Psychedelics, Spirituality, and a Culture of Seekership

May 12, 2022
A silhouette shrouded by bright colors and lights. Art design by Kristie Welsh.
In 2022, conversations about the connections between psychedelics, science and medicine, and spirituality are again top of mind, from Harvard and the academy to research hospitals and beyond. / Art design by Kristie Welsh

You're listening to the Harvard Religion Beat, and my name is Paul Gillis-Smith, a correspondent for the Divinity School.

I'm standing here in Marsh Chapel at Boston University, where 60 years ago on Good Friday, a famous experiment took place conducted by a Harvard Divinity School student, where he tried to answer the simple question: Do psychedelic drugs occasioned mystical experiences?

And standing here in the room where it happened, I'm feeling connected to the long history of these psychoactive plants and chemicals, weaving together ancient and contemporary Indigenous spiritual traditions, so-called countercultural movements, and psychological research.

Now in 2022, conversations about the connections between psychedelics and spirituality are, again, top of mind at Harvard Divinity School and beyond.

Listen to episode:

In this episode, we’re going to trace these historical lines from here at Marsh Chapel in 1962 to the present moment of psychedelic spirituality, and to see what role psychedelics might play in the future of religion.

Now, psychedelic research at Harvard was on the tail end of what we might call the first act of academic engagements with these plants and chemicals. This is not a new story. Media projects have proliferated on these fateful early '60s, culminating with the removal of psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert from Harvard, and their respective quests as gurus on the American spiritual scene. But where we will arrive, hopefully, is a sense of continuity to the present, and that the Marsh Chapel Experiment was but one moment in a long history, and an open future for psychedelics and religion.

The story of psychedelics, an academic study that eventually brought them to Harvard, is parallel and tied to colonial projects. From the first chemical synthesis of a psychoactive plant, the peyote cactus, that is sacred to many Indigenous communities in Mexico and the U.S., to the banking exec turned spiritual seeker, Gordon Wasson, publishing at sensationalizing story in Life magazine on his trip to Mexico to find psychoactive mushrooms. These histories read like so many accounts of rationalistic science pillaging Indigenous people and their traditions to rejuvenate the clinical gaze of modernity.

Now, while psychedelic research at Harvard in the '60s had its problematic moments, often carrying orientalist valences, Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary put psychedelics into honest conversation with religion, and religious practice. In April of 1962, Leary and Alpert assisted a PhD student at Harvard Divinity School in his project of assessing whether psychedelic drugs occasion mystical experiences.

Here's Dr. Christian Greer, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, and scholar of religion and psychedelic culture on Leary and how the Marsh Chapel Experiment came together.

Christian Greer: His experiment would involve—he initially wanted 30, but Leary is like, OK, if we're going to do this, it's got to be 20. Walter Pahnke says, fine, 20 volunteers set into two groups, double blind study. Half will be given psilocybin—I believe it's 30 milligrams—and the other half will be given a placebo, niacin, which causes a tingling and warmness.

And so there they go. So they meet together here, and then they drive over across the Charles to Marsh Chapel, go into a little room below the chapel, and Walter Pahnke knows what he's doing. Who's up there preaching? Howard Thurman, MLK's mentor on Good Friday.

This is really an effective set and setting. This is really—Martin Luther King's mentor, a truly accomplished orator, is going to be giving the sermon. And yeah, the result, of course is somewhat famous, it's now gone into history as the Miracle at Marsh Chapel, but in a nutshell, the people who did have the psilocybin reported incredible theological experiences—not always very pleasant. In fact, some of them had extremely difficult times, which Leary glossed in his reporting.

Paul Gillis-Smith: Now Walter Pahnke, the PhD student, did not gloss the one research subject who received psilocybin and did not have a mystical experience. And in his dissertation, Pahnke writes that the subject experienced what he called a psychotic encounter, but the line, of course, between the psychotic and the mystical is not always so clear.

So Christian, what do you see is the significance of the Marsh Chapel Experiment conducted by Walter Pahnke 60 years ago, both for the study of mysticism, and the study of psychedelic culture?

Christian Greer: Well, I think the significance can be read on a few different levels. On one level, it was a media sensation. All of the Boston newspapers picked it up, drugs reported to induce mystical experience, and allegedly it was proven by a Harvard scientist, and a group of Harvard and MIT intellectuals. Wow, really a provocative news item. But more importantly, I think those who are already involved in this type of experimentation, it confirmed to them what they had already knew, which was that we're dealing here not with a substance that can be understood bounded by mechanistic reasoning. Now we are approaching the world of religious insight and mystical illumination.

