Religion as a Product of Psychotropic Drug Use | The Atlantic

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How much of religious history was influenced by mind-altering substances?

The notion that hallucinogenic drugs played a significant part in the development of religion has been extensively discussed, particularly since the middle of the twentieth century. Various ideas of this type have been collected into what has become known as the entheogen theory. The word entheogen is a neologism coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists (those that study the relationship between people and plants). The literal meaning of entheogen is "that which causes God to be within an individual" and might be considered as a more accurate and academic term for popular terms such as hallucinogen orpsychedelic drug. By the term entheogen we understand the use of psychoactive substances for religious or spiritual reasons rather than for purely recreational purposes.

Perhaps one of the first things to consider is whether there is any direct evidence for the entheogenic theory of religion which derives from contemporary science. One famous example that has been widely discussed is the Marsh Chapel experiment. This experiment was run by the Harvard Psilocybin Project in the early 1960s, a research project spearheaded by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Leary had traveled to Mexico in 1960, where he had been introduced to the effects of hallucinogenic psilocybin-containing mushrooms and was anxious to explore the implications of the drug for psychological research.

On Good Friday 1962, two groups of students received either psilocybin or niacin (a nonhallucinogenic "control" substance) on a double-blind basis prior to the service in Boston University's Marsh Chapel. Following the service nearly the entire group receiving psilocybin reported having had a profound religious experience, compared to just a few in the control group. This result was therefore judged to have supported the entheogenic potential of hallucinogenic drug use. Interestingly, the experiment has subsequently been repeated under somewhat different and arguably better controlled circumstances and the results were substantially the same.

Written By: Richard J. Miller
continue to source article at theatlantic.com

61 COMMENTS

  1. Thus, according to Allegro, Jesus never actually existed. He purported to demonstrate, using philological analysis of the structure of the ancient Sumerian language, that the name Jesus actually meant something along the lines of “semen” and that Christ meant something like “giant erect mushroom penis.”

    “Hark the herald angels siiinng, glorrry to the newborn giant erect mushroom penis.”

    • In reply to #3 by Katy Cordeth:

      Hark the herald angels siiinng, glorrry to the newborn giant erect mushroom penis.”

      I had a good, long laugh off your comment. Thank you, it was much needed and greatly appreciated.

  2. In fact the entheogens or psychotrpic substances are related to the origins of spirituality and chamanism, but the institucionalizaed religions and the priestly caste were very fast in keeping the use of this substances only for their purposes. That´s why in christianism the wine is only accesible to the priestly caste, and for some researchers is the cause too of the origin of meditation and such practices, because of the restriction that the priestly caste imposed over those substances the people had to use other techniques for experiencig the altered conscious states. The book Historia general de las drogas (Antonio Escohotado) and the works of Miercea Eliade explains this things, but i think you must know yet.

    • In reply to #6 by David W:

      I think it’s highly likely that John the Evangelist, who wrote the Book of Revelation, found some really good mushrooms!

      And how about Ezekiel and his super-bizarre descriptions of “wheels within wheels” coming down in flames from the sky, and fiery, shiny creatures with four faces? That must have been some wild and crazy freak-a-thon.

      • In reply to #42 by Sue Blue:

        In reply to #6 by David W:

        I think it’s highly likely that John the Evangelist, who wrote the Book of Revelation, found some really good mushrooms!

        And how about Ezekiel and his super-bizarre descriptions of “wheels within wheels” coming down in flames from the sky, and fiery,
        shiny creatures with…

        But it is more probably that you didn’t even read the commentaries, so here we had to recurr to Sheldrake or something else to explain this in a rational fashion so here is the better point for leaving this…hahahaaaa (almost I said the name you were looking for). Well i see you did read almost some commentaries, but i think I was more accurated with my first interpretations (and I don’t say this is intentional of course, the intentional or consciouss is what you said In the usually way it would be interpreted I think).

  3. I see Mircea Eliade is not the best example since he was meant be fascist (i dind´t know, but i knew he were more conservative and thought that the origins of meditation were for the negative effects of the drugs). The work of Escohotado i think is better, although he is moving towards more conservative theories i think. He wrote that boook while he was in jail beacuse activism pro legaliation in the eighties.

    The Eleuisis ritual that was made every year in Greece with a substance related to LSD, was made by people of the high society like Platon, Aristoteles and such.

