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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

An American Religious Community Using Hallucinogens in 1970.

Kachel, Arthur Theodore. (1975).
New York: Columbia University.

ISBN: none

Description: Hardcover, unpublished doctoral dissertation, viii + 266 pages.

Contents: List of illustrations, introduction, 4 chapters, bibliography, Appendix: 6 8x10 glossy photographs of Stephen Gaskin and his group.

Note: Available from UMI, Ann Arbor, MI, in full page or half-page sizes, both available in hardcover or paperback, also available in microfilm.

Excerpt(s): There were personal, cultural, theoretical, and methodological reasons why it occurred to me in the fall of 1967 to begin the research that led to the following study. Up to that time I had spent all of my young adult life in and around universities as student, teacher and campus minister. Exhausted by the ordinary round of classes, books, papers and university persons, I sought a dissertation project that would take me beyond the walls of the scholarly community. I wanted to be with people who were being religious rather than studying religion.

At that particular moment the psychedelic drug movement was a subject of wide but uneven discussion in all the popular mass media. Many of the visible leaders, such as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, made specific religious claims for their drug experience and this social movement. These claims were disputed in the popular media and debated in scholarly circles. After exploratory discussions with graduate student friends and my professors, I decided to do field research on young people in this general psychedelic drug movement who were organizing religious communities.

By studying these new religious groups I planned to explore three theoretical concerns in social theory about religion. Generally, scholars of religion placed special importance on the early phases in a religious group's development. Choosing to study the religious usage of psychedelic drugs would allow me to study the early development of a religious movement in the U.S.A. Second, another issue usually given theoretical emphasis is the relational dynamics between religious experience and behavior. I was particularly interested in the role played by the symbolic elaboration of religious experience for structuring actual behavior. The psychedelic phenomenon was a dramatic psychological experience, producing behavioral changes and symbolic creativity among the drug users. Third, at the present time the philosophical, historical and literary approaches for understanding religious behavior dominate the field of religious studies. In my study I wished to correct the scholarly neglect and even disdain for contemporary religious movements of untested worth. I wished to "dirty my hands" by studying a not let legitimated religious movement.

My theoretical perspective on the empirical study of religion is strongly shaped by the writing of Professors Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. Their continuing stress on a dialectical shift in any analysis of social behavior makes clear the equal significance of the "insides" (emotional experiences, ethical attitudes, and mental ideas (i.e., self)) and the "outsides" (behavior, community life, and ritual gestures (i.e., society)) in the social construction of religious life. I set out in my research to describe and to analyze this fundamental social reciprocity in a religious movement using hallucinogenic drugs. (pages 3-4)

After 1965, San Francisco, California became the geographical and spiritual center of the psychedelic drug movement. The search for examples of religious drug usage drew me naturally to that field site. In January, 1969 I accepted a field staff position with the Board for Homeland Ministries of the United Church of Christ with the understanding that they would support my research on psychedelic drug usage by the young as a part of my duties. Professor Walter Huston Clark in Cambridge, Massachusetts assisted my research by giving me several contacts, including Dr. Timothy Leary, for my first visit to San Francisco. (page 11)

We returned later that same year in August for a month-long stay. Two events characterized this period of research. We attended a week-end conference on "Psychotherapy and LSD" at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. Dr. Leary was one of many speakers at this meeting. Scientists, doctors, psychedelic drug users, and others debated the safety and wisdom of the growing drug usage among young Americans. The vigor of the exchange and the divergent views of the LSD experience persuaded me that if I were to do field research among psychedelic drug users, I would have to risk this experience myself at least once. A few weeks later, through trusted friends, Nancy and I took an "acid trip" under the guidance of an experienced user and in a manner considered natural by his sub-culture. It was an overwhelming psychological experience with negative and positive aspects of exhilaration and finally exhaustion. This single experience made me empathetically aware of the subjective power with which those I studied were living. It was a "shaking of the foundations" of a person's self-identity and cultural definitions.

