Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

How can you have a religion without a church?


When he was 21, a prominent drug policy reformer recalls, he climbed a cliff overlooking Mount McKinley National Park after taking LSD. "God came to me and commanded me to acknowledge Him as the ruler of the universe," he says, "and He was as powerful and as real as any appearance of God is to anybody. I got down on my knees and thanked God for revealing Himself to me. That was a completely authentic, real spiritual experience."

But it is not the sort of experience that would be protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Lacking a formal organization or a recognized religious tradition, individual spiritual seekers cannot gain the status accorded to members of Uniao do Vegetal or the Native American Church. Yet it seems clear that many independent psychedelic users are seeking experiences that are fundamentally similar to those of legally privileged peyote and ayahuasca users.

In an often-cited 1962 experiment, Walter Pahnke, a physician and minister who was working toward a Ph.D. in religion and society from Harvard, investigated the spiritual potential of psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in "magic mushrooms." Pahnke's academic adviser was the Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, who at the time was conducting psilocybin research in which he eschewed standard scientific methods and took the drug along with his subjects, who included graduate students—loose practices that would eventually get him thrown out of the university. Pahnke's approach was notably more rigorous. He gave either psilocybin or nicotinic acid (a placebo with noticeable physical effects) to 20 Protestant divinity students who were participating in a Good Friday service at Boston University's Marsh Chapel. "All of a sudden," one of the subjects who took psilocybin later recalled, "I felt sort of drawn out into infinity, and all of a sudden I had lost touch with my mind. I felt that I was caught up in the vastness of Creation.…The meditation was going on all during this time, and [the minister] would say things about Jesus and you would have this overwhelming feeling of Jesus.…It was like you totally penetrated what was being said and it penetrated you."

Based on written descriptions, questionnaires, and interviews, Pahnke assessed the extent to which the subjects and the controls had mystical experiences. He used eight criteria: a sense of unity, a transcendence of time and space, a sense of sacredness, a sense the experience is objectively real, a deeply felt positive mood, ineffability, paradoxicality, and transience. He also asked about lingering positive effects. Pahnke reported that "eight out of ten of the experimental subjects experienced at least seven out of the nine categories. None of the control group, when each individual was compared to his matched partner, had a score which was higher." In every category, the average score of the students who took psilocybin was much higher than the average score of the students who took the placebo.

A quarter century after the Good Friday Experiment, the psychedelic researcher Rick Doblin managed to get seven of the subjects and nine of the controls to fill out questionnaires again. Their scores and the gaps between them were remarkably similar. In the open-ended part of the questionnaire, Doblin reported, "experimental subjects wrote that the experience helped them resolve career decisions, recognize the arbitrariness of ego boundaries, increase their depth of faith, increase their appreciation of eternal life, deepen their sense of the meaning of Christ, and heighten their sense of joy and beauty."

While the Good Friday Experiment was conducted in a conventional religious environment, a 2006 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins suggests the setting was not crucial. The researchers recruited 30 subjects who had never used psychedelics but who reported "regular participation in religious or spiritual activities." The subjects were randomly chosen to receive either psilocybin or Ritalin, a stimulant with a similar duration and effect on mood. During individual eight-hour sessions, they were encouraged to close their eyes, listen to classical music, and "direct their attention inward." At a second session two months later, the two groups were switched.

While a few of the volunteers had bad trips after taking psilocybin (as did some of the divinity students in Pahnke's study), questionnaires the subjects filled out indicated that for most it was a very positive experience. Six out of 10 subjects met the criteria for a "complete mystical experience" after taking psilocybin, compared to about one out of 10 after taking Ritalin. Four-fifths said the psilocybin session improved their sense of well-being or life satisfaction "moderately" or "very much," compared to one-fifth who said the same of the Ritalin session. Two-thirds of the volunteers considered the psilocybin session among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives, a rating less than one in 10 gave the Ritalin session.

"The Good Friday Experiment was all people together in a recognized church service," notes Doblin. "The Johns Hopkins study is people [using the] same drug, but not in a religious context, in a scientific context. And yet, my God, they're having these spiritual experiences on an individual basis without a leader, without a group, without a religion."

This is scary stuff, if you work for the Drug Enforcement Administration. To avoid a flood of religious freedom claims from a host of do-it-yourself faiths, drug warriors have to restrict the definition of religion so it does not include this sort of spiritual exploration, and the courts are happy to help. "If these two cases came before the same court, I would put my money on the one that looks more like a religion," says Richard Glen Boire, a senior fellow at the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics. "The religious drug cases that might [succeed] are those that look exactly like a [conventional] religion in every way, except the sacrament is not a host but is one of these psychoactives. That's not the way the law is supposed to be, but that's the way that it is now."

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