Psychedelics Show Religion isn’t the Only Route to Spirituality

October 26, 2021

Psychedelic drugs are a hot topic right now. These controversial substances are showing promise as both psychiatric treatments and research tools in cognitive neuroscience. Even philosophers are getting in on the act, having recognised the relevance of psychedelic research to debates about selfhood, moral enhancement and existential meaning.

A particularly intriguing fact is that psychedelics can induce forms of experience that subjects consistently describe as ‘spiritual’. One participant in an ayahuasca retreat for the treatment of addiction put it like this:

I had no sense of spirituality before really … even while I was going through [Alcoholics Anonymous] and [Narcotics Anonymous]. They tell you to reach your higher power or whatever. I thought that was a bunch of bull. But after the [ayahuasca] retreats I have really opened up to spirituality big time … I pray … I say thanks to whatever is out there, you know?

This narrative proceeds from the assumption that spirituality is centrally about a belief in something transcendent ‘out there’ – but not everyone thinks this way. Indeed, psychedelics cast an important philosophical question into sharp relief: does spirituality require belief in a ‘supernatural reality’? Or are the dimensions of life we call ‘spiritual’ also accessible to philosophical naturalists – those who believe that the natural world is all that exists?

While doctrinaire religion has traditionally maintained a stranglehold on practices that allow us to explore a deeper domain beyond the surface of the everyday, psychedelic evidence and philosophical reflection show that this monopoly is unnecessary.

When Michael Pollan, the journalist and self-described ‘reluctant psychonaut’, took psilocybin mushrooms, his trip ticked all the boxes for a mystical experience. Far from being a woolly notion, the ‘mystical-type’ experience is actually a well-validated concept in the psychology of religion, and seems to be important for psychedelics’ therapeutic effects. In How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan writes:

I could easily confirm the ‘fusion of [my] personal self into a larger whole’, as well as the ‘feeling that [I] experienced something profoundly sacred and holy’ and ‘of being at a spiritual height’ and even the ‘experience of unity with ultimate reality’. Yes, yes, yes, and yes – provided, that is, my endorsement of those loaded adjectives doesn’t imply any belief in a supernatural reality …

Still, there was no question that something novel and profound had happened to me – something I am prepared to call spiritual, though only with an asterisk. I guess I’ve always assumed that spirituality implies a belief or faith I’ve never shared and from which it supposedly flows. But now I wondered, is this always or necessarily the case?

Everyone agrees that when you accept naturalism, then literal divinities, cosmic minds and supernatural beings have to go – but Pollan’s point is that perhaps spirituality doesn’t need to go with them.

Why look to psychedelic experience in particular for clues about whether spirituality is compatible with a naturalistic worldview? One answer is that because so many people with different backgrounds and assumptions find ‘spiritual’ the best or only way to describe how it feels to take psychedelics, this fact itself indicates that psychedelics exemplify something core to our understanding of what spirituality is.

The sense of increased connection is a common hallmark of psychedelic experience

‘Spirituality’, by definition, would seem to entail a literal belief in non-naturalistic entities such as ‘spirits’ or ‘the spiritual’. But what’s striking about psychedelics is that they induce experiences that subjects call ‘spiritual’ even when they had no prior interest or belief in an any such thing. As the psychedelic pioneer James Fadiman said in 2005 of his first encounter with LSD: ‘my disinterest in spiritual things was as valid as a 10-year-old’s disinterest in sex: it came out of a complete lack of awareness of what the world was built on.’

Mystical-type experiences are the phenomena that people most commonly feel to be spiritual. So, if we want to know whether spirituality is necessarily always focused on non-naturalistic ideas, one obvious approach is to ask people who’ve had such an experience what it meant to them.

Qualitative researchers have done this, and the results are intriguing. Some subjects describe metaphysical visions of what the Zen writer Alan Watts called a ‘joyous cosmology’, but others do not. Instead, they emphasise changes in self-perception, feelings of connectedness, intense emotional experiences, and psychological insights. It seems that matters are not so simple as mysticism equating to non-naturalism.

Indeed, there is a lot of overlap between psychedelic subjects’ reports and existing philosophical accounts of naturalistic spirituality. Bringing together several such theories in his article ‘Spirituality for Naturalists’ (2012), the philosopher Jerome Stone extracts a core set of ideas:

We are spiritual … when our sense of connection is enlarged … when we aspire to greater things … [and] when we ask the big questions. Note that these three – connection, aspiration and reflection on profound questions – are all forms of enlarging our selves, of breaking through the narrow walls of the ego.

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