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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 Phoenix Has Risen from the Ashes: A Socio-cultural Examination of the Neo-psychedelic Movement.

Jenks, Shepherd M., Jr. (1997).
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico


ISBN: none

Description: Unpublished doctoral dissertation, viii + 214 pages.

Contents: Abstract, 5 chapters, notes, references.

Excerpt(s): This dissertation is the product of research data about the neo-psychedelic movement that I have been collecting and analyzing for several years. During this study I have gathered data from three primary sources: 1) published materials written by the members of the neo-psychedelic movement itself or by various mainstream and alternative media sources; 2) two psychedelic conferences I attended; and 3) various sorts of cultural artifacts associated with the neo-psychedelic movement. (page 3)

As I delved deeper into my research on marijuana and psychedelics, I discovered that these two types of illegal drugs are the only substances that seem to inspire users to form social groups and informational exchange networks devoted to the promotion of these substances, e.g., National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. In contrast, one does not see a National Organization for the Reform of Heroin Laws or a Multidisciplinary Association for Crack Studies. This phenomenon seemed interesting and important to me so I decided to look into it further, primarily by focusing on psychedelic subcultures in my doctoral research. (page 5)

One perplexing problem in psychedelic research using the scientific paradigm and method that has always been difficult is inquiry into the religious and mystical aspects of the psychedelic experience. This problem is represented by a dichotomy on both a conceptual and practical level. On the conceptual level, religious and mystical experiences are by definition subjective, irrational, and more or less ineffable. Science by definition is objective and rational, and based on the premise that phenomena can be described and measured using standard linguistic or mathematical tools. On the practical level, scientists who inquire into religion and mysticism not only have difficulty defining what to study (hypothesis generation), but also find it problematic to observe and measure the phenomenon (hypothesis testing).

In addition to these practical problems, there is a simple bias in scientific research against studying these types of phenomena. Religion and mysticism are seen as lying outside of the disciplinary boundaries of science since they are based on a belief in the supernatural, and thus are not considered "real" phenomena. (pages 39-40)

Not surprisingly, it is not just science that has difficulty with these issues. In mainstream American society any religious and mystical experiences are tacitly supposed to conform to and be governed by the dominant Judeo-Christian beliefs about which experiences are valid and which are not. This is complicated by Judeo-Christian religious dogma that emphasizes the need for institutional intermediaries, such as priests or rabbis, to facilitate communication between individuals and "God." Although the Judeo-Christian tradition has always had mystics who claim to have had direct communications with "God" (one of the hallmarks of a mystical experience), they were often viewed as misguided at best or heretics at worst.

Finally, in the Judeo-Christian paradigm of spiritual thought, drug-induced religious and mystical experiences are regarded as not real, delusional, and blasphemous. This has been especially true ever since psychedelic drugs developed such a bad reputation in mainstream American society during the late 1960s, and perhaps, this is a major reason why the Native American Church has had to constantly struggle to maintain its religious freedom to use peyote.

The lack of a paradigm in the Judeo-Christian tradition (and the Western rational tradition for that matter) for both individual religious and mystical experience and drug-induced experiences, was one of the primary reasons why many psychedelic drug users in the 1950s and 1960s were drawn to the ancient religions of the East (Bakalar 1985). If Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism have anything in common it would probably be a tradition of individual spiritual pursuit. A second commonality might be an appreciation for, indeed, a requirement for the inclusion of altered states of consciousness in this spiritual pursuit. These religions incorporate various physical disciplines to induce different states of consciousness such as meditation, yoga, fasting, chanting, and of course, the ingestion of drugs. In fact, as Wasson argues in Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, the ancient Vedic scriptures upon which Hinduism is based praised the consciousness-expanding properties of a psychedelic mushroom. (pages 41-42)

The Reemergence of Psychedelic Drugs

Although psychedelic drugs have remained popular in various drug subcultures since the 1960s, during the last ten years there has been a rise in both the use and the general interest in these substances within American society. This phenomenon has occurred in five specific areas and for a variety of reasons.

One of the primary forces behind this psychedelic renaissance has been the emergence of MDMA Or "Ecstasy" in the late 1970s and early 1980s as both a recreational drug and as a pharmacological tool in alternative psychotherapies. ...

A second area in which there has been a resurgence of interest in psychedelic drugs is in the mainstream scientific research community. A very important component of the neo-psychedelic movement is the growing number of scientific researchers in the U.S. who have recently received government permission to investigate various aspects of psychedelic drugs using human subjects. ...

A third indication of the resurgence of interest in psychedelic drugs can be seen in the plethora of new books and articles about psychedelics and members of the neo-psychedelic movement published in the last ten years, which have helped to rekindle the interest of many people in these substances. ...

A fourth reason for the psychedelic renaissance seems to be a general nostalgia within American popular culture for the 1960s that developed in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s, and this in turn seemed to spark or rekindle people's curiosity about psychedelics. ...

