Psychedelics are Becoming a Touchpoint Between Science and Religion
After centuries of conflict, science and religion are starting to communicate via psychedelic research
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
Whenever I meet a religious scientist, I’m surprised. It’s hard to reconcile a scientific attitude with the often wild metaphysical assertions made by religions. But I consistently find that, rather than ignoring the apparent contradiction in their beliefs, they manage to keep one foot securely in both worlds, transmuting the apparent “either/or” into a “both/and”.
It’s easy to dismiss religious scientists as an artifact of society’s slow transition from magical to rational thinking. But I’m increasingly convinced that spiritually-inclined scientists stand at the forefront of an emerging synthesis between two contradictory world views.
The Battle Begins
…When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
—Walt Whitman, from When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
—Richard Dawkins, from River out of Eden
The divide between science and religion is a recent development, emerging only in the 19th century, when the concept of “science” was reified. Prior to that, the men and women who strove to understand the world didn’t restrict themselves to what we’d recognize as science; they also studied philosophy, metaphysics, and theology. Even the concept of religion, as a discrete and separable aspect of culture, was absent from the Western lexicon until the manic colonialism of the 17th century.
As the scientific method grew and began to uncover fundamental, observer-independent truths, its findings often contradicted dominant religious beliefs, undermining the foundation of our collective world view. The idea of a heliocentric cosmos or of man’s descent from apes must have been profoundly disorienting to a typical 17th or 19th century mind. The resulting cognitive dissonance, at both the individual and social levels, gave rise to overt conflict.
But describing the origin and nature of the physical world is only a small, and often tangential aspect of religion. Religious beliefs serve mainly as a foundation for dealing with more subjective issues, like community building, morality, and transcendent experience. And as creedless religions like Zen Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism show us, these less tangible aspects of religion can live apart from historical, physical, and metaphysical beliefs.
The uneasy peace between science and religion relies on each staying in its lane: so long as science restricts itself to objectivity, and religion only concerns it self with the subjective, the two can coexist. Of course, both science and religion still make frequent incursions into each others’ territory (the reader can decide which is the main aggressor). But centrists tend to see science and religion as what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria.”
Despite this apparently incompatibility, we are starting to build some tenuous bridges across the border.
The Spirituality of Science
Typical members of the scientific establishment look at religion as nothing but superstition and wishful thinking. But some of our greatest scientists—particularly physicists—have held unquestionably religious views:
I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is deficient…it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity.
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical…this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men.
Although I am now convinced that scientific truth is unassailable in its own field, I have never found it possible to dismiss the content of religious thinking…I have repeatedly been compelled to ponder on the relationship of these two regions of thought, for I have never been able to doubt the reality of that to which they point.
Does this mean there might be some elusive way of reconciling scientific understanding with metaphysical belief? Or, as Heisenberg’s quote suggests, could science and religion reinforce each other at a certain depth of understanding? Or are these men masters of cognitive dissonance, clinging to anachronistic beliefs in spite of their lucid understanding of the physical world?
It’s hard to answer these questions definitively, at least without becoming a world-class physicist first. At most we can conclude that scientific brilliance and spirituality can coexist in the same mind.
In a future series of posts, I’ll dig into the beliefs of some prominent scientists and see how their philosophy coheres with their academic work. But for now, let’s try and come at the problem from the opposite direction.
The Science of Spirituality
One of the first attempts to describe and categorize religious experience was made by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. In the first chapter he lays out some crucial ground rules for the objective study of subjective experience.
In particular, James makes it clear that having a mechanistic explanation for the existence of a phenomenon does not fully answer the question of “what it is,” a problem known as the fact-value distinction. When considering an object, we have to ask ourselves two separate questions:
First, what is the nature of it? how did it come about? what is its constitution, origin, and history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance, now that it is once here? The answer to the one question is given in an existential judgment or proposition. The answer to the other is a proposition of value, what the Germans call a Werthurtheil, or what we may, if we like, denominate a spiritual judgment. Neither judgment can be deduced immediately from the other. They proceed from diverse intellectual preoccupations, and the mind combines them only by making them first separately, and then adding them together.
