Do Drugs Have Religious Import?
Huston Smith, Ph.D.
©The Journal of Philosophy, Vol LXI, No. 18, September 17, 1964
Until six months ago, if I picked up my phone in the Cambridge area and dialed KISS-BIG a voice would answer, "Ifif." These were coincidences: KISS-BIG simply happened to be the letter equivalents of an arbitrarily assigned telephone number, while I.F.I.F. represented the initials of an organization with the improbable name of the International Federation for Internal Freedom. But the coincidences were apposite to the point of being poetic. "Kiss big" caught the euphoric, manic, life-embracing attitude that characterized this most publicized of the organizations formed to explore the newly synthesized consciousness-changing substances, while the organization itself was surely one of the "iffy-est" phenomena to appear on our social and intellectual scene in some time. It produced the first firings in Harvard's history, an ultimatum to get out of Mexico in five days, and "the miracle of Marsh Chapel" in which during a two-and-one-half hour Good Friday service ten theological students and professors ingested psilocybin and were visited by what they generally reported to be the deepest religious experiences of their lives.
Despite the last of these phenomena and its numerous if less dramatic parallels, students of religion appear by and large to be dismissing the psychedelic drugs which have sprung to our attention in the sixties as having little religious relevance. The position taken in one of the most forward-looking volumes of theological essays to have appeared in recent years (1) accepts R. C. Zaehner's Mysticism Sacred and Profane as having "fully examined and refuted" the religious claims for mescaline which Aldous Huxley sketched in The Doors of Perception. This closing of the case strikes me as premature, for it looks as if the drugs have light to throw on the history of religion, the phenomenology of religion, the philosophy of religion, and the practice of the religious life itself.
1. Drugs and Religion Viewed HistoricallyIn his trial-and-error life explorations man almost everywhere has stumbled upon connections between vegetables (eaten or brewed) and actions (yogic breathing exercises, whirling dervish dances, flagellations) which altered states of consciousness. From the psychopharmacological standpoint we now understand these states to be the products of changes in brain chemistry. From the sociological perspective we see that they tended to be connected in some way with religion. If we discount the wine used in our own communion services, the instances closest to us in time and space are the peyote of The Native American (Indian) Church and Mexico's 2,000-year-old "sacred mushrooms," the latter rendered in Aztec as "God's flesh"striking parallel to "the body of our Lord" in the Christian Eucharist. Beyond these neighboring instances lie the soma of the Hindus, the haoma and hemp, identical with and better known as marijuana, of the Zoroastrians, the Dionysus of the Greeks who "everywhere.. . taught men the culture of the vine and the mysteries of his worship and everywhere [was] accepted as a god," (2) the benzoin of Southeast Asia, Zen's tea whose fifth cup purifies and whose sixth "calls to the realm of the immortals," (3) the pituri of the Australian aborigines and probably the mystic kykeon that was eaten and drunk at the climactic close of the sixth day of the Eleusinian mysteries. (4) There is no need to extend the list, especially as Philippie de Felice's comprehensive study of the subject, Poisons Sacrés, Ivresses Divines (Sacred Poisons, Divine Raptures), is about to appear in English.
