Welcome to the first installment of “God on Psychedelics,” a series of feature articles by the veteran religion journalist Don Lattin examining how the revival of psychedelic spirituality fits into the larger story of religion in America.
It sounds like the setup for an irreverent joke.
A rabbi, a Protestant preacher and two priests walk into a room and are given a hefty serving of magic mushrooms.
But it’s not a gag, and what happened next was anything but irreverent.
Rabbi Zac Kamenetz, Lutheran pastor James Lindberg, and Episcopal priests Roger Joslin and Hunt Priest were among some two dozen “psychedelically naive” religious professionals who participated in a yet-to-be published study by researchers at Johns Hopkins and NYU.
After careful screening and preparation, each was separately given two doses of synthesized psilocybin, the chemical that puts the magic in those mushrooms, in a comfortable, supervised setting. The idea was to measure whatever mystical experiences they might have had and follow-up to see how that divine encounter helped — or hindered — them in their ministry.
“It’s surprising how many clergy have never had a mystical experience,” said Joslin, who shepherds two Episcopal churches in Long Island, NY. “How are you going to incorporate mystery into the life of your congregation if you don’t know what that’s like yourself?”
[Join author Don Lattin for a Twitter Spaces discussion about this 2-part series on religion and psychedelics on Thursday, May 12, at 8:00 pm ET / 5:00 pm PT. Click here to join.]
“Institutional religion has a lot to learn from psychedelics,” said Hunt Priest, the Episcopal priest in Savannah, Georgia. “And the psychedelic community has a lot to learn from organized religion.”
Psychedelics, said Lindberg, “cracked me open and showed me that my views of the world were small and limited, compared to what I had just experienced.”
Lindberg, a Lutheran pastor in Nebraska, said his first psychedelic trips left him with something that could be called a “crisis of faith.”
“For a while, I struggled with what it means to be an identified member of the clergy who is supposed to promulgate the doctrines of that religion,” he explained. “I became more humble when I spoke about God. God is bigger and more vast than I can wrap my head around.”
The rabbi was not so enthralled. The first trip was “powerful and positive,” inspiring “a little more pep in my step.” On the eve of his second trip, three months later, Kamenetz expected more beauty and gratitude. Instead, he just “felt like I’d been dropped into a deep, dark hole.”
“There was no fear,” he recalled. “Just boredom.”
Much of the spirituality in the psychedelic community today borrows from Buddhism, shamanism, Vedanta and perennialism — which sees a common mystical core running through the major world religions. It is often presented as an amorphous “New Age” hodgepodge of mindfulness, occultism, animism, Catholic folk traditions, divination and spiritualism.
But that is starting to change. The Hopkins/NYU study has inspired Rabbi Kamenetz and Rev. Priest to launch two organizations designed to bring Jewish and Christian seekers and thinkers into the psychedelic conversation. One is called Shefa, from the Hebrew word meaning “flow,” and the other is Ligare, a Christian psychedelic society.
A new wave of entheogenic exploration in the United States, the so-called “psychedelic renaissance,” comes amid a historic decline in church attendance, a free fall that began before the two-year-old COVID pandemic.
According to a Gallup poll, membership in houses of worship dropped below fifty percent in 2020 for the first time in eight decades of surveying. Only forty-seven percent of those polled reported membership in a church, synagogue or mosque, down from seventy percent in 1999.
But Rachael Petersen, the psychedelics and religion program director at the Riverstyx Foundation, warned against magical thinking that psychedelics can single-handedly revive American religion.
“There’s such poor literacy around religion,” said Petersen, visiting fellow at the Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions.
“I do sometimes worry that the psychedelic movement is cashing in with collective glee on the failing of religion. ‘Religion is dying. It’s not giving people what they need. We’re going to give them what they need.’ There’s almost a patronizing quality to that,” she said.
Riverstyx Foundation — started by the philanthropist and psychedelic therapy advocate T. Cody Swift — is one of the Johns Hopkins’ funders.
Petersen is now working with Roland Griffiths, William Richards and others to help write up the findings of their study of clergy men and women who came to their Baltimore lab for a psychedelic baptism.