  4. If you squint at the photo of the shrooms just right, the stem of the large one looks to be the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary dressed in white garments, though I can’t tell for sure since she appears to be facing the other way. Can anyone else see this? If you do, we could very well have a miracle on our hands!

  5. Fully, this wouldn´t be a miracle, this would be an altered conscious state, and dependig on how you interpret it, it could be said that you are hallucinating or not (although the DSM says that when this experience is culturally accepted this is not an hallucination).

  6. It wouldn’t be a delusion nor a miracle, but i think miracles can be seen as social processes. In fact i think believing in miracles is very similar to believing in geniuses. Sorry for the pseudospam

  7. In his work History of Mathematics, Carl B.Boyer argues that has been suggested that the art of counting could have appeared in conection with certain primitive religious rituals (A:Seidenberg, “the Ritual Origin of Counting”)..
    He says too that Aristóteles had the theory that the origins of geometry were related to leisure and priestly ritual.. These are not the only explanations that he gives, but he says that is not so absurd to think that..

    • In reply to #17 by pharmakoi:

      The origin of geometry was the measurement of the land, and counting, well, it was for measuring how many items were required, lent, sold, owned, etc. So TBH at first it looks pretty absurd. The psychological underpinnings of these ideas, though, likely has more complex origins. Seeing geometric forms is quite common with hallucinogenics, and I suspect they are reflections of inherent structures that are directly encoded in one’s DNA (selected for by being predictive), that emerge amongst neurons by their various possible arrangements in response to structures percieved in the environment (the mechanisms allowing this being selected similarly) or some similar universal mechanism (I suspect lower animals have geometric concepts as they are so useful in describing the world). They are perceivable and contemplable without hallucinogenics, but I suspect attention was drawn to them at least by religious practice. I think they are inherent, but one can make more versatile use of them if taught they exist and ways to think about them, rather like grammar.

      Low-order counting is pretty universal, but larger, composite numbers (e.g. seven times seventy, as mentioned in Matthew 18:22) are something subtler, I think, and quite deeply connected to the mind, giving rise to some of the strange beliefs of numerology and other mysticism along side useful observations about the nature of numbers.

      • In reply to #18 by PERSON:

        In reply to #17 by pharmakoi:

        The origin of geometry was the measurement of the land, and counting, well, it was for measuring how many items were required, lent, sold, owned, etc. So TBH at first it looks pretty absurd. The psychological underpinnings of these ideas, though, likely has more comple…

        It can be absurd, or not, but it can be that there is not a simple explanation for this, i don´t know much about Boyer or Seidenberg, but sorry, his opinion has more authority for me since they were mathemathicians (almost seidenberg). Yes, the geometric forms have to do with our way of perciving too, this has to be with gestalt forms. You can search for this articles, I would give you an URL but don´t think this is the best site since there is no creative commons license… and well you use a cite o the bible! this is actually absurd for me…more having in acount the history of the christianism.

        • In reply to #21 by pharmakoi:

          In reply to #18 by PERSON:

          In reply to #17 by pharmakoi:

          The origin of geometry was the measurement of the land, and counting, well, it was for measuring how many items were required, lent, sold, owned, etc. So TBH at first it looks pretty absurd. The psychological underpinnings of these ideas, th…

          Well their opinions are more reliable for me, the word authority should have no site here i think (but it probably has, almost if we have in account social psychology)..

      • In reply to #18 by PERSON:

        In reply to #17 by pharmakoi:

        The origin of geometry was the measurement of the land, and counting, well, it was for measuring how many items were required, lent, sold, owned, etc. So TBH at first it looks pretty absurd. The psychological underpinnings of these ideas, though, likely has more comple.

        Sorry if I have been a little offensive, I found very interesting what you say, although I cannot agree with all. ..

  8. As soon as I see the name “Timothy Leary” I start getting suspicious how much actual science is going on vs. BS. Leary was IMO a terrible psychologist and also a real creep as a human being. But, trying to set aside my bias bout him, the idea that you put a bunch of people in a church, have them drop psychadelics and then use the fact that many of them have a religious experience as any kind of evidence that psychadelics played a role in the founding of religion seems ludicrous to me. I was searching for an analogy and it seems to me kind of like saying that human memory may have started from humans getting zapped by lightning bolts because we find that people remember certain things vividly when various parts of the brain are stimulated with electricity while under local anasthetic.

