By Sam S.B. Shonkoff
If there is one thing that the critical study of religion unveils, it is that every enchanting and revelatory movement in human history — without exception, no matter how luminous the auras — is nonetheless human.
Psychedelics are no exception.
These substances are making a lot of brain scientists and policymakers talk about mysticism. And how could they not? A rapidly expanding body of data confirms that historically sacramental elements can induce altered states of consciousness with significant healing powers.
In contrast to today’s more conventional psychopharmacological techniques, which require regular doses to maintain chemical changes in the body, it appears that psychedelic medicines operate precisely by means of transformative experiences, the effects of which can last for months, if not years. Scholars and psychonauts alike can hardly account for these phenomena without recourse to the lexicon of religious studies.
And yet, strangely, scholars of religion have been largely absent from this discourse.
The current renaissance of psychedelic research and efflorescence of psychedelic practices are indeed inspiring, and psychedelics do evidently have potential to do good in our broken world.
However, evocations of mysticism in the current discourse have significant blind spots. As a scholar of religion who cares deeply about this psychedelic renaissance and who is involved with the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, I offer here two points of caution from the perspective of my field.
First, mystical experiences do not necessarily lead to more peaceful forms of life.
This unromantic truth clashes with common tropes in psychedelic studies. To choose a particularly blatant example, one pioneering researcher claims that a “spiritual experience of the Islamic variety” would guide Muslims to “the teachings of various Sufi orders,” as opposed to “the religiously motivated politics of some Moslem groups or passion for jihad,” while Jewish spiritual experiences would lead Jews toward “the Jewish mystical tradition, as expressed in the Cabala or the Hassidic movement, and not to fundamentalist Judaism or Zionism.” Leaving aside for now the questionable liberal denunciation of “religiously motivated politics” that arose under the thumb of Christian supremacy, we must at least acknowledge that both Islam and Judaism—like every other religion—have produced mystical movements with imperfect ethical records, to say the least.
Mystics can be extraordinarily gentle and open. They can also be megalomaniac misogynists and overzealous xenophobes. Psychedelic movements are not immune to this historical fact, and to suppose otherwise could be perilous. While some researchers have indicated that psychedelic experiences positively predict “liberal political views” and negatively predict “authoritarian political views,” we might complicate this picture with attention toward intersections today between psychedelia and fascism.
In short, spiritual experiences alone cannot solve human problems. Only humans can. And that takes very hard work.
Second, there is no core “religious experience” as such that is transcultural or transhistorical.
Contemporary psychedelic researchers tend to draw rather uncritically upon classic essentializations, such as the works of William James (1842–1910) and Walter Terence Stace (1886–1967).
However, scholars of religion have moved well beyond those perennialist schemes in recent generations, and for good reason.
On one hand, as Steven T. Katz and others have observed, mystical states, like any other modes of consciousness, are mediated by countless cultural, biographical, bodily, and environmental factors. While this does not necessarily mean that they are entirely reducible to those conditions, the spectrum of spiritual experiences is vaster than our wildest dreams. Scholars of religion have developed sophisticated lenses for appreciating the “set and setting” components that are indeed so central for psychedelic studies.
On the other hand, we must note that the very project of identifying a foundational mystical or religious experience derives from a distinctively modern European discourse. These formulations invariably reflect the Protestant privileging of personal faith and feelings over collective norms and narratives, as well as the highly individualistic textures of modern subjectivity more generally. (Yes, even “ego dissolution” locates the self at the epicenter of the mystical drama!)
Moreover, Europeans and their descendants have weaponized these purportedly universal schemes against non-Christian cultures for centuries, whether against religious minorities within their borders or against so-called “primitives” and “Orientals” in their colonies. Scholars such as Tomoko Masuzawa and Talal Asad have demonstrated how even the most seemingly humanistic efforts to compare “world religions” through the prism of universal categories have been inseparable from the dynamics of colonialism.
While this history may sound remote from the labs of psychedelic studies, we must ask, for example, what it means for non-indigenous scientists to characterize the mystical effects of psilocybin in ways that differ fundamentally from the accounts of Mazatec curanderos, whose sacramental traditions have been so pillaged? If, say, academic communities emphasize unitive experiences and ego-dissolution where indigenous communities highlight ancestral encounters and spiritual visitations, might the latter discourse be cast as crude or confused in some sense? To what extent are psychedelic researchers taking seriously the views of the Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa, for whom the spiritual significance of yãkoana powder is inseparable from defending the Amazon rainforest against “the People of Merchandise”? History teaches that it is extremely dangerous to overlook such questions. The field of religious studies offers resources for navigating this thorny terrain with critical attunement and postcolonial care.
As the great scholar of religion Huston Smith said in 1964, “Drugs appear able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives.”
Amid today’s human-caused crises and injustices, we need a spiritual revolution. Perhaps psychedelics can illuminate new pathways. But unless the momentary revelations bear material fruits, then psychedelics may just be another opiate of the masses.
Sam Shonkoff (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, where he teaches on Jewish religious thought, modern Jewish cultures, and methods in theology, ethics, and the historical-cultural study of religions.