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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 Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach.

Spilka, Bernard; Hood, Ralph W., Jr.; and Gorsuch, Richard L. (1985).
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


ISBN: 0-13-736398-2

Description: Hardcover, xii + 388 pages.

Contents: Preface, 13 chapters divided into 5 parts: 1. Psychological Approaches to Religion, 2.Religious Development, 3. Religious Change, Organization, and Experience, 4. Religion and Behavior: Special Topics, 5. Epilogue, references, author index, subject index.

Excerpt(s): It has long been recognized that religious traditions have employed various naturally occurring and synthetic substances in their religious rituals. However, until recently it was rather arrogantly assumed that such concerns were more the domain of the anthropologist dealing with less “advanced” religious traditions. While speculation occasionally erupts with widely reductionistic claims (such as Allegro’s assertion that the Christ of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a personification of a fertility cult whose primitive origins are rooted in the use of the “psychedelic” mushroom amanita muscaria), such claims have been of concern primarily to historians and theologians, not psychologists. Yet with the reemergence of concern with religious experience among psychologists, the issue of the relationship between drug-induced experiences and presumably spontaneously occurring experiences has become of immense importance. The literature on psychedelic drugs is immense, easily running into many thousands of studies. Curiously, very few studies have been conducted using religious variables or directly assessing the religious importance of drug-induced experiences. Indeed, it is unfortunate that some of the elaborate and sophisticated studies using both pre- and post-test measures to assess changes reliably as well as control groups to assure that validity claims make no effort to assess variables directly or indirectly related to religious concerns. This is true despite the fact that the religious importance of psychedelics has continually been debated since Leuba argued that intense experience [in] “higher” religious traditions were to be invalidated since they were similar to [the] drug-induced experiences of less advanced religions. Yet if physiological arousal can lead to evaluation in religious terms, clearly any physiological arousal is of potential religious importance. The issue is not physiological arousal per se but rather why it is that a particular type of physiological arousal, “psychedelic” drug-induced arousal, has been and continues to be of such immense religious concern. Indeed, [is] this not part of what is implied in the entire debate concerning the “psychedelic revolution”? (pages 161-162)

What is of interest in the Good Friday experiment is the conscious effort to select participants committed to religious values to participate in a study that would maximize set and setting factors to elicit a religious interpretation of a drug-induced experience. Ironically, the experiment did not assess the elicitation of either imagery or perceptual variations despite its deliberate selection of a psychedelic substance, psilocybin. This is even more curious given the fact that the studies of elicited imagery under psychedelics indicate that virtually all persons report religious imagery as at least part of the experience, even if such imagery is not self-defined as “religious experience.” ...

While this study is not without its serious methodological flaws, it remains the only study attempting to elicit religious experience within a mainline Christian tradition in a normal religious service on an appropriately meaningful day with the addition of a psychedelic substance! Yet it does suggest the obvious — the meaningfulness of a physiological arousal substance or of any substance that modifies or alters one’s typical way of experiencing the world is a question of ideological commitments, not merely of physiology. To be religious is at least partly to have a framework within which to interpret experience, and the interpretation will be part of the experience. Early studies unfortunately not followed up, suggest that among religious persons taking psychedelic drug, the effect was to deepen one’s commitment to already established religious views. In this sense, Roszak notes, part of the protest against the psychedelic movement stems from its genuine religious threat to our existing cultural forms. Indeed, it is not surprising that associated with the psychedelic street movement was the seeking of religious literature, largely from Eastern sources, from a youth alienated from certain contemporary church traditions. Yet it is clear that such movements are not antireligious but rather as aspect of religious rebellion and renewal that is part and parcel of the history of religions ... . (pages 162-164)

We can see now why much of the physiological data on religious experience is limited in its explanatory power. It is almost as if many investigators were trying to explain religious experience outside the context of religion — as if one could somehow see the “real” television picture if they could just manage to view the electrons in the circuits of the set.

If what we have said is correct, religious beliefs are essential for religiously experiencing the world. And while such experiences will entail bodily processes, the bodily processes can never simply be equated with the experience. (page 169).



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