“Some in the psychedelic community have this premise that religion has lost touch with its true purpose and its true purpose is to connect people with the transcendent,” she added. “But that’s not what modern religion thinks its role is. It is teaching people how to live in an ethical way. Community is something it cares about. You can get those things without touching the divine. Sometimes the divine has very little to do with morality.”
Nevertheless, there may be a few lessons to be learned from the experiences of these four clergymen who are no longer “psychedelically naive.”
Here are their stories:
James Lindberg, born in 1970, was raised in a family of Lutherans in Sacramento, California. His middle name is “Christian.”
Growing up, he thought about becoming a police officer, a social worker or a high school teacher. But after getting an undergraduate degree at Sacramento State University, Lindberg found himself enrolled at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the heartland of American Lutheranism.
“There were no grand epiphanies or spiritual experiences that led me to the ministry,” he recalled. “Church was just something that was very familiar to me. I went into ministry because the church was a good fit for me. I just love the church.”
In 2009, he was assigned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to plant a new church in the growing suburbs west of Omaha.
“We were going to build a big building and be a traditional Lutheran church — maybe even a mega-church if we played our cards right and read enough Steven Covey books,” said Lindberg, referring to the best-selling self-help author and management consultant.
Pastor Lindberg started his ministry just as declining attendance was hitting churches across the country.
Meeting in rented space in a high school auditorium, the congregation grew to about 125 in weekly worship. Then it fell to 100, then 90, and then COVID hit. “We now get about 20-25 people in person,” he said, “plus about 10-15 online.”
In 2018, Lindberg was reading a digest of religion news when he saw a dispatch with the headline, “Religious Leaders Take Magic Mushrooms.”
While he’d never taken psychedelics before, he’d smoked some marijuana a few years earlier in Colorado, where cannabis is legal, and saw that “there was a spiritual aspect to it.”
In the Johns Hopkins study, religious professionals who qualified for the experiment were given two opportunities to trip out on synthesized doses of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. It was the usual set-up in the new wave a clinical trials — a living room-type setting, eye shades, evocative music and two guides to oversee the journey.
“It was a unitive experience,” Lindberg recalled. “A loss of self and boundaries and identifying roles — male, pastor, husband — becoming singular in my experience of me rather than my roles.
“It sounds hokey, but it felt like a soul journey, a journey of the spirit. It was like getting into a little boat and going out into the cosmic ocean. There were storms. There was beauty. There were neon green gardens and a city of clouds, but I wasn’t so interested in that, but more into moving into a unitive space.”
In a Zoom interview, Lindberg was asked if there was anything “Christian” about the experience.
“Not anything, really,” he replied.
“For me, they showed me something about what is truth and what is reality and what it means to be a person of faith with all the doctrines and beliefs of the church and the hierarchy and structure and powers. The psychedelic experience deconstructed a lot for me. I can see why a government would want to see these things suppressed. Not because people are going to fry our minds but, at least for me, they deconstructed culture. They deconstructed belief.”
Lindberg was asked how the two trips changed his work as a Lutheran pastor.
“I became more of a chaplain in my approach to people,” he replied. “Rather than trying to teach people how their faith should be, I became more open to how they see God and how they see the faith. I’m not telling them what God thinks. It’s much more about listening to how their faith is a resource for them and working to support them in their understanding of God.”
* * *
Unlike James Lindberg, the Rev. Roger Joslin is a second-career pastor. Born in Texas in 1951, he spent the first two decades of his professional life crafting customized cabinets and wood trim.
“Very high-end stuff for people with too much money,” he quipped. “Texans tend to be rather ostentatious. They like to show their wealth.”
Joslin was brought up in the conservative evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
In 1969, that church refused to support him because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam and his decision to seek conscientious objector status. “I decided they didn’t take what Jesus taught as seriously as I did,” he said, “so I left the church.”
Looking back, Joslin sees that he “always had a spiritual bent,” but it was a connection he found in the natural world — hiking, running, canoeing and cycling.
In the late 1990s, he was camping in the spectacular Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico and running on trails behind the Pecos Benedictine Monastery. Fearing that he might get lost, he laid sticks down at a few crossroads to show him the way back. Upon his return, he noticed that they formed a cross.
