Review of Sacred Knowledge : Psychedelics and Religious Experience
William A. Richards
New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016. 269 pp.
ISBN 978-0-231-17406-0 $29.95
Reviewed by Michael J. Winkelman
Reviews the book, Sacred knowledge: Psychedelics and religious experiences, by William A. Richards. Richards’s career of clinical research with psychedelics and professional formation in theology, comparative religion and the psychology of religion bring integrative perspectives to understanding psychedelic experiences. Clinical accounts, scientific research and his personal experiences with psychedelics enable Richards to address issues of core importance in religious studies, medicine and society in general. Clinical studies with psychedelics provide findings that contribute to assessment of issues in religious studies, providing evidence that supports a perennialist view of mystical experiences as inherent to human nature. Double blind studies establish the intrinsic ability of psychedelics to produce mystical experiences, as well as behavioral changes in the participants’ lives. Similarities in mystical and psychedelic experiences across people and cultures point to their transcendental nature and basis in human biology. Richards weaves together various strands of evidence to educate professionals of many disciplines and the general public about the range of promising uses of psychedelics. Although psychedelic ingestion does not always produce mystical experiences, when they fail to do so, they generally engage the user with personal experiences related to childhood trauma or unresolved emotions, especially fears, grief, anger and guilt. This reveals another power potential of these substances to provide relief for conditions often found intractable by modern medicine. Sacred Knowledge provides a call to recognize the biases that have affected our societal evaluations of psychedelics and how current scientific research demands reconsideration of the significance of these powerful entheogens and their implications for understanding spiritual experiences and human nature.
William Richards is an elder of the psychedelic therapy movement and an early participant in the psychedelic treatment of alcoholism and other drug dependencies. His career spanned the early and more recent phases of clinical research with psychedelics. Furthermore, Richards’s professional formation in theology, comparative religion and the psychology of religion brings a powerful combination of perspectives to bear on clinical accounts, scientific research and his personal experiences with psychedelics to address issues of core importance in religious studies and society in general.
Richards tells us that Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experience is about “encountering the sacred and the discovery of eternal realms in consciousness” (p. xxv). The major thrust of Richards’s book is that there are broad and profound implications of psychedelic-induced experiences for issues in religious studies and mysticism, across a range of academic disciplines, and for the broader society. Richards weaves together the evidence from psychedelic experiences in his personal life and clinical research to address some basic issues that remained unresolved in the minds of some who study mysticism. A secondary intent of the book is to educate professionals across a range of disciplines and to inform the general public about the promise of psychedelic substances, countering decades of negative propaganda of the drug war that has unjustifiably discredited them.
Richards’s perspectives are based on experiences across 25 years of legal psychedelic research projects involving Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), N,N-Dipropyltryptamine (DPT), Methylenedioxy-amphetamine (MDA) and N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). These spanned the early period of the 1960’s until their suspension in the 1970s, and then again since the resurgence of research in this area almost 2 decades ago. It was in 1999 in the context of his participation in the renewal of psychedelic research at the John Hopkins School of Medicine using a sophisticated double blind clinical trial (Griffiths et al., 2006) that perhaps the most revolutionary implications of psychedelics were confirmed: a significant proportion of the people receiving psychedelics have classic mystical experiences and consider them to be the most significant spiritual experiences of their lives.
Psychedelics as Agents of Mystical Experience
One of the undeniable implications of psychedelics manifested in thousands of clinical records and across cultures and time is the ability of these substances, when used in supportive contexts, to produce what people report as genuine mystical experiences. These accounts are phenomenologically indistinguishable from reports of mystical experiences that result from devoted spiritual practices—or which may occur spontaneously without chemical agents or personal intention.
What makes the psychedelics so enigmatic is their repeated ability to produce mystical experiences—as well as their often-unreliable ability to do so. Richards had a mystical experience in his first encounter with psilocybin, ironically in the context of a study to examine its psychosis-mimicking effects. But in subsequent sessions with comparable doses and expectations of repeated mystical experience, nothing at all similar occurred.
Whatever role the psychedelics have in provoking mystical experiences is more than a simple drug effect. Psychedelics do not produce a single form of experience, but a wide variety of states generally reflective of the set and setting—the individual psychological predispositions and the social factors in the context of administration, respectively.
The double blind studies by Roland Griffiths et al. (2006) establish, however, the intrinsic ability of psychedelics to produce mystical experiences and associated behavioral changes in the participants’ lives. Furthermore, while psychedelic ingestion does not always produce mystical experiences, when failing to do so, they generally engage the user with a variety of personal experiences related to childhood trauma or unresolved emotions, especially fears, grief, anger and guilt. This reveals another powerful potential of these substances to provide a variety of forms of relief for conditions often found intractable by modern medicine (i.e., see Michael Winkelman and Thomas Roberts’  Psychedelic Medicine).
The core of Sacred Knowledge is about the nature of forms and features of mystical consciousness that are manifested in psychedelic experiences. Clinical cases show how psychedelics produce the common core of mystical experiences, namely: experiences of intuitive knowledge and unity, transcendence of time and space, sacredness, ineffability and positive mood. The mystical aspects of psychedelic experiences are strongly supportive of the classic perennialist view of mystical experiences, the notion of fundamental commonalities to mystical experiences across people, cultures and time.