Psychedelic religions: how big could they grow?
And could there be a backlash from established churches?
Aldous Huxley was a prophet. He was perhaps the first person in western culture to suggest that psychedelics could become part of a religion of the future. This was the message he brought down from the mountain after he tried mescaline in 1953 (pictured above during the trip) – there are substances called ‘psychedelics’ that can give you genuine mystical experiences and connect you to the divine. They could become a new sacrament, a new ‘door in the wall’ to the divine, and the discovery or rediscovery of this sacrament will transform western culture and religion. He wrote:
That famous ‘revival of religion’, about which so many people have been talking for so long, will not come about as the result of evangelistic mass meetings or the television appearances of photogenic clergymen. It will come about as the result of biochemical discoveries that will make it possible for large numbers of men and women to achieve a radical self-transcendence and a deeper understanding of the nature of things…What was once the spiritual privilege of the few will be made available to the many.
His friend, the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond (who gave him his first psychedelics and actually coined the word psychedelic) agreed, writing in a letter to Aldous:
I don’t know of any current religion that has a chance against the Native American Church and variations on this theme once we get over our fear of psychedelics. Conducted in small groups in the right conditions it would have a profound influence on any society. While most religions are like ill manned sailing ships this is like a modern atomic powered craft. It has far greater potentials. Naturally the older religions won’t relish it, but provided we can keep them from destroying it in the next 10–15 years there should be little they can do about it. Here I suppose is the key to the open society and the dynamic religion. I wonder whether we shall have the sense and courage to use it?
Their prophecy seemed to come true in the 1960s and 1970s, when psychedelics had a huge impact on western spirituality by making mystical experiences much more common. As Theodore Roszak wrote in 1968:
It was as if [Huxley] had suddenly seen the possibility emerge: what lay beyond the Christian era and the ‘wasteland’ that was its immediate successor might be a new, eclectic religious revival… [based on] a non-violent culture elaborated out of Buddhism and psychedelic drugs …
That first wave subsided somewhat, and psychedelic religion failed to take off as Osmond and Huxley prophesied. But now we’re in a new moment, and psychedelics are reshaping not just mental healthcare, but also religious attitudes and practices in western culture.
According to Allison Hoots, a lawyer and president of the Sacred Plant Alliance, there are over 200 new psychedelic churches in the US, many of them formed in the last three years. There are psilocybin churches, ayahuasca churches, MDMA churches, LSD churches, ketamine churches, ‘mixed sacrament’ churches, psychedelic Christian churches, Jewish, Buddhist, neo-shamanic, wicca, tantric, and so on. Some have more than 100 members, others have less than 10.
This new religious landscape has been barely written about by scholars or journalists – although a new book by veteran psychedelic historian Don Lattin makes a good start. In this article, I am going to try and answer two questions.
First, how big could psychedelic religions grow in the next 10-20 years? What form or forms could they take?
Second, what is likely to be the reaction of ‘mainline churches’, especially in the US. Could there be a church-led backlash?
The article features interviews and comments from authors Mike Jay, Jamie Wheal and Don Lattin, Reverend Jessica Rochester of Céu do Montréal,, Eric Osborne of Psanctuary Church, Allison Hoots, Ashley Lande, and Reverend Hunt Priest of Ligare. At the end of the essay, you can listen to some rare audio of Aldous talking while on LSD.
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