Karl marx religiously believed that religion is the opiate of the people. Now the conviction is growing in avant-garde circles that an opiate can become the religion of the people.

The drug in question is D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25), one of a group of “psychedelic” (consciousness-expanding) agents that includes peyote, mescaline, psilocin, and psilocybin. In the last two decades, interest in these drugs has greatly increased. During the winter of 1962–63, President Pusey of Harvard removed from his psychology staff Drs. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert for unscientific and dangerous experimentation with psychedelics. “You may be making Buddhas out of everyone,” the university told them, “but that’s not what we’re trying to do.”

Exiled from academia, Leary and Alpert devoted their energies to their “International Federation for Internal Freedom,” in which continued experimentation with the drug experience could be promoted. Last December, Leary was arrested in Texas for illegally transporting and failing to pay taxes on marijuana and was given the maximum sentence (thirty years plus $40,000 in fines).

Cases of psychotic behavior as a result of LSD “trips” have been making the press of late, and Dr. Donald Louria of the New York County Medical Society reports that during the last year seventy-five persons were admitted to Bellevue as a result of LSD reactions. The serious medical literature on LSD has continued to multiply (see the exhaustive “Annotated Bibliography” published by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, the only legal manufacturer of the drug—which recently stopped all deliveries of LSD).

Our interest here is not in the chemical or psychological aspects of the psychedelics (for a discussion of their value in controlled psychotherapy and treatment of alcoholism, consult the October, 1965, issue of Pastoral Psychology). We wish to focus attention on the repeated claim that LSD offers a prime avenue to ultimate religious reality.

In the course of Leary’s Harvard experiments, sixty-nine religious professionals (about half of Christian or Jewish persuasion and the rest adherents of Eastern religions) took psychedelic drugs; over 75 per cent reported intense mystico-religious experiences, and more than half asserted that they had had the deepest spiritual experience of their life (Psychedelic Review, I [1964], 325). Pahnke’s 1963 Harvard doctoral dissertation supports these claims by reporting a statistically significant, controlled experiment in which drugs were administered to ten theology students and professors in the setting of a Good Friday service, while ten others received only placebos; “those subjects who received psilocybin experienced phenomena which were indistinguishable from, if not identical with … the categories … of mysticism.” Professor Walter Clark of Andover Newton states that his psychedelic vision was “like Moses’ experience of the burning bush.”

Article continues below

What interpretation should be placed upon such claims? Roman Catholic scholar R. C. Zaehner, in his book, Mysticism, Sacred and Profane, argues that the drug experience, as exemplified by Aldous Huxley in his Doors of Perception, is at best a blend of monistic and nature mysticism but does not reach the level of genuinely theistic, Christian mysticism. The Native American Church of the North American Indians, however, claims that Jesus gave the peyote plant to them in their time of need, and, according to Slotkin, they “see visions, which may be of Christ Himself” (cf. Huston Smith, “Do Drugs Have Religious Import?,” in LSD, ed. Solomon [1964], pp. 152–67). In these latter cases, the drug is evidently viewed as a means of grace, not as an opus operatum or magical device.

Yet Zaehner makes an important point: the psychedelic experience has generally been understood in terms of monistic mysticism, particularly its Eastern forms. Alan Watts relates it to Zen. Leary and Alpert have published a manual for LSD “trips” based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The vast majority of selections included in Ebin’s anthology, The Drug Experience (1961; 1965), are written from non-Christian standpoints.

Why is this so? William James suggested the answer as long ago as 1902 when he described his experience with nitrous oxide: “The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity” (The Varieties of Religious Experience, lectures 16 and 17).

The drug experience, though it may be integrated into a Christian context, never requires such integration, and in fact leads the unwary to believe that the reconciliation of the fallen world can be achieved simply by consciousness (or unconsciousness) expansion. Scripture, however, makes clear beyond all shadow of doubt that true reconciliation occurs solely when a man faces up to his sin and accepts the atoning work of the historic Christ in his behalf. LSD offers the deceptive possibility of bypassing the Cross while achieving harmony within and without. Like Altizer’s chimerical endeavor to gain the “conjunction of opposites” through the substitution of a mystical, fully kenotic “Christ” for the historical Jesus, psychedelic mysticism tries to reconcile all things apart from the only Reconciler.

Article continues below

The tragedy of the LSD gospel (which is not a gospel) is nowhere more evident than in its use with dying patients. Dr. Sidney Cohen reports the last days of “Irene,” terminally ill with cancer. She had “no religion, no hope,” and was given LSD. Then she faced death calmly: “Once you see the pattern of the vortex, it all fits,” she said (Harper’s, September, 1965). Did she see the world aright? Was her consciousness truly expanded? French psychedelic specialist Roger Heim noted that under the influence of the drug his handwriting, in reality black, appeared red; and a cat, given the drug, recoils in fear from a mouse. Reality? No. The only religious “trip” that avoids irrational fear, sees the blackness of the world for what it is, and transmutes death into life is offered freely, without need of capsule or syringe, by Christ the Way.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.