Entheogens, Katie Givens Kime, 2018


Katie Givens Kime

Institute of Practical Theology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

in D. A. Leeming (ed.), “Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion“,

# Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Doi : 10.1007/978-3-642-27771-9_200181-1


Entheogen is a term coined in the late 1970s by a group of botanists and scholars which refers to any psychoactive agent which allows for “generating the divine within” (Ruck et al. 1979). Entheogens are psychedelic substances which, in adequate dosage under supportive conditions, are known to facilitate visionary, mystical, and/or spiritual experiences. Such substances include psilocybin, peyote, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), ibogaine, and ayahuasca. Typically of plant origin, entheogens are often called “psychedelics” or more commonly in medical communities “hallucinogens.” Many argue this
term is a misnomer, given the exceedingly rare occurrence of true hallucinations with such substances
(Richards 2015).

The relationship between psychoactive substances and religious experiences extends far into human history and across cultures and religious traditions. Entheogens may be the oldest class of psycho-pharmacological agents known to humanity (Nichols 2016: 268). Throughout the Rigveda, a canonical sacred text of Hinduism, the hallucinogenic substance known as Soma is frequently praised. In ancient Greece, a hallucinogenic brew called kykeon was ingested as part of the Eleusinian Mystery traditions. In what is now Mexico and the southwest USA, indigenous religious communities have made ritual use of the psychoactive peyote cactus for more than 5000 years, according to archaeological and anthropological records. In both Mesoamerican and Australian cultures, psilocybin mushrooms were used for healing and religious rituals. In Aztec communities, such mushrooms were known as teonanacatl, meaning “god’s flesh.” In indigenous Amazonian communities of South America, a hallucinogenic plant decoction known as ayahuasca, which contains DMT (N, N-dimethyltryptamine, a naturally occurring psychoactive molecule, also called “the spirit molecule”), is used for sacred ritual purposes.

The Western modern era of psychedelics began in Switzerland in 1943, when chemist Alfred Hofmann
synthesized a compound he dubbed LSD- 25. In the record of his self-experiment, he first experienced “a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed. . .I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” (Hofmann 1979: 15). Intense anxiety and paranoia followed: to Hofmann, his next-door neighbor suddenly seemed to be a “malevolent, insidious witch with a coloured mask,” and he sensed a “disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego. . .A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind and soul. . .I was seized unprecedented level of taboo in modern science (Pollan 2015), a product of various cultural fears and political agendas.

By the late 1990s, US researchers met some success in easing federal regulations. In 2006, psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine published the results of their breakthrough trial, an extension of the Good Friday Experiment. In the double-blind clinical method, 22 of the 36 study participants (all healthy volunteers) reported dramatic mystical experiences after psilocybin sessions, compared with only four following placebo sessions. Griffiths concluded, “when administered to volunteers under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences and which were evaluated by volunteers as having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance”
(282). The tentative but highly promising success of Griffiths’ study led to several other clinical trials.

Currently, US clinical investigation of the therapeutic uses of entheogens is limited mostly to psilocybin, avoiding the social stigma of LSD, which is being studied in Switzerland and the UK Treatment-resistant major depressive disorder, alcohol dependence, obsessive-compulsive disorder, tobacco addiction, and existential distress associated with terminal illness (palliative care) are all focus treatment areas for recent and ongoing clinical trials (Thomas et al. 2017). Across this broad range of disorders and diagnoses, the physiological and psychological reasons for the success of entheogen-related treatment are widely varying, and any consensus within the medical community on these matters remains preliminary and tentative, at best. Investigators broadly agree however that the often dramatic positive findings thus far support the value of continued research.

Disagreement arises around the reasons for the healing potential of entheogens. Many believe that improvement of symptoms “must be related to neurochemical effects, or neuroadaptation, and refuse to believe that the mystical experience may be relevant” (Nichols 2016: 344). Others are curious to understand how entheogens seem to trigger such highly meaningful experiences, and why reportedly mystical experiences are of particular help to several psychiatric disorders. Scholars of religion may find a particular pair of clinical trials to be noteworthy. The NYU School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine are separately recruiting participants to investigate “The Effects of Psilocybin-
Facilitated Experience on the Psychology and Effectiveness of Religious Professionals.” The trials
are premised on the hypothesis that professional leaders of religious communities, “given their interests, training, and life experience, will be able to make nuanced discriminations of their psilocybin experiences, thus contributing to the scientific understanding of mystical-type experience” (Ross 2018).

The controversy and high drama of the Good Friday Experiment may be contrasted with scenes from psilocybin therapy sessions today at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, New York University,
and the University of California in Los Angeles, which usually include a well-appointed room, decorated with books and art representing various myths and religious traditions, a comfortable couch-bed for participants, with headphones and an eye mask. In many such contexts, patients are given a single pill, either a placebo or dose of psilocybin, from a ceramic chalice. Two clinicians (usually male and female) attend the participant for the entire session, which averages about 8 h in duration. Written personal narrative, strictly required by all study participants in the 24 h following their psilocybin therapy session, plays a critical role in the study, as do William James’ four marks of mysticism (ineffability, noesis, transiency, and passivity), via the six-category Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which is utilized in several of the US clinical methodologies.

In discussions regarding the recent findings, researchers note the remarkable similarities across participant accounts. In addition to the expected experiences of altered senses of time, space, and self, participants tend to value the experience as one of the most important and authoritative events of their lives, in follow-up studies years later (Griffiths et al. 2006). Individuals frequently note frustration when tasked with describing their sensations and insights, given the ineffability of their experiences.

Besides the promising potential for continued research into the beneficial effects of entheogens, the relationship between psychoactive drugs and mystical experience provokes a return to old questions. Within the psychology of religion, what meaning do we make about the nature of entheogens? Ralph W. Hood, Jr., points out the “question of veridicality” that continues to accompany “chemically facilitated mysticism.” What does it mean to take a pill to induce a mystical experience – is it still authentic? Are patients glimpsing other dimensions of reality? Does the noetic quality of the induced mystical experiences point us to something “more” than just the consequences, mechanisms, and architecture of the mind ?