LSD, Religion, & Religious Studies (Aesthetics)


I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and thought about it again the other rainy day. The Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower” followed by Levon Helm’s “When I Go Away” were on the radio. I really want to edit a book of essays on the impact of LSD and other hallucinogens on then current and future members of the clergy and Religious Studies professoriate circa 1966-1978. The project would be in conversaiton with Daniel Gold’s Aesthetics and Analysis in Writing on Religion: Modern Fascinations.

The LSD-religion connection has to do with, among other things, artificial interfaces and synthetic interventions, the introversion and extroversion of sensation and consciousness, the intensification and other transformations of optical impression, synesthetic color-sound inversions, and repetition of visual patterns. I suspect that the sometimes playful and sometimes not so playful openness to religion, the spiritual, and the supernatural across the culture at large today has a lot to do with this particular legacy of “the 1960s.” In the interest of critical transparency, I think one should be honest. That is both a philosophical and scholarly virtue. If many of us are interested in religion and spirituality today, if many of us are ourselves “religious” or “spiritual” today, whatever that means, does it not have anything to do with this? I can’t see how this could not be the case.

Digging around online, I found “LSD and Religious Experience,” a conference presentation by Walter N. Pahnke, presented at Wesleyen University, March 1967. It is included in LSD, Man & Society, edited by Richard DeBold and Russel Leaf. This is a fascinating document, both for theoretical and historical purposes.

In what follows, I’m cribbing liberally and verbatim from Pahnke,

First thing to note are the 5 types of experience associated with LSD: [1] psychotic, [2] psychodynamic (in which material that had previously been unconscious or preconscious becomes vividly conscious) [3] cognitive (characterized by astonishingly lucid thought, [4] aesthetic (increase in all sensory modalities, changes in sensation and perception) and [5] psychedelic peak or mystical. Pahnke seems to distinguish the last one as religious, while noting the overlap between all five types. I would also think “the religious” extends across all 5 types, spanning the psychotic to the mystucal.

Pahnke notes 9 charactertisc of the mystical associated with LSD

1. Unity is a sense of cosmic oneness achieved through positive ego-transcendence. Although the usual sense of identity or ego fades away, consciousness and memory are not lost; instead, the person becomes very much aware of being part of a dimension much vaster and greater than himself. In addition to the route of the “inner world” where all external sense impressions are left behind, unity can also be experienced through the external world, so that a person reports that he feels a part of everything that is (e.g., objects, other people, nature or the universe), or, more simply, that “all is one.”

2. Transcendence of time and space means that the subject feels beyond past, present and future and beyond ordinary three-dimensional space in a realm of eternity or infinity.

3. Deeply felt positive mood contains the elements of joy, blessedness, peace and love to an overwhelming degree of intensity, often accompanied by tears.

4. Sense of sacredness is a non-rational, intuitive, hushed, palpitant response of awe and wonder in the presence of inspiring realities. The main elements are awe, humility and reverence, but the terms of traditional theology or religion need not necessarily be used in the description.

5. The noetic quality, as named by William James, is a feeling of insight or illumination that is felt on an intuitive, non-rational level and has a tremendous force of certainty and reality. This knowledge is not an increase in facts, but is a gain of insight about such things as philosophy of life or sense of values.

6. Paradoxicality refers to the logical contradictions that become apparent if descriptions are strictly analyzed. A person may realize that he is experiencing, for example, an “identity of opposites,” yet it seems to make sense at the time, and even afterwards. 

7. Alleged ineffability means that the experience is felt to be beyond words, non-verbal, impossible to describe, yet most persons who insist on the ineffability do in fact make elaborate attempts to communicate the experience. 

8. Transiency means that the psychedelic peak does not last in its full intensity, but instead passes into an afterglow and remains as a memory.

9. Persisting positive changes in attitudes and behavior are toward self, others, life and the experience itself.

Key factors identified are: dosage, psychological “set” and enriromental setting

LSD is considered by Pahnke to be the trigger or catalyst.

