Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index
Experiencing God: Theology as Spirituality.
Leech, Kenneth. (1985).
New York: Harper & Row.
Description: Hardcover, viii + 500 pages.
Contents: Preface, 13 chapters, postscript: Toward a Renewed Spirituality: A Manifesto, references, acknowledgements, index.
Excerpt(s): The Psychedelic Route — to God?
The association between mind-altering chemicals and the quest for God was not an invention of the 1960s but is of great antiquity. Cannabis was mentioned in the Zend-Avesta in the sixth century BC, while one-tenth of the Rig Veda refers to the drug soma, sometimes identified with the 'sacred mushroom' amanita muscaria, though others say that this was cannabis. Certainly cannabis was used by mendicants and sadhus from an early date as an aid to meditation, and the concept of the magic food providing inner nourishment for the spiritual journey is one which appears in much ancient religious literature. Even the modern interest in the spiritual significance of drugs long antedates the psychedelic movement: all the important questions about the nature of mind and of consciousness were raised by William James in 1901 in relation to his work with nitrous oxide and the 'metaphysical significance' which he ascribed to his experiences. It is therefore a serious error to assume that the connection between drugs and the search for God is a recent idea. Indeed, as the 1960s reached its close, one writer argued that the origins of Christianity itself lay in a psychedelic cult linked with the mind-altering mushroom! (pages 16-17).
As in the earlier movement around Leary at Harvard, young people were taking LSD not to forget what they had been, but to discover and attain what they had not. For years, conventional, physical-based psychiatry had used chlorpromazine (Largactil) as a means of 'treating' psychotic experiences, and one of the drug's principal protagonists had commented that 'under chlorpromazine a patient should be more immune to the spell of the witch doctor and probably to the religious revivalist as well'. According to the pharmacology textbooks, the antidote to LSD was chlorpromazine. So, to the post-Leary generation, LSD was the way to experience, not avoid, the realms from which mainstream medicine and mainstream society wished to protect them. Of course, there were risks involved, but if the result was the experience of God, the risks were worth it. So a psychologist, writing on psychedelic drugs in 1973, observed that 'at the centre of both Christian religion and serious psychedelic drug use lies the search for spiritual growth'.
However, the psychedelic path to God was not without its critics. That the experiences under LSD were comparable to those of the mystics was, in principle, not in doubt. The central issue was whether external, chemical change was a secure basis for spiritual progress. The point was put crudely and directly by Leary's former disciple, Allan Cohen. In a paper delivered in London at St. Anne's, Soho, in 1969, Cohen conceded that 'the experience under these materials was sufficiently dramatic that, with the proper set and setting, you could be 100 per cent sure that you had experienced God. But the question which had to be faced was: did you experience God?' Cohen did not question the ability of LSD to bring about a religious experience. 'If I stick you in a church and give you 500 microgrammes of LSD, I will guarantee you a religious experience.' But did the reliance on chemicals aid the growth of spiritual life? Cohen was dubious. (page 18).
Nevertheless, while it is true that 'the search for God through drugs must end in disillusionment', there is no doubt that it was the psychedelic drug movement which provided for many people the occasion for a radical questioning of prevailing materialism. It was not a simple cause-effect relationship, but rather a spiritual movement of great complexity. For a time it became sidetracked within the chemical approaches of the West. But out of the drug culture there has grown up a massive spiritual movement which has moved beyond the drug experience. This movement has, for the most part, remained outside the mainstream churches. So we have entered an era of private religion, in which the search for God itself has become privatized. (page 19).
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