More interesting than the fact that consciousness-changing devices have been linked with religion is the possibility that they actually initiated many of the religious perspectives which, taking root in history, continued after their psychedelic origins were forgotten. Bergson saw the first movement of Hindus and Greeks toward "dynamic religion" as associated with the "divine rapture" found in intoxicating beverages; (5) more recently Robert Graves, Gordon Wasson and Alan Watts have suggested that most religions arose from such chemically-induced theophanies. Mary Barnard is the most explicit proponent of this thesis. "Which... was more likely to happen first," she asks in the autumn 1963 journal of Phi Beta Kappa: "the spontaneously generated idea of an afterlife in which the disembodied soul, liberated from the restrictions of time and space, experiences eternal bliss, or the accidental discovery of hallucinogenic plants that give a sense of euphoria, dislocate the center of consciousness, and distort time and space, making them balloon outward in greatly expanded vistas?" Her own answer is that "the [latter] experience might have had... an almost explosive effect on the largely dormant minds of men, causing them to think of things they had never thought of before. This, if you like, is direct revelation." Her use of the subjunctive "might" renders this formulation of her answer equivocal, but she concludes her essay on a note that is completely unequivocal: "Looking at the matter coldly, unintoxicated and unentranced, I am willing to prophesy that fifty theo-botanists working for fifty years would make the current theories concerning the origins of much mythology and theology as out-of-date as pre-Copernican astronomy." (6)
This is an important hypothesisone which must surely engage the attention of historians of religion for some time to come. But as I am concerned here only to spot the points at which the drugs erupt onto the field of serious religious study, not to ride the geysers to whatever height, I shall not pursue Miss Barnard's thesis. Having located what appears to be the crux of the historical question, namely the extent to which drugs not merely duplicate or simulate theologically sponsored experiences but generate or shape theologies themselves, I turn to phenomenology.
2. Drugs and Religion Viewed PhenomenologicallyPhenomenology attempts a careful description of human experience. The question the drugs pose for the phenomenology of religion, therefore, is whether the experiences they induce differ from religious experiences reached au nature and if so how.
Even the Bible notes that chemically induced psychic states bear some resemblance to religious ones. Peter had to appeal to a circumstantial criterionthe early hour of the dayto defend those who were caught up in the Pentecostal experience against the charge that they were merely drunk: "These men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day" (Acts 2:15); and Paul initiates the comparison when he admonishes the Ephesians not to "get drunk with wine... but [to] be filled with the spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). Are such comparisons, paralleled in the accounts of virtually every religion, superficial? How far can they be pushed?
Not all the way, students of religion have thus far insisted. With respect to the new drugs, Professor R. C. Zaehner has drawn the line emphatically. "The importance of Huxley's Doors of Perception," he writes, "is that in it the author clearly makes the claim that what he experienced under the influence of mescalin is closely comparable to a genuine mystical experience. If he is right... the conclusions... are alarming." (7) Zaehner thinks that Huxley is not right, but Zaehner is mistaken.
There are, of course, innumerable drug experiences which haven't a religious feature; they can be sensual as readily as spiritual, trivial as readily as transforming, capricious as readily as sacramental. If there is one point about which every student of the drugs agrees, it is that there is no such thing as the drug experience per seno experience which the drugs, as it were, merely secrete. Every experience is a mix of three ingredients: drug, set (the psychological makeup of the individual) and setting (the social and physical environment in which it is taken). But given the right set and setting, the drugs can induce religious experiences indistinguishable from ones that occur spontaneously. Nor need set and setting be exceptional. The way the statistics are currently running, it looks as if from one-fourth to one-third of the general population will have religious experiences if they take the drugs under naturalistic conditions, meaning by this conditions in which the researcher supports the subject but doesn't try to influence the direction his experience will take. Among subjects who have strong religious inclinations to begin with, the proportion of those having religious experiences jumps to three-fourths. If they take them in settings which are religious too, the ratio soars to nine out of ten.
