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What are Psychedelics and Why Should Christians Care? Part 1

Psychedelic mushrooms growing on moss in dreamy forest


This post, as the title suggests, is about how Christians should approach the issue of psychedelics. Because it covers so much information, I have decided to break it into parts.

The reason I have decided to write this post is that I do not believe there are many resources out there for Christians who may come to find out that a spouse, child, loved one, or friend has taken one of these substances and spoken about what they have seen. I write this post because there is an inexcusable absence of Christian discussion on the topic, and because no other Christians are talking about this seriously, it looks like it falls to me.

This first post is going to be divided into four parts:

  1. What Is a Psychedelic?
  2. The Void of Christian Attention to the Issue of Psychedelics
  3. Widespread Secular Exploration of Psychedelics
  4. Basic facts for this discussion of Psychedelics

Christians are ignoring the issue of psychedelic substances and their effect on human beings. So first, let’s simply describe what a psychedelic is.

Introduction: What is a Psychedelic?

According to Wikipedia, psychedelics are a subclass of hallucinogenic drugs whose primary effect is to trigger non-ordinary mental states (known as psychedelic experiences or psychedelic “trips”) and/or an apparent expansion of consciousness. Popular psychedelics include substances like Psilocybin (SILL-o-SIGH-bin), Dimethyltryptamine, (also known as DMT), Mescaline, MDMA (also known as “Molly”), and a host of other drugs and natural substances that are becoming quite popular.

I prefer to use the term “substance” and not “drug,” for an important reason. We tend to think of “drugs” as artificial or highly manipulated compounds. However, many psychedelics are natural substances. They are not modern inventions.

For example, DMT is also known as “ayahuasca” and comes from a plant that grows in South America; Mescaline is better known as “peyote,” and comes from several varieties of cacti that grow naturally in North America. Psilocybin is a substance that is found in several varieties of mushrooms which grow naturally on every continent. The map below from Wikipedia shows the extent of this one psychedelic substance’s natural proliferation across the Earth:

On the other hand, other psychedelic substances ARE drugs. For example, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is a synthetic chemical, made from a substance found in ergot, which is a fungus that infects rye. It was first created in a lab in 1938. MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is also a synthetic chemical, commonly known as “molly” (short for “molecular”) and also known as ecstasy, (but a great deal of “ecstasy” is not MDMA). It was first created in a lab in 1912.

As such, psychedelics have a wide range of sources – both natural and artificial – but collectively, they are all “psychedelics.” In some sense, they are “drugs” but in other senses, they are not. They are quite unique. And the reason I am writing this very long post for Christians is to say something straightforward and serious:

Psychedelics are extremely powerful, extremely popular, becoming ubiquitous, and completely ignored by mainstream Christianity.

This is a problem, but it is not a problem of an ordinary sort. Christians know about “drugs” and Christians know about “addiction.” We know how to think about those and incorporate them into our Christian theology. Mainstream Christianity does not know how to think about and incorporate psychedelics into Christian theology.

I have encountered people on a variety of “drugs” like marijuana, cocaine, or opiates, and I know what that addiction looks like. But I have also spoken to many people who have taken psychedelics (sometimes in large quantities). While there are some effects that are a typical “high” there are other effects that are not.

But importantly, the effect of these drugs does not seem to progress to an ordinary “addiction.” While some “addictions” are like an addiction to playing bridge or playing golf, psychedelic addiction could be comparable to that. But by and large, the effect of psychedelics is far more strange than the well-known effect of ordinary “drugs.” Yes, there is a period of a “high,” but when the high wears off, it does not transform into a withdrawal or a typical chemical “addiction.” Instead:

The effect is that of someone who has seen something and been radically moved by the experience.

And quite often, they wish to share this experience with others, not simply because one wishes to “get high” with another person (although this is obviously common). Instead, one will often share the experience because they want others to see what they have seen. And yes, the other individuals do see what the first person saw, and it has an extremely significant psychological, emotional, and – yes – RELIGIOUS effect.

The thesis that I would like to put forward and prove to the reader in this series is this:

Psychedelic substances are doorways into what Christians ordinary call “the spiritual world.”

