The Religious Science of Johns Hopkins: Clergy Ambassadors
My experience in a Christian psychedelic non-profit that came out of a religious professionals study.
This is part four of a series detailing spiritual missions, hidden issues, and unexamined consequences of a psychedelic clergy study. