Psychedelic Apocalypticism

Psychedelic drugs play a significant role in many religious traditions, including ancient and indigenous religions as well as new religious movements, such as those of New Age communities and forms of Earth-based spirituality.  Due to some widespread sociopolitical biases that became prominent during the 1960s, psychedelics are understudied in religious studies and other fields of academic research.  Insufficient attention has been given to the impacts of psychedelics on ritual innovation, community building, artistic expression, moral development, and other aspects of religion.  I would like to redress this gap in religious studies research.  To begin, I want to think about the end, elucidating the role of psychedelic drugs in contemporary expressions of apocalypticism.  More than including a marginalized topic into religious studies, my aim is to indicate how psychedelic apocalypticism provides unique resources for generating creative and peaceful responses to apocalyptic events and expectations.  For now, consider the following three sections: 1) a brief description of psychedelics and their religious implications, 2) a categorization of psychedelic apocalypticism in terms of a “counter-apocalypse,” which overcomes the either/or boundaries that typically mark apocalyptic and anti-apocalyptic perspectives, and 3) a consideration of apocalyptic experiences that occur during the altered states of consciousness occasioned by psychedelics. 

1. Psychedelics are a class of psychoactive or “soul-manifesting” (psyche-delic) drugs that can be described as non-specific catalysts, having no specific effects apart from intensifying the contents of the user’s consciousness.  The effects of these drugs are exuberant amplifications of the mindset and the immediate setting in which the drugs are taken.  Although some terms proposed for these controversial drugs connote something pathological (e.g., “psychotomimetic,” psychosis mimicking) or unreal (e.g., “hallucinogenic”), another term is more religious: “entheogen,” which indicates that these substances generate experiences of indwelling divinity (entheos).  “Psychedelic” is the term most commonly used in contemporary research, as indicated by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is the largest research and educational organization dedicated to studying these drugs. 

Prior to and despite the formation of prejudices against psychedelics, the religious implications of these drugs have been discussed throughout the twentieth century, with numerous artists, scholars, and scientists (including the inventor of LSD, Albert Hofmann) describing their psychedelic experiences in religious terms, often while also articulating critiques of religion.  The religious use of psychedelics grew substantially in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly through the proliferation of New Age communities committed to personal and social transformation, Earth-based spiritualities working to recuperate traditional and indigenous religious practices, and various syncretic religions that encourage ecstatic states of consciousness. 

2. Although psychedelic religiosity is widespread, the illegality of psychedelic drugs makes it difficult to obtain specific information about their direct influence on the apocalypticism of religious movements.  Nonetheless, some basic characteristics of psychedelic apocalypticism can be obtained by focusing on the prominent proponents of psychedelics in recent decades (e.g., Daniel Pinchbeck, Christopher Bache, Ralph Metzner, Erik Davis, etc.).  Of particular significance is the work of Terence Mckenna, who drew on his own psychedelic experiences and on connections between Mayan prophecies and other apocalyptic timelines (including his own, Timewave Zero) to theorize that human history is approaching an endpoint—December 21, 2012, which will result in a global transformation of consciousness, opening up human existence to degrees of complexity and novelty unimaginable within linear time and space. 

Drawing on the typology of apocalypse articulated in Catherine Keller’s constructive theology, I argue that Mckenna’s work is an exemplary expression of a counter-apocalyptic script in psychedelic religiosity.  Seeking compassionate and ecologically sustainable transformation, Mckenna’s counter-apocalypse stands in contrast to the either/or morality that characterizes apocalypse, wherein “our” salvation depends upon the violent destruction of some “others” who exhibit too much sin or too little faith.  It also stands in contrast to the anti-apocalypticism of secularists, for whom a peaceful and just future of civilization depends upon the elimination of apocalypticism and other “superstitions” from society.  Rejecting the secularism of anti-apocalypse, psychedelic counter-apocalypticism participates in religious symbols and practices of hope and vigilance for a novel event to break through the horizons of contemporary civilization, and insofar as those symbols and practices enact a compassionate mutuality and interconnectedness, they overcome the violent either/or morality that typically defines apocalypse.  In short, psychedelic religiosity maintains a religious hope for the transformative arrival of a novel future while also eschewing either/or morality.  This resonates with the apocalyptic tone that Jacques Derrida calls an “apocalypse without apocalypse.”

3. Psychedelic counter-apocalypse does not simply involve beliefs and theories about the end of the world.  It involves the use of psychedelic drugs to occasion apocalyptic experiences here and now, as a way to prepare for the coming apocalyptic event.  With the proper dosage, supportive setting, and open mindset, the psychedelic experience can occasion a personal apocalypse or micro-apocalypse, which is structurally similar to apocalypse on a collective scale.  In other words, psychedelic experience can bring consciousness to a disclosure of its own limit or end, and such a disclosure bears characteristics that are isomorphic to apocalypse, including 1) an experience of annihilation (even one’s own) followed by rebirth, and 2) a revelation of that which is uncanny or wholly other, in excess of one’s horizon of meaning. 

