Psychedelics and Religious Experience (essay by Benjamin Cain)

After commenting on his guest post over on Three Pound Brain, I decided to spend some time on Benjamin Cain’s blog Rants Within the Undead God. I really like the way his mind works, even if I’m a bit more philosophically skeptical of scientistic claims to total knowledge of matter (whether “dead” or “alive”). I especially enjoyed his post “the psychedelic basis of theism.” Here is an excerpt from the end of his essay:

You might think that metaphysical idealists are rare nowadays and aren’t worth discussing, but that’s because you’re likely reading this on the internet and are thus a full participant in the postmodern secular monoculture. Never forget that most members of our species have been theists and thus metaphysical idealists who believed that mind (God) is ontologically deeper than matter; moreover, most people currently alive are likewise theists. Instead of dismissing theism as based on trivial fallacies and small-mindedness, we should be aware of the power of theism that derives from the very real religious experience. If you think the experience is bogus, just take up Terence McKenna’s challenge and smoke some DMT; as he says, the only long-term danger of doing so is the risk of death by astonishment. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted a clinical study of DMT trips and the participants reported having life-altering experiences. The religious/psychedelic experience is no joke: if you drastically alter your consciousness you’ll naturally interpret the world very differently. This is, of course, why visionary plants tend to be banned in secular societies, since religious experiences are bad for business.
It’s worth recognizing, though, that the dubious secular answer to the existential question likewise transforms the self: instead of becoming a flaky theist, the alienated ghostly ego can take on the role of the obsessed consumer, throwing herself so far into the material world, which she longs to possess, that she willingly dehumanizes herself to become just another material object–typically one owned effectively by the corporations that brand her. Whether we merge with organic biotechnologies, such as entheogens (or inherit our compromised religion from the ravings of those who so merged), or with the lifeless technologies that depend on applied rationality, we transform ourselves in the process: we spare our detached consciousness the horror of being estranged from the sensible world and we preoccupy ourselves with one dubious mission or another. While the religious delusion seems to end in fundamentalism and zealotry, the secular one seems headed for so-called posthumanity, for our complete takeover by technoscience and by the sociopathic oligarchs who profit most from the science-centered industries. We should hope that there’s a third path.
I, too, hope for a third path. I’ve written about the connection between religious experience and psychedelics before, as well: Participatory Psychedelia: Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness 

4 Replies to “Psychedelics and Religious Experience (essay by Benjamin Cain)”

  1. I agree, if we think of the ancient Greeks, growing out of a mixture of shamanistic and earth based cults, along with the Oshun or Voodoun cults of possession, etc. There is a great deal that has been left out of our modernist understanding as well as whisked under the rug. But, I wonder, why do we need scientific opinion or knowledge about such workings of drugs on minds, when enthenogens have been used all over the planet for thousands of years in many differing forms.

    Hell, growing up in the fifties and sixties I participated in the culture that first used what Hoffman and Grof concocted on the Continent. LSD in its early stages was used by many of us as ways of exploring what had been taboo for two thousand years of Christian culture (or at least not very well documented or used by the peasantry). Obviously mushrooms, datura, rye bread alk…. and, all the indigenous cultures of Africa and South America incorporated living plants into their ritual experiences.
    As an atheist I do believe that these material substances offer us a view onto a wider frame of reference than any of our current conceptual or ethical frameworks will allow. Why isn’t there more talk of such things in the philosophical scene? Are we afraid because our current political and social climate tells us these things are taboo, off-limits, bad for us? Why is the history of entheogens encased in pseudo scholarly archives. We talk, we write, but for once this is an area of knowledge the is a praxis that one must enter into… What’s a bummer is that we’ve lost the ritual techniques and elaborate mythical guidance systems and will need to recreate those for a new time. I do think its time to renew and reacquaint ourselves with such practices as a part of our ongoing struggles.

    Sorry… I always seem like I’m talking to the wind on this subject… very difficult to convey the depths of what our modern society is missing in the celebration of such worlds and wonders, the carnival of life. Just knowing such ways of being exist opens one to a deep and profound sense of awe at the mystery of life. For all our mental and conceptual tools such experiential trips into the heart of the mystery cannot be captured or fully explicated with words.

    1. Well said. Psychedelic practices were integral to philosophy for the Greeks. We’ve since lost philosophy’s mind-manifesting ritual context, leaving us with mere words. When well made, words, too, can have psychedelic effects. But for philosophy to become world-making again, these practices need to be rediscovered.

  2. The Lithuanian scholar Algis Uzdavinys had some interesting things to say about Plato and the early stages of Platonism. One thing I’ve strived over the years is to keep an open mind to many avenues of thought and experience. Once one opens one’s mind to the truth of what Socrates mean about our ignorance, one realizes that no one has the corner on truth and that there are many things in this life that we still have yet to understand or even experience. And, to think of it, every night we look up into the heavens and see the millions of suns glowing against the endless Night we knowledge is but the pretensions of an accidental creature. Yet, here we are able to confront the mysteries of the mind and the universe. Who am I do overthrow millennia of religious practices when we barely even know our selves much less what religion or cultures truly are. I think what we attack most is the misuse and degradation of other humans by aspects of religious practice that have coopted the political and social aspects of life rather than religion per se.

    Either way I think you have something to offer and should dig deeper into that world.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s