“So, in a literal way,” he said, “the cross was showing me the way back to the monastery.”
Conversations there with one of the monks, Brother Patrick, convinced him to begin the long process of entering seminary and seeking ordination as an Episcopal priest.
After graduating from the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in 2005, Joslin was sent to Bentonville, Arkansas, the hometown of Wal-Mart, to start an Episcopal church. After ten years there, he was transferred to the eastern end of Long Island, NY, and assigned to two parishes in Mattituck and Greenport.
He heard about the Johns Hopkins experiment when Hunt Priest, one of his best friends from seminary, sent him a photo of an advertisement that the researchers had placed in Christian Century magazine, seeking volunteers.
“This has your name all over it,” Priest said.
His two psilocybin journeys were very different, but profound in their own ways.
“The first journey was magical and mysterious and grand,” he said. “I visited other worlds. I saw a glimpse of another universe. I had an experience of theological unity that I had accepted for a long time — that we are all one, that creation is of one substance. I believed that, but after my first psilocybin experience, I knew it to be true. I felt it in my bones. I was whisked away to these other planets and interesting places and seeing all kinds of things I couldn’t imagine. It was exhausting and frightening. then I would find myself in this place of restoration. It was like a garden or a market full of fruit and pastries and candies. They were served by beautiful women who were kind and generous — a place of abundance and healing.
“The second time was very different. I was in the throes of a divorce and my mother had died. I just cried and cried for what felt like hours…It felt like years of psychotherapy. I said goodbye to my wife and mother and to every person I had ever lost. It was beautiful and horrible.
“So one journey was very mind expanding and the other was very therapeutic, but both very powerful and important.”
Neither Joslin nor Lindberg talked about their experiences with their congregations — just their bishops and a few clergy friends.
Nevertheless, Joslin sees a time in the not-so-distant future when psychedelically induced mystical experiences will be offered to congregants who wish to have the experience. Not as a substitute for Holy Communion, but at church retreats overseen by trained guides.
“I think the church ought to be part of this,” he said. “We need to play a role in the most mystical experience people are ever going to encounter. Churches are dying. This could revitalize the church.
“There are all kinds of ways of having a mystical experience — meditation, deprivation of one kind or another, breathwork, dreams. Our scripture is riddled with mystical experiences. It’s what religion at its base is all about. As an outgrowth from that, we care about the poor, we care about justice. But anybody can do that.
“Right now, it’s not legal so there are limited things we can do with it. But at some point, the psychedelic experience can be incorporated with these other mystical pathways to the divine.”
Joslin said his psychedelic experiences at Johns Hopkins instilled a new spirit into his Sunday liturgies. He was overseeing two parishes and doing four services every Sunday morning.
Before his psychedelic journeys, he feared that “the celebration of the Eucharist would become trite and meaningless.”
Afterward, “the Eucharist turned into a kind of mantra. By the fourth time on Sunday I was in a different place. The residual effects stayed with me for a year. It affected me as a priest, and the liturgy now is more powerful than it’s ever been.”
* * *
Hunt Priest, the other Episcopal priest, underwent a similar revival following his two trips at Johns Hopkins.
“I had a very pentecostal experience the first time — feeling my body, speaking in tongues. I felt a force of energy blow into my body,” he recalled. “Now I see that spiritual healing is real. I’d laid hands on people and prayed with people, but frankly, I was just touching and holding space. Now I know healing is real. It’s a little embarrassing to admit it, but I was in my head all the time. This was in my body.
“I did experience the Holy Spirit. I’m clear about that,” he said. “I felt like my journey at Hopkins was a second ordination.”
His experience was so powerful that — with the permission of his church superiors — he has left his parish and started a new Christian psychedelic society. He calls it Ligare, from the same Latin root that gives us the word “ligment,’ meaning to bind and unite.
“Religion at its best,” he explains, “binds us to God.”
With seed money from the Riverstyx Foundation, Priest was able to get Ligare off the ground. Now he has started organizing psychedelic retreats for clergy. The first one is scheduled to unfold in May in the Netherlands, where psilocybin “truffles” are legal.
