From Armchair Theology to Experimental Science: Entheogenic Keys to the Doors of Experimentation

thomas b. roberts, ph.d.
College of Education Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology, and Foundations Northern Illinois University DeKalb, IL 60115 troberts@niu.edu abstract Today’s theology, which in the United States is primarily Judeo-Christian, includes a variety of beliefs, rituals, social and moral imperatives that we commonly associate with our religious orientation. These organizational expressions of theology constitute a variety of descriptive characterizations of how we associate our self with religion. Nevertheless, in an increasingly technological culture based on empirical science, how do we reconcile this worldview with our theology? Some historians of religion claim that the roots of our organizational expressions of theology emanate from a common source of primary religious experience. In this essay, I argue that it is possible to engage in an experimental mysticism, which I refer to as “entheogenic keys to the doors of experimentation.” keywords: religion, entheogens, psychedelics, experimental mysticism

entheogens Entheogens are psychoactive plants and chemicals whose effects are felt in spiritual terms and described using religious language. The same substances may also have nonentheogenic uses such as medicine, psychotherapy, creativity, or problem solving, but in this article we will focus only on their entheogenic effects.

Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 16, Issue 1, pp. 51–55. ISSN1053-4202, © 2005 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permissions to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm.
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mystical ground of religion Entheogenic approaches to religious studies largely build on the assumption (some would say “observation”) that mystical experiences—primary religious experiences (PREs)—were an experiential, historical origin of religion and a constant though uncommon source of nourishment through the ages.1 Today, entheogens make PREs more accessible. Entheogens can—but do not always— produce mystical experiences, and by providing a useful mindset in the subjects and a supportive environment, researchers can increase the likelihood of such intense spiritual experiences. From a mystical perspective, primary religious experiences are the ground religion springs from, thus today’s theology and other beliefs, liturgy and rites, social concerns and moral action, and religious organizations all have some of their roots (not all of their roots) in primary religious experience.
RITUAL
Attempts to recreate, celebrate, and/or commemorate PRE

BELIEFS
Makes sense of PRE. Answers “What was that? What does it mean?”

ETHICS
Expresses oneness, love, and gratitude for PRE in social action and responsibility

ORGANIZATION
Houses beliefs, ritual, and ethics. Provides community, social identity and support

PRIMARY RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
Also called: state of unitive consciousness, mystical experience, peak experience, intense conversion experience, sacred oneness, etc.

With both natural, plant-derived entheogens and laboratory synthesized entheogens, it is possible to develop what Huston Smith called “experimental mysticism.” These leads provide opportunities in the sciences, in the humanities, and—most interesting of all—experimental procedures for linking these two.

sciences In the sciences much (though not all) research on religion is descriptive. Activities in the nervous system during religious experiences are described. Relationships among religious activities, denominational membership, demographic variables, social values and morals, and political positions are correlated. Frequency of prayer and other religious activities are associated with health, mental adjustment, or other supposed outcomes. Psychoactive plants and chemicals used in a spiritual context can extend descriptive scientific studies and add treatment variables for the experimental study of religion, for example:

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Evolutionary psychology: As our ancestors ate psychoactive mushrooms and other psychoactive plants, how did this encounter affect them? Were plantbased mystical experiences significant events in the origins and history of religions? If so, why? Were our ancestors’ brains prewired for this experience? For Pete’s sake, why!? Was religion merely a cognitive side effect? Is/was there survival value in these experiences? To be complete, evolutionary psychology needs to consider these questions. What fun! Biological-phenomenological links: Entheogens can be independent treatment variables for studies of the biological correlates or markers of intense, subjective spiritual experiences in scientific investigations of these topics. Primary religious experiences: Producing (or simulating) mystical experiences, entheogens move these events from rare historical anecdotes to laboratorystimulated events, thus increasing the number and accuracy of observations, enhancing and refining PRE descriptions, and clarifying typologies. Health: With positive relationships established between psychological state, physical wellness, and immune functions, what effects might overwhelmingly positive PRE peak experiences have on health and wellness? Entheogenic peak experiences may help determine whether there is a ceiling on this effect and discover where it is. As peak-experience treatments, they may boost the immune system.2 Synthetic states: Most mindbody psychotechnologies (for example, entheogens, meditation, chanting) have been used alone. When combined into new recipes, will they create new, previously undiscovered synthetic states? What religious experiences will occur in those states? A vast experimental horizon unfolds.

