(RNS) Religion can likely benefit from psychedelics, and now clergy can help prove it.
Johns Hopkins Medical School’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit is recruiting clergy as research volunteers in a study of “entheogens,” which are chemicals, usually derived from plants, that are ingested to produce an altered state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes.
The most common entheogens and their botanical sources are psilocybin (psilocybe mushrooms), mescaline (peyote), LSD (ergot) and DMT (ayahuasca). Of particular interest to Christians, frankincense and myrrh are both psychoactive, but their effects on neonates’ brains are unknown.
How do entheogens promise to enrich religions? Researchers at Johns Hopkins reported that 33 percent of the volunteers in their 2006 psilocybin study said their experiences were one of the five most important spiritual experiences in their lives. And 38 percent said they were the single most spiritual significant experience.
These findings, increasing dissatisfaction with traditional religion, new publications on the topic and selected “ayahuasca tourism” to South America have contributed to what is becoming known as the “Entheogen Reformation,” the birth of religion's next era.
Five hundred years ago, the printed word democratized access to religious texts; today entheogens democratize access to mystical experiences. Then, the Protestant Reformation set off a series of cultural earthquakes. Will the mystical experiences of Entheogen Reformation have a similar impact? It could point humanity toward a more compassionate future.
An entheogen-induced mystical experience can inspire feelings of sacredness and minimize egocentricism. After the experience, a person may feel healthy, altruistic, optimistic and open-minded, though he or she may have trouble putting this positive experience into words or conveying it through music or art.
Entheogens may even help people exercise their most altruistic tendencies. In a blog post, psycho-pharmacologist Roland Griffiths points out entheogens’ wider ethical impact:
“Many of the challenges facing the world today, such as the environmental crisis and hostilities within and between cultures, stem from a lack of appreciation for the profound interconnectedness of all people and all things,” he wrote. “Our interconnectedness is also a core feature of the mystical or transcendent experiences that occur with high probability after the ingestion of psilocybin under appropriate conditions.”
Like other spiritual activities, the use of entheogens doesn’t always work for everyone, and they are not appropriate for everyone. The Johns Hopkins researchers strictly screen, monitor and counsel volunteers during their experiential sessions -- and follow up with subjects afterward.
But entheogens can provide experiences that help people understand what had previously been only abstract religious ideas. Concepts such as awe, sacredness, eternity and grace can become profound with meaning with entheogens.
They have attracted serious scholarly attention. William Richards, who holds several graduate degrees in religion, leads legal psychedelic therapy sessions and is helping to monitor volunteers in the Johns Hopkins study, has written "Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences." J.H. Ellens' two-volume anthology, "Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances: Chemical Paths to Spirituality and to God," is the most thorough recent study. These scholars' research refutes the claim that entheogenists are merely leftover hippies from the 1960s.
But religious persecution has made it difficult to collect accurate data on entheogen use. Federal drug policy requires severe penalties for traffickers of even one low dose of LSD: “not less than 5 years, and not more than 40 years” for a first offense and “not less than 20 years, and not more than life” for a second offense. In entheogenic churches, clergy would be the likely “traffickers.”
Will a country that prides itself in religious liberty stop persecuting entheogenists?
(Thomas B. Roberts is an emeritus professor at Northern Illinois University)