Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Many religious traditions have used "mind-altering" substances in their ritual celebrations. The intoxicating soma has been venerated in hymns in the Rig Veda of ancient India. A violent Moslem sect in the eleventh century is known to have used hashish. And the ingestion of mushrooms (teonanactl) and cactus buttons (peyote) by Mesoamerican Indians, especially Aztecs (who called the substance "flesh of the gods"), is also well documented.

Existing underground after being repressed by Spanish priests in the sixteenth century, the use of peyote—the active ingredient of which is synthesized as mescaline—was brought north to the American Plains Indians in the mid-1900s. Peyotism would later be institutionalized in the loosely organized Native American Church, which claims some 100,000 adherents from more than 50 tribes.

The bulk of social scientific attention has been directed to the relationship between "psychedelic" ("mind-manifesting") drugs and mysticism in the Anglo-North American context. Interest can be traced to the nineteenth century, when William James experimented with nitrous oxide (reported in The Varieties of Religious Experience , Longman 1902), and especially to 1954, when novelist Aldous Huxley published an account of his personal experiment with mescaline, The Doors of Perception (Harper). Huxley's assessment of the religious import of the experience is implicit in the passage from William Blake's (1757-1827) poem from which Huxley took his title: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it really is, infinite."

James's and Huxley's speculations about the religious implications of drugs based on their personal experiences were most rigorously tested by Pahnke (1963) in his famous "Good Friday Experiment" (also known as the "Miracle at Marsh Chapel"). Pahnke used a double-blind design, assigning 10 subjects each to control and treatment groups. After giving 30 milligrams of psilocybin to the treatment groups, Pahnke had all the subjects listen to a Good Friday service. With nine purportedly universal elements of mysticism as his criteria—derived largely from the philosopher Walter Stace's 1960 book, Mysticism and Philosophy (Lippincott)—Pahnke found that there were statistically significant differences between the groups, with the treatment group scoring higher on each element of the mysticism scale.

This experiment supported psychologist Timothy ("turn on, tune in, drop out") Leary's claim (1964) that 40% to 90% of those taking psychedelics had mystical experiences when the set and setting were appropriate. Unfortunately, interactions between treatment and control subjects during the experiment may have tainted the data, so that a simple inference that the drugs made the difference is impossible. Even more unfortunate is the fact that further studies of the connection between drugs and mysticism were halted by the criminalization of psychedelics in the 1960s. While Clark's (1969) contention that psychedelics trigger but do not cause mystical experiences seems sensible enough, the precise relationship between drugs and mysticism may never be established.

David Yamane


W. H. Clark, Chemical Ecstasy (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969)

T. Leary, "The Religious Experience," Psychedelic Review 1(1964):324-346

W. N. Pahnke, Drugs and Mysticism , Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1963.

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