We have now had years of headlines talking about new research into using psychedelic drugs for therapy and, along with it, an increase in spiritual seekers.
Studies about the use of psychedelic drugs for therapy have been growing for years, with increased institutional involvement from universities, Congress, and the US Department of Defense to name just a few.
Outside of clinical trials, psychedelic use among young adults has nearly tripled in the past decade. Religious leaders—including hospital chaplains and religious psychotherapists—are also exploring the use of these drugs, as recently reported by NPR and Esquire. Ordained clergy are even conducting underground retreats that blend psychedelics with Christian worship with an emphasis on “healing.”
While I believe there are likely legitimate-use cases for psychedelic therapy that will bear out in time, I want to raise awareness of the many psychological risks of psychedelics that are often underemphasized in the research. And as a pastor, I feel an urgency to inform Christians of the serious spiritual risks of psychedelics—including the idolatry of spiritual experience.
I’m not speaking about this as an outsider. More than a decade ago, psychedelic experiences felt more real to me as a young ex-Christian than God did. For years, I was a recreational psychedelics user who became involved in the movement to medicalize psychedelics, also working for their use in non-Christian religious contexts. I promoted the healing potential of psychedelics, but I was even more interested in their spiritual power.
Over time, however, I grew deeply disenchanted and ultimately left the movement behind.
The psychedelic industry is plagued with many of the same problems rife in other institutional science such as research biases, funding pressures, and blatant corruption. The primary goal of recent research has been to manufacture cultural consent and build societal legitimacy, trafficking in hope to produce enough positive press to keep the funding pipeline growing.
What it hasn’t seemed to care much about is researching and raising awareness of the risks of psychedelic use—some of which are unavoidable even in a therapeutic environment—until they threaten public perception, such as the headlining case of an off-duty pilot who tried to take down an Alaska Airlines flight.
Yet one recent study showed that beyond immediate effects, these compounds can cause prolonged debilitations that can sometimes last months or years.
Just like in the 1960s, the psychedelic research of the 2020s is permeated with a religious fervor that is whitewashed with the language of secular therapy. This does not tend to lend itself to trustworthy science. As one bioethicist described it, sometimes psychedelic research is akin to the Catholic church studying the efficacy of holy water. There are certainly psychedelic researchers who do not share these motivations—those who pursue rigorous research and who do seriously care about harms—but their careers are often made much more difficult by this environment.
Yet I specifically became disturbed about the way psychedelics can make people highly vulnerable to suggestion and cult-like power dynamics, which has led to numerous abuses of psychedelic trial participants. I’ve spoken out about these issues and other serious potential ethical violations during a trial conducted by Johns Hopkins University, perhaps the world’s most famous and pioneering academic psychedelic research center.
In one case, a psychedelic guide allegedly told the clergy research subject, “You’re about to meet God.” According to the subject, the guide then laid hands on the subject’s head like an ordination while the subject was under the influence. Afterward, the guide allegedly said the subject had experienced the Holy Spirit, and with funding from a Hopkins researcher, the subject later changed careers to promote psychedelics for religious use with continued influence from multiple Hopkins researchers.
This is just one episode pointing to the psychedelic industry’s overarching mission. I believe researchers are advancing their spiritual beliefs in what amounts to a kind of psychedelic theology through a Trojan horse of scientific research over 30 years in the making. Often, these beliefs are tied up in utopian visions of a “spiritualized humanity” “ in a world free from trauma.
The field of psychedelics has been dominated by non-Christian worldviews centered on exploring consciousness, which often reduce all religion into a universal oneness. But some leaders’ interests go even further in their efforts to “liberate” Christianity from its fundamentalism. They believe traditional religious people do not have rich spiritual lives—at least not compared to the so-called “mysticism” of psychedelic experiences.
Several Johns Hopkins researchers have claimed that psychedelics can produce legitimate and meaningful spiritual encounters—indeed, many regular psychedelic users would say the same from their anecdotal evidence. Many users have reported their psychedelic trips as among the most meaningful experiences of their lives, often rivaling the birth of a child or death of a parent. And while this is touted as a spiritual proof-of-concept, I believe this is also a significant underappreciated risk.
One question that is not asked enough is whether such an experience should be considered meaningful. Is the meaning and profundity genuine or simply simulated? How can we even trust our meaning-making system under the influence of psychedelics?
As Protestant Reformer John Calvin noted, humans are idol-making machines—and psychedelic experiences can create fertile ground for our idolatrous tendencies. Because a psychedelic trip can feel so profound, there’s a tremendous risk of making idols out of our own spiritual experiences. This is a particular danger in engineered environments, such as an underground psychedelic religious ceremony—where some clergy regularly administer the Eucharist while under the influence, believing they are saving Christianity from itself in the process.
