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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

Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science.

Sagan, Carl. (1979).
New York: Random House.

ISBN: 0-394-50169-1

Description: Hardcover, xvi + 347 pages.

Contents: Introduction, 25 chapters divided into 5 parts: 1. Science and Human Concern, 2. The Paradoxers, 3. Our Neighborhood in Space, 4. The Future, 5. Ultimate Questions, references, index.

Excerpt(s): How could it be that people of all ages, cultures and eschatological predispositions have the same sort of near-death experience?

We know that similar experiences can be induced with fair regularity, cross-culturally, by psychedelic drugs. (page 302)

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) induces a sense of union with the universe, as in the identification of Brahman with Atman in Hindu religious belief.

Can it really be that the Hindu mystical experience is pre-wired into us, requiring only 200 micrograms of LSD to be made manifest? If something like ketamine is released in times of mortal danger or near-death, and people returning from such an experience always provide the same account of heaven and God, then must there not be a sense in which Western as well as Eastern religions are hard-wired in the neuronal architecture of our brains?

It is difficult to see why evolution should have selected brains that are predisposed to such experiences, since no one seems to die or fail to reproduce from want of mystic fervor. Might these drug-inducible experiences as well as the near-death epiphany be due merely to some evolutionarily neutral wiring defect in the brain which, by accident, occasionally brings forth altered perceptions of the world? That possibility, it seems to me, is extremely implausible, and perhaps no more than a desperate rationalist attempt to avoid a serious encounter with the mystical.

The only alterative, so far as I can see, is that every human being without exception, has already shared an experience like that of those travelers who return from the land of death; the sensation of flight; the emergence from darkness to light; an experience in which, at least sometimes, a heroic figure can be dimly perceived, bathed in radiance and glory. There is only one common experience that matches this description. It is called birth.

His name is Stanislav Grof. In some pronunciations his first and last name rhyme. He is a physician and a psychiatrist who has, for more than twenty years, employed LSD and other psychedelic drugs in psychotherapy. ... He stresses that whereas LSD can be used for recreational and aesthetic purposes, it can have other and more profound effects, one of which is the accurate recollection of perinatal experiences. "Perinatal" is a neologism for "around birth." (pages 304-305)

Grof distinguishes four perinatal stages recovered under psychedelic therapy. Stage 1 is the blissful complacency of the child in the womb, free of all anxiety, the center of a small, dark, warm universe -- a cosmos in an amniotic sac. ... In state 2, the uterine contractions begin. The walls to which the amniotic sac is anchored, the foundation of the stable intrauterine environment become traitorous. The fetus is dreadfully compressed. ... Stage 3 is the end of the birth process, when the child's head has penetrated the cervix and might, even if the eyes are closed, perceive a tunnel illuminated at one end and sense the brilliant radiance of the extrauterine world. ... Stage 4 is the time immediately after birth when the perinatal apnea has dissipated, when the child is blanketed or swaddled and given nourishment. (pages 305-306)

These ideas may cast some light on the origin and nature of religion. Most Western religions long for a life after death; Eastern religions for relief from an extended cycle of deaths and rebirths. Both promise a heaven or satori; an idyllic reunion of the individual and the universe, a return to Stage 1.(pages 307-308)

Might not the Western fascination with punishment and redemption be a poignant attempt to make sense of perinatal Stage 2? Is it not better to be punished for something -- no matter how implausible, such as original sin -- than for nothing? And Stage 3 looks very much like a common experience, shared by all human beings, implanted into our earliest memories and occasionally retrieved in such religious epiphanies as the near-death experience. It is tempting to try to understand other puzzling religious motifs in these terms. In utero we know virtually nothing. In Stage 2 the fetus gains experience of what might very well in later life be called evil -- and then is forced to leave the uterus. This is entrancingly close to eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and then experiencing the "expulsion" from Eden. In Michelangelo's famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is the finger of God an obstetrical finger? Why is baptism, especially total-immersion baptism, widely considered a symbolic rebirth? Is holy water a metaphor for amniotic fluid? Is not the entire concept of baptism and the "born again" experience an explicit acknowledgement of the connection between birth and mystical religiosity? (page 308)

The general acceptance of religious ideas, it seems to me, can only be because there is something in them that resonates with our own certain knowledge -- something deep and wistful; something that every person recognizes as central to our being. And that common thread, I propose, is birth. Religion is fundamentally mystical, the gods inscrutable, the tenets appealing but unsound because, I suggest, blurred perceptions and vague premonitions are the best that the newborn infant can manage. I think that the mystical core of the religious experience is neither literally true nor perniciously wrong-minded. It is rather a courageous if flawed attempt to make contact with the earliest and most profound experience in our lives. Religious doctrine is fundamentally clouded because not a single person has ever at birth had the skills or recollection and retelling necessary to deliver a coherent account of the event All successful religions seem at their nucleus to make an unstated and perhaps even unconscious resonance with the perinatal experience. Perhaps when secular influences are subtracted, it will emerge that the most successful religions are those which perform this resonance best. (pages 309-310)

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