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Psychedelic-Induced Theism: Common Misconceptions

Can psychedelics really make us see God? Will that help us? Is that something we want, or are we being swayed by the rhetoric of healing mysticism? There are now a number of survey-based studies on psychedelic experiences that talk about dissolving atheism, restoring belief in an ‘Ultimate Reality’, helping to cure depressive disorders, and enduring positive life changes. While researchers are attempting to explore the cognitive interplay between psychedelics and the human brain, most of our explanations of the actual experience trend toward the mystical if not outright religious.

There isn’t anything wrong with having faith, or safely consuming substances as part of a belief structure. Psychedelic plants and fungi — including ayahuasca, peyote, and psilocybin — have long been used for religious purposes, notably by indigenous communities in the Americas. However, if a psychedelic plant or pill has the potential to create or restore belief in religion, or demonstrably alter their values, is it ethical to prescribe psychedelic-assisted therapy as a medication? Should a tendency toward religion be treated or accounted for as a given in administering these therapeutics?

Psychedelic substances are inching close to becoming a part of our healthcare system for treating mental health issues in Canada and the U.S. While multiple studies in various domains — including science and medicine, culture, and law — are underway, one academic writes that a polarizing debate on reported ‘God experience encounters’ may impede the progress in the field.

“Two recent surveys of people who took psychedelic drugs and reported ‘God experience encounters’, along with successful clinical trials using psychedelic therapy for depression, have given rise to public misconceptions about psychedelics and atheism,” Wayne Glausser, Professor at DePauw University and author of ‘Something Old, Something New: Contemporary Entanglements of Religion and Secularity’ writes. 

Glausser, in his article ‘Psychedelic Drugs and Atheism: Debunking the Myths’, describes the inferences in three points: “(1) that the psychedelic experience tends to dissolve atheist convictions; (2) that atheist convictions, once dissolved, are replaced with traditional monotheist beliefs; and (3) that atheism and depression somehow correlate as afflictions for which psychedelic drugs offer relief.” He adds that “each of these popular inferences is substantially misleading.”

“I suspected the popular pieces that came from the studies were way oversimplified,” Glausser tells Truffle Report, wanting to “correct some distortions about atheism and its alternatives and how it connected to the psychedelic experience.”

Johns Hopkins researchers, in their two survey-based studies published in 2019 and 2020, identified the possibility of ‘dissolving’ atheism while treating depression. Both studies together surveyed over 6000 individuals about their psychedelic experiences. 4285 users were surveyed for the first paper, and 2561 for the second. 

The second paper concluded, “More than half of those who identified as atheist before the experience no longer identified as atheist afterwards. The experiences were rated as among the most meaningful, spiritual, and psychologically insightful lifetime experiences, with persisting positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning attributed to the experiences.”

“The authors of the original surveys were mainly pretty careful about saying that their surveys were neutral, and they weren’t suggesting anything about a belief in God or proving a belief in God,” Glausser admits. However, he adds, “I did detect a subtle theistic bias in some aspects of their work that might have encouraged some of the popular misconceptions.”

In Glausser’s opinion, the idea that atheism is “secretly causing depression”, and psychedelics could help “retreat from atheism” are misconceptions that might “cause a lot of people to embrace religion almost as a placebo effect,” he tells Truffle Report.

He wrote in his paper: “The abstract [of the Johns Hopkins paper] tempts readers to infer some version of the third popular misconception: i. e., that atheists become ‘happier’ when they shed atheism.” 

Dr. Aaron Blaisdell of UCLA performs an experiment to observe formation of beliefs.

These misconceptions on theism and religious beliefs that Glauser describes, when tied in with the current psychedelic research on mental health issues and substance use, may cause confusion rather than produce solutions to ongoing problems.

For instance, addiction recovery programs tend to push individuals towards the concept of a higher power, or faith which may not work for everyone. Psychedelics, however, have shown potential in treating substance use and addiction over the years. With the prevailing misconceptions and potential for psychedelics to become a mainstream treatment for addiction, there’s a possibility of this theistic bias becoming more widespread.  

“I feel like with recovery efforts and the idea of ‘God can save you’ makes absolutely no sense whatsoever,” says David Poses, author of The Weight of Air, a memoir which gives a detailed account of his experience in rehab and halfway houses as well as serving as an indictment of his time undergoing the traditional 12-step recovery process. He was told recovery was possible through “God and prayer.” Poses tells Truffle Report that his mother, who suffered from cancer, was not a religious person. If doctors had asked her to skip chemotherapy and pray to God instead, she wouldn’t have survived. 

“During a psychedelic experience, you’re able to see what you were trying to accomplish with the judgment, a better understanding of yourself,” Poses explains. He also expressed clearly that he does not use psychedelics himself, but advocates for recovery programs that do not push religion.

“If that [vision] comes in the form of you imagining ‘God’ or you imagining hamburger, what’s the difference?” Poses says, adding, “We know that in spite of claims that it works, it actually doesn’t. There’s no science behind it but there are people who swear by it.”

Roland Griffiths, professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and lead author of the Hopkins studies, agrees that psychedelic experiences are “just semantic.” He says, “The astonishing piece is that participants — whether they label their encounter God, emissary of god, or Ultimate Reality — use the same descriptors: it’s conscious, benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal, and all-knowing.”

Roland Griffiths, professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Director of Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research

The researcher agreed in his paper that individuals can have profound experiences. “Experiences that people describe as encounters with God or a representative of God have been reported for thousands of years, and they likely form the basis of many of the world’s religions,” Griffiths writes in Science Daily. “And although modern Western medicine doesn’t typically consider ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ experiences as one of the tools in the arsenal against sickness, our findings suggest that these encounters often lead to improvements in mental health.”

It should be noted that the association of psychedelic experiences, however profound, can’t be summed up simply and wholly as ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’, and should be left open to interpretation depending on an individual’s values and understanding of the world. 

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