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humanities In today’s humanities, religious and spiritual beliefs are analyzed, historicized, constructed and deconstructed, criticized, commented on, and otherwise run through the gauntlet of humanistic concepts and philosophical wrangling. More remarkably than in the sciences, entheogens make it possible to perform experiments in the religion-centered humanities too, including experiments that increase people’s understanding of selected religious and philosophical concepts, notably those having to do with primary religious experience (mystical experiences). By providing direct, personal experiences, entheogens allow advances in what might be called “the experimental humanities;” such studies can inform religious discussions with data-based information, for example:
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Experimental religious philosophy: For people who have experienced mystical states, some religious and philosophical ideas become more

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credible—perennialism, a common mystical core underpinning world religions, the survival value of PREs, the roles of mindbody states in the origins and history of religion, self-transcendence, a spiritual aspect of human nature, a transpersonal “level” of the human mind, and so forth.
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Value shifts: People who have undergone ego-transcendent (transpersonal) experiences with entheogens (or otherwise) often shift their values and motivation away from self-gain to humanity-centered values, or a cosmic orientation. Religiosity: How does religiosity—religious activities both within established religious structures and outside of them, including attendance at ceremonies, prayer, meditation, religion-motivated service, group or independent study— change with primary religious experience? Qualia studies: States of unitive consciousness are experienced as sacredness, awe, meaningfulness, portentousness, transcendence, unity, and so forth. We might consider calling these experiences spiritual qualia. Boldly asking, are such experiences directly perceived? Using entheogens, it becomes possible to collect observations and experimental data on this question. Textual reinterpretations: Entheogens suggest reinterpretation of religious texts and ceremonies—soma in Hinduism, possible references to entheogens in Judaism and early Christianity, the ancient Greek mysteries at Eleusis; and entheogens increase our understanding of anthropological and archeological findings on religion. Chrismation: Did the oils used in ceremonies of religious anointment include psychoactive ingredients, particularly cannabis? Chrismation experiments may provide insights into this part of religious history by allowing people access to personal experiences of possible historical events (otherwise known as the primordial tradition) recreated under laboratory conditions or in religious settings and ceremonies.

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How can this be? Can entheogens enable experiments that alter values and change moral positions? Yes. Can they experimentally change people’s spiritual activities and how they understand them? Yes. Can they increase the believability of some theological positions and philosophical constructs and make others less credible? Yes. Anecdotal and pilot studies claim these things have already happened. Now the religion-and-science field needs replications and more refined experiments.

consilience Most remarkably, entheogens provide an opportunity to study both reductive and emergent causation within one set of interlocking experiments. In the reductive studies, entheogens can be administered and their effects measured on, say, receptor

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sites and brain structures. At a higher level of organization, we can examine their effects on cognition, beliefs, values, and theology. In experiments designed to examine emergent, or downward causation, researchers can examine whether such variables as theology/beliefs influence neurological psychoactivity. Similarly, how might such things as personality variables, novelty-seeking or harmreducing temperaments, cognitions and beliefs, theism/atheism, knowledge about entheogens, and church acceptance/rejection affect both physiological activity and interpretations of the subjective effects of entheogenic experimental interventions? In parallel, other mindbody psychotechnologies from meditation and contemplative prayer to fasting, yoga, and the martial arts provide similar sets of variables for parallel research regimes. Thus, entheogens and their psychoactive siblings provide models for interlevel studies, moving several steps toward experimentally integrating the sciences and humanities and advancing Edmund O. Wilson’s goal of consilience. What are the research possibilities now that experimental PREs are a (somewhat but not 100 percent) reliable treatment variable? All the bulleted items above lead to their own complex research agendas. With their effects ranging from neurotransmitters to theology, entheogenic studies taken as a whole give the sciences and humanities a natural route toward establishing links along the ladder of scientific-humanistic complexity. This article mentions some of these leads and considers a broad intellectual-scientific horizon of entheogen-based experiments, their interpretations, and resulting speculations. By combining science and the humanities, entheogens give scholars up and down the ladder of disciplines a religious-based doorway to consilience. Thanks to plants’ and chemicals’ psychoactive keys, entheogenic doors to humanistic-scientific religious research are unlocked. Dare we enter?3 endnotes
1. This thesis—that the historical origin of religion has its foundation in mystical experience—is taken up in Mark Schroll’s essay, Toward a Physical Theory of the Source of Religion, this Issue. 2. A definition of peak experience, and what Maslow referred to as the more psychologically integrated plateau experience, is given in note #6 of the Schroll essay cited above (note #1). 3. This essay will be further developed in (forthcoming 2006) Entheogens: Chemical Input, Religion Output. In Religion and the Brain, vol 3: The Psychology of Religion. Patrick McNamara, ed. Westport, CT. Praeger Publishers-Greenwood Press.

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