During the Fall of 1969, I visited the late Dr. Walter Pahnke in Baltimore, Maryland. He was a psychiatrist and an historian of religion who had done experimental research on the questions of psychedelic experiences and religious mysticism. From my account, Dr. Pahnke verified the authenticity of the dosage used in my LSD experience and administered a brief test for determining whether my experience would be rated as "mystical." My experience, as tested by Dr. Pahnke's scale, did not measure up to mysticism. However, my wife's experience did rate as a "mystical" one. Dr. Pahnke told me he knew of no other field research on drug-using religious communities among young Americans. He encouraged my plans and gave me specific advice on doing research in a drug-using population. (pages 12-13)

In summary, I found the following trends:

Hallucinogenic substances are generally available throughout the world, but mere availability does not lead to religious usage.

Religious usage of hallucinogens arises from some particular cultural need.

For the most part, it is the visionary revelation released by the drug that is sought and affirmatively appropriated in the religious context; however, there are a few cases of an association between religion and a drug where the primary aim is not the visionary experience, but instead social usefulness.

Finally, religious drug usage appears either early in the development of a civilization or after a major cultural crisis; the latter case might be viewed as an early stage in the renewal of that culture. (page 48)

The Eastern mystic loses his self into the absolute non-selfness of eternity; whereas, the Western mystic loses his self in the divine person of God.

Furthermore, beyond a fundamental difference in theological orientation, they are in disagreement over the methodology of mysticism. Zaehner stands in the tradition of mysticism via negativa: Huxley's mysticism is, to coin a phrase, via positiva. In the former there is the turning inward away from the world to experience the holy in changelessness, while in the latter there is an intensification of one's experience of the world until one penetrates its sacredness. Classical mysticism, both Eastern and Western, has tended to favor the ascetic via negativa. As I noted in the discussion of non-drug physical alterations of consciousness, the various methods of classical asceticism work to release the fantasizing potentials of the mind through deprivation of sensory input. In contrast, Huxley and others in their reports of the hallucinogenic encounter experience an intensification, even an overloading of the brain by sensory stimuli. This also seems to release the fantasizing potentials of the brain. In either case, from a phenomenological viewpoint, one method of achieving the mystical state is no more natural or spontaneous in its origin than the other. (page 51)

Professor Huston Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published an article critical of Zaehner's analysis of religious drug experience. Smith argued with Zaehner at four levels: the historical, the phenomenological, the philosophical and the religious. According to Smith, Zaehner ignored the historical association between intoxicants and religion. This history opens the question of precisely how or whether drugs shaped a particular religion. At the phenomenological level Smith believes no descriptive difference can be drawn between classical mysticism and drug-induced religious experience in some persons. Smith faulted Zaehner's typology of mysticism for being a theological evaluation rather than a descriptive phenomenology. At best, Zaehner tried to prove that hallucinogenic experience is not theistic mysticism, but even in this endeavor he completely ignored the evidence gathered by anthropologists on the native American Indians' reports of their theistic mystical experiences while using peyote. Smith concluded his phenomenological argument by citing Pahnke's research as a convincing demonstration of the descriptive congruency between hallucinogenic experience and classical mysticism.

What then are the philosophical possibilities for understanding this experience? Zaehner's fear, according to Smith, is the reduction of mysticism to psychosis. Without denying the descriptive similarity, Smith wanted to place it within a more positive conceptional framework. Perhaps the hallucinogen functions as an ecstatic trauma for the self, which evokes a genuine religious response, similar to that found in "foxhole" religion. Then as a person finds himself coming off this drug trauma he may feel a deep gratitude or renewed appreciation for life. Or, perhaps the drug brings awareness to the deeper level of the cerebral cortex that is directly in tune with the richness of the environment's stimuli. Such an awareness, usually repressed by the rational consciousness, could give a person a deeper spiritual sense of being "at home" in this world.

