Gary LadermanLiving during the “psychedelic renaissance” is very exciting for a number of reasons. Scientific research is demonstrating with compelling evidence the therapeutic potential of “magic mushrooms,” MDMA, LSD, ayahuasca, and other mind-altering substances to help those suffering with various mental afflictions and disorders like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction. In addition to the seemingly miraculous therapeutic value of psychedelics, we are learning from the steady stream of media stories, is the seemingly more profane economic value associated with these drugs, and the likelihood of a billion-dollar industry bringing riches to pharmaceutical companies, therapists, entrepreneurs, investment firms, and so on.But the media is missing another story that is unfolding before our kaleidoscope eyes, and that is the religious renaissance and the profoundly spiritual values connected with these drugs in the lives of more and more people. The problem is that “religious” here does not refer to Christianity, or Hinduism, or Islam, or Taoism or other conventional conceptual frameworks to think about and identify religious life. Instead, it refers to ways of being religious that are not so immediately apparent to the naked, untrained eye.The religious renaissance that is emerging in all of this psychedelic research is not simply tied to the “mystical” aspects of tripping reported by so many of the subjects in current medical studies. This too is a conventional and narrow category and, in many ways, a diversionary object of scientific and media focus. Mysticism and all the current debates about its status—and meaning—in the context of therapeutic interventions only scratches the surface of the unquantifiable religious forces at work in the treatment successes attributed to these special drugs (I tend to stay away from the theologically-inflected word, “entheogen”).Beyond the mystical focus that is an important, though contentious, element of the scientific studies taking place are other equally sacred components, not in the foreground like mysticism but more in the background though tied to familiar religious territory: rituals and myths, identities and authority, meaning and community.What is going on beneath surface, you ask? I’ll try to be brief.First, consider the contemporary religious landscape which is, in a word, nuts. Specifically, the rise of the “nones” is the most significant sign of religious transformation in America. The expansion of Americans who are comfortable claiming no religious affiliation does not simply mean there are more atheists in America. Rather, it suggests that those conventional categories that can supposedly sum up and encapsulate one’s religious orientation are no longer viable for many Americans. In this kind of cultural context, the sacred sources for sustaining a religious life become, well, in another word, limitless.Second, a cursory look at human history will show clear and incontrovertible evidence that psychoactive substances and religious life are intricately, and intimately, intertwined. Psychoactive drug use and religious life are interwoven in the great ancient civilizations as well as smaller indigenous cultures around the world; they are present and integrated in the so-called world religions too, including soma in Hinduism or, perhaps more familiarly to many of you, wine during communion in Christianity (in the early days, perhaps too laced with psychedelics). It is difficult to deny the critically significant role of drugs in religious life across cultures and through time and, who knows, maybe drug consumption is at the root of religion itself.Third, with a wider lens, it becomes clear that the artificial distinctions that so often get applied to contemporary drug use—recreational as opposed to medicinal as opposed to religious use—obfuscate the underlying realities of drug use in human societies. The medicinal is religious; recreational consumption can be healing; and religious uses can bleed into recreational fun. The presence and power of psychoactive drugs go far beyond the simplistic strategies of compartmentalization so dominant in the sciences, on the media landscape, and written into racist policies and laws.Additionally, this view suggests that the current incorporation of psychedelics into new kinds of therapeutic regimes is not a symptom of secularization or the erasure of religion; instead, they open up a completely reconfigured new religious culture oriented around drug consumption and toward altered moods and consciousness in individuals, but also new communities and social identities that help individuals maintain order, stability, and meaning in the midst of all this chaos and suffering. As mentioned earlier, mysticism is only one small element in the larger religious culture. What is new is also old, as most historians know, and our current “rediscovery” of the beneficial, positive, socially-valuable perks of certain drugs in some situations for mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health is tapping into a deeper human drive that is pervasive in human history, and inescapable.
What is even more revealing about this religious culture than the self-reports and scientific measurements tied to the subjective mystical experience of tripping? On the one hand are the rituals that provide order and boundaries for the experience, not executed in a church, but in the sacred clinical spaces where cosmic reorientations can now take place. On the other hand are the authorities who are empowered to guide and interpret the journey, be they doctors or therapists or chaplains or any of the myriad of guides with special knowledge and training on the psychedelics-for-mental-healing scene. Let’s not call them shamans. Yet. And finally, consider the mythologies surrounding psychedelic drugs that legitimize and encourage their use and value, and that provide validating sacred stories based on research efficacy, quantifiable data, and transformation testimonials.
With all this in mind, I would argue that this so-called psychedelic renaissance is actually a sign of a wider religious rebirth in American culture, not a Great Protestant Awakening but more a spiritual reawakening of the long-known and widely-experienced sacred powers of drugs. That psychedelics would be at the forefront of this religious revolution should not be surprising, at least not for anyone who knows the history of the first go-round—the naissance, if you will—when psychedelics entered American public consciousness with a bang in the 1960s.
Now, in the second go-round, the psychedelic renaissance doesn’t have a Timothy Leary to distract with nutty religious prophecies and proclamations from the very important and controlled scientific studies that, like the first time around, show tremendous promise in helping people who are suffering–which for some is unmistakable religious work. Science has the authority to open the psychedelic door and mainstream these miracle drugs, as well as be the conduit for enriching a new and exciting spiritual playing field for one and all.