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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

Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Views.

Wulff, David M. (1991).
New York: John Wiley & Sons.

ISBN: 0-471-50236-7

Description: Hardcover, xxvi + 640 pages + 32 glossary pages + 68 reference pages + 28 index pages.

Contents: Preface, 12 chapters, epilogue, glossary, references, source notes, picture credits, author index, subject index.

Excerpt(s): The rarity of serious emotional disturbances among members of the Native American Church, who eat peyote regularly during religious ceremonies, suggests that the dangers are at a minimum when drug ingestion is carefully institutionalized and ritualized, and when emphasis is placed on the sacredness of the substance, the importance of adherence to societal standards, and the immediate interpersonal world. (page 84)

More remarkable, perhaps, is the dissolution of the self, sometimes called depersonalization or derealization. The body image undergoes distortion or alteration, tactile sensitivity is impaired, and the ego becomes progressively detached. The sense of self may fade altogether, so that a person no longer seems to be the locus of his or her own experience. The person suddenly is the music that shortly before was coming from the other side of the room, and the pain that is ordinarily excruciatingly intimate no longer seems to be his or her own.

The awesome experience of union with the surrounding world, the sudden illumination of existence, the "sacramental vision of reality," in Huxley's phrase-such experiences as these have led some observers to hail the psychedelic drugs as the open sesame of mystical experience. Timothy Leary asserts that between 40 and 90 percent of subjects ingesting psychedelic drugs can be expected to undergo intense mystical or revelatory experiences. Frequencies ranging from 24 to 83 percent are recorded elsewhere. The lower percentages are generally from studies involving subjects who are patients in psychotherapy, medical personnel, and others of unknown religious orientation, and from settings that are neutral. Higher percentages may be expected when the subjects are religious professionals and the setting is at least supportive, if not deliberately designed to encourage religious responses. (page 85)

Other studies using psychedelic drugs, though less elaborate in design than Pahnke's have yielded results that also demonstrate the capacity of these drugs to precipitate religious experiences. Investigations summarized by Leary, Leary and Clark, and Clark provide further evidence that, whether or not the set and setting are obviously religious, at least a third of subjects ingesting psychedelic substances will agree that their experiences were religious or mystical. Some of these experiences appear to transform lives, even of chronic alcoholics or maximum-security prison inmates. Unfortunately, none of these studies approximates the degree of experimental control that Pahnke painstakingly sought to achieve. It is therefore largely impossible to sort out the individual factors and to draw conclusions about cause-and-effect relationships. Stringent federal laws that now make it nearly impossible to do research with psychedelic drugs in the United States have effectively foreclosed the further investigations that would help to clarify the complex processes involved. (pages 187-188)

Noting as others have the "rising cult of self-centeredness" in contemporary society, Pruyser finds himself particularly disturbed by "the blatancy of narcissistic strands" in current religious practices. He remarks first on the "instant mysticism" that is provided by psychedelic drugs, a potentially addictive experience that is ordinarily sought outside the context of any theology or spiritual discipline and therefore lacks both object and goal. The sense of "triumphant omnipotence" that is attained through drug-assisted narcissistic regression is inevitably short-lived, he says, leaving an enduring "narcissistic nostalgia" until the experience can be repeated. (page 352)

Fundamentalism, it was said earlier, is the religious response to a diminishing sense of transcendence. In his study of what members of the clergy understand religion to be, Jack Shand found that the ratings for "has a feeling of security, at-homeness in the universe" were exceptionally high for the humanistic clergy but unusually low for fundamentalists. The fundamentalists have presumably set their sights on heaven instead, and take the fate of the earth to be in God's hands.

In those for whom the sense of transcendence is strong we find a rather different attitude. Among the predictable characteristics of mystical experience are a sense of the sacredness of all life and a desire to establish a new, more harmonious relation with nature and with other human beings. There is a corresponding renunciation of the various expressions of self-seeking, including the ethos of manipulation and control. Mystical experience is manifest in a great many forms, some of which are of rather doubtful value. But only an empathic, self-forgetting mystical outlook, it could be argued, can restore to humankind the attitude toward life that will make possible its long-term survival.

Some psychologists of religion treat mystical experience as an optional element of religion, a potential correlate of one or another way of being religious. For others, however, the mystical attitude is the defining feature of religion, whatever tradition or individual forms it may take. Construed broadly enough to encompass Otto's mysterium, or Smith's sense of transcendence, mystical experience must be considered essential to any living religious faith or tradition. Those for whom the phrase is misleading or otherwise problematical may wish to substitute another, much as Maslow felt compelled to do. What is crucial is not what we call this dimension of experience but that it be adequately taken into account. Perhaps today we need a new principle, the Principle of the Inclusion of the Transcendent, to balance Flournoy's classic principle of exclusion. [Flournoy's classic principle according to which the psychologist of religion will neither reject nor affirm the independent existence of the religious object.] Taken together, these principles might encourage psychologists of religion to give the experience of transcendence the prominence it deserves, but without identifying it with any tradition's symbols. Consistently applied throughout the literature, these principles might help to cast new light on a number of unsolved problems, perhaps giving the field a new coherence and sense of direction. (page 639)

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