At the religious level of analysis Smith agreed with Zaehner in stressing transformative personal change as the final criterion for evaluating the religious significance of hallucinogenic experience. This experience could lead one to a simple religion of experience unrelated to the other demands of social and ethical life. Instead Smith suggested a three-fold movement is necessary for an experience to be judged fully religious. First there is the experiential involvement of the emotions in awe, then this is followed by the movement of the mind in belief, and this is completed by the activity of the will in obedience. For Smith hallucinogens can aid in the religious life but they are not a religious life in themselves. (pages 53-54)

Certainly none of the proponents claim that all hallucinogenic experiences are religious. All they argue is that some are. All agree that an hallucinogen is an aid to religious experience, i.e., a releasing of latent capacities in a person, and not the creator of that capacity. A few suggest that not even all mystical drug experiences should necessarily be considered fully religious. Zaehner was the most critical on this point. If one accepts his theological analysis of the content of mysticism, then any natural world-affirming mysticism is not religious. It is common knowledge that subjects sometimes report shattering personal experiences after taking hallucinogens, but, since these experiences are felt as personally bad, evil, or even nihilistic, they are not considered religious by either the subject or the clinical observer.

For all of these scholars the final criterion for recognizing a genuine religious experience is the necessity for transformative personal change. If an hallucinogen induces a transformative behavioral shift which is judged as religious by the subject and by the observer, then all these scholars would accept that experience as authentically religious. Implicit in this experience is also a subjective certainty about the rightness of the new perception and of the positive behavioral changes growing out of it. From a sociological viewpoint such an experience has its own charismatic authority. (page 57)

Such a theory is one perspective on our contemporary situation. The hallucinogens are found among tribal societies or among rebellious subcultures in complex societies. In the latter case spiritual independence is sought from an oppressive larger society. The major religions of the world with their complex mythologies and systems of leadership would allow hallucinogens a minor role, if any, but they could well honor ascetic mysticism.

Drawing upon this developmental model, in can establish three criteria for validating a case of religious drug usage:

  1. The subjects would report their hallucinogenic experience in religious categories as an awesome encounter with a sacred cosmos;
  2. They would use this holy encounter to create, from the cultural resources at hand, their own myth of ultimate meaningfulness;
  3. Then, based on the drug encounter and the sacred myth, they would begin to transform their everyday behavior to reflect their new religious understanding.
Furthermore, as they symbolically elaborate their myth and socially reconstruct their lives, they would also shift away from intense drug experiences. ...

This ideal-type model for describing and analyzing the dialectical interaction between hallucinogenic experience and religious development suggests two major questions for guiding contemporary field research. They are:

  1. is there a case of genuine religious drug usage among young Americans today?
  2. is there an observable decline in their drug usage as they socially develop a religious understanding of their lives and of their drug experience?
In the next two chapters in use these same to questions, three criteria, and threefold model to present a case study of Stephen and the Monday Night Class. (pages 68-69)

On the basis of the case study reported in Chapters Two and Three, in believe Stephen and the Monday Night Class fulfill these three criteria. They are an example of a religious usage of the psychedelic experience during a time of many psychedelic drug users who made similar claims without observable success at meeting these three criteria.

They reported and recognized non-religious interpretations of psychedelic experience, but certainly, their decisive experience and their evolving interpretation of it, was religious in the fullest sense demanded by these criteria. Their encounter was with the ambiguous, numinous grounds of their being. Further, it propelled them towards a sacred interpretation of the Cosmos in the face of their intellectual agnosticism and religious indifference. Out of this encounter they came to spend a major portion of their time under Stephen's guidance elaborating a sacred belief system that had a global capacity to integrate their lives into the ultimacy of the Cosmos. This produced not only a new understanding of themselves and of the universe, but also continuous efforts to transform their personal and corporate behavior into perfect alignment with their sacred vision. So far these changes have been for the core members in this community irreversible and comprehensive in their impact on all levels of their life-style. Stephen and his students have abandoned careers and education; they have entered into new sexual and family arrangements; they have changed their diets; they have simplified their material standards of living, and have withdrawn from the general social and economic activities of the American culture. This community is surely an example of sustained religious change based on the psychedelic experience.