Oregon is poised to become the first state to legalize the facilitated use of magic mushrooms. So, in a year or two, Priest hopes that “we can have a five-day retreat at an Episcopal church camp in Oregon.”
Priest grew up in a small town outside Lexington, Kentucky, attending the Disciples of Christ church. Like Joslin, he sought Christian ordination as a second career, following nine years working in advertising for Delta Airlines.
“I have a clear sense that this is my ministry going forward,” he said. “The church is never going to be the same, and it shouldn’t be the same…I hope we can carve out a niche for non-clinical religious use of psychedelics. Religion has something to offer — a container, a vessel, and a documented history of mystical experiences.”
* * *
It’s no coincidence that these first rumblings of a Christian psychedelic movement arose from research being conducted by Roland Griffiths, Bill Richards and others at Johns Hopkins.
Some of the Johns Hopkins research dates back to the 1990s and the work of Robert Jesse, a psychedelic strategist in Northern California and the founder of the Council on Spiritual Practices. Its purpose was to safely and effectively make “direct experience of the sacred more available to more people” and to “help individuals and spiritual communities bring the insights, grace, and joy that arise from direct perception of the divine into their daily lives.”
Jesse brought together Roland Griffiths and Bill Richards, who was part of the first wave of research into psychedelic-assisted therapy, working in the 1960s at Spring Grove State Hospital and the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center.
Richards worked there with Walter Pahnke, who a few years earlier had been the lead researcher in the famous Good Friday Experiment. That was a 1962 double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving twenty seminary students. Half were given psilocybin during a gathering in a basement sanctuary at Marsh Chapel on the Boston University campus.
So, in a sense, this crusade to introduce psychedelics into the religious mainstream has been underway for sixty years — although much of it was forced underground during the so-called “War on Drugs” in the 1970s and 1980s.
Since the turn of the millennium, Richards, Griffiths and Jesse have collaborated on several Hopkins studies. One gave either psilocybin or a placebo to thirty-six “hallucinogenically naive adults.” In the end, two-thirds of those who got the drug rated the psilocybin sessions as being “among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”Another research project studied the effects that a psychedelic experience had on experienced meditation practitioners.
All that work led up to the current project, which was conducted by researchers at both Johns Hopkins and NYU Langone Health and formerly titled “The Effects of Psilocybin-Facilitated Experience on the Psychology and Effectiveness of Religious Professionals.” Twelve research subjects were recruited by Hopkins, and another twelve at NYU.
“We hypothesize that religious professionals, given their interests, training, and life experience, will be able to make nuanced discriminations of their psilocybin experiences,” the NYU study summary states. “A primary objective is to investigate changes in psychological functioning, spirituality, health, well-being, prosocial attitudes and behavior in professional religious leaders that may occur after receiving psilocybin under supportive conditions.”
The study began in 2015. It took the organizers longer than expected to recruit volunteers, conduct the trials and write up their conclusions. They currently hope to publish their findings this fall.
Roland Griffiths insists that there has never been any theological or political agenda behind the research at Johns Hopkins.
“Although this is not about changing culture, it has implications for cultural change, but we were not trying to turn people into evangelical psychedelic proponents. I don’t think any of the investigators wanted that.
“We are in a disconcerting psychedelic bubble right now in which people have unbridled enthusiasm for the potential of psychedelics to cure everything. They minimize the risks and make it sound like psychedelics are completely harmless. Psychedelics are not harmless. People are going to die. People are going to become psychotic. We are in a bubble and that bubble is going to break. We need to get realistic as to what this program is about.
“I’m trained as a scientist. I’m a skeptic. Going into the first study I had doubts about the outcome. I thought the psychedelic enthusiasts were unrealistic about some of the claims they made. But my initial thoughts were changed by the data. And the data were so astounding and so different than anything I’d seen in behavioral pharmacology of mood altering drugs that it became a point of fascination for me. That first study was preceded by my involvement with meditation, which continues. But I didn’t come in with an agenda.”