Fashioning God based on our own experience is part of what Catholic monk Thomas Merton called “illuminism,” a phenomenon he witnessed in abundance in the psychedelic ’60s:
[There is a] danger of attaching an exclusive importance to what we ourselves experience and of believing that every intuition comes to us from God. The worst errors can be taken for truth when a man has forgotten how to criticize the movements that arise in his heart dressed in the light of inspiration. … [The popularization of psychedelics] would run the risk of organized and large-scale illuminism. This would mean that an easily available spiritual experience would be sought for its own sake. But this kind of attachment is just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than any other. … What matters is not what one feels, but what really takes place beyond the level of feeling or experience. … The experience, the vision, the intuition, is only a sign and is, furthermore, capable of being dissociated from any reality and being a mere empty figure. The illuminist is one who attaches himself to the sign, the experience, without regard for the invisible substance of a contact which transcends experience.
And as Merton once wrote to psychedelic proponent Aldous Huxley, to say psychedelics can invoke an experience of God takes away God’s freedom, for a true mystical experience “depends on the liberty of that Person [of God].” He continues:
And lacking the element of a free gift, a free act of love on the part of Him Who comes, the experience would lose its specifically mystical quality. … From the moment that [a mystical] experience can be conceived of as dependent on and inevitably following from the casual use of a material instrument, it loses the quality of spontaneity and freedom and transcendence which makes it truly mystical.
What Merton is saying is that the notion that we can reliably produce an encounter with God implies that we have some kind of power over God. To create any kind of transactional equation with God’s grace is to remove God’s authority in the matter.
Scripture also gives us plenty of reason to be suspicious of anything that presupposes we can control God or that he has granted us a power that was meant only for him.
The most obvious scriptural overtures against psychedelics are the negative associations with pharmakeia—the Greek root word of our modern English word “pharmacy”—which is often translated as witchcraft or sorcery. The biblical issue here seems to be combining the use of drugs with magic—that is, a manipulation of spiritual power often associated with other idolatrous practices and abuses of power (see Gal. 5:20; Rev. 9:21; 18:23; Isa. 47:9–12, just to name a few).
Author Lewis Ungit further notes that in many instances, the biblical authors seem to associate pharmakeia with human sacrifice. He also points to early Christian sources like the teachings of St. Ignatius and the Didache—one of the earliest Christian documents we have, containing liturgical practices, catechism, and other doctrine used by church fathers—that prohibited the practice.
Some Christians remain unconvinced of the pharmakeia argument, believing there must be some missing context behind biblical prohibitions against such “sorcery.” Such believers insist their psychedelic experiences have truly connected them with God and continue to advocate for the spiritual power of psychedelics alongside their healing potential.
I believe it is wholly compatible with our faith to acknowledge potential legitimate medical usage of psychedelics. I personally know many people who have found healing from treatment-resistant ailments by using such drugs. I also believe in the value of religious freedom, for I am grateful that God found me in a non-Christian setting and that a group of non-Christian psychonauts supported me in my return to Christ.
But in our Christian discernment, and before we place our trust in psychedelics’ medical efficacy, we should wait and call for higher-quality research—which I believe could take decades to better weigh their value and risks. As of now, I do not trust the psychedelic industrial complex, which remains overly concerned with public relations and utopian spiritual missions.
I would not want to deny anyone who might find physical healing in psychedelics. Yet it’s important to note that the Bible teaches that healing can itself be made into an idol.
For instance, the bronze serpent (Nehushtan) erected by Moses at God’s command was a divinely ordained method of healing Israelites who were afflicted with sickness (Num. 21:4–9). But as we see later, King Hezekiah does what is right in the Lord’s eyes by smashing the serpent into pieces (2 Kings 18:3–4). Why? Because the Israelites began burning incense before it—worshiping it rather than the God who provided it. They made an idol out of their healing.
Many people today are hungry for hope and healing, desperate for a solution to impossible situations. Even more are seeking spiritual meaning wherever they can. Psychedelics seem like a tempting path to both. Yet believers promoting psychedelics as a Christian practice are advocating for an idol. Humans often worship idols because they give us something we want at first. But the idol eventually demands greater sacrifice in our service to it, which can include harming other people.
Like Merton, I am sympathetic to anyone who feels alienated from God, as I felt for many years. I also know of many younger people who gained a renewed interest in Christianity after a psychedelic experience, as I once did. In some ways, this phenomenon echoes the Jesus People movement recently portrayed in the movie Jesus Revolution.
I believe our society is longing to see and be closer to God—which is, of course, a holy desire. But this yearning can open us up to unholy temptations and lead us to surrender ourselves to dangerous spiritual forces. Such misguided attempts to pursue God can lead to all manner of evil.
When they are guided by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, contemplative practices play an important role in a Christian’s spiritual life. But as important as the inner experience is in a person’s walk of faith, trying to manufacture a divine encounter through such experiences can easily remake God into our own narcissistic images.
Humans are experiential creatures, but Jesus did not preach a gospel of consciousness exploration. Christ warns us not to sacrifice others for the sake of our own ecstasy but to take up our crosses out of selfless love for one another—learning to trust him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life more day by day.