And so from here on out, the discourse that would be shaped around this—in fact, the discourse that Leary played a great, very important role shaping—would be a religious discourse about—these substances, for Leary, were sacramental. Effective sacraments. And then of course, the conversation quickly turned to, wait a minute, if we have these sacraments, are the church's obsolete? Is this the religion of the future?

All of a sudden, there is no middleman between me and ultimate reality, me and God, me and Allah, whatever. Does this make all religion obsolete? Well, that would be a very popular discourse following after the Marsh Chapel Experiment—the Miracle at Marsh Chapel. I think the language really tells you, when's the last time you heard of a miracle? And this one happened right across the river, and was available to you as well, if you were around at that time.

In fact, another part of this story is that a small psychedelic revival followed once those findings were published, because keep in mind, once more, that at this time, you could still purchase peyote through the mail, psilocybin was available to physicians willing to write to Sandoz. LSD was around. And so, there was an enthusiasm, and it really burnt over Harvard Square.

And apparently by 1965, there were acid dealers. Harvard Square was lousy with them, because Leary established a foothold—he had a little storefront after he left Harvard IFIF, the IFIF. And that was right in Harvard Square, run by Lisa Bieberman—a forgotten figure, someone who we've talked about. A forgotten figure in the psychedelic movement deserves to be rediscovered.

Paul Gillis-Smith: And closing the chapter of historical research and looking to the present, Christian and I spoke about what is being called the psychedelic Renaissance, or the revisiting of psychoactive chemicals for their medical applications in the aftermath of the war on drugs and their federal prohibition.

I asked Christian what he saw religious practitioners having to offer this moment of renewed interest in psychedelics for medical uses, and like good professor, he turned the question back on me.

Christian Greer: What do you think?

Paul Gillis-Smith: In studies that have strictly sort of psychological or neurological ends in mind, whether it's tobacco use cessation, or PTSD treatment, or depression treatment, in many of these cases, the researchers will report, oh, our patients—our research subjects are having these encounters with God. They say they're hallucinating otherworldly beings, having these so-called mystical encounters. And they have also found that those mystical encounters at high doses are typically also correlated with greater efficacy of the treatments that they are looking to study.

So more people are having mystical experiences, also more likely that they'll be off tobacco for a longer time, or their symptoms of PTSD have been resolved. But these medical doctors don't have training in the study of religion. They don't have the tools to understand what the relationship between the self and the mystical experience is, and what role that mystical experience is playing towards the psychiatric ends that they're interested in. And so I think a more serious study taking into account religious perspectives, either from where these plants came from, like psilocybin—who, where did where did we get psilocybin from? Where are these mushrooms growing before they entered the Western medical space?

Or other religious practitioners who have taken a serious interest in mystical experiences as occasioned by the use of psychoactive plants and chemicals, the serious study of what the relationship between that individual and their mysticism is, and what role that's playing towards a psychiatric end. Because if medical doctors are talking people through religious experiences, that's like…

Christian Greer: A religious expert talking someone through a medical experience?

Paul Gillis-Smith: Right, yeah, or your priest telling you how to change the oil on your car. I think new forms of expertise alongside scientific expertise is so important, particularly when people are encountering otherworldly entities. Yeah.

Christian Greer: I couldn't have said it better myself. I mean, that's precisely the right answer. And just one thing I've noticed in the scholarly literature, and one thing that—I've raised this flag before, but the way in which mystical experiences are often presumed to be positive. This is not the case, if you look through the historical record.

And I think, though, that at its best, this particular moment in the psychedelic Renaissance will be generative. It will create new opportunities. It will open up spaces where Indigenous peoples can actually share what they know as a result of their ancient traditions about these substances in a way that isn't tokenizing.

But Western science can be instructed, and there's so much to learn. And really, this is an opportunity to, I think, rectify so much of the injustice that has been done, particularly with respect to these substances. I mean, if you look at just magic mushrooms themselves, psilocybin itself. The colonial history, it's unconscionable. And I think rectifying that will take a serious engagement with not only the damage done, but also looking to the future, and the ways in which these substances can be integrated with a respectful attitude towards the traditions that have cultivated their use to thousands of years.

Paul Gillis-Smith: Absolutely, yeah. So we've talked a little bit about the contemporary use of psychedelics and psychiatric research. What role are psychoactive chemicals and plants playing in religion in the present?

Christian Greer: Well, I think at this point it's difficult to find a religious tradition whose members are not somehow using psychedelics. I mean, it seems to have saturated almost every tradition I can think of, and I'm interacting quite regularly with psychedelic Episcopalian people, psychedelic Catholic people. There seems to be a true overlap with American Buddhism and psychedelics.

That is a profound overlap, and there's a great book on that. It's called Altered States by, I think his name is Oslo?

