A Catholic priest, a Rabbi, and a Buddhist walk into a bar and order some magic mushrooms. It may seem like the first line of a bad joke, but this scenario plays out in one of the first scientific studies on the effects of psychedelic drugs on religious experience – but in a laboratory rather than a bar.
Scientists from the Johns Hopkins university, Baltimore benefited from two dozen religious leaders from a wide range of denominations, to participate in a study in which they will be the subject of two powerful doses of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
The Dr William Richards, a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, which is involved in the work, said: “With the psilocybin of these deep mystical experiences are quite common. It seemed like a no brainer that they might be of interest, if not valuable, for the clergy.”
The experiment, which is currently underway, aims to assess whether a transcendental experience makes leaders more effective and more confident in their work and how it alters their religious thought.
In spite of most organized religions frowning on the use of illicit substances, Catholic, Orthodox, and Presbyterian priests, a Zen Buddhist, and several rabbis have been recruited. The team still has to convince a Muslim imam or a Hindu priest to take part, but “just about all the other bases are covered,” according to Richards.
After preliminary examination, including medical examinations and psychological tests, the participants were provided with two powerful doses of psilocybin on two sessions, one month apart.
The sessions will take place in a living room like setting at the New York University and the Johns Hopkins university, Baltimore, with two “guides”. Participants will have the drug and spend your time lying on a sofa, wearing eyeshades, and listening to religious music on the headset to increase their spiritual journey to the interior.
“Their instruction is to go inside and collect experiences,” Richards said after the presentation of his work at the Breaking Convention conference in London this month. “Up to now, all the world incredibly values of their experience. Nobody was confused or upset or regrets of doing that.”
A full analysis of the results will take place after one year of follow-up with participants, whose identity remains anonymous. “It is too early to speak of results, but in general, people seem to be able to get a deeper appreciation of their own religious heritage,” he says. “The dead dogma comes to life for them in a meaningful way. They discover that they really believe in what they are talking about.”
It is also suggested that, after their psychedelic trip, the leaders notions of religion away from the sectarian to something more universal. “They have a greater appreciation for the other religions of the world. Other ways up the mountain, if you want to,” said Richards.
“In these transcendental states of consciousness, people seem to be getting to levels of consciousness that seems to be universal,” he added. “So, a good rabbi can meet the Buddha that is in him.”
The idea that hallucinogenic drugs can bring about mystical experiences is not new and has already been studied in a famous Harvard study known as the “Good Friday” experience. The study focused on a group of seminary scholars given psilocybin during the Easter season service to see how it altered their experience of the liturgy. The most recent work is thought to be the first involving religious leaders of different faiths.
This work is it really science, is it? Richards says that it is, to say the team is detailed with the help of the psychology of the questionnaires and the independent evaluators in their assessments.
The John Hopkins team is one of several research groups around the world to make the case for the use of psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin, LSD and MDMA, of the psychiatry. Psilocybin has been shown to be very effective in the rise of the acute anxiety in cancer patients in end-of-life, while other trials are underway to research the use of psychoactive substances in the treatment of conditions ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe disorder of depression and alcoholism.
As the use of the mind-the expansion of the drug makes the transition from counter-culture to the traditional medicine, scientists from different points of view on how the field should be presented to the outside world.
Ben Sessa, a psychiatrist, a clinician and researcher at the Imperial College of London, has urged journalists to focus on the “rigorous science”. “Are you going to focus on the tie-dye and dreads … or are you going to look at the cutting edge of neuroscience here?” he asked. “I can’t tell you how to do your job, but if I was you, I didn’t look back to the past, I look to the future.”
Others are more openly enthusiastic about the broader, non-medical uses of psychedelic drugs. “My wild fantasy is that, probably, some time after, I’m dead for a long time, these drugs are used in training at the seminary, the rabbinical training,” said Richards, who began the research on psychedelics in the 1960s. “Why not the opportunity to be here to deeply explore spiritual states of consciousness in a legal way?”