. I used to hear other voices as well, but with some spiritual warfare and mental discipline, I have been able to quiet them.

    I do some work with men who are diagnosed with psychosis. The amazing thing is that they have seen and heard the same things that I have. I’m convinced that most, if not all, psychosis is a spiritual experience lacking context. When you consider how St Francis publicly stripped and renounced his patrimony prior to founding the Friars Minor, it looks like a classic manic episode brought on by some interior conflict.

    The great benefit from the mission of St Francis to the Church would have been lost had he been hospitalised like we do today. I know at least two men who have zero formal religious training who have had visions of God and the Evil One and spoke about them in similar terms to my own experience. Sadly, they lack context and the medical community views us as sick… and we are. However, the remedy for our illness is not to be found in modern psychopharmacology. Even though it may be useful as a means of quieting the most obnoxious manifestations, I think it should be the last tool employed.

    When the mystics and doctors of the church speak of locutions, I don’t think they are discussing the reality that Our Lord wants to converse with us intimately in our hearts. Your example of Fatima is a good one, as that was an extraordinary event.

    The Holy Ghost is being poured out into the hearts of men because the “regular” means of grace have been frustrated by our removing ourselves from nature. But God still loves His children and continues to call us to sanctity.

    I write about the experience of psychosis as a gift here, and propose a dynamic to free oneself of dependence on meds: iamacanaryinacoalmine.wordpress.com

    I’d enjoy your comments on my work. Peace!

  2. I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and experiences on this topic. It has challenged me to deepen my own thinking on this. I think you are absolutely right about psychosis being spiritual experience lacking context – we have such a materialist and reductionist attitude to mental health in our culture that it is damaging – I have seen a friend with serious mental health problems who was misdiagnosed for years becoming healthier through gaining a spiritual and creative context.

      • The materialist view that we’re chemical soup is at the heart of our problems. Although there were other materialists, I think Bacon was pretty much the best speaker for this mindset when, in the Novum Organum, he rejected what he called “occult causes”. He identified these as formal and final cause. All the modern scientist looks at is agent and material cause.

        When we separate things from their ends (final cause) or dismiss that they have a soul (formal cause), we fail to really engage in scientific enquiry. Consider Harvey’s On the Circulation of the Heart and Blood. Harvey first performed a kind of materialist investigation into what the heart and veins were doing. Then he reassessed his work in light of how he identified the formal and final causes.

        To speak in more scholastic terms, he took a *quia* argument and justified it by a *propter quid* argument. Or, another way: He went from effect to cause (quia) and retraced his investigation by examining his observations by going from cause to effect (propter quid). That’s good science — a method that I think needs to be employed more in modern science.

        Thanks, again, for your thoughtful reply. Peace!

  3. I’m currently studying A2 philosophy and ethics with OCR. I’m really struggling with essay writing. I’m trying to look up essays to use as examples and try to create a structure from to aid my revision. I was just wondering if you would know a rough mark this question would score.

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