That spiritual world is real, and as such, psychedelics are extremely serious and need to be treated with sober judgment. What I hope to provide in this post is information on both the facts and the theology so that someone can understand what is going on here.

The Void of Christian Attention to the Issue of Psychedelics

At this point, I need to demonstrate that there is pretty much a complete void of discussion of the Psychedelic issue in current evangelical Christian discourse. To convince you of this, I will share the evidence of my research.

The only people I can find writing books about Christianity and psychedelics while claiming to be Christians are Jack Call (with books like Dreams and Resurrection: On Immortal Selves, Psychedelics, and Christianity; Psychedelic Christianity: The Ultimate Goal of Living; and God Is A Symbol of Something True: Why You Don’t Have to Choose Either a Literal Creator or A Blind, Indifferent Universe ) Sebastian Gaete (whose preview to his book The Confessions of a Psychedelic Christian reveals that he’s not really a Christian). I doubt that any pastor would want their church reading and taking in these books.

The one person I actually know is a Christian (Greek Orthodox) who had broached the subject is Rod Dreher. In 2014, he wrote this post titled “LSD and Genesis” in which he compares the experiences described by those on LSD as similar to the “prelapsarian world” described in Genesis. Later, in 2018, he wrote this positive review of Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind. In a follow-up to that review, on May 25, 2018, he wrote this post titled “Psychedelics & Danger,” stating the following:

I am taken aback by the Christian readers who think that my speculations this week about Michael Pollan, psychedelic drugs, and what those drugs might be telling us about the nature of consciousness and reality, amount to me encouraging people to experiment with them.

I do not encourage that at all! I don’t encourage it because I have a strong sense that those drugs put one into a state of consciousness in which one’s psyche is more receptive and vulnerable to spiritual entities and forces that are actually there. [emphasis added]

Later, in December 2021, he made this post in which he shared an interview with a Christian who is seeing many people turn to psychedelic substances, especially on the West Coast of the USA. Then, on January 10, 2023, he wrote “Temptation of the Psychonauts,” with a serious warning about DMT, saying that it puts your soul and your sanity in grave peril. Then, on February 1, 2023, in this post titled “Psychonauts, Plinths, & Re-Paganizing Pop Culture,” he revealed that he took LSD in the 1980s, and it was a key ingredient in his path to Christianity.

And after revealing that he has personal knowledge of psychedelics, he states (as I already had heard from others and have already stated in this post) the following:

If you’ve never done LSD, you should know that it is not a narcotic. You don’t lose control of yourself, at least not at any dose I’ve tried. What it does is dramatically heighten your senses. In my experience, this means more or less that you see the world as if it were a kind of impressionist painting. The effect it had on me was dramatic. . . . I wish I could tell you that I never did the drug again, but that’s not true. I fooled around with it off and on throughout my college years. I regret that, and consider myself very, very fortunate to have not damaged myself mentally or spiritually. But it would be a lie to say that using that drug, at least that one time, did not have salutary effects, both mental and spiritual. I understand why people may be drawn to that, or other psychedelics, seeking mystical experiences.

And as this series will document in a later post, anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of psychedelics draws more people away from Christianity than towards Christianity. But this section is about the dearth of Christian discussion on the topic. So let’s get back to that.

After a search for “psychedelic,” I did not find a single book, article, podcast, or discussion dedicated to the topic of psychedelic substances on the following websites of evangelical Christian organizations:

Christianity Today had several articles on the subject, but most all of them were from the 1960s. The ministry of John MacArthur, Grace to You has this single sermon on the subject given by Justin Peters titled “Mysticism: The Deadly Dangers of Trusting Personal Experience Over Biblical Authority,” which is less about an examination of the experiences themselves and more of a rational discussion of epistemology.

Doug Wilson on Blog & Mablog has one video answering a question on the subject, in which he says the following in his larger answer to the question:

Question: Doug, somebody writes in to say “I’ve heard people saying that they’ve become better people through the use of psychedelics. It kind of freaks me out but friends say they’ve had major personal breakthroughs. It almost sounds religious. What do you think?”