I also was able to observe and to document in their teachings and in their behavior a decline in their usage of psychedelic drugs. (pages 210-212)

In the short run, these drugs assist humans in producing and in considering alternate modes for experiencing the world. This could be an effective respite from the ordinary social definition of a situation. They conclude,

These benefits of drugs rest to a considerable extent upon the kinds of figure-ground reversals they help to generate, that is, upon the changes in perception of what is important and what is relative. [H. L. Lennard, Mystification and Drug Misuse, 111.] Religious psychedelic drug users would rate this effect very highly, since they may be specifically trying to escape what they find as an anomic or negative situational definition. Also, the way they state this particular effect sounds like one possible way to describe what is a traditional religious activity, questioning the foundations of your culture. (age 234)

For some persons, the attraction of the psychedelic experience was analogous to the traditional call to go to the frontier and to create a new community beyond these social ills.

In the early "evangelical" phase of the psychedelic drug movement this was the "gospel" of many of the new young and old converts like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard. "Turn on, Tune in, Drop out," was simply a call to a new frontier. The charge that such a movement was escapist surely must also have been the charge of those who stayed "home" in the "old country" to every generation of spatial pioneers who sent to the frontier. Of course, it is true. They did wish to escape, but they, as pioneers of old, also wished to build a new human civilization.

A second more obvious usage of this motivating theme of the spatial frontier occurred later in the psychedelic drug movement. After the initial exuberant public phase, they found persecution and conflict in the cities. So many of them decided to move back to rural areas of America. Stephen and the Monday Night Class stayed longer than most in San Francisco. In this migration, they are similar to earlier utopian movements in American history. In the evangelical phase there was the hope that everyone would "turn on." For some movements this does not happen, and frequently in America's history these groups have sought to return to a simpler life in some remote rural area. (pages 246-247)

Another major theme in the historical religious experience of the American people is the periodic occurrence of Spiritual Awakenings that sweep across the whole culture. Americans expect this to happen, or at least is always there as a possibility. The psychedelic drug movement fits this historical memory in some interesting ways.

One of the requirements for these revivals is that the basic religious experience be available to any and to all. This is the theme of egalitarianism in American religious life. Psychedelic drugs again fit this demand for mass religious enthusiasm. They were drugs that brought mystical experience to those who dare to ingest them. Mysticism had always been the preserve of the religious elite. It usually required long hours of prayer, fasting and other means of self-mortification in preparation for its occurrence. Now all it required was daring.

Revival movements also stressed large public meetings for expression of the newly discovered religious experience. In their early evangelical phase the psychedelic users gathered for mass meetings in the thousands and called them "human be-ins." You do not have to do anything, just come and be! American society at different times and in different ways needs mass religious gatherings to overcome the individual's sense of loneliness. In the first Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, perhaps it was the immigrants' sense of loss and loneliness for the European or British homeland. In the frontier revivals of the Second Great Awakening during the nineteenth century, perhaps it was the settlers' loneliness in the face of the vase geographical wilderness they were trying to settle. Today, perhaps this loneliness arises out of the great technological urban society we have become where, as Phillip Slater has said, we are lost in "the pursuit of loneliness." (pages 248-249)

Stephen characterized Christianity in America as "run down." He said that until he understood Buddhism, he really didn't know what Christianity was at all.

In contrast their psychedelic experience was an all-embracing subjective encounter with the Holy. It demanded, not a functional religious response of partial norms, but rather a comprehensive change in their living. They became the new "pietists." In their communal experiment they returned to do over the behavioral basics of being a human. Every aspect of their lives was to be informed by their sacred vision. In their flight from the cities, and their choice of lives of material simplicity, they were creating their own version of monasticism with its emphasis upon "prayer and work." They would work to make their own economic subsistence so that they might be free to create sacred life. (page 252)

Compilation copyright © 1995 – 2001 CSP

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