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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

The Evidential Force of Religious Experience.

Davis, Caroline Franks. (1989).
Oxford: Clarendon Press.

ISBN: 0-19-824436-3

Description: Hardcover, xii + 268.

Contents: Introduction, 9 chapters, bibliography, index.

Excerpt(s): The issue of drug-induced religious experiences is highly controversial. It had been argued that experiences induced by such artificial means could not be genuine perceptions of God, that other religious experiences are so similar to drug-induced ones that they must all be products of some (albeit well-concealed) abnormal physiological state, that drugs awaken the dormant 'mystical consciousness' and 'open us up' to realms to which we are normally blind. The evidence, as we shall see, supports all of these claims to some extent, but none of them overwhelmingly.

It should be noted first of all that drug-induced experiences ought not to be considered suspect simply because the subject's mental state has been affected by physical factors. ... The problem, however, is that the physical factors in question usually impair cognitive and perceptual functioning. If drug-induced religious experiences are to retain any evidential force, it must be shown that drugs do not have that effect in the religious case.

There is a great deal of evidence that drugs cannot produce religious experiences on their own, in the way that, say, a blow to the head produces an experience of 'stars'. At the most, it appears they can act as a catalyst, and so it is open to the theist to argue that it was other, nonpathological factors which were crucial to the religious content of the experience. John Bowker informs us, for instance, that drugs do not introduce anything new into the mind or behavior or affect stored information in a discriminatory and meaningful manner, but can only initiate or inhibit brain activity. ...

Hallucinogenic drugs appear to produce a general state of arousal which has no meaning in itself, but is labeled by the subject according to set perceived setting. Under conditions of sensory deprivation, with no setting and no particular set, it is known that subjects receiving such drugs report none of the usual hallucinatory effects. It thus seems likely that drugs do not produce religious experiences where set and setting are appropriate. They might divert one's attention from ordinary matters, challenge one's normal patterns of thought and perception, make one feel 'something special' is happening, and intensify experiences so that anything which could have religious significance is elevated to a vivid 'religious experience'.

It is possible, then, that in the religious case, drug-induced states do to impair perceptual powers. ...

Drug-induced religious experiences might find more support within a cumulative argument, but there are some features of these experiences which could persuade even theists to reject them. The discussion in the previous section showed that, in some respects, typical drug-induced experiences are like psychotic experiences in the way they differ from typical mystical experiences. It is, moreover, clear from the literature that drug-induced mystical experiences are almost always extrovertive rather than the introvertive type extolled by most mystical traditions, and there is rarely a sense of personal presence or of union with another being. The use of drugs to induce religious experiences cannot be recommended, partly because of the dangers of drug use, and partly because experiences produced in such a way tend to be regarded as something separated from normal life and so may not become properly integrated into the subject's religious, psychological, and cognitive development. Most importantly, one must wonder how experiences which can be so easily manipulated can be reliable sources of knowledge about an uncontrollable, autonomous reality. In Pahnke's 'Good Friday Experiment', for instance, nine out of the ten seminary students who were given psilocybin and then attended a long religious service reported mystical experiences (a significantly higher rate than the placebo subjects), and the one drugged subject who did not report a mystical experience was highly skeptical of drug-induced experiences and was determined not to have any such experiences while drugged.

It may be that drug-induced experiences of nature mysticism, at least, are verdical, but there is insufficient evidence to overcome this pathological challenge directly; drug-induced religious experiences will have to play their evidential role, if any, in a cumulative argument. Fortunately for this argument, relatively few religious experiences are induced by hallucinogenic drugs. (pages 218-221)

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