Answer: Yeah, it almost sounds religious because it IS religious, and I would say, apart from the language of “freaking out,” I think it should be highly concerning. I would tell people – I would tell Christians to stop it: Don’t. . . .

Despite the dearth of discussion on the topic, there is little excuse for not recognizing that this is an important religious issue. For example, my search for “psychedelic” on Religion News Service brought up a host of articles, with titles like the following:

I could go on, but you get the idea. This is a real thing, but Christians are not talking about it.

The Widespread Secular Exploration of Psychedelics

Despite the silence in the Christian world, the non-Christian world, psychedelics are becoming positively mainstream. The most influential and popular book currently on the subject is Michael Pollen’s How to Change Your Mind, which was a #1 New York Times Bestseller in 2018.

But other influential books have come about earlier. For example, the highly influential book by Terrence McKenna, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution was published in 1991 and had multiple printings.

You can even find popular “How-To” guides to psychedelic trips. For example, there is James Fadiman’s The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys, which gives “practices for safe and successful psychedelic voyages.”

As such, psychedelics are everywhere, and in most circumstances, they are completely legal.

And despite the silence from Christians on the religious implications, non-Christians are quick to talk about the fact that Christianity is a religion that flows from the overarching power and meaning of the psychedelic experience. I have had that conversation with at least two users of psychedelics. And yes, there even books on this subject, which you can click here, or here, or here to see it yourself.

The medical interest into psychedelics is also a huge topic, but that will be discussed later, when the post describes exactly what is going on in a psychedelic experience. At this point, I just want to drove home how ubiquitous the secular attention to psychedelics is.

For example, I would like to note three known users of psychedelics who have spoken about it openly. These individuals include Joe Rogan (who has a podcast with 12.8 million subscribers), who regularly speaks about his experiences, Aaron Rodgers (who shared with Sports Illustrated that an experience with ayahuasca changed his life in March of 2020), and Tim Ferriss (a businessman, author of 5 NYT bestsellers, and a podcaster with 900 million downloads and more than 1.9 million twitter followers).

These are not “fringe” people. All of these highly influential men – who do NOT fit the bill of a homeless man shooting heroin into their arm – all discuss their positive experiences with psychedelics quite openly to millions – LITERALLY MILLIONS of listeners. This is completely normal in our society.

Even scholarly Christian sources are talking about the use of psychedelics. An article by Brian McCarthy titled “Christianity and Psychedelic Medicine: A Pastoral Approach” has the following abstract:

In recent years, researchers in the “psychedelic renaissance” have been reinvestigating the therapeutic potential of psychedelic compounds for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, clinical anxiety/depression, and addiction. Each of these has treatment-resistant cases, sometimes decades in the making, but studies employing psychedelics to address them are yielding impressive results. Given the evolving legal situation around these substances as well as corporate investment in them, their availability and appeal promise to increase. The question facing Christians is: How do these developments impact the theological significance of psychedelics as a broader phenomenon? This paper argues that since the population standing to benefit from these treatments is likely to include Christians, a thoughtful and rigorous response is necessary. The inquiry proceeds by analyzing some of the pertinent research, showing the insufficiency of previous Christian responses, and considering some hurdles and objections before issuing a call to theologize on this timely and important cultural moment.

As such, there is no reason that Christians should not be seriously considering this issue. I will give more information on how this is being described below. At the moment, though, I will review some underlying factual assumptions before we get to the full exploration and conclusion.

Basic Facts for a Christian Understanding of the Issue of Psychedelics

As I have already shared, psychedelics are not “drugs” in the traditional sense. Instead, I believe what Rod Dreher stated about LSD is is true for psychedelics in general. These substances are not “drugs” in the traditional sense.

While the following is not real, this video provides a useful simulation that someone made of the psychedelic experience at various levels of power:

Importantly, the key thing to understand is that psychedelics seem to change what human beings perceive in the world around them. For example, time can be experienced as passing at different speeds, and sounds can be seen as visual colors.

This is important, because psychedelics at almost any level of intensity cause people to SEE THINGS, and unlike a dream that fades in its importance after one wakes, the reality of what was seen on the psychedelic trip does not fade.