How do we know that the experiences these people have really are religious? We can begin with the fact that they say they are. The "one-fourth to one-third of the general populous" figure is drawn from two sources. Ten months after they had had their experiences, 24 percent of the 194 subjects in a study by the California psychiatrist Oscar Janiger characterized them as having been religious. (8) Thirty-two percent of the 74 subjects in Ditman and Hayman's study reported that in looking back on their LSD experience it looked as if it had been "very much" or "quite a bit" a religious experience; 42 percent checked as true the statement that they "were left with a greater awareness of God, or a higher power, or ultimate reality." (9) The statement that three-fourths of subjects having religious "sets" will have religious experiences comes from the reports of sixty-nine religious professionals who took the drugs while the Harvard project was in progress. (10)
In the absence of (a) a single definition of a religious experience acceptable to psychologists of religion generally, and (b) foolproof ways of ascertaining whether actual experiences exemplify any definition, I am not sure there is a better way of telling whether the experiences of the 333 men and women involved in the above studies were religious than by noting whether they seemed so to them. But if more rigorous methods are preferred, they exist; they have been utilized and confirm the conviction of the man in the street that drug experiences can indeed be religious. In his doctoral study at Harvard University, Dr. Walter Pahnke worked out a typology of religious experience (in this instance of the mystical variety) based on the classic cases of mystical experiences as summarized in Walter Stace's Mysticism and Philosophy. He then administered psilocybin to ten theology students and professors in the setting of a Good Friday service. The drug was given "double-blind," meaning that neither Dr. Pahnke nor his subjects would know which ten were getting psilocybin and which ten placebos to constitute a control group. Subsequently the reports the subjects wrote of their experiences were laid successively before three college-graduate housewives who, without being informed about the nature of the study, were asked to rate each statement as to the degree (strong, moderate, slight, or none) to which it exemplified each of the nine traits of mystical experience as enumerated in the typology of mysticism worked out in advance. When the test of significance was applied to their statistics, it showed that "those subjects who received psilocybin experienced phenomena which were indistinguishable from, if not identical with... the categories defined by our typology of mysticism." (11)
With the thought that the reader might like to test his own powers of discernment on the question being considered, I insert here a simple test I gave to a group of Princeton students following a recent discussion sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Society.
On the occasion referred to, twice the number of students (46) answered incorrectly as answered correctly (23). I bury the correct answer in a footnote to preserve the reader's opportunity to test himself. (l2)
Why, in the face of this considerable evidence, does Zaehner hold that drug experiences cannot be authentically religious? There appear to be three reasons:
1. His own experience was "utterly trivial." This of course proves that not all drug experiences are religious; it does not prove that no drug experiences are religious.
2. He thinks that the experiences of others which appear to be religious to them are not truly so. Zaehner distinguishes three kinds of mysticism: nature mysticism in which the soul is united with the natural world; monistic mysticism in which the soul merges with an impersonal absolute; and theism in which the soul confronts the living, personal God. He concedes that drugs can induce the first two species of mysticism, but not its supreme instance, the theistic. As proof, he analyzes Huxley's experience as recounted in The Doors of Perception to show that it produced at best a blend of nature and monistic mysticism. Even if we were to accept Zaehner's evaluation of the three forms of mysticism, Huxley's case, and indeed Zaehner's entire book, would prove only that not every mystical experience induced by the drugs is theistic. Insofar as Zaehner goes beyond this to imply that drugs do not and cannot induce theistic mysticism, he not only goes beyond the evidence but proceeds in the face of it. Professor Slotkin reports that the peyote Indians "see visions, which may be of Christ Himself. Sometimes they hear the voice of the Great Spirit. Sometimes they become aware of the presence of God and of those personal shortcomings which must be corrected if they are to do His will." (l3) And G. M. Carstairs, reporting on the use of psychedelic bhang (marijuana) in India, quotes a Brahmin as saying, "It gives good bhakti.... You get a very good bhakti with bhang," bhakti being precisely Hinduism's theistic variant. (l4)
3. There is a third reason why Professor Zaehner might doubt that drugs can induce experiences that are genuinely mystical. Professor Zaehner is a Roman Catholic, and Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that mystical rapture is a gift of grace and as such can never be reduced to man's control. This may be true; certainly the empirical evidence cited does not preclude the possibility of a genuine ontological or theological difference between natural and drug-induced religious experiences. At this point, however, we are considering phenomenology rather than ontology, description rather than interpretation, and on this level there is no difference. Descriptively, drug experiences cannot be distinguished from their natural religious counterpart. When the current philosophical authority on mysticism, Dr. W. T. Stace, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, was asked whether the drug experience is similar to the mystical experience, he answered, "It's not a matter of its being similar to mystical experience; it is mystical experience."
