Huston Smith (LSD & Religion)


Is there a future for religion without it? Confirming a long held suspicion of mine about the impact of LSD on the emergence of religion/spirituality in the postwar period in the United States is the sheer amount of attention given to it in the NYT obituary for Huston Smith –a giant in the field of Religion Studies who skirted the border between participation-observation. What grabs my attention about the photograph that I grabbed online is the disconnect between the fire in the eyes and the conventional elegance of the dapper suit and tie. You can read the whole thing here. For a brief perusal, there’s this:

Professor Smith, whose last teaching post was at the University of California, Berkeley, had an interest in religion that transcended the academic. In his joyful pursuit of enlightenment — to “turn our flashes of insight into abiding light,” as he put it — he meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men, whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes, chewed peyote with Mexican Indians and celebrated the Jewish Sabbath with a daughter who had converted to Judaism.

It was through psychedelic drugs in the early 1960s that Professor Smith believed he came closest to experiencing God.Leary, a Harvard professor who championed mind-altering substances, recruited Professor Smith to help in an investigation of psychedelic drugs. At the time, Professor Smith was teaching philosophy nearby at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Leary thought that he had had a profound religious experience in Mexico in August 1960 when he first ate psilocybin mushrooms, which can produce hallucinations. Accordingly, he wanted religious experts to be part of his Harvard Psilocybin Project for the study of mind-altering drugs. Richard Alpert, a colleague in Harvard’s psychology department, was a critical figure in the initiative. (He later took the name Ram Dass.)

On New Year’s Day in 1961, Leary’s team ingested mushrooms in his living room. “Such a sense of awe,” Professor Smith said afterward. “It was exactly what I was looking for.”

A year later, the group gathered in a church basement as a Good Friday service was being held upstairs and tried an experiment involving 20 volunteers in which half were given the psilocybin mushrooms and the other half a placebo. Professor Smith received the drug, which was legal at the time, and reported that he was certain he had had a personal experience with God. He thought that the voice of a soprano singing upstairs was surely that of an angel.

“From that moment on, he knew that life is a miracle, every moment of it,” Don Lattin wrote in “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” a 2010 account of the psychedelic research project, “and that the only appropriate way to respond and be mindful of the gift of God’s love was to share it with the rest of the world.”

Professor Smith later became disenchanted with Leary’s “Tune in, turn on, drop out” gospel, but he retained his belief that the briefest of insights from a psychedelic trip could be mind-expanding.

Those early drug experiments, however, were enough for him, he wrote in “Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals” (2000). (The word entheogenic refers to substances that produce an altered state of consciousness for spiritual purposes — “God-enabling,” in Professor Smith’s words.)

“If someone were to offer me today a substance that (with no risk of producing a bummer) was guaranteed to carry me into the Clear Light of the Void and within 15 minutes would return me to normal,” Professor Smith wrote, “I would decline.”

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.

4 Responses to Huston Smith (LSD & Religion)

  1. dmf says:

    in some ways the focus on personal experience is a very American strain of religiosity, going with our guts…godz help us.

  2. Pingback: Huston Smith. – Constructive Undoing

  3. M. Chaness says:

    I always respected Smith for his knowledge and respect of borders throughout his collaborations. Throughout his travels Smith borrowed and “played” but he did so consciously and conscientiously. While Smith was a seeker he never lost sight of the role that community and ancestry play in religious traditions. Notice, for instance, that Smith related to Judaism through his family (daughter) not through the Zohar, Kabbalah or personal relationship to a specific rebbe.

    Perhaps the ability of certain psychotropic substances (LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, peyote) or “entheogens” to blur the lines between participation and observation offered Smith a further incentive to travel to the “clear light of the void.” To this end I wonder whether it was LSD that catalyzed the emergence of religion/spirituality in post WWII America or whether it was the cultural/religious climate of post WWII America that catalyzed the emergence of LSD.

Leave a Reply