In other words, just because we know the feeling “love” correlates with the presence of oxytocin, we can’t write it off as “nothing but” a neurochemical rush—we still have to contend with its importance, meaning, and significance in order to understand it. So while James acknowledges that many mystical experiences may have their roots in seizures, or a “lesion of the occipital cortex,” he refuses to describe these experiences as “nothing but” medical pathologies. Instead, he focuses on the second question: the question of their value.
Drawing from dozens of examples, James provides strong evidence that such experiences can be extremely valuable. Many of his subjects have had their lives changed in an instant, often described as a flash of light or a sense of divine presence. Alcoholics lose their taste for booze; depressives suddenly find joy; violent men begin to turn the other cheek. These changes (James calls it metanoia) are the result of a spontaneous, transient, overwhelming experience—a flood of religious emotion with no obvious external cause.
Such extreme findings suggest that religious experience could revolutionize psychological medicine. But sadly, the only evidence James is able to cite is anecdotal. He relies heavily on a volume of conversion stories compiled by E.D. Starbuck, as well as the writings of a few historical figures. Had James been able to isolate the religious experience—to reproduce it in a laboratory—he may have been able to provide a more quantitative, reproducible set of findings, or even develop new medical interventions for the psychologically ill.
Fast forward a century or so.
The scientific world seems to be coming around to the idea that psychedelic drugs can occasion intense, life-changing experiences. These experiences are often described as spiritual in nature, and have been written about in explicitly religious terms. Psychedelic plants are also a staple of many indigenous religious practices.
Psilocybin was…given to healthy volunteers…The main finding was that, in most people, psilocybin could induce highly profound, “mystical-type” experiences…participants rated their psilocybin experiences high in qualities such as ineffability (difficult to describe in words), unity (feeling that all things are connected), and having a deeply felt positive mood. Two months after these sessions, the vast majority of participants rated their psilocybin experience as one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their life and as having increased their sense of well-being and life satisfaction. To help put things into clearer perspective, participants sometimes compared the significance of their experience to the death of a parent, or birth of their first child.
—Harvard University (SITN)
If psychedelics can induce mystical experiences, maybe we can reproduce James’ findings inside a laboratory! But the obvious question is whether a drug, which is known for inducing hallucinations and psychosis, yields a “true” religious experience, or simply mimics it. Both skeptics and believers tend to bristle at the idea of “God in a pill.”
As we saw above, William James believed that the provenance of an experience was entirely orthogonal to its “philosophic value.” But rather than taking the reported transcendence of psychedelic users at face value, it would help to compare the psychedelic experience to more traditional forms of mystical experience, such as those described by Buddhists, Hindus, or Catholic monastics.
At the heart of the matter is a state of consciousness known to Western science and philosophy as ego death, and known to nearly every religion by a separate name. The experience itself is notoriously hard to describe, as experiencers say it involves the dissolution or transcendence of normal categories of thought. Religious scholar Daniel Mekur sums it up well:
[Ego death is] an imageless experience in which there is no sense of personal identity. It is the experience that remains possible…when the ego-functions of reality-testing, sense-perception, memory, reason, fantasy and self-representation are repressed.
Descriptions of ego death appear in a wide variety of contexts and cultures: the Wikipedia article cites definitions from several different traditions, including Islam, Judaism, and Jungian psychology. It is the tat tvam asi of Hinduism, and the nirvana of Buddhism.
The ubiquity of these experiences led Aldous Huxley to hypothesize that ego-minimization is the basis of all religion. In his book The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley draws from the holy texts of several different world religions in an attempt to show that religious thought universally emphasizes the abandonment of self for something more transcendent, saying:
It is only when we have renounced our preoccupation with “I,” “me,” “mine,” that we can truly possess the world in which we live.
And he goes on to quote several historical religious thinkers:
When [man] ceases to be an individual, he raises himself again and penetrates the whole world
Liberation cannot be achieved except by the perception of the identity of the individual spirit with the universal Spirit
…you should come out of yourself in so far as you are a created being and let God be God in you.