Arguably, encounters with death, the uncanny, and other challenging phenomena that accompany transformative events can be managed more effectively on a collective scale if one practices responding to similar phenomena in personal experiences.  Furthermore, insofar as the catalytic effects of psychedelics include experiences of boundary-dissolution between self and other, psychedelics facilitate an experiential sense of interconnectedness that is not typical of most apocalyptic trends, which involve rigid and exclusionary boundaries.  In short, psychedelics provide experiential tools for facilitating peaceful, just, and loving counter-apocalyptic visions at personal and collective levels. 

Whether the end of history will take place on December 21, 2012 or any determinate date is not the ultimate point of the counter-apocalyptic visions of psychedelic religiosity.  Those visions are part of ongoing practices for transforming oneself and the world, becoming more intense and more complex by continually welcoming into the present the otherness and novelty of the coming unknown.

6 thoughts on “Psychedelic Apocalypticism

  1. Interesting, critically important subject – NRMs and the modern social impact of hallucinogens. Kudos for you taking it up, and I’d encourage deeper and further study.

    I agree, subject you frame goes to important questions, seldom studied, richly deserving more — especially impartial, well-informed research on solid multi-disciplinary ground. The subject is that complex, multi-faceted.

    I emphasize research impartiality as urgently critical, based on my own observations, of ‘theoretical tampering’ – widespread in our conflicted times. Some of what we see in psychedelia more and more – especially the past two decades — recalls Scientific Creationism and other dubious interests.

    “Funny” theorizing, pseudoscience, can be just for fun or ‘believe it or not’ entertainment. Minimal issue there. But it can also be ideologically-driven, a tactic of operations and movements that seem to be proliferating — of scope and scale fundamentally troubling. Pseudoscience driven by visionary inspiration, not just commercial profit — often displays and uses methods of doctrine and indoctrination, recruitment and mind control.

    Specifically, the cultural mark, and charismatic influence of T. McKenna is of intense interest, per questions about visionary, religious (in psychological sense) experience or inspirations facilitated — for better or worse. And concern, I find. For example, this recent feature, “Was Psychedelic Guru Terence McKenna Goofing About …?” by J. Horgan offers an intelligent perspective, I think:

    But can anxieties Horgan cites be ‘allayed’ by the kind of rational talk he offers? I suggest no, which points like a finger toward the moon, at some subtle, disturbing aspects deserving further notice. That’s only one among many questions I find. Thus far the answer doesn’t seem encouraging. Per Festinger (WHEN PROPHECY FAILS).

    In taking a good hard look, walking point around ‘psychedelic apocalypticism’ and related expressions — questions emerge that seem to straddle a distinction Wm James noted, between ‘healthy-mindedness’ and ‘the sick soul.’ Unlike Freud, James recognized authentic psychological value and function in some religious expression and experience. Not all … and there, the rub. There’s an inherent pathological potential too.

    What is the potential of psychedelic religious-visionary inspirations or experience, in our modern world? Not just for benefits, such as enthusiasts insist on to the exclusion of concerns. Can psychedelics, with their life-changing experiential power, foster new forms of fanaticism? If you think psychedelics are taboo to the mainstream – I’d invite anyone to check out some of the anti-social reactions from psychedelia, very unfriendly to such questions – which obviously, aren’t recitations of some doctrine. Such questions are anything but choir practice (pseudoscientific or otherwise). To question some things, is simply disallowed in certain contexts, i.e., zealous conviction and inspirational fervor.

    It seems in modern pop psychedelic circles – the very idea of social issues, of thinking about broader consequences, or asking such questions, is scorned prejudicially. Its not with the program. Like, mind programming. To question on conscience, rather than pushing an icon’s glory (or personal use of psychedelics) is treated as blasphemy or “how dare you” heresy among enthusiasts. So depending on what values one holds, what is it we see before us, what are the implications for the future? What are we dealing with exactly, in psychedelic visionary messianism, apocalypticism, conversionary inspiration and zeal? And accordingly, what issues do we face now? For what should we be preparing and how?