Paul Gillis-Smith: Oh, yeah, is it Richard Osto?

Christian Greer: Osto, yeah.

Paul Gillis-Smith: I can't remember his first name. Yeah.

Christian Greer: But no, I mean, it's difficult to find traditions where psychedelics aren't playing a role. And what that means is, again, it's a call to the people in those traditions to bring them into the fold. Either they can bring them into the fold, or they can leave them in the cold. And it's a theological question that I'm really excited to see it unfold, because what would it mean to open up the Roman Catholic Church to psychedelic sacraments? This is Brian Muraresku's work—very provocative, very provocative—and what would that look like across the board.

So here, I'm thinking of—for example, some religions have already done it. There are a number of different strains of paganism that really are quite enthusiastic about the use of psychedelic substances. It's part of the liturgy. They're happy to do it. That's pretty fascinating.

And then you could look at some religions that never let it go here. I'm thinking of when I was in Varanasi, and I was able to witness and participate in worship of Shiva by drinking Bhang Lassi. So you have traditions that have retained a focus on psychoactive substances, and so that, to me, it's an interesting historical dimension that—not only other religions that could bring people in, and really unpack a lot of the interesting theological questions of why they left out in the first place, because I think what you might find are sociopolitical agendas influencing theological agendas. But also, really valorizing the religions that never let them go.

And here, I'm thinking of the ayahuasca groups, Santo Daime and UVD, which are becoming increasingly popular, because we have, as anyone who knows who's studying religion the decline of religion in the United States in some ways, but the rise of spiritual but not religious.

I can't even say the decline of religion. I should just say the rise of spiritual but not religious. And what's clear is that there's a culture of seekership, and a lot of these seekers are created because the religious institutions in which they were raised were not providing them with the nourishment, or they felt as though that these institutions are not providing them with the nourishment they needed. And so they went out and became seekers, and in so doing, they're attempting to find meaning that was not supplied to them. So, and that meaning will be provided to them. They will find it.

And I mean, what do you think? This is some—I think I always enjoy my conversations with you, because I know you have a religious affiliation, and I know that this is a question that you've wrestled with. Have you come to any conclusions, or are you still thinking through it?

Paul Gillis-Smith: So you're teaching a class this term on the global history of psychedelic spirituality, and we went down a rabbit hole on an alternate term for psychedelics, entheogen, meaning generating or becoming the divine within. And there was the first published paper in 1979 to specifically designate the religious use of psychoactive plants and chemicals with this term, entheogen.

And then there was a response from a student at HDS 16 years later in 1995 saying, OK, if we're going to call them entheogens, and it's this critical element of the practice of religious today is using entheogens, then we need entheology, or entheologies, theology of the mystical experience occasioned by the religious use of psychedelics. Which this would be an interreligious theology, and non-religious, perhaps, in some cases, perhaps similar to Leary as a naturalistic understanding of religious experience. And so, yeah, I think there's a lot of possibility there for new ways of coming to understand mysticism that do not necessarily rest in the hands of hegemonic religious understandings.

Christian Greer: Oh yeah that makes sense totally. And one avenue I see taken here are people within traditions putting on their historian hat, going through the record, looking for moments where there was an entheogenic element to their religion and trying to revitalize that, and saying we can…

Paul Gillis-Smith: Take on the heresy.

Christian Greer: Yeah, we could absorb this. This has always been part of our tradition, and we're just rediscovering it. And this is when you look at religion as a wellspring of imagination, and creativity, and further innovation. That, to me, is super exciting.

I find that type of research fascinating, and that type of theology fascinating, as you go between different traditions. And so, I'm looking forward to seeing much, much more of it.

Paul Gillis-Smith: So to bring things to a close here, we talked a little bit about how the present state of the interaction between religion and psychedelics exists within longstanding traditions. These are not new movements, although there are plenty of those newer movements built around the sacramental use of psychedelics.

Christian Greer: That's the—I think the thesis behind this class I'm teaching, global psychedelic spirituality, is we began in prehistory, and have been moving across time and space looking at different geographical regions. You know, the Indian subcontinent, so we're looking at the role of soma in the Vedas. And we moved over to Ancient Rome, and looked at the Kykeon and the Eleusinian Mysteries.

And then we moved over to the Amazon, and we looked at early Christianity. And I think that yeah, that's why I say that it's such an exciting thing. You can really throw a dart at a map, and then spin a wheel with time, with centuries on it, and I think you'd be hard pressed to find any time and place without some form of alteration of consciousness. And here, let me just also mention that psychoactive substances are by no means the only way that you can find a mystical tradition with any religion in particular.