What we seem to be witnessing in Zaehner's Mysticism Sacred and Profane is a reenactment of the age-old pattern in the conflict between science and religion. Whenever a new controversy arises, religion's first impulse is to deny the disturbing evidence science has produced. Seen in perspective, Zaehner's refusal to admit that drugs can induce experiences descriptively indistinguishable from those which are spontaneously religious is the current counterpart of the seventeenth century theologians' refusal to look through Galileo's telescope or, when they did, their persistence in dismissing what they saw as machinations of the devil. When the fact that drugs can trigger religious experiences becomes incontrovertible, discussion will move to the more difficult question of how this new fact is to be interpreted. The latter question leads beyond phenomenology into philosophy.
3. Drugs and Religion Viewed PhilosophicallyWhy do people reject evidence? Because they find it threatening, we may suppose. Theologians are not the only professionals to utilize this mode of defense. In his Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi recounts the way the medical profession ignored such palpable facts as the painless amputation of human limbs, performed before their own eyes in hundreds of successive cases, concluding that the subjects were impostors who were either deluding their physician or colluding with him. One physician, Esdaile, carried out about 300 major operations painlessly under mesmeric trance in India, but neither in India nor in Great Britain could he get medical journals to print accounts of his work. Polanyi attributes this closed-mindedness to "lack of a conceptual framework in which their discoveries could be separated from specious and untenable admixtures."
The "untenable admixture" in the fact that psychotomimetic drugs can induce religious experience is their apparent implicate: that religious disclosures are no more veridical than psychotic ones. For religious skeptics, this conclusion is obviously not untenable at all; it fits in beautifully with their thesis that all religion is at heart an escape from reality. Psychotics avoid reality by retiring into dream worlds of make-believe; what better evidence that religious visionaries do the same than the fact that identical changes in brain chemistry produces both states of mind? Had not Marx already warned us that religion is the "opiate" of the people? Apparently he was more literally accurate than he supposed. Freud was likewise too mild. He "never doubted that religious phenomena are to be understood only on the model of the neurotic symptoms of the individual." (15) He should have said "psychotic symptoms."
So the religious skeptic is likely to reason. What about the religious believer? Convinced that religious experiences are not fundamentally delusory, can he admit that psychotomimetic drugs can occasion them? To do so he needs (to return to Polanyi's words) "a conceptual framework in which [the discoveries can] be separated from specious and untenable admixtures," the latter being in this case the conclusion that religious experiences are in general delusory.
One way to effect the separation would be to argue that despite phenomenological similarities between natural and drug-induced religious experiences, they are separated by a crucial ontological difference. Such an argument would follow the pattern of theologians who argue for the "real presence" of Christ's body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist despite their admission that chemical analysis, confined as it is to the level of "accidents" rather than "essences," would not disclose this presence. But this distinction will not appeal to many today, for it turns on an essence-accident metaphysics which is not widely accepted. Instead of fighting a rear-guard action by insisting that if drug and non-drug religious experiences can't be distinguished empirically there must be some trans-empirical factor which distinguishes them and renders the drug experience profane, I wish to explore the possibility of accepting drug-induced experiences as religious in every sense of the word without relinquishing confidence in the truth claims of religious experience generally.
To begin with the weakest of all arguments, the argument from authority: William James didn't discount his insights which occurred while his brain chemistry was altered. The paragraph in which he retrospectively evaluates his nitrous oxide experiences has become classic, but it is so pertinent to the present discussion that it merits quoting again.
To this argument from authority, I add two that try to provide something by way of reasons. Drug experiences that assume a religious cast tend to have fearful and/or beatific features, and each of my hypotheses relates to one of these aspects of the experience.
Beginning with the ominous, "fear of the Lord," awe-ful features, Gordon Wasson, the New York banker-turned-mycologist, describes these as he encountered them in his psilocybin experience as follows: "Ecstasy! In common parlance... ecstasy is fun.... But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. After all, who will choose to feel undiluted awe...? The unknowing vulgar abuse the word; we must recapture its full and terrifying sense." Emotionally the drug experience can be like having forty-foot waves crash over you for several hours while you cling desperately to a life raft which may be swept from under you at any minute. It seems quite possible that such an ordeal, like any experience of a close call, could awaken rather fundamental sentiments respecting life and death and destiny and trigger the "no atheists in foxholes" effect. Similarly, as the subject emerges from the trauma and realizes that he is not going to be insane as he had feared, there may come over him an intensified appreciation like that frequently reported by patients recovering from critical illness. "It happened on the day when my bed was pushed out of doors to the open gallery of the hospital," reads one such report.