I’m also curious about the theology students selected to participate in the study described by Pahnke. Their participation suggests to me the future impact of such experimentation on the future of American religion (namely, the American religion of today)

The first was carried out on Good Friday in 1962 to test the hypothesis that persons who were given psilocybin would have experiences similar to those reported by spontaneous mystics. Twenty theological students from relatively similar religious and socio-economic backgrounds, after medical and psychiatric screening, were carefully prepared. in groups of four with two leaders for each group. All thirty participants listened over loud-speakers to a meditative Good Friday service in a private basement chapel while the actual service was in progress in the church above. The experiment was so designed that half of the subjects received 30 mg of psilocybin and the rest, who became the control group, got as an active placebo 200 mg of nicotinic acid, which causes no psychic effects, only warmth and tingling of the skin. From our preparation all the subjects knew that psilocybin caused autonomic changes. Those who got nicotinic acid thought that they had received psilocybin, and suggestion was thus maximized for the control group. The drugs were administered double-blind, so that neither the experimenter nor the participants knew the specific contents of any capsule. Data were collected by tape recording, written account, the mystical-experience questionnaire and personal interview. When all the data were analyzed, the scores of psilocybin subjects were higher to a statistically significant degree in all categories than those of the control subjects. In regard to degree of completeness, only three or four of the ten psilocybin subjects reached the 60% to 70% level of completeness, whereas none of the control subjects did.

I would also note the presence of Tillich and Huston Smith mentioned in WP’s paper. Buber, by the way, appears somewhere in a book by Timothy Leary.

I also find interesting the following suggestion about the impact of LSD, not on the fringe religious communities dedicated to LSD that popped up in the 1960s, but on more mainstream forms of organized religion:

In the meantime there is an increasing need for organized religion to consider the impact of the psychedelic religious movement. If instead of the collapse of a fad, as some predict, there is continued interest, growth and enthusiasm, what might be the effect on religion in America? Persons having had powerful psychedelic mystical experiences may well feel that organized religion, in contrast, is moribund and irrelevant to their needs. Such a trend could be perceived as a threat, and the churches might feel a need to encourage suppression of psychedelic drugs. On the other hand, it can be speculated that with an imaginative and creative approach to an increasing amount of mystical experience, revitalization of religious life in the churches could occur. The churches could help people to integrate such profound experiences with the aid of meaningful and appropriate religious symbols. Such people do tend to talk about their drug experiences in religious terms. In our experimental work with divinity students and ministers, those who had a meaningful religious framework were much helped in using positive psychedelic experiences to understand their faith more existentially.

Pahnke’s article concludes with these references:

Abramson, H. A. (ed.) The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy and Alcoholism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

Arendsen-Hein, G. W. Dimensions in psychotherapy. In H. A. Abramson (ed.), The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy and Alcoholism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

Blum, R., et al. Utopiates: The Use and Users of LSD-25. New York: Atherton Press, 1964.

Cohen, S. LSD and the anguish of dying. Harper’s, August, 1965. 

Harman, W. W., McKim, R. H., Mogar, R. E., Fadiman, J., and Stolaroff, M. J. Psychedelic agents in creative problem-solving: a pilot study. Psychol. Repts (Monogr. Suppl.), 1966, 2-VI9: 211.

Johnsen, G. Indications for psycholytic treatment with different types of patients. In H. A. Abramson (ed.), The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy and Alcoholism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

Kast, E. C. The analgesic action of lysergic acid compared with dihydromorphinome and meperidine. Bull. Drug Addiction and Narcotics, 1963, appendix 27:3517.

Kast, E. C. LSD and the dying patient. Chic. Med. Sch. Qu., 1966, 26/2 :80. 

Kast, E. C. Pain and LSD-25: a theory of attenuation of anticipation. In D. Solomon (ed.), LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug. New York: Putnam’s, 1964.

Kast, E. C. A study of Iysergic acid diethylamide as an analgesic agent. Anesthesia and Analgesia, 1964, 43:285.

Kurland, A. A., Unger, S. M., Shaffer, J. W., and Savage, C. Psychedelic therapy utilizing LSD in the treatment of the alcoholic patient: a preliminary report. Amer. J. Psychiat., 1967, 123/10: 1202.

Kurland, A. A., Unger, S. M., Savage, C., and Pahnke, W. N. Psychedelic therapy (utilizing LSD) with terminal cancer patients. Presented to the A. P. A. meetings in Detroit on 11 May 1967: to be published.

Masters, R. E., and Houston, J. The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1966.

Osmond, H. Peyote night. Tomorrow Magazine, 1961, 9/2:112.

Osmond, H. A review of the effects of psychotomimetic agents. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci., 1957, 66:429. Reprinted in D. Solomon (ed.), LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug. New York: Putnam’s, 1964.