A fifth and final indication of the reemergence of psychedelics can be seen in the increasing numbers of young people who are using these drugs. (pages 50-54)

The psychedelic church/spiritual organization

  1. The Peyote Way Church of God (http://www.primenet.com/~idic/peyote.html) is a serious, bona fide religious organization of non-Indians that regards peyote as a divine sacrament and works to acquire the same constitutional rights Native Americans have to use peyote for religious purposes. The Peyote Way Church of God incorporates general Christian as well as Mormon beliefs into its practices. ...

  2. The Council on Spiritual Practices (http://www.csp.org) is a spiritual organization whose website contains information on its purpose and history, as well as sections entitled: "Spiritual Practices, Peak Experiences...; CSP Entheogen Project; Society and Law; Other WWW Sites of Interest; Spiritual Traditions and Communities; and CSP Guestbook."

  3. The Fane of the Psilocybe Mushroom (http://www.lycaeum.org/~thefane) is a religious organization based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada that worships psilocybe mushrooms as a sacrament. (pages 79-80)
Following the componential description of the neo-psychedelic movement in the previous chapter, I will now propose an epistemological framework for the variety of beliefs contained within the movement. This framework places the component parts (or cultural texts) of the neo-psychedelic movement into four general belief or approach categories: 1) the entheogenic/ethnobotanical approach; 2) the scientific/psychotherapeutic approach; 3) the recreational approach; and 4) the cyberpsychedelic approach. (page 140)

The Entheogenic/Ethnobotanical Approach

This approach represents a broad-based epistemological coalition of ideas about psychedelics that is based on two overall perspectives: 1) that ingestion of these substances can put the user in touch with divine or supernatural spirits or aspects thereof, whether by revealing the divine nature within oneself (entheogenic) or facilitating a more direct connection with spiritual realms or beings. Thus, this perspective inherently links psychedelics to a wide range of larger religious and spiritual beliefs.

The second perspective of this approach is that ethnobotanical information, primarily from indigenous cultures, is a rich and crucial source of knowledge about how to identify, prepare, and use psychedelic plants. In fact, a new word has recently been created within the neo-psychedelic movement to describe the blending of these two perspectives-entheobotany-and a major conference entitled "Entheobotany: Shamanic Plant Science: A Multi-Disciplinary Conference on Plants, Shamanism, and Ecstatic States" was held in San Francisco in October 1996 with the speakers being a "who's who" list of psychedelic celebrities/experts.

Although I believe this new word, entheobotany, is a descriptive and efficacious term, for my purposes I prefer to keep the terms entheogenic and ethnobotany more separate (but still in the same category). The reason for this is that entheogenic beliefs can surround synthetic and semi-synthetic psychedelic substances such as MDMA or LSD without having any relationship to ethnobotany. However, with plant and fungi-based psychedelic substances that indigenous peoples have used for a long time such as ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, or peyote, the two terms often go hand in hand, hence the blended word, entheobotany.

The range of beliefs that could be included in the entheogenic/ethnobotanical approach category is vast. One of the most prominent beliefs is that psychedelic substances possess an inherent spirit or intelligence that communicates with the user. Virtually all indigenous peoples who use psychedelic plants hold this belief in one form or another. This belief is also often emulated and reproduced by spiritually-oriented, non-native users of these plants, although they may envision a more modernized communication with a psychedelic spirit, for example, contact with UFOs or extraterrestrial intelligences.

A widely held corollary belief in this category is that proper use of psychedelics will facilitate healing and/or the acquisition of wisdom, and thus these substances are often literally perceived as "medicines." Again, this is a belief held by most indigenous people who incorporate psychedelic plants into their culture and represents the basis for the religion that is sometimes termed psychedelic shamanism.

Among the primarily non-native people of the neo-psychedelic movement, psychedelics are also perceived as healing and/or wisdom evoking medicines. This is not surprising given both the tendency of this group to emulate the beliefs of non-Western cultures (e.g., Eastern religions or Native American shamanic practices), and the historical association of psychedelics in a Euro-American context with psychiatry and psychotherapy, as well as with well-known intellectuals, artists, and writers, rather than with religious figures. (pages 141-143)

On the other hand, there are those within the entheogenic/ethnobotanical approach category who are searching for legitimacy from mainstream authorities outside of the scientific research paradigm. These contingents, such as the Peyote Way Church of God and the Council on Spiritual Practices, are seeking to have the religious/spiritual use of psychedelics legitimized in American society, just as the Native American Church enjoys exemption from the drug laws with its use of peyote. The religious/spiritual use of psychedelics is problematic in the eyes of government authorities since they define drugs and drug use solely within a medical/legal paradigm, and do not acknowledge the potential religious/spiritual properties of these substances (except if one is Native American). Again we have a clash of linguistic metaphors (and epistemology!) here with the "drug is pharmaceutical medicine" or the "drug is controlled substance" metaphor conflicting with the "drug is spiritual medicine" or the "drug is sacrament" metaphor. Forte provides this anecdote to illustrate the differing points of view: "Once when a journalist casually referred to peyote (a classic entheogen) as a drug, a Huichol Indian shaman replied, 'Aspirin is a drug, peyote is sacred'."

