Can controlled intake of drugs enhance religious experience. Can we compare the functioning of such drugs with other religious practices like prayer and meditation? 

An ongoing study by scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore studies  the effects of drugs on religious experience.  The experiment aims to assess whether a transcendental experience alters the participants’ religious thinking.

The study enlisted two dozen religious leaders from a wide range of denominations, to participate in a study  where they will be given two powerful doses of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, a psychedelic drug that causes hallucination and expands consciousness.

Dr William Richards, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland who is involved in the work, said: “With psilocybin these profound mystical experiences are quite common.” The experiment, which is currently under way, aims to assess whether a transcendental experience makes the leaders more effective and confident in their work and how it alters their religious thinking, reports Hannah Devlin, science correspondent, The Guardian.

After preliminary screening, including medical and psychological tests, the participants were given two powerful doses of psilocybin in two sessions, one month apart. The sessions will be conducted in the presence of two “guides.” The participants will be given the drug and then spend time lying on a couch, wearing eyeshades and listening to religious music on headphones to augment their inward spiritual journey.

“Their instruction is to go within and collect experiences,” Richards said. “So far everyone incredibly values their experience. No one has been confused or upset or regrets doing it.”

A full analysis of the outcomes will take place after a one-year follow-up with the participants, whose identities are being kept anonymous. “It is too early to talk about results, but generally people seem to be getting a deeper appreciation of their own religious heritage,” he said. “They discover they really believe this stuff they’re talking about.”

There is also a suggestion that after their psychedelic journey, the leaders’ notions of religion shifted away from the sectarian towards something more universal. “They get a greater appreciation for other world religions. Other ways up the mountain, if you will,” said Richards.

“In these transcendental states of consciousness, people seem to get to levels of consciousness that seem universal,” he added. “So a good rabbi can encounter the Buddha within him.”

The notion that such drugs can bring about mystical experiences is not new and was previously studied in a famous Harvard study known as the Good Friday experiment. The study involved a group of young religious students being given psilocybin, which altered their experience of prayer and religious celebrations. The latest work is thought to be the first involving religious leaders from different faiths.

The John Hopkins team are one of several research groups around the world making the case for using psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin, LSD and MDMA, in psychiatry and possibly in religion. Psilocybin has been shown to be remarkably effective at lifting acute anxiety in cancer patients at the end of life.

Is it legitimate to use such drugs to enhance religious experiences? While many, including this writer,  have reservations, Richards is  enthusiastic about the broader, non-medical, uses of psychedelic drugs. “My wild fantasy is that, probably some time after I’m long dead, these drugs are used in spiritual training.”  There is no harm giving it a try, provided it is properly monitored. We can be critically and carefully open to it!

(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)

Kuruvilla Pandikattu