After seeing what they see, the psychedelic trip has a real effect, but not a chemical effect. The users themselves describe the experiences as “mystical” or “religious” or “a higher plane of reality” or even a “god-like” experience. More on that below.

No, I am not one of these individuals who has taken psychedelics, but yes, I have had detailed and extensive conversations with those who have, many of whom are close friends and even family. And probably because (as readers of this blog will know) I view the world in an “weird” and supernatural way even without taking psychedelics, I can talk about these issues with them without being cynically dismissive or arrogantly contemptuous of what they share.

As such, I believe that Rod Dreher is correct:

Psychedelics seem to allow their users to access spiritual realities.

This is something that Christians, pastors, and theologians needs to take extremely seriously, because – as the Bible tells us – there is a war going on up there, you know. And these access points are here whether we want them to be or not. It’s hard to eliminate them, because these access points to the spiritual world QUITE LITERALLY grow on trees.

Because no Christians of any stature will speak on this important issue that needs to be addressed, it looks like it falls to me. The next part of this series will explore what it means what psychedelic users are accessing spiritual realities. After all Christians do know that

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

2 Timothy 2:5 (ESV)

But just because there is only one God and one mediator between God and men, this does not mean that the spiritual world is empty or “safe.” Instead, Christians also know:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12 (ESV)

There are many spiritual beings out there, and not all of them are on your side, and psychedelics are a way to access that spiritual world. But this isn’t just me theorizing that this is what is happening. Instead, this is me identifying what I see people talking about. For example, here is Joe Rogan describing what happens when you take DMT and how it had an actual effect on him:

The important part of the video is transcribed below, where he honestly shares why he thinks it would be a good experience for this guy to do:

I would say just to take one cap. Do something light. You’ll feel good. The mushrooms want you to like them, and so the first time you do it, they’re gonna welcome you. They’re gonna be like “Ahh, man, this is what you should be doing. I’m gonna straighten out all your personal problems, all these little weird personality tics that you got. All this strange trouble you’re getting yourself into.”

“We’ll help you.” The mushrooms gonna talk to you, and then one day they’re gonna trick you into taking a large dose, and then you’re gonna meet the aliens. [Laughter.] Then you’re gonna realize that this dimension that we live in is connected to neighboring dimensions that are accessible through certain psychedelics. And then once you see that, you can never unsee it.

He then describes the process of feeling like you get flung into this parallel dimension:

And you take a big deep breath. You want to take like three big inhales. The first time I did it, I only took one, and I just got to the door. I got like to the door of the DMT dimension. I was like what is this? This is weird. It was really weird, but I didn’t even know what weird was, because 20 minutes later I did a second one, and in the second one, I took way more. I took like three big hits, and then, it’s almost like you’re in a slingshot or a catapult. It was like you could feel the tension like tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. And all of a sudden – YOOOOOUSHZZZZZ!!! You shot through these colors and lights into what felt like some new place.

And what’s also crazy is that the thing about meeting “aliens” is not a joke. Joe Rogan actually described meeting “aliens” in a different DMT trip. Here is what he says in this description:

The experience of the psychedelic realm is more vivid than regular life, which is real strange, because it doesn’t feel like you’re on a drug, because you’re still you. That’s another part of it. It doesn’t change your – like when you’re drunk, it changes the way you think. Like, you think different. This is not that. This is like you think the same way, but you’re being confronted with something that’s insanely alien. Just alien to everything that you know to be true. And then, there’s all these things around you that seem to be alive and they seem to be talking to you and communicating to you.

The last time I did it, it was a bunch of Jokers that were giving me the finger, like jesters, jesters – with like, you know, the little bells – they were all like shaking and giving me the finger and spinning around me going f*** yoooou! They were mocking me, and the thing that I got from it was, “oh I take myself too seriously.” I need to be mocked and they were mocking me, and as they were mocking me I relaxed. And then they like pointed at me like “Aaah! You got it!”

As strange as this sounds, it is quite a common description of what happens when taking psychedelic drugs.

Next Up

That’s all for the basic facts on psychedelics. The next part of this series is a description of the biblical description of the “spiritual” world itself, apart from psychedelics.

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