Fear and Loathing in New Religious Movements

I find it useful to think with Hunter S. Thompson about a few things, especially fear, loathing, and drugs. This seems instructive for thinking about the status of psychedelics in New Religious Movements (NRMs). I’m interested in thinking about different kinds of fear and loathing that are experienced by practitioners of New Religious Movements who use psychedelic drugs, including an analysis of the psychedelic spirituality implicit in Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), a cult classic among psychedelic enthusiasts. Like drugs, feelings of fear and loathing can have beneficial or harmful effects depending on the context. The systemic suppression of psychedelics perpetuates harmful cycles of fear and loathing, but in contexts of religious experiences, psychedelics can facilitate inspiring and integrative engagements with fear and loathing.

The class of drugs referred to as “psychedelic” has been an excluded or marginal topic in religious studies, but it is becoming increasingly less so, particularly in light of a study at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (2001-5), which concluded that psychedelics taken with religious intentions in a supportive setting can occasion profound religious experiences. This study along with the efforts of organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) are dispelling the aura of sensationalism and prohibition around psychedelics, instituting intellectual and scholarly credibility for psychedelic studies. This opens new possibilities for thorough inquiry into the religious implications of psychedelics, accounting for diverse vectors of psychedelics as they move throughout the material culture of multiple religious movements. Some psychedelics are naturally occurring in plants or fungi (e.g., Psilocybe mushrooms, peyote, and ayahuasca), and some are synthetic chemicals, such as LSD. In indigenous traditions in the Americas, peyote, mushrooms, and ayahuasca figure prominently in the ritual, mythic, and experiential dimensions of those traditions. Subsequent to the popularization of psychedelics in 1960s countercultural movements, natural and synthetic psychedelics have been widely disseminated across the globe, stretching their influence into classical religious traditions, but only slightly. For instance, psychedelics were integrated into the perspectives of some Christian theologians and Buddhist monks, but not integrated into those traditions at any institutional level. More than classical religious traditions, it is within New Religious Movements that psychedelics have been widely influential, figuring variously into the development of different kinds of NRMs, including New Age, occult, UFO, Spiritist, and Neo-Pagan groups. It could be possible to categorize psychedelic spirituality as its own New Religious Movement, which can be seen in the evangelism of people like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, festivals like Burning Man, and the cult following of psychedelic artists like Alex Grey. It is among that group that Hunter Thompson can be situated.

We could articulate at least two types of fear and loathing experienced by psychedelically inclined practitioners of NRMs. First, there is a systemic level of fear and loathing present in such psychedelic spirituality due to moral proscriptions and legal prohibitions against psychedelic use. The negative connotations of drug use and regularly reinforced misinformation include psychedelic users in society as excluded, abnormal, and degenerate, in short, antisocial. This structure—included as excluded—occasions ongoing feelings of fear oriented around very real threats of discipline and punishment (Foucault). That fear is accompanied by feelings of loathing, feelings of hate and disgust at the system that is making you live in fear. Moreover, these feelings are abject (Kristeva). They are not simply directed outward. They encompass the object (the oppressive social system) as well as the subject (the religious practitioner). Fearing and loathing an oppressive society, subjects who use psychedelics can also become afraid of and disgusted by themselves as members of that society. Furthermore, they can become afraid of and disgusted by their own feelings of fear and loathing, precisely because those feelings are “their own” while also overwhelming their subjectivity. This systemic cycle of fear and loathing has been breaking down in the twenty-first century due to what some have called a “psychedelic renaissance,” which involves a renewal of interest in psychedelics accompanied by research with legitimate, scholarly standards that were often (but not always) missing from 1960s “experiments” with psychedelics.

The second kind of fear and loathing is psychological, that is, it emerges during actual psychedelic experiences, which can be incredibly intense, occasioning states of indescribable fear, dread, and panic as well as hatred, disgust, and loathing. Experiences can also be completely joyous and pleasurable. This ambiguity is characteristic of psychedelic drugs, which act as non-specific catalysts of consciousness, intensifying states of consciousness according to one’s “set and setting”—the mindset one has while taking the drug and the environmental setting in which the experience takes place. If one has intentions to have a religious experience, and one is in a setting conducive to that (e.g., quiet, comfortable, with someone present to provide support), a religious experience is not unlikely, an unfathomably intense and life-changing experience. Fear and loathing can arise in any context, increasing in likelihood with higher dosages. Outside of religious contexts, fear and loathing can occasion dissociative states schizophrenia and psychosis. With a religious intention and supportive context, fear and loathing figure into meaningful religious experiences that can be integrated into one’s daily life. In religious contexts, fear and loathing can emerge in experiences of death-rebirth, sin and ignorance, realms populated by horrifying visions, alien contact, the nigredo of alchemical transformation, etc.

The systemic and psychological aspects of fear and loathing in psychedelic spirituality are depicted in Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which portrays a wild and drug-fueled trip in which a fictionalized Thompson goes to Las Vegas with his legally dubious lawyer to find “the American dream.” The novel presents criticisms of the utopianism and idealism of psychedelic evangelists like Leary and the hippies. Rather than seeking salvation by escaping the vicissitudes of late-modern society, Thompson goes straight to its heart, affirming with psychedelic intensity the fear and loathing produced by the abysmal reality of a highly artificial and morally depraved city in the desert, Las Vegas. Embracing fear and loathing in the “desert of the real” (Baudrillard), Thompson’s psychedelic spirituality resonates with Mark C. Taylor’s realized eschatology, in which the desert of Las Vegas is the site of the realization of the Kingdom of God on Earth.

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