THE SACRED IN THE PROFANE: PSYCHEDELICS AND RELIGION
How and why have modern people come to see psychedelic drugs as sacred, religious, or spiritual? This is not just an historical or socio-cultural question about how new (and old) stories have enabled individuals and subcultures to construct psychedelic experience in more or less religious ways. It is also a question of how reality warps and multiplies as the collaborative encounters between molecules and human nervous systems flower and unfold within changing sets and settings.
This talk will outline three influential forms of psychedelic religion that arose during the glory days of the countercultural era. The perennialist stream, initiated largely by Aldous Huxley, became the dominant influence on psychedelic spirituality, as well as the transpersonal psychological approaches that have informed psychedelic therapy from the sixties through today. Huxley believed that, beneath the world’s various religious paths, and buried deep in the psychological self, lies a universal and ineffable experience of reality that is, with a little luck, available to all those willing to commit themselves to ethical behavior, spiritual practice, and—if they choose--psychedelic drugs. Despite its core appeal, the perennialist approach is shadowed by contradictions and unspoken, unresolved biases. But in the sixties and seventies, this approach was shadowed by two other rather different strands that, in some ways, offer more promise in our postmodern moment.
These approaches, which I will call neoshamanic and prankster, build very different relationships between psychedelic experience and metaphysical reality. Neoshamanic psychedelia could be said to begin with Gordon Wasson’s legendary Life magazine story about a “magic mushroom cult” in Oaxaca, an account—deeply influenced by romantic comparative religion—that turned the mushroom into a sacred icon of ancient world religion. But modern psychedelic neoshamanism did not really come into its own until the books of Carlos Castaneda, which both presented and became a form of trickster wisdom whose shamanic fictions fused into poetic fact. In an era of global ayahuasca religion, Castaneda still has some wisdom for us as well, particularly about the nature of power and authority. The Prankster ethos is named for the Merry Pranksters, who based their celebratory approach to psychedelic culture on the explicit evasion of myths, narratives, or conceptual models. The Pranksters honored the ineffability of psychedelics through verbal dodges and gentle self-mockery that always kept the meanings open. When an interviewer asked Ken Kesey about supporting Timothy Leary’s efforts to get psychedelics legally recognized as sacraments, Kesey demurred. “It can be worse to take it as a sacrament.” That said, the Pranksters also formed a demotic mystic society around the “unspoken thing” that animated their scene: the synchronistic “Now” of the LSD trip, an experiential mystery best approached through celebration, spontaneity, art, and humor.
Through exploring, comparing, and contrasting these three strains of modern psychedelic religion, we can gain a clearer view of the possibilities and traps of a contemporary psychoactive spirituality that—however ancient and cosmic its inspirations are—is, like all religious cultures, making itself up as it goes along.
ERIK DAVIS is an author, award-winning journalist, podcaster, and lecturer based in San Francisco. His wide-ranging work focuses on the intersection of alternative religion, media, an the popular imagination. He is the author, most recently, of Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica. He also wrote The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape, and TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, which has been translated into five languages and was recently reissued. He also penned a short critical volume on Led Zeppelin and magick. Erik’s essays on music, technoculture, and spirituality have appeared in dozens of books, including Zig Zag Zen, Sound Unbound, AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Μan, and Rave Culture and Religion. Davis has contributed to scores of publications, including The Wire, Bookforum, Arthur, Artforum, Wired, the LA Weekly, and the Village Voice. He has been interviewed by CNN, the BBC, public radio, and the New York Times, and explores the “cultures of consciousness” on his weekly podcast Expanding Mind, on the Progressive Radio Network. He graduated magna cum laude from Yale University, and recently earned his PhD in religious studies at Rice University.