If we do not discount religious intuitions because they are prompted by battlefields and physical crises; if we regard the latter as "calling us to our senses" more often than they seduce us into delusions, need comparable intuitions be discounted simply because the crises that trigger them are of an inner, psychic variety?
Turning from the hellish to the heavenly aspects of the drug experience, some of the latter may be explainable by the hypothesis just stated; that is, they may be occasioned by the relief that attends the sense of escape from high danger. But this hypothesis cannot possibly account for all the beatific episodes for the simple reason that the positive episodes often come first, or to persons who experience no negative episodes whatever. Dr. Sanford Unger of the National Institute of Mental Health reports that among his subjects "50 to 60 percent will not manifest any real disturbance worthy of discussion," yet "around 75" will have at least one episode in which exaltation, rapture, and joy are the key descriptions. (18) How are we to account for the drug's capacity to induce peak experiences, such as the following, which are not preceded by fear?
Consider the following line of argument. Like every other form of life, man's nature has become distinctive through specialization. Man has specialized in developing a cerebral cortex. The analytic powers of this instrument are a standing wonder, but it seems less able to provide man with the sense that he is meaningfully related to his environment, to life, the world and history in their wholeness. As Albert Camus describes the situation, "If I were... a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I would be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness." (20) Note that it is Camus' consciousness that opposes him to his world. The drugs do not knock this consciousness out, but while they leave it operative they also activate areas of the brain that normally lie below its threshold of awareness. One of the clearest objective signs that the drugs are taking effect is the dilation they produce in the pupils of the eyes, while one of the most predictable subjective signs is the intensification of visual perception. Both of these responses are controlled by portions of the brain that lie deep, further to the rear than the mechanisms that govern consciousness. Meanwhile we know that the human organism is interlaced with its world in innumerable ways it normally cannot sensethrough gravitational fields, body respiration, and the like; the list could be multiplied until man's skin began to seem more like a thoroughfare than a boundary. Perhaps the deeper regions of the brain which evolved earlier and are more like those of the lower animals"If I were... a cat.. . I should belong to this world"can sense this relatedness better than can the cerebral cortex which now dominates our awareness. If so, when the drugs rearrange the neurohumors that chemically transmit impulses across synapses between neurons, man's consciousness and his submerged, intuitive, ecological awareness might for a spell become interlaced. This is, of course, no more than a hypothesis, but how else are we to account for the extraordinary incidence under the drugs of that kind of insight the keynote of which James described as
4. The Drugs and Religion Viewed "Religiously"Suppose that drugs can induce experiences that are indistinguishable from religious ones, and that we can respect their reports. Do they shed any light, not (we now ask) on life, but on the nature of the religious life?
One thing they may do is throw religious experience itself into perspective by clarifying its relation to the religious life as a whole. Drugs appear able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives. It follows that religion is more than religious experiences. This is hardly news, but it may be a useful reminder, especially to those who incline toward "the religion of religious experience," which is to say toward lives bent on the acquisition of desired states of experience irrespective of their relation to life's other demands and components.
Despite the dangers of faculty psychology, it remains useful to regard man as having a mind, a will, and feelings. One of the lessons of religious history is that to be adequate a faith must rouse and involve all three components of man's nature. Religions of reason grow arid; religions of duty, leaden. Religions of experience have their comparable pitfalls, as evidenced by Taoism's struggle (not always successful) to keep from degenerating into quietism, and the vehemence with which Zen Buddhism has insisted that once students have attained satori, they must be driven out of it, back into the world. The case of Zen is especially pertinent here, for it pivots on an enlightenment experiencesatori or kenshowhich some (but not all) Zennists says resembles LSD. Alike or different, the point is that Zen recognizes that unless the experience is joined to discipline, it will come to naught.