Psychedelics are just one means for attaining the alteration of consciousness that deserve to be set aside—flagellation, sensory deprivation, fasting, dancing, you name it. There's any number of ways to induce these particular states. And I always like to clarify, psychedelics don't cause, in my opinion, mystical experiences. There's not a direct correlation.

And I'm taking a page from Aldous Huxley here, Doors of Perception. Psychedelics occasion mystical experiences. And now, what's the difference? The difference this is something that is innate to all humans, and can be activated through any number of techniques. It just so happens that psychedelics seem to be more reliable, if I can use that term, when it comes to the activation of these states, but it by no means causes them. It is merely an occasioning, and that occasioning can occur through any number of different techniques.

I just want to clarify. It's kind of a nitpicky point, but…

Paul Gillis-Smith: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Into the future, I'm curious if you, as an historian looking in the other direction, are you are you expecting any patterns to repeat, or any relays that we may see come up again in the future of religion?

Christian Greer: Before I answer anything you got, I mean, is there anything that you see that's really juicy or rich that…

Paul Gillis-Smith: I mean, I am imagining entheogenic temples at some point. Certainly have already arrived in the Netherlands. I think it's called Synthesis, I believe, is the name of one.

Christian Greer: It's a wellness center, yeah.

Paul Gillis-Smith: Yeah, and I'm thinking something along the lines of there's an enormous evangelical church in Orange County, in California, called Saddleback. And as part of its operation, they have various culturally-specific worship services, yeah, all occurring at the same time.

Christian Greer: Wow.

Paul Gillis Smith: So you have a sort of gospel praise, you have the sort of traditional—or the contemporary Christian rock sort of situation and many, many others happening all at the same time. I imagine, if trends of commodification continue, something similar for psychedelic practice with—given certain laws change.

Christian Greer: Wow, how imaginative. I mean, in my mind's eye, I just can't help but envision what these would look like. It's so weird. It sounds like science fiction.

But in fact, like all good science fiction, it's about the present. And these temples already exist, and they have existed for the last—I mean, I'm thinking as a historian of postwar American counterculture. For example, Burning Man is an annual pilgrimage that is often-- the climax is often a mega-psychedelic experience when the man burns.

I'm also thinking of the array of psychedelic enclaves that have been operating somewhat clandestinely since the 1960s. For example, Goa in India is one of these psychedelic enclaves that has been operating full capacity. Every full moon, you could go out there, and have a great time. There's also some beaches in Ko Samui, and of course, there are psychedelic enclaves throughout Australia.

Paul Gillis-Smith: Huautla de Jímenez in Mexico, I think, continues to be where mushrooms came to the US from.

Christian Greer: Yeah, and I see what you're saying. I see the kind of modification happening. I see wellness centers developing for the elite. I see retreat centers opening for a variety of different people with a variety of different agendas, and in those centers, I see great hope for addressing what seems to be an epidemic of mental anguish wrought by COVID-19, and the increasing militarization of Eastern Europe.

So many—structural racism—so much emotional pain in the modern world can be addressed, and it will be addressed, hopefully, by the widespread availability of these substances. But I also see a major—I also see the possibility for great harm, and that harm could come in any number of flavors. It could come from abuse within these particular psychedelic circles, whether they're temples, or wellness centers, or retreats.

I also see a type of regulation, where access to these substances is determined by certain—is controlled by certain companies that have copywritten these molecules, and make them inaccessible. I also see, and fear, the possibility that ancient cultures could be stamped out, and their access limited by virtue of patents, and terminator seeds, and that whole thing.

So there's a lot to be hopeful for, a lot to worry about. It's an exciting time to be alive, you know. What can I say?

On a very individual level, what I hope what I hope to see in my own life, of course, is—what's the old expression, the protection of all beings, lessening of suffering. And maybe this is going to sound super hokey, but maybe a strengthening of the bonds of intimacy in my own life, just on a personal level.

My friends, my partner, my family. You know, boy, I'll take anything I can get. Any tool that I could use to strengthen the intimacy and love that we share, I would consider an immense boon. And so yeah, that's what I'd like to see, people tending their own gardens, and using them for love and kindness—at the risk of sounding like an air headed hippie.

Paul Gillis-Smith: I cannot imagine a better way to end this conversation on the past and future of psychedelics and religion. Thanks so much, Christian.

Christian Greer: Paul, always a pleasure.

Jonathan Beasley: Thank you for tuning in to this special episode of the Harvard Religion Beat, which was written, hosted, and produced by HDS student Paul Gillis-Smith. And thanks again to Dr. J. Christian Greer for his insight into Psychedelics and their historical and contemporary connection to religious experience. 

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing to the Religion Beat or check out our other episodes. Until next time…