Book Review : The psychedelic religion of mystical consciousness, Rick Strassman, 2018

Book Review : The psychedelic religion of mystical consciousness, Rick Strassman

William A. Richards
Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences
Columbia University Press, New York, 2016, 244 pp.
Hardback ISBN: 978-0-231-17406-0

Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 2018

Doi : 10.1556/2054.2018.003


With an extreme range of terms for psychedelic drugs – from “schizotoxic” to “entheogenic” – “psychedelic,” nonetheless remains the most salient one. These substances manifest or disclose aspects of the mind of those who take them as well as the mind of those who study them. Proponents for the innumerable terms for these drugs are all able to adduce supportive evidence. Necessarily, this evidence is a subjective experience, but in the research world, rating scales provide statistical support for one’s beliefs about the nature of the drug effect: “psychotomimetic” (Gouzoulis- Mayfrank et al., 1998) or “mystical-type” (Griffiths, Richards, McCann, & Jesse, 2006).

The mysticomimetic model – which emphasizes the similarities between psychedelic drug effects and those described in the “mystical” literature – is increasingly popular in the renewal of clinical psychedelic studies. The primary site for the practice and promulgation of the mysticomimetic protocol is Johns Hopkins University, where Roland Griffiths is the principal investigator and William Richards the lead psychotherapist. The publication of Richards’ Sacred Knowledge and his subsequent interviews and lectures shed light on the model from which devolves this successful protocol.

This model originated with Richards and colleagues – including Walter Pahnke and Stanislav Grof – at the Spring Grove research center outside of Baltimore in the 1960s. These researchers demonstrated promising initial results with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and N,Ndipropyltryptamine in treating addictions and end-of-life despair. However, this research ended in the early 1970s for reasons additional to the onerous regulatory burdens that the Controlled Substances Act placed on human studies at that time.

I learned of these additional factors from Eberhardt Uhlenhuth in the mid-1980s, several years before, I began the DMT and psilocybin projects at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Uhlenhuth, formerly acting Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago and former President of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, had recently joined our department after many years at Hopkins. I shared my interest with him in clinical psychedelic drug research, as well as admiration for the Spring Grove studies, prompting him to relate his experience as a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) site visitor at Spring Grove, whose grant was up for renewal.

Dr. Uhlenhuth told me that the Spring Grove results were indeed promising. What resulted in the grant’s non-renewal, however, was the team’s having “gotten religion.” By this he meant that they believed their results established the existence of a new paradigm, one that resided outside the world of clinical research and the scientific method. Rather than seeing their data as indicating effects of psychedelics on secular psychological and neurobiological functions, Richards and colleagues saw their data as proving certain religious truths. For example, they took at face value patients’ reports of “the indestructibility of consciousness.” That is, such reports established the fact that consciousness was indeed indestructible, rather than stimulating further research into the nature and underlying mechanisms of that experience. For the Spring Grove group, it now was a matter of extending the application of “the indestructibility of consciousness” into as many arenas – clinical and others – as possible.

Similarly, promising early results are now emerging from Johns Hopkins’ and other groups’ use of Richards’ Spring Grove protocol. As a result, he has resurrected the new paradigm, the psychedelic religion that NIMH previously had refuted. He describes the model in what appears to be the foundational text of that religion in Sacred Knowledge. It is a troubling manifesto: anti-scientific yet points to science for its validation, prioritizes feeling over reason and certainty over truth, is intolerant of and demeans competing models. As Richards’ model is essentially religious – proclaiming a new universal religion – he reserves his most damning remarks for Judaism, the particularistic religion that has perennially received the enmity of similarly universal creeds. While Richards’ religious model ought not to call into question the efficacy of the protocol devolving from it, its underlying theological premises must be acknowledged and debated.

A useful notion in understanding how psychedelics can be so many different things to so many different people is that of meaning enhancement, a type of psychological placebo effect (Hartogsohn, 2018). That is, certain preexisting more-or-less conscious beliefs now become certain. They attain what Freedman (1968) referred to as “portentousness.”

In Richards’ case, his foundational revelation – the turning point of portentousness – occurred at the age of 23 on psilocybin in a German research study supervised by Hanscarl Leuner. Richards, a Christian with an interest in the ministry, also held to notions of universal religious experience as explicated by William James and operationalized by Walter Stace and Ralph Hood. James, in turn, was directly influenced by the Vedantist Swami Vivekananda whose calls for a universal religion – that is, his universal religion – at the First World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in the 1890s met with great acclaim. Not surprisingly, Richards’ initial drug experience confirmed these beliefs – that an undifferentiated, wordless, and ecstatic, time- and space-transcending experience was indeed accessible. His beliefs regarding the existence and salutary properties of such an experience then led him and his future Spring Grove colleagues to develop a protocol to maximize the likelihood of such experiences occurring in the clinical setting.

The teachings of the new psychedelic religion of mystical consciousness that Richards imparts are a mélange of New Age, Vedanta, and Christianity. He summarizes them in his catechismal 13 Insights in Sacred Knowledge’s epilogue. Many of these are identical to ideas the truth of which became certain to him in 1963. For example, “reality is,” and one’s “favorite words and concepts” are irrelevant in understanding it; “Beauty may be in and through the eye of the Beholder, but it can be Absolute and incredibly magnificent” (note the portentous capitalization), and so on. None of these are scientifically or objectively verifiable. Rather, they are matters of belief, certainty, and conviction; that is, faith.