    Here Fericgla touches some pertinent points seldom noted, in fact mostly overlooked in context of pop psychedelia — countercultural promotional PR pattern that’s become pretty dominant, aggressively so as I find (especially the McKenna impact):

    From checking it all out closely, without biasing one way or the other — I discover some sobering aspects. Subject seems loaded with questions mostly overlooked-ignored, either unrealized or – avoided (?). The questions of fanaticism get taller when questions are angrily denied. It seems so far, psychedelic spirituality in modern milieu, lacking a deep rooted, well-anchored cultural context for it (akin to indigenous customs) — has not brought out the best it may have to offer. Indeed it seems to have gone down another path, for the most part. Taken a fall as it were. Like Humpty Dumpty off that wall where he sat?

    A recent feature by M Adams, “How to Spot a Sociopath – 10 Red Flags” ( is highly relevant to your discussion, per McKenna’s Wake (as I call it). The author’s’ ref to M. Applewhite couldn’t be more apt – per comparisons drawn here:

    Best wishes in your studies, I hope they continue and deepen. We need some light on this landscape, see what we can see – Brian Akers

    1. Thanks for your comments, Brian. You express precisely the sort of questions I hoped to raise with this little piece. I’ve put my apocalypticism research on the backburner for a little while, as I’m currently working on a paper I’ll be presenting at a conference later this summer on the role of psychedelics in contemporary forms of nature spirituality. Similar to the question of apocalypticism, I want to show that psychedelics have promises as well as problems for contemporary society.

      For that paper, I’ll be looking at some of Hunter Thompson’s work. One of the things I like about Thompson is that, unlike Mckenna, he is open and honest about being a morally dubious character. In general, Mckenna is just giving psychedelic studies a bad name. I remember hearing Rick Doblin make a similar point: that Mckenna and his ilk are too anti-society, and they thereby fail to integrate psychedelics into the mainstream worldview. This is this case with Leary, too, with his anti-establishment views and his theoretical tampering (as in the Concord Prison Experiment).

      Psychedelic apocalypse more often than not resembles right-wing fundamentalist visions of apocalypse, particularly insofar as both suppose an either/or morality (with us or against us). Catherine Keller’s books on apocalypse (e.g., God and Power) do a good job of showing how left-wing and right-wing versions of apocalypse are violent and reactionary, and she considers how anti-apocalypse is not a viable option (since it also involves its own either/or morality, and it denies the apocalyptic dimensions of human experience). She proposes counter-apocalypse as way to affirm the archetypal death-rebirth dynamics of apocalypse while remaining critical of any anti-social or reactionary tendencies in apocalyptic visions. While I think that Mckenna has some key counter-apocalyptic insights, his vision is closer to a psychedelic fundamentalism. Perhaps a better example of psychedelic counter-apocalypse would come from Chris Bache.

      Thanks for the link to the Horgan article. I’ve enjoyed his writings in the past, and this article looks great. By the way, The Sacred Mushrooms of Mexico is a wonderful volume…a great contribution to the field. I’m looking forward to talking with you more about these and other questions.

      1. Sam, I’m much obliged for your reply, and especially, your gracious compliment on my book and fine regards. I’m glad you found questions that occur to me, reflecting on your very interesting discussion, responsive and relevant along lines of your interest. Please add my thanks for your interest, to kudos for your work.

        I appreciate your interest and serious, critical study at this ‘cutting edge’ of disciplinary inquiry. I feel its much needed, in a relative vacuum thereof – which didn’t pop out of thin air. Events, circumstantial origin, recent history as you touch on. And all the more for it — the nature of psychedelic effects, on consciousness, and ultimately cultural patterns and society, its myriad human dimensions, seems a vital subject for better, integrative understanding. That would call for rigorous, multi-disciplinary study, I would think.

        Sources you’re citing are new to me, Bache, and Keller. They sound interesting, as does your H. Thompson study. I admire the balanced emphasis, such as ‘promises as well as problems.’ The subject seems to have slippery slopes on both sides (‘pro’ and ‘con’) — a challenge in many ways.

        Seems to me, from ethnography, comparative religion, etc — native patterns like peyotism, etc, appear primarily integrative, socially and culturally functional; ‘healthy-minded’ religion in James’ terms. As such, they would point to a positive “culturo-genic” potential in psychedelic visionary effects (rather than fanaticism or etc.). Popular psychedelic interest in contemporary milieu raises other questions, which I feel have scarcely been explored or articulated, in large part. But such interest isn’t inherently problematic. It ties in with ‘healthy minded’ human curiosity, normal and vibrant — the search for meaning, personal fulfillment, realization of potential, etc.

        Thank you again for your generous words for my little book. I’d be interested to know more about your publications and work. And by all means, I look forward to comparing notes and joint discussion. I’m sure I have a great deal I can learn from you, and would of course be delighted to find out more about your interest, and hopefully if I can — assist or lend to it, however. A pleasure to know of your work, glad our paths cross. Good wishes and kudos, Brian A.

      2. Thanks, Brian. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’m looking forward to being in touch.

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