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. Continue reading

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Joyous Cosmology: Chemistry of Consciousness

I spent the day re-reading a classic Alan Watts book, The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (Vintage Books, 1965).  Basically, the book is a retrospective summary account of his experiences with psychedelic drugs (e.g., LSD, mescaline, psilocybin).  It could be described as his version of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.  Indeed, Watts justifies writing his book by referring to Huxley: “since Huxley and others had already let the secret out […]” (20). 

LSD is currently only 73 years old.  Psychedelic chemicals are still a newcomer on the world’s stage (or at least the “Western” world’s stage, as many of those chemicals come from plants or fungi that were already known and used by ancient and indigenous societies).  Huxley and Watts were among the first to respond to the new discovery/invention of psychedelic chemicals, and they did so by bringing honest and thoughtful attention to the matter from two perspectives, that of a literary artist (Huxley) and a scholar of theology and religion (Watts).

What is cosmological about Watts’ joyous cosmology?  He aligns his vision with a “new image” of the human, what I would call an anthropocosmic image, where the human is viewed “not as a spirit imprisoned in incompatible flesh, but as an organism inseparable from his [sic] social and natural environment” (100).  The complex unity of human and cosmos is not only an interesting or astounding fact, it is also an existentially fulfilling realization, such that this cosmology is “not only unfied but also joyous” (ibid).  That’s not unlike Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s description of “the most astounding fact.” 

What is an experiment with psychedelics like?  Well…for Watts, it is “a sort of cycle in which one’s personality is taken apart and then put back together again, in what one hopes is a more intelligent fashion” (89).  Here are a few more quotes that reflect Watts’ thoughts on his experiments with psychedelics: 

It is even now being recognized in the United States that the real danger of psychedelics is not so much neurological as political—that “turned on” people are not interested in serving the power games of the present rulers. (25)

I wish to repeat that drugs of this kind are in no sense bottled and predigested wisdom. (89)

The sure foundation upon which I had sought to stand has turned out to be the center from which I seek.  The elusive substance beneath all the forms of the universe is discovered as the immediate gesture of my hand. […]  Everything gestures.  Tables are tabling, pots are potting, walls are walling, fixtures are fixturing—a world of events instead of things. (75) [Note: later on in the text, Watts rejects the thing-event dualism and contasts it to his vision of a “unified cosmology” (100)] 

This unoccupied gulf between spiritual or brotherly love and sexual love corresponds to the cleft between spirit and matter, mind and body, so divided that our affections or our activities are assigned either to one or to the other.  […] Thus the subtle and wonderful gradations that lie between the two are almost entirely lost.  In other words, the greater part of love is a relationship that we hardly allow, for love experienced only in its extreme forms is like buying a loaf of bread and being given only the two heels. (99)

[E]ach one of you is quite perfect as you are, even if you don’t know it.  Life is basically a gesture, but no on, no thing, is making it.  There is no necessity for it  to happen, and none for it to go on happening. […] There is simply no problem of life; it is completely purposeless play—exuberance which is its own end.  Basically there is the gesture.  Time, space, and multiplicity are complications of it. (77-78) 

It is by no means impossible to set up […] sensible contexts in which nonsense may have its ways. […]  The function of such intervals of nonsense is not merely to be an outlet for pent-up emotion or unused psychic energy, but to set in motion a mode of spontaneous action which, thought at first appearing as nonsense, can eventually express itself in intelligible forms. (94)

One can but hope that in the years to come our defenses will crack spontaneously, like eggshells when the birds are ready to hatch.  (99)

History of LSD Comic Strip

Cognitive Liberty UK posted an excellent comic stip on the history of LSD HERE

Here’s a link directly to the comic: http://phocks.org/stumble/lsd-history-comic

Comics are an effective way to disseminate truth, especially about a controversial topic like psychedelic drugs.  Like the saying goes (from Chaplin? Shaw?  Wilde?): “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.”

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.