    • In reply to #19 by Red Dog:

      As soon as I see the name “Timothy Leary” I start getting suspicious how much actual science is going on vs. BS. Leary was IMO a terrible psychologist and also a real creep as a human being. But, trying to set aside my bias bout him, the idea that you put a bunch of people in a church, have them dr…

      Don´t know why Leary is a creep person, i find this so prejudicied. About the origins of religion and chamanism there is a lot of literature (and not only literature) about this. That´s why I think actual religion has little to do with what it was in its origins, now I see it more like a way of social control than any other thing. But perhaps this is a bit prejudiced too.

      • In reply to #24 by pharmakoi:

        Don´t know why Leary is a creep person, i find this so prejudicied.

        He’s a creep because he sold out and set up his friends, people with political agendas that the people in power at time didn’t like, for drug offenses in order to stay out of jail himself.

        But I have to admit I also am a bit prejudiced for other reasons. I’ve heard him speak. At the time I was fascinated with the 60′s and eager to hear one of the representatives of the counter culture. What I saw was an egotistical jerk who couldn’t put together a coherent thought to save his life and who reminded me of your average con man.

        • In reply to #26 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #24 by pharmakoi:

          Don´t know why Leary is a creep person, i find this so prejudicied.

          He’s a creep because he sold out and set up his friends, people with political agendas that the people in power at time didn’t like, for drug offenses in order to stay out of jail himself.

          And if he was a con man too (don´t know why you say “your average con man”?, what I doubt a lot, beacuse he didn´t sold the substances, he did it beacuse of his countercultural ideas, and probably he knew more about psycholoy than many others.. and about coherent tought i would like to see you writing in spanish) he was a very bad con man, of course worst than the police who enclosed him and practically forced him to do that.

          • In reply to #29 by pharmakoi:

            In reply to #24 by pharmakoi:
            And if he was a con man too (don´t know why you say “your average con man”?,

            What I mean by average con man is he wasn’t even very good at it. He was selling some book about pseudoscience nonsense on space colonies or something and the way he presented it wasn’t even interesting or a good show. It was just pathetic.

            And I agree with you that the FBI and Nixon and all the rest are far more to blame than Leary. No question of that at all. The whole idea of putting people in jail for those kind of offenses is something Thomas Jefferson would have thought was tyranny. But that doesn’t change the fact that Leary sold out some of the best people in the Radical left movement. People who stuck their necks out to help him and he turned around and betrayed them.

          • In reply to #32 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #29 by pharmakoi:

            In reply to #24 by pharmakoi:
            And if he was a con man too (don´t know why you say “your average con man”?,

            What I mean by average con man is he wasn’t even very good at it. He was selling some book about pseudoscience nonsense on space colonies or something and the wa…

            Ok, thnks, but i’d have liked to see the perfect radicals that he betrayed in his own position, perhaps they would have not been so perfect. About the arguments for saying he was a con man, i disagree at all, i don´t think selling books you like to write is a fraud. If so, then all that is no science and peer reviewed would be a fraud. The fraud only goes on when you know you are lying, and i´m sure in that thing (the selling of the books) he wasn´t this way.

          • In reply to #33 by pharmakoi:

            i’d have liked to see the perfect radicals that he betrayed in his own position, perhaps they would have not been so perfect.

            Of course they weren’t perfect. Some of the people Leary betrayed were in the Weather Underground. They were very far from perfect and I disagreed with a lot of what they said and did. I admire them though because they were legitimate. They weren’t in it for money or fame they really believed in what they were doing. And someone who is a traitor is a traitor. Leary was IMO the worst of the 60′s movement. About nothing more really than getting wasted and dressing it up with all sorts of intellectual pretense and when he came in contact with people who were half way legitimate he made them dumber or he sold them out.

            About the arguments for saying he was a con man, i disagree at all, i don´t think selling books you like to write is a fraud. If so, then all that is no science and peer reviewed would be a fraud. The fraud only goes on when you know you are lying, and i´m sure in that thing (the selling of the books) he wasn´t this way.

            I have nothing at all against people selling books. What I’m talking about is the content of what he was saying. It was obviously total nonsense and he was pretending to be at the front of some brave new age movement when it was obvious he was just trying to get the suckers to buy as many of his books as possible.

  9. Delusion: Belief in something that doesn’t really exist.

    Hallucination: Seeing or hearing something that’s not really there.

    Delusion and hallucination are close relatives. Hardly any surprise that the latter reinforces the former.

    • In reply to #20 by NearlyNakedApe:

      Delusion: Belief in something that doesn’t really exist.