A decade later, when Huxley had his famous (and from what I can tell, first) psychedelic journey, he described the experience in similar language (albeit with the characteristic inscrutability of the tripping mind):
The legs, for example, of that chair…I spent several minutes—or was it several centuries?—not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them—or rather being myself in them; or, to be still more accurate (for “I” was not involved in the case, nor in a certain sense were “they”) being my Not-self in the Not-self which was the chair.
In the final stage of ego-lessness there is an ‘obscure knowledge’ that All is in all—that All is actually each.
So it would seem that Huxley found a great deal of overlap between psychedelic and religious experience. This is an idea that would go on be peddled heavily by psychedelic maximalists like Timothy Leary and Terrence McKenna. But can we find support from more credible and…uhh…sober individuals?
A more recent description of psychedelic experience comes from New Yorker columnist and Harvard professor Michael Pollan. Having come to psychedelics in his 60s, and with the requisite skepticism of a professional journalist, Pollan’s account has at least as much credibility as Huxley’s (and certainly more than that of Leary or McKenna). In his 2018 book How to Change your Mind, Pollan chronicles the history of psychedelic culture and research, as well as a handful of his own experiences.
Throughout the book, Pollan gives voice to the idea that the primary action of psychedelics is reduction of the ego, much as Huxley described religion. At the end of the last chapter, in one of the most poignant passages of the book, Pollan summarizes what he’s learned from his experiences with psychedelics:
The usual antonym for the word “spiritual” is “material.” That at least is what I believed when I began this inquiry—that the whole issue with spirituality turned on a question of metaphysics. Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for “spiritual” might be “egotistical.” Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum…When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest.
So it seems reasonable to believe that both psychedelic and spiritual experience occasion a similar reduction of ego. Are there any other criteria by which we can judge the equivalence of the two? Once again I look to William James, who outlined four markers of genuine mystical experience. From his wide sample, James concluded that mystical experiences are:
Ineffable: the experience is incapable of being described and must be directly experienced to be understood.
Noetic: the experience is understood to be a state of knowledge through which divine truths can be learned.
Transient: the experience is of limited duration.
Passive: the subject of the experience is passive, unable to control the arrival and departure of the experience.
The psychedelic experience hits each of these four points: its ineffability we can infer from the fact that even Huxley, a gifted writer, struggles to capture the experience; he (and countless others) describe the experience as noetic, as imparting transcendent truth; the experience is transient, since it fades as the chemical is metabolized; and it is passive: after ingesting the drug, the experiencer must simply “take the ride.”
Religion in a Pill
So if religious experience can induce strongly positive, enduring changes in the psychology of individuals, and if psychedelics can reliably induce religious experience, what can be said about the effects of psychedelics on individual psychology? Might psychedelics help the addicted or depressed overcome their disease?
By all accounts, this appears to be the case. While we have not yet completed phase-3 clinical trials, which would study their effects in hundreds of individuals over the course of years, preliminary studies have shown that psychedelics are effective in “significantly reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety”; are more than twice as effective as the best smoking cessation drugs on the market; and can successfully treat alcoholism in a majority of adults.
Furthermore, the efficacy of psychedelics appears to be mediated by mystical experience: the experience itself seems to be a major part of the cure. And importantly, only one or two sessions are needed to see effects—there’s no need for prolonged use like there is with contemporary psychiatric medication.
These results confirm two hypotheses: first, that religious experience is capable of inducing radically positive change in an individual; and second, that a psychedelic trip is functionally indistinguishable from a more traditional, spontaneous religious experience.
The use and study of psychedelics in a laboratory setting represents a major convergence of science and religion: it gives us a way to study, objectively and quantitatively, the nature and effects of religious experience on the individual. As these studies move forward and psychedelics gain mainstream acceptance, we should brace ourselves for the collision of two massive institutions.
Terrence McKenna might sounded like a whacko, but I think he was one of the few to be able to put the experience in words.
The experience is so absurd for the conscious mind that it's inevitable to sound like a madman describing it.
Great essay, thank you!