If the religion of religious experience is a snare and a delusion, it follows that no religion that fixes its faith primarily in substances that induce religious experiences can be expected to come to a good end. What promised to be a shortcut will prove to be a short circuit; what began as a religion will end as a religion surrogate. Whether chemical substances can be helpful adjuncts to faith is another question. The peyote-using Native American Church seems to indicate that they can be; anthropologists give this church a good report, noting among other things that members resist alcohol and alcoholism better than do non-members. (23) The conclusion to which evidence currently points would seem to be that chemicals can aid the religious life, but only where set within a context of faith (meaning by this the conviction that what they disclose is true) and discipline (meaning diligent exercise of the will in the attempt to work out the implications of the disclosures for the living of life in the every day, common sense world).
Nowhere today in Western civilization are these two conditions jointly fulfilled. Churches lack faith in the sense just mentioned, hipsters lack discipline. This might lead us to forget about the drugs, were it not for one fact: the distinctive religious emotion and the one drugs unquestionably can occasionOtto's mysterium tremendum, majestas, mysterium fascinans; in a phrase, the phenomenon of religious aweseems to be declining sharply. As Paul Tillich said in an address to the Hillel Society at Harvard several years ago:
Tillich may be right; this may be the religious question of our century. For if (as we have insisted) religion cannot be equated with religious experience, neither can it long survive its absence.
References1. Soundings: Essays Concerning Christian Understandings, edited by A. R. Vidler. Cambridge: The University Press, 1962, The statement cited appears on page 72. (back)
2. Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York, Mentor Book, 1940, p. 55. (back)
3. Quoted in Alan Watts, The Spirit of Zen. New York: Grove Press, 1958, p. 110. (back)
4. Mylonas, George. Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961, p. 284. (back)
5. Two Sources of Morality and Religion. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1935, pp. 206-212. (back)
6. "The God in the Flowerpot." The American Scholar (Autumn 1963), pp. 584, 586. (back)
7. Mysticism, Sacred and Profane. New York: Oxford Galaxy Book, 1961, p. 12. (back)
8. Quoted in McGlothlin, William H. "Long-lasting Effects of LSD on Certain Attitudes in Normals." Printed for private distribution by the RAND Corporation, p. 16. (back)
9. Ibid., pp. 45, 46. (back)
10. Leary, Timothy. "The Religious Experience: Its Production and Interpretation." The Psychedelic Review, vol. I, no. 3 (1964), p. 325. (back)
11. "Drugs and Mysticism: An Analysis of the Relationship Between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness." A thesis presented to the Committee on Higher Degrees in History and Philosophy of Religion, Harvard University, June 1963. (back)
12. The first account is quoted anonymously in "The Issue of the Consciousness-Expanding Drugs." Main Currents in Modern Thought vol. XX, no. I (September-October 1963), pp. 10-11. The second experience was that of Dr. R. M. Bucke, the author of Cosmic Consciousness, as quoted in James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: The Modern Library, 1902, pp. 390391. The former experience occurred under the influence of drugs, the latter did not. (back)
13. Slotkin, James S. Peyote Religion. Glencoe, III.: Free Press, 1956. (back)
14. "Daru and Bhang." Quarterly Journal of the Study of Alcohol. 1954, 15:229. (back)
15. Totem and Taboo. New York: Modern Library, 1938. (back)
16. The Varieties of Religious Experience, op. cit., pp. 378-379. (back)
17. Montague, Margaret Prescott. Twenty Minutes of Reality. Saint Paul, Minn.: Macalester Park Publishing Company, 1947, pp. 15, 17. (back)
18. "The Current Scientific Status of Psychedelic Drug Research." A paper read at the Conference on Methods in Philosophy and the Sciences, New School for Social Research, May 3, 1964. (back)
19. Quoted by Dr. Unger in the paper just mentioned. (back)
20. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage, 1955, p. 38. (back)
21. James, William, op. cit., p. 379. (back)
22. Kapleau, Philip. Zen Practice and Attainment. A manuscript in process of publication. (back)
23. Slotkin, James S., op. cit. (back)
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