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Will Psychedelic Therapy Lead to a Religious Revival?
Psychedelics change metaphysical beliefs. Will their widespread use change society?
Psychedelics are quickly gaining mainstream acceptance as a mental health treatment. 45% of Americans support legalizing them, and 65% of Americans with mental illness are open to trying them. A handful of studies have found psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine, and DMT therapies to be comparable to placebos or other treatments in reducing symptoms of mental illness. The FDA has issued draft guidance for clinical trials of psychedelics and said they “show initial promise as potential treatments for mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders,” while California just legalized psychedelics for medical and recreational use. According to The New York Times, “the nation’s top universities are racing to set up psychedelic research centers, and investors are pouring millions of dollars into a pack of start-ups.” Concerns around safety and efficacy are doing little to slow what seems to be an inevitable rollout.
One effect of psychedelics is that they often lead people to have spiritual experiences and to change their views about the existence of God, the nature of reality, and other metaphysical topics. Consider the evidence from the following three studies:
In a survey of 2,347 people who changed their beliefs after taking a psychedelic, 30% said they went from being non-believers to believing in God or a higher power. The number of people endorsing statements like “the consciousness of myself does not die with my physical body” and “non-physical conscious entities (e.g., souls, angels, spirits) exist” increased by a similar amount after, while the number of people agreeing with materialist statements like “the scientific method is the MOST effective way of understanding the nature of the universe” and “there is just one primary reality: the physical” fell.
Another study with a similar method, albeit smaller sample size (N=866), found that taking psychedelics as part of a ceremony moved people away from materialist and physicalist beliefs and towards beliefs like panpsychism and fatalism. Remarkably, both studies found that these changes in belief persisted and tended to get stronger over time.
Another survey of 2561 people who had used DMT found that 56% of them claimed to have encountered entities while taking the drug (such as benevolent spirits, guides, aliens, or demons). Of those who did, 84% claimed to have communicated with the entities. 85% said that at the time, the experience felt “more real than everyday waking consciousness,” and 65% said they felt the same way now, i.e., at the time they were filling out the survey, which could have been weeks, months, or years after. 80% said that the experience had “altered [their] fundamental conception of reality,” and more than half of those who identified as atheists before taking DMT no longer did afterward.
Now, these studies were online surveys marketed toward people who had psychedelic experiences that caused them to change their beliefs. Thus, the respondent pool is going to be biased towards people who had big changes. RCT evidence, or at minimum a random sample survey of people who tried a psychedelic, is really necessary to be sure of what percentage of users have these radical spiritual or metaphysical changes. Still, we must take seriously the possibility that many people change their spiritual or metaphysical beliefs after taking psychedelics.
If these are the effects of psychedelics on spiritual or metaphysical beliefs, then their widespread use has the potential to lead to changes in those beliefs at the population level. And there are good reasons to think psychedelic use will be widespread: One in eight Americans take antidepressants, meaning if anti-depressant use were replaced or paralleled with psychedelic use, 13% of the population would be using them yearly (over the lifetime, this would be a much higher percentage). Unlike SSRIs, however, people will be using psychedelics therapeutically as well as recreationally, and so we can expect use to increase for both as the drugs are medicalized and likely eventually legalized. 8% of young people 18 to 30 already use psychedelics recreationally, and those numbers are only going to grow as such drugs become more accessible. A surge in use, and consequently spiritual experience, is bound to impact religiosity. I imagine three likely consequences:
Return to Traditional Religion: After taking psychedelics, many people return to their traditional religions, albeit with renewed belief. Religion becomes a greater part of public life, with a renewed sense of spiritualism among the public. Christianity experiences a revival and begins to play a larger role in politics. In some cases, traditional religious stories are reinterpreted to include psychedelic usage (i.e. Moses receiving the Ten Commandments while on ayahuasca) and religious practices are examined to see whether they have a psychedelic history (as Brian Murakesu argues in The Immortality Key).
Establishment of New Religions: Spiritual entrepreneurs create new religions catering to people who find traditional religion too restrictive but still want to worship collectively. Thousands of startup religions emerge, some respectable, some cults, striving to serve the wide and varying needs of the “newly awakened.” Many are centered around the use of psychedelics and feature communal uses of psychedelic drugs as a core component of their services. Some draw from the current “psychedelic consensus”: a fusion of new ageism, pop psychology (think “trauma”), and Eastern mysticism centered around the idea that we are God/the universe experiencing itself. Others are more transhumanist or evolutionary, premised on the idea that humans can evolve spiritually through meditation, psychedelic use, and karma, and may eventually transcend their humanity and become higher beings, such as angels and eventually God(s).
Widespread Syncretism: While some people return to their traditional religions and others join new ones, many become “spiritual but not religious.” Individuals pick and choose beliefs, values, and behaviors from the world’s religions, philosophies, and cultures to form a worldview that gives their lives meaning and purpose. The market for spiritual accessories grows, things like crystals, tarot cards, and jewelry, as the ability to publicly display your beliefs becomes increasingly important. However, each individual becomes trapped within a prison of their own spiritual uniqueness, and it becomes difficult to come together for shared religious experiences.
One can further envision the potential effects of psychedelic religiosity on society:
Elites move away from secular materialism and back toward spiritual or religious metaphysics, with downstream consequences for art, culture, science, and politics.
Mental health and well-being become intertwined with religion and spirituality, while biomedical explanations and interventions get downplayed.
Environmentalism is taken even more seriously than it currently is, as more people develop a spiritual connection with nature.
Tensions arise between old and new religions, with the older religions claiming the newer ones are false and sacrilegious, and the newer ones claiming the old religions are insufficiently progressive. With secularism’s hold on government having weakened, more religious battles are fought at the political level.
The political spectrum itself is reshaped as new considerations of spirituality and religion come into play. Candidates discuss their psychedelic experiences and spiritual awakenings on the campaign trail.
Art and culture undergo a renaissance, heavily influenced by the psychedelic experiences of artists. The boundaries of what is considered art expand, with immersive and interactive experiences becoming more common. Music, visual arts, theater, and literature incorporate themes of unity, interconnectedness, and transcendence.
With the increasing demand for spiritual accessories and experiences, industries pivot to cater to this growing market. Spiritual retreats, psychedelic therapy centers, and spiritual guidance become lucrative sectors. The pharmaceutical industry invests heavily in creating and marketing new psychedelic drugs.
Right now, almost all of the research and debate around psychedelics has been about whether they are safe for individuals to consume, and whether they are effective at treating mental health conditions (though the psychedelic movement sees this mostly as a formality, and has been pretty clear about its desire for total legalization). While we should investigate the effects of psychedelics on mental health as rigorously and transparently as possible, we also ought to think more deeply about how psychedelics change people’s spiritual and religious beliefs, and how such changes, at the population level, could affect society.