Griffiths concedes that the research team had trouble finding subjects from conservative Christian denominations and other faiths beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Some religious traditions, including Muslims and Mormons, prohibit the use of alcohol and other intoxicants. Christian churches are also wary. The United Methodist Church, for example, states in its Book of Resolutions:
“Psychedelics or hallucinogens, which include LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, PCP, and DMT, produce changes in perception and altered states of consciousness. Not only is medical use of psychedelics or hallucinogens limited, if present at all, but the use of these drugs may result in permanent psychiatric problems…. Therefore, as The United Methodist Church: We oppose the use of all drugs, except in cases of appropriate medical supervision.”
Rachael Petersen, the organizer at the Riverstyx Foundation, said the resistance to psychedelics by many religious leaders is not merely due to public fears about the dangers of drug abuse.
“We’ve lost touch with how to connect to primary religious experience,” she said. “Modern traditions, especially the Abrahamic traditions, are spooked by it. Christianity has burned people at the stake and killed off indigenous traditions for saying (psychoactive) plants can show us another realm of being. It goes deep.”
Her own story illustrates how psilocybin research at medical centers across the country have helped fuel the psychedelic renaissance.
Petersen, 32, was studying climate change and environmental destruction as a policy consultant for the World Resources Institute, the National Geographic Society and other large foundations.
She was also struggling with depression, and enrolled in one of the clinical trials at Johns Hopkins.
“I joke that it was a bait and switch,” she said. “I went in hoping that they’d cure my depression, but came out with an entirely new worldview.
“It was an ontological ass-kicking. I didn’t believe in any sort of metaphysical realm beyond what we can see or perceive. I was a joyless, materialist, atheist before the trial. Now I’m in divinity school. I had something of a conversion experience. Now I hold sadness and despair very differently than I did before the trial. The trial worked, but not in a straight pharmacological way. It’s not like they just tweaked something in my brain. Now I live in a totally different reality.
“I was working in climate policy, and I guess I underestimated how depressing that work is. It’s futile. I was burned out. That was the water I swan in.
“I know it’s a cliche, but I had this experience (with psilocybin) of becoming one with nature. Then going through this horrible apocalyptic montage. I became Earth and then it occurred to me that Earth was being destroyed…What do I do with this? How does one live? The minute I asked that my experience broke open into this encounter with nothingness. Not a scary nothingness, but an abiding nothingness. Like there was something before this. There will be something after this. It was like a new frame.”
* * *
Zac Kamenetz was born in Southern California in 1981, moving with his family to North Carolina before he started high school. They attended services in Reform movement synagogues. There was Hebrew school, a bar mitzvah, but “not talk of the divine or the spirit or anything.”
When he was in high school, Zac’s parents insisted that he go on a two-month study tour to Israel. “I had a horrible time the first month. I didn’t want to be there. I had a girlfriend back home. I was having sex. I was smoking weed. I was playing the lead in plays.”
Then one day in the Holy Land, during a visit to an archeological site, the teenager had “a major unexplained, unrehearsed mystical experience.”
No psychedelics were involved.
“Time stopped. Mind opened. A feeling of electricity and a divine presence. I was a religious person after that moment.”
In 2012, after earning a masters degree in Biblical literature and languages from UC Berkeley and the adjacent Graduate Theological Union, Kamenetz was ordained as a rabbi. Four years later, he was working as an educator at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco when he heard about an intriguing clinical trial underway at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Researchers there were offering psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — to religious professionals who had never had a psychedelic experience.
“I may have chewed on a mushroom stem one summer, but I’d never had a psychedelic experience,” Kamenetz said. “I didn’t know what that was. I was a curious person. What is this? What is possible.”
His wife had just given birth. She had reservations, but Kamenetz flew to Baltimore for his first trip in the spring of 2017.
Over the following months, Kamenetz began to question the objectivity of the research protocols in the Hopkins study — everything from the music played during the sessions to the questionnaires designed to measure and quantify something as slippery as a mystical experience.
Psychedelics have the power to put people into vulnerable states of suggestibility. Kamenetz began to ask himself “whose experience am I having?” Was it his own mystical experience, or a type of revelation favored by the designers of the project, including the veteran psychedelic therapist Bill Richards.