      Hallucination: Seeing or hearing something that’s not really there.

      Delusion and hallucination are close relatives. Hardly any surprise that the latter reinforces the former.

      Yes, but the DSM says that the delusion is not if culturally accepted (if not all peopple who have some form of religious believe or irrational would be diagnosed as crazy, and I think not only all religious people, but ALL people, since we are not so rational as we would like to be (see Tversky and Khaneman for example), and about hallucinaitons I find more interesting things like that (for example)
      http://www.theassc.org/files/assc/Sagiv%20et%20al%20Intellectica%20Preprint.pdf
      Than making hilarious comments that makes no sense for me.

    • In reply to #27 by Red Dog:

      Here is a bit more on why Timothy Leery was a creep:

      Timothy Leary was FBI informer

      Didn´t know that (and cannot be sure, but I trust you). But if he had to do that was because of the prohibition and the pressure of the police (and the narcotrafic and the legal drugs like alcohol, the substance with the worst withdrawal of all) so don´t tell me who is more creepy red dog….

    • In reply to #27 by Red Dog:

      Here is a bit more on why Timothy Leery was a creep:

      Timothy Leary was FBI informer

      From the link: “His evidence does not appear to have led to any arrests or convictions “.

      So, not much of an informer, then. No good at it, or just gave too spaced out a report for the Feds to make any use of it? Certainly the quotes reported show him sounding like a real weasel, but if he never actually got anyone busted, well, where does that leave his reputation?

      • In reply to #56 by OHooligan:

        In reply to #27 by Red Dog:

        Here is a bit more on why Timothy Leery was a creep:

        Timothy Leary was FBI informer

        From the link: “His evidence does not appear to have led to any arrests or convictions “.

        So, not much of an informer, then. No good at it, or just gave too spaced out a report for t…

        I missed that in the link, that isn’t what I remember. I remember people in the US on the left all considered Leary a scumbag for what he did. Even if it’s true that his cooperation didn’t result in arrests that’s just saying he was a bad snitch, it doesn’t change what he did. In any case my biggest complaint against him is that as an intellectual I think he’s a fraud, no better than any other new age charlatan, actually worse because he had a shot at some of the best institutions in the world and he just pissed it away.

  10. There is nothing to be with being more or less coherent and with being a con man (perhaps with not being the con man who imposes his fraud, but I don´t even think that, I see it more sistemic).

  11. So the question is about dumbness? actually do you think that? because if it is, this discussion has finalised for me. I have told what I have to say. This has nothing to be with dumbness, and dumbness should never be used as a moral argument like you are doing.

  12. And what you think about people selling books (or even any other thing) I won´t going into this, but sorry, you aren’t a radical leftist (nor a leftist) at all (well, it does make sense only viewing your image). Of course it is a way of living for who actually needs it, but nothing more, and you didn’t say anything about that. I think you would’ve not been so different from Leary, perhaps worse, more like NIxon and such.

  13. Hey Red Dog, go with your friend Pablo Escobar and the CIA…I´m sure that were someone like you who sold Leary first to the police. Your arguments are so supremacist and you are only trying to demonstrate that drugs are very bad (you don’t know what you are doing, you are exalting the use of drugs without sense, I’m trying to inform, what is other thing totally different).

  14. And you must know that the enthogens are probably the drugs with less risk and without almost any withdrawal, Albert Hoffman lived 100 years or more, and he used LSD, psylocibin and others for his entire life since he discovered LSD (and Wasson where a very well situated person who made a lot of studies about the hinduist use of soma or amanita muscaria and the psylocibe mushrooms). You can see about Shulghin too, a chemist who is not that “wasted” nor dumb that you might think…If you want you can kill yourself even drinking water, theres is no need to use drugs to be wasted, and less in that society where others do this work for you…

  15. I’ve heard this theory before, in a book called something like “The Paleolithic Mind” I read years ago. The author made the case that the spirals and other geometric shapes common in Stone Age art throughout the world were a result of drug-induced hallucinations. He compared them to the shapes and figures commonly described by modern people during hallucinogenic drug trips and claims that the animal-human figures and other strange images along with the geometric shapes represent the earliest ideas of “spirits” and mystical experiences that later became religions as we know them. It was a really fascinating book and I wish I could remember the author’s name. Anyone out there recognize this?

