Religion and the Psychedelic Renaissance

The main focus of the so-called Psychedelic Renaissance is on the therapeutic benefits of classic psychedelics such as psilocybin and empathogens such as MDMA. Research funding depends on clearly defined objectives and positive outcomes and mental health is an area where there is clearly great need and also great promise.

Everyone is writing about the mental health benefits of psychedelics, how they can help with depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, fear of death, etc. This is a very exciting development which offers hope to millions of suffering people.

But should the use of psychedelics be limited to people suffering from mental health problems? What about healthy people? Can they benefit? If so, in what way?

Outside the therapeutic context, there is recreational use, exploratory use and ceremonial use. Recreational use is really just about having fun. This is not necessarily as trivial as it sounds. Having fun with friends on psychedelics is a very intimate and bonding experience which strengthens and deepens relationships. A society of people who have fun together with this level of intimate intensity is a healthier and happier society than a society of atomised individuals.

Exploratory use is about solving problems. The pioneers of the internet famously took LSD to help them solve intractable technical and conceptual problems. Many psychologists and philosophers also take psychedelics in order to give them insights into their respective fields. William James is a famous example. According to Stanislav Grof, researching consciousness without using psychedelics is akin to exploring the cosmos without a telescope. Peter Sjostedt-Hughes, the panpsychist philosopher of mind and author of Noumenautics, would concur.

Ceremonial use is about spirituality. Since psychedelic sacraments are primarily used in the Americas (ayahuasca in the Amazon basin, peyote and magic mushrooms in Central and North America), ceremonial use is strongly associated with these indigenous traditions. But alternative ceremonial contexts are emerging all over the world as psychedelics spread through the population.

Mostly, in the West, these take the form of syncretic New Age groups, combining elements of traditional shamanism and contemporary tranpersonal psychology and philosophy. There are also attempts to introduce (or re-introduce) the use of psychedelics into established world religions such as Christianity and Judaism.

I am interested in the therapeutic use, the recreational use and the exploratory use of psychedelics, but my main focus is on the ceremonial use. This is where I think that psychedelics can do the most good. In my view, Western civilisation is going through a spiritual crisis, and the mental health crisis is a symptom of this deeper crisis. Beyond “treatment” in a medical context, I believe we need “practice” in a spiritual context.

Psychedelics can help us reconnect with religion directly. Our culture has become so intellectualised, that people think that they are doing religion when they read books and listen to lectures and sermons and talk incessantly about religious ideas. There is value in this approach, of course. But it’s not really religion. It’s philosophy. It’s Jnana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge.

Religion is Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion. Faith, hope and love (St. Paul’s famous trinity in his first letter to the Corinthians) are things to be directly experienced and embodied, not just ideas for analytical debate. You don’t need to think about religion very much. You just need to experience it and follow it in simplicity and faith. Faith is key. And because psychedelics are such powerful experiential tools, they can shake us out of our habitual analytical, left hemisphere dominant, mode of being and hit us directly with religious feelings and concepts such as faith, hope and love, which cannot be reasoned out, but must be directly intuited.

I subscribe to an integral spirituality, which includes multiple modes of experience, perception and understanding. I have identified six modes, represented by six archetypes and six yogas:

The Mystic (Dhyana Yoga, the way of meditation)

The Shaman (Kundalini Yoga, the way of energy)

The Warrior (Karma Yoga, the way of action)

The Monk/Nun (Bhakti Yoga, the way of devotion)

The Philosopher (Jnana Yoga, the way of knowledge)

The King/Queen (Raja Yoga, the way of Self-Realisation)

It is important that none of these disciplines colonize the others. Each has its own autonomous field of activity, although they are all interconnected. For the Mystic, there should be nothing but meditation; for the Shaman, nothing but energy; for the Warrior, nothing but movement; for the Monk/Nun, nothing but religiosity; for the Philosopher, nothing but contemplation; for the King/Queen, nothing but presence.

In post-Christian Western culture, there is a hunger for genuine spirituality. However, among atheists and agnostics, even anatheists, religion is still problematic. There is huge resistance to the idea of devotion. There is no trust and no faith. Therefore, Bhakti Yoga is easily overlooked, neglected and ignored in favour of other practices. Typically, Jnana Yoga (philosophy) and Raja Yoga (psychology) step in as surrogate religions. However, a “Religion of the Mind” and a “Religion of the Self” can easily degenerate into intellectualism and solipsism.

Religion shouldn’t colonize everything else. But neither should everything else colonize religion. Without faith, hope and love, the whole spiritual enterprise is ultimately a waste of time.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and exult in the surrender of my body, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no account of wrongs. Love takes no pleasure in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be restrained; where there is knowledge, it will be dismissed. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial passes away.”

1 Corinthians 13: 1-10