From times immemorial, priests and tribal medicine men used psychedelic drugs to experience an altered state of consciousness and access seemingly supernatural powers.
French hunters travelled to distant caves to eat magic mushrooms as part of a sacred initiation ceremony. Monks ingest substances like bhang (cannabis) in India. Amahuaca Indians drink ayahuasca deep in the Amazon basin. Even ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures used hallucinogenic drugs to bring on spiritual experiences.
Yet the question remains: Do psychedelic drugs actually cause religious encounters or do pre-existing religious beliefs lead us to explore the mystical during our drug-induced escapades?
A recent study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs argues for the latter.
What researchers found
The study involved 119 participants who were questioned about their spirituality before and after taking psychoactive substances like LSD and psilocybin.
According to Logan’s interpretation of the data, participants who were motivated to use psychedelics for spiritual or religious purposes were more likely to have a sacred or mystical experience. And, those that held religious beliefs prior to using the substances revealed stronger feelings of awe and a sense of oneness with all things while they were high.
Trippers without these spiritual intentions did not describe their psychedelic experiences in the same way.
Logan Neitzke-Spruill, the study’s author, said, “Our study shows that using psychedelics for spiritual or religious purposes positively influences scores on the mysticism scale, which illustrates how motivations for using psychedelics can impact the experience.”
The study’s limitations
Scientifically speaking, 119 participants constitute only a small research group and testing a larger group would deliver more accurate results.
The participants were also recruited through a website created for people sharing their psychedelic experiences and the information was gathered from an online questionnaire.
Many would argue that this hardly represents a strict scientifically controlled experiment, as it’s unknown whether any other variables like dosage, tolerance, and how an individual’s previous trips may have changed their spiritual beliefs and then influenced their experiences.
The study was also predominantly made up of white, college-educated males, meaning that the results were not very diverse or inclusive of intersectional factors such as race, gender or sexuality.
Just the tip of the iceberg
There are a plethora of questions those currently researching the effects of drugs like psilocybin need to answer.
Researchers in this experiment said they’d like to further explore whether harbouring particular intentions when using psychoactive substances can enhance the long-term positive effects the drug has.
They would also like to isolate very particular elements of the physical surroundings and detail the nuances of each individual’s religious convictions so that they can get more specific data.
Yet, while it’s obvious that the connection between the use of psychedelic drugs and religion needs further research, one thing is clear: ‘Set and setting’ is not a myth, but a very important contributor to the type of trip you’ll have.