    • In reply to #41 by Sue Blue:

      I’ve heard this theory before, in a book called something like “The Paleolithic Mind” I read years ago. The author made the case that the spirals and other geometric shapes common in Stone Age art throughout the world were a result of drug-induced hallucinations. He compared them to the shapes and…

      I can´t find any book with this title. Are you trying to do a supremacist joke or what? (sorry if not, it could seem I´m going a bit paranoid, but could be that you are making some retoric treats, who know?)

    • In reply to #41 by Sue Blue:

      I’ve heard this theory before, in a book called something like “The Paleolithic Mind” I read years ago. The author made the case that the spirals and other geometric shapes common in Stone Age art throughout the world were a result of drug-induced hallucinations. He compared them to the shapes and…

      Well, sorry, I’ve found that book http://flyingsinger.blogspot.com.es/2013/12/shaman-inside-paleolithic-mind.html (not the book directly, but has a similar title). In fact your comment wasn´t bad but I said I was Spanish and all this discussion made me thought. I’m going some like a Sheriff…Bob Marley should came here and shot me a little XD

  16. And if you think I´m trying to sell books like Leary, you can browse in http://www.bookza.org or if you want articles in http://www.booksc.org there you’ll probably find most of the books I mentioned or almost the articles for sure (but I didn’t want to say it there because is better that some people do not know this, like is better not to talk about drugs with prohibitionists).

    http://bookza.org/s/?q=historia+de+las+drogas&t=0

    http://bookza.org/book/1056587/9483b0

    and so on…

  17. I’m sorry, but your commentary is symbollycally a little threatening; a book called the paleolitic mind and about a child who becames adult… (and I think it wouldn´t like me, first his author make hard science fiction, second, why you make hard science fiction and then writes this book that seems to be historical but probably is not at all?… hard science fiction has been studied as a form of fascism did you know that?.

    • In reply to #47 by pharmakoi:

      Well, I must say too that the Sheriff that is growing inside me thinks that there is something good about Kim Stanley (perhaps not so good): that he made studies about Philip k.DIck.
      The Sheriff wanted to say it that but who thiought that was me (or something like that), because I have read some books of him and I have him in good esteem. About hard sci-fi and fascism I read about and author who studied that somewhere, but I think it depends more on the person than in the type of literature he or she does. Howewer I don¡t like so much instead i haven’t read nearly anything of hard sci-fi (I usually prefer to read science directly in that case).

  18. Hey sue I have other better interpretations hahaha…you liked what you read and you identified in part with me (if it is the case). Then came to your mind the book “the paleolitic mind (it was said Leary was pathetic in a discussion in where I think he was being identified in part with my person, and paleolitic sounds and seems like pahetic). Then you related me to Leary in some way (you may have some positives idea about religion and/or some types of christianism or some kind of stetic related to barroque..) who where something like a modern Jesus and you make the coment about the bizarre revelations of that other guy, this sounds like you were doing a positive comment and thinking I could be an interesting person (some pathetic and bizarre perhaps, but it could be good for you). In other hand, you see me here trying to explain myself in english and growing through and iniciatic way (because of that the book of an iniciatic travel to adulthood). There are some others interpretations for sure but is better for me and the readers that I go quiet for a while…This interpretation can sound pretntious if not mad directly but almost is better than what I made before no? xD

  19. It looks like pharmakoi has been erased from history. I don’t remember those comments well enough to reply now but I do want to state for the record that I have never known Pablo Escabar and have never worked for the CIA. Then again anyone who has worked for the CIA never admits it… ;-)

    • In reply to #51 by Red Dog:

      It looks like pharmakoi has been erased from history. I don’t remember those comments well enough to reply now but I do want to state for the record that I have never known Pablo Escabar and have never worked for the CIA. Then again anyone who has worked for the CIA never admits it… ;-)

      Yes man, it seems that I’m a martir now….;-)

  20. Wow, so many missing comment numbers. Must have been a hot topic. Too bad I arrived late.

    On the original post, I don’t see anything novel or surprising about linking religion and the consumption of mind altering substances. I wonder if there are religious dolphins.

  21. In reply to #21 by pharmakoi:

    In reply to #18 by PERSON:

    In reply to #17 by pharmakoi:

    Oh, no worries, it is absurd, but it’s rooted in numerological thinking as I understand it, that’s why I mentioned it. I didn’t mean to refer to it as a source of factual information, proof or similar.

    Hi mods, do you mind letting us know why pharmakoi’s posts were removed?

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