The contingents within the entheogenic/ethnobotanical approach category hold a generally elitist perspective of psychedelic drug use, although it is of a different quality than the scientific/psychotherapeutic approach. For this contingent, an actual shaman or otherwise knowledgeable person is required to guide the psychedelic session. Although almost anyone is seen as being eligible to participate in a psychedelic session, they must be adequately prepared through such methods of fasting, deep personal reflection, and having a positive attitude. In this way the psychedelic experience is regulated and controlled through a screening process, albeit of different nature than that of a scientific research protocol. (page 158-159)

Ethical Guidelines ...

One of the hallmarks of the entheogenic/ethnobotanical contingent of the neo-psychedelic movement is the development of various types of ethical guidelines for the use of psychedelic drugs. Most often, the ethics of how indigenous cultures use psychedelics are emulated and then, of course, adapted to a modern American cultural context. For example, the Council on Spiritual Practices has developed and published an eight-point "Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides," which outlines the following ethical values:
  1. Intention
  2. Serving Society
  3. Serving Individuals
  4. Competence
  5. Integrity
  6. Quiet Presence
  7. Not for Profit
  8. Tolerance
Ethical guidelines, such as these, serve not only as practical tools for managing and optimizing the psychedelic experience in religious/spiritual contexts, but also serve to demonstrate to government authorities the legitimacy of these contexts as bona fide religious/spiritual practices deserving First Amendment protections. Although no psychedelic religious/spiritual organizations other than the Native American Church have received government approval, it is the hope of many within the entheogenic/ethnobotanical contingent that they will someday not fear prosecution and imprisonment for their beliefs. (pages 159-160)

One of the most important explicit beliefs within the neo-psychedelic movement is that psychedelics are markedly different than other illegal drugs and that government drug policy should reflect this difference. For example, we do not see international drug cartels smuggling psychedelics across borders by all available means, psychedelic drug gangs with Uzis battling over turf, or psychedelic drug addicts ripping people off so they can get their next fix. What we do see are scientists applying for permission and funding to conduct psychedelic research, and individuals who may use psychedelics for personal or spiritual reasons trying to keep themselves from being arrested. It is in these two areas, scientific research and personal growth (broadly defined) that neo-psychedelicists see the most irrational and unjust policies being enforced, and also where, as I discussed in the previous chapter, they see their best chances for changing and implementing new government policies.

Neo-Psychedelic Idealism

The neo-psychedelic movement is a diverse and complex network of individuals and organizations that hold many views of what psychedelic drugs are, how they should be used, and who should give and take them. What binds the neo-psychedelic movement together is an overall belief in the potential of psychedelic drugs to make a positive contribution, both to individuals and society. On an individual level most neo-psychedelicists believe that psychedelic drugs offer people a valuable catalyst for personal psychological and spiritual insight. On a societal level they believe psychedelics have the potential not only to change the way we think about mind-altering drugs and the place these substances have in Western society, but also where our society (and humankind in general) is headed in the future. This psychedelic idealism is one important factor that the neo-psychedelic movement shares with the original psychedelic movement of the 1960s, although the neo-psychedelic idealism is perhaps more tempered by the harsh realities of the government's war on drugs.

The idealism of the neo-psychedelic movement is reflected in several different ways, again depending on what epistemological approach to psychedelics is taken. Both the entheogenic/ethnobotanical and cyberpsychedelic approaches are idealistic in their perceptions of psychedelics as potential social change-agents. In Ott's quote at the beginning of this chapter, we can see a specifically entheogenic/ethnobotanical idealism of psychedelics being perceived almost as messianic saviors to a troubled world. Similarly, cyberpsychedelic idealism can take on an eco-spiritual dimension as is evident in Rushkoff's interpretation of a "cyberian utopia".

Cyberians interpret the development of the datasphere as the hardwiring of a global brain. This is to be in the final stage in the development of "Gaia," the living being that is the Earth, for which humans serve as the neurons. As computer programmers and psychedelic warriors together realize that "all is one," a common belief emerges that the evolution of humanity has been a willful progression toward the construction of Cyberia, the next dimensional home for consciousness. (page 168)

Some important questions remain: How will this younger generation incorporate psychedelics into their lives? Will the use of these drugs influence them into some sort of social action? And if they do, how will the dominant powers in American society react to this social action? Two final questions are: 1) how will science incorporate the new psychedelic research and resulting discoveries into its canon; and 2) will science ever be able to accept the religious/spiritual implications that this new research is sure to bring forth? The jury is still out on these questions, and perhaps it will remain out for a long time. (page 170)



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