“I have grave concerns for the spiritual and cultural health and wellbeing of my community,” Kamenetz said. “What are the cultural assumptions that Bill or the team make about the meaning of my experience?…They were coming from a particular religious background — the perennial philosophy, that ‘it’s all the same at its core.’”
Those concerns led Kamenetz to found Shefa, a Jewish psychedelic support group, and organize a Jewish Psychedelic Summit in the spring of 2021. His organization continues to hold events around Jewish holidays and run integration circles where Jews come together to discuss their experiences on various psychoactive compounds and sacred plant medicines.
To Rabbi Kamenetz, this amorphous theology expressed by many in psychedelic circles “does violence to the diversity of religious lineages and traditions.”
“Right now there is a culture of very active and very enthusiastic psychedelic Jews who are starting to wake up to the problem of cultural appropriation,” said Kamenetz.
“How can we integrate psychedelic experiences into Jewish culture and practice — into our wisdom, our practice, our holidays, and the way we think about consciousness, time, spirit and soul.”
Organizations like these fascinate Sam Shonkoff, an assistant professor Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
“What is all this (psychedelic exploration) going to do to these religious traditions,” he said. “It’s not going to leave them untouched. We are in a transitional moment in the unfolding of these religious traditions.”
Shonkoff has studied the late 20th century neo-Hasidic movement. He, too, has concerns about the preconceptions of some of the researchers at Johns Hopkins.
“For me, the whole idea that what these substances do is catalyze spiritual experiences is a culturally specific understanding of what these things are. It’s rooted in a Protestant understanding of religion.”
“Whatever they are doing at the Hopkins lab is clearly working for a lot of people in terms of having extraordinary, meaningful and in some ways healing, life-changing experiences,” he said. “Where we get into trouble is where we fail to recognize that what they are doing is a tradition itself. It has its own history, its own places of reverence, and its own selection bias.”
Griffiths, the principal investigator in the Johns Hopkins study of religious professionals, was troubled by the allegation that his team was subtly leading its subjects into an amorphous New Age spirituality.
“Most of our research on psychedelics and the primary mystical experience have been completely secularized, except perhaps for the word ‘sacredness.’ However, there’s a secular equivalent to that word, which is the phrase ‘preciousness beyond belief.’ We are not introducing specific religious beliefs. We generally assess mystical experiences in a single questionnaire among many other questionnaires.
“We are evaluating as best we can the impact on how people think of their own religious traditions, how they think about their own ministry. Have their thoughts changed about that? But I do not believe that the study design is biased about outcome. I would be disappointed if some believe that there was a bias toward any religious tradition in the study. I don’t think it’s there.
“We tried to have symbols appropriate to all religious traditions. We weren’t favoring Buddhism. There were symbols related to most major faith traditions in the session room. We were not focusing on a single religious tradition.”
Griffiths said the team at Hopkins and NYU are still analyzing the data from the roughly two dozen religious professionals who participated in the study, which includes follow-up research a year after they took the psilocybin. He declined to give any hints at their conclusions, or provide a breakdown of the religious affiliations of the subjects. They hope to publish a paper later this year, or in 2023.
“I’m interested in secularized spirituality,” Griffiths said. “You can strip all the beliefs away and just get down to the basic fact that we find ourselves as these sentient creatures walking the Earth. We can touch and feel things. We can see things. We can speak and express complex ideas. And yet the only thing that we can ever really know is that we are aware that we are aware.
“That’s the ground truth of it. And from that — for me — there arises this deep mystery as to what is going on there. What is this project of life about? We don’t know the answer to that. No one does. Science doesn’t answer that. It’s the human condition. We are born into this mystery. Many of us get wrapped up in narratives about our lives that distract us from the mystery. But there is something about these experiences, from the way I see them, that speaks to that deepest mystery.”
This is part 1 of a 2-part series on religion and psychedelics. Join author Don Lattin for a Twitter Spaces discussion about the series on Thursday, May 12, at 8:00 pm ET / 5:00 pm PT. Click here to join.
Image: Nicki Adams
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly described Hunt Priest as a Presbyterian minister in South Carolina; he is an Episcopal priest in Savannah, Georgia.