A major motive for being a Christian and participating in its rituals and disciplines is about to collapse. This is going to make a lot of Christians panic, but I believe the recent development will be all to the good.
The development is the discovery that hallucinogenic drugs can give people an experience seemingly identical to powerful religious experiences. A recent New York Times article by John Tierney describes the experience of retired clinical psychologist Clark Martin. Martin had been treated for depression for years, but counseling and antidepressants did nothing to help. At age 65, he enrolled in an experiment at Johns Hopkins medical school that gave people psilocybin, a psychoactive ingredient found in some mushrooms.
When Martin was administered the drug, he says, "All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating … . Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water's gone. And then you're gone."
Today, more than a year later, Martin says the six-hour experience helped him defeat depression and deeply transformed his relationships with his daughter and friends. "It was a whole personality shift for me," Martin said. "I wasn't any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. … You have a feeling of attunement with other people."
His experience, writes Tierney, is not all that unusual, and he says, "Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate."
The same connection was made by Barbara Bradley Hagerty in her popular Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (Riverhead), which I reviewed last year. For example, she describes the experience of Michael Hughes, who had a mystical experience when he ingested some psychedelic mushrooms when he was 22 years old just before he walked into a Catholic church. "It was almost as if I had wandered into the magical place," he said. "I sat down and felt a really strong sense of sacredness." He said he encountered "Something"—"an intelligence to be sure, but it felt like an intelligence that imbues everything."
When the Roman Catholic Hughes was asked to compare a non-drug-induced mystical moment he had with his mushroom-induced one, he said, "They were equally profound. They both changed me dramatically."
From the point of view of experience, it seems it's impossible to tell the difference between drug-induced and "natural" mystical experiences. Both are powerful. Both enable people to enjoy a transcendent moment. Both seem capable of transforming people so that they feel a greater sense of empathy for and unity with other people—what most people would call love.
This sort of thing makes many a Christian nervous, and for good reason. We live in an age in which religious experience is the centerpiece of faith for many, many Christians. We disdain faith that is mere intellectual assent or empty formality. We want a faith that is authentic, that makes us feel something—in particular, one that enables us to experience God. When we describe the one time in the week when we put ourselves in the presence of God, we talk less and less about "worshipping God" and more about "the worship experience." The charismatic movement, with its emphasis on experiencing the Holy Spirit, has penetrated nearly all churches. This religious mood, which characterizes our era, is epitomized by the title of Henry Blackaby's continuing best seller, Experiencing God.