NEWS FEATURE: Looking for God along a psychedelic drug trip

c. 1998 Religion News Service UNDATED _ When Lewis Carroll’s Alice swallowed magical cake, she was “delighted to find that she began shrinking directly.” So was Kate Chapman, 23, a modern-day Alice on LSD. “I became smaller and smaller and smaller until I felt the molecules, subatomic particles, the quarks,” said Chapman of a memorable […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ When Lewis Carroll’s Alice swallowed magical cake, she was “delighted to find that she began shrinking directly.” So was Kate Chapman, 23, a modern-day Alice on LSD.

“I became smaller and smaller and smaller until I felt the molecules, subatomic particles, the quarks,” said Chapman of a memorable LSD trip. “Beyond that, there were light bodies all around, and I was a light body. I felt I went into the great white light. … I definitely felt it was a God-like consciousness.”

Chapman, a Seattle resident who studied neurobiology in college, said she is “no hard-core tripper” and has never taken LSD or psilocybin mushrooms just for the fun of it. For her, psychedelics are a sacrament that can awaken mystical experiences in anyone open to the adventure.

It’s a dangerous adventure, warns the Rev. Arie L. Mangrum, pastor emeritus of Peace Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. “Many people,” he says,are “downright deceived into thinking they are in touch with God when it’s the enemy of their soul.” And other critics question whether mystical talk is a cover for meaningless fun.

But Chapman is among a surprising number of people _ ravers, aging hippies, scholars and ministers _ who believe that under the right circumstances psychedelics can reveal spiritual truths.

Best-selling author Andrew Weil, the doctor Good Housekeeping magazine billed “America’s favorite healer,” has written extensively on the spiritual properties of “magical mushrooms.”

And Huston Smith, widely regarded as an authority on the history of religion, has written that “given the right set and setting, the drugs can induce religious experiences indistinguishable from ones that occur spontaneously.” Still, he was careful to note in the 1992 edition of “Forgotten Truth” that “psychedelic `theophanies’ can abort a quest” to lead a religious life “as readily, perhaps more readily, than they can further it.”

How many people partake of the magic, religious or otherwise, is tough to determine given the secrecy surrounding drug use. The 1995 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse estimated that 9.5 percent of Americans older than 12 had used hallucinogens at some point in their lifetime and 1.6 percent used them in the past year.

Users tend to divide into three categories: the original researchers, such as Albert Hoffman, the 92-year-old inventor of LSD; middle-aged hippies who never stopped using psychedelics; and young ravers, primarily high school and college students, who take low doses of LSD, the milder Ecstasy (MDMA) and other drugs at all-night parties.

Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), estimated less than a quarter of psychedelic enthusiasts have spiritual aims; others put the number at closer to half. And still others say even recreational users may unwittingly find themselves communing with God.

Although proponents of psychedelics maintain the drugs should be distinguished from cocaine and heroin and sanctioned for religious use, only American Indians are legally allowed to use an hallucinogen, peyote, in religious rituals.

Peyote rituals began thousands of years ago among aborigines living along the Rio Grande and south into Mexico, noted Duncan Earle, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.

The shamanic cultures that flourished in hunting and gathering societies worldwide prior to the development of agriculture also inspire today’s psychedelic travelers, as does the shamanism practiced today in the upper Amazon, Earle said. Shamans, he said, often use hallucinogens. Shamans serve as a “conduit between the ordinary and non-ordinary world,” divining the future and healing the sick.

The first North American to study the use of hallucinogens in a modern shamanic culture was a 55-year-old investment banker “who looked like an investment banker,” said photographer Jeremy Bigwood of his late friend R. Gordon Wasson. After retiring from J.P. Morgan in the mid-1950s, Wasson traveled to southern Mexico, where a Mazatec shaman, Maria Sabina, introduced him to psychedelic mushrooms.


In a 1957 article in Life magazine, Wasson described the experience as a “holy communion” with “divine mushrooms.” Of a later trip he wrote: “Our untrammeled souls were floating in the universe, stroked by divine breezes,possessed of a divine mobility that would transport us anywhere on the wings of a thought. … We were to find ourselves in the presence of the Ultimate.”

Later, he began using the term “entheogen” rather than hallucinogen, to mean “God generated within you.”

By the 1960s, hordes of young people descended on Mexico looking for a spiritual high. Wasson lamented the visitors’ lack of respect for the culture, says Bigwood. Sabina was even harsher, according to Wasson’s writings, saying that “from the moment the foreigners arrived, the holy children (mushrooms) lost their … force.”

Hoffman’s accidental discovery of the chemical compound LSD while doing pharmaceutical research led to a new wave of interest in the industrialized West, as well as academic studies. Chapman recently completed an oral history for MAPS of 47 people who took LSD between 1954 and 1962 as part of a study by psychiatrist Oscar Janiger. Almost half of the group, which included housewives and police officers, described their experiences as spiritual, she said.

“People who did not have a spiritual experience struck me as those who did not have the inclination,” she said. Still, she noted, “a Unitarian minister did not have a spiritual experience, and he badly wanted one. He felt he couldn’t pass through to the other side.”


When a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary urged everyone to cross to the other side, Wasson and Hoffman urged caution. But few were listening, and casualties of high doses in unsafe settings abounded.

Today’s ravers tend to be in the Leary camp, often dropping LSD, albeit in much lower doses, and partying all night in gatherings publicized by word of mouth. Terence McKenna, an ethnobotanist and author frequently billed as the new Timothy Leary, said the rave is hardly an atmosphere conducive to contemplation.

“Are there people so clueless they think the spiritual center of the rave scene is the rave?” he asked. “The real introspective work goes on afterwards.”

But Torsten Klimmer, a 28-year-old from San Francisco who loves psychedelic clothing and art, disagreed. “Sometimes parties come to such a high point that all become one being,” he said.

Longtime users and more contemplative types prefer to be in quiet venues in small groups or alone. Some join American Indians in peyote rituals. And then there are the wandering seekers who take spiritual adventure tours to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, where they drink ayahuasca, a mixture of two Amazonian plants, in rituals led by shamans.

McKenna said such tours, combining knowledgeable guides and serious seekers, can “result in … changed lives.” He’s less optimistic about tours for “trust fund” travelers “who are constantly drinking from one amusement to another” and wreaking havoc along the way.

Indigenous shamans, he said, are being “destroyed by money, blond women and invitations to Malibu.”

Whether chemically induced mystical experiences produce real transformation depends on the person, said the Rev. John Burciaga, a Unitarian minister in Bethesda, Md.

“The same two persons can have an experience where one comes away changed and the other doesn’t,” said Burciaga, who doesn’t use hallucinogens.

And that includes progressive clergy. “There is a significant subculture in the ministry,” he said, who are interested in hallucinogens along with other means of achieving ecstatic religious experience, such as fasting.

How one interprets the psychedelic experience theologically depends partly on religious orientation. Buddhists typically talk about the possibilities for enlightenment rather than getting closer to God, and of integrating the psychedelic experience in ongoing meditative practice. Christians think more in terms of holy communion. Then there are the free-lance “mystics” like Klimmer who create their own cosmic worldview.

Jeremy Bigwood, who guesses he matched McKenna drug for drug in the ’60s and ’70s, but who hasn’t ingested a hallucinogen in 20 years, said his experience changed forever the way he sees himself in the world and he speaks of ayahuasca with the reverence of a man discussing a sacrament. He was “mushroomed,” to use his late friend Wasson’s expression, and it’s the closest he’s come to seeing God.


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