Pahnke, W. N. Drugs and Mysticism: An Analysis of the Relationship between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness. Unpublished doctoral thesis submitted to Harvard University in 1963.

Pahnke, W. N., and Richards, W. A. Implications of LSD and experimental mysticism. J. Relig. Health, 1966, 5/3:175.

Pratt, J. B. The Religious Consciousness: A Psychological Study. New York: Macmillan, 1921. 

Schultes, R. E. Botanical sources of the new world narcotics. Psychedelic Rev., 1963, l/2:157. Reprinted in G. Weil et al. (eds.) The Psychedelic Reader. New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1965.

Slotkin, J. S. The peyote way. Tomorrow Magazine, 1956, 4/3:67.

Slotkin, J. S. Menomini peyotism. In D. Ebin (ed.), The Drug Experience. New York: Orion Press, 1961.

Tillich, P. Systematic Theology (Volume I). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. 

Unger, S. M. The current scientific status of psychedelic drug research. Unpublished paper read to the Conference on Method in Philosophy and the Sciences in New York City on 3 May 1964. 

Unger, S. M. The current status of psychotherapeutically-oriented LSD research in the United States. Unpublished paper read to the New York State Psychological Association on 30 April 1965.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to LSD, Religion, & Religious Studies (Aesthetics)

  1. Sarah Jacobs says:

    I did a paper in college on the very same topic for a class on the Sociology of Religion at Brandeis in 1978. I realized while at a Dead concert, that the experience had many aspects of a religious pilgramage. I wrote about how going through that sort of a trancendant group experience in a secular setting allowed people who had grown up in the more contained and dry religious practice of mid century to seek more extatic and often fundamentalist expressions of spiritual life.

    Growing up in the religious world, the Dead concert was for me exotic, yet those surges of deep connection the trancendence were all familiar to me from the world of prayer.

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    honestly, i think that these sorts of sentiments may reflect one possible aspect of the psychedelic experience, but there are many other facets which they totally sideline because they don’t fit the model which is being promoted. when i was in high school i thought that psychedelics could/would open doors to mystical experiences which i could not otherwise access. however, after taking fairly large doses of lsd and shrooms on several(different) occasions I was very disappointed. I found the experience depressing; like an infinitely complex and tortuous self-psychoanalysis without any of the professional limits and boundaries that make normative psycho-analysis safe and productive.

    it didn’t open any doors for me, just made the locked doors i already had all the more impenetrable.

    i certainly would not deny that for others it has other, possibly more beneficial, effects, but i think that these accounts should be read with a critical eye…. one manner of experience not all. but within their own sphere, they are nonetheless very interesting.

  3. Mobius1ski says:

    Firstly, the Dead song you cite is “Franklin’s Tower” of which the refrain is “Roll away the dew.”

    Secondly, you should look into the work of Dr. Roland Griffiths who recently replicated the Good Friday experiment using psilocybin and a double blind control (in this case, Ritalin), conclusively proving that a majority of people who take psilocybin attest to having a complete mystical experience.

    Thirdly, I recommend the work of Huston Smith, in particular, “Cleansing the Doors of Perception,” which looks more thoroughly at the role of entheogens in religion.

  4. zjb says:

    What interests me has less to do with this or that particular content that one might identify as “mystical” and more to do with a more general, formal openness to this type of awareness or this type of interpretation.

  5. Mobius1ski says:

    I can’t speak to other faiths, but one can certainly point to Renewal Judaism as being shaped by what I would label here as psychedelic spirituality, and in turn, Renewal transforming some of the ideas of the broader Jewish culture – particularly openness towards both ecstatic and contemplative ritual practices. Reb Zalman Shachter Shalomi has written and spoken at length about his experiences with psychedelics and what he considered parallels to hasidic and Kabbalistic teachings, which his pupils have mined. Rabbi Arthur Green, writing under a pseudonym I am told, similarly contributed an essay to “The New Jews” by Jim Sleeper & Alan Mintz, about LSD and chasidut. One can also easily point to the phenomenon of so many Jews embracing eastern mysticism – JuBus, Aleph-Bet Yoga, Jewish Meditation Center, etc. – as in part exemplary of the success psychedelic spirituality influencing the broader culture.

  6. Reblogged this on wernerschwartz.

  7. Michael Vincent Lloyd Graham says:

    Help me get closer to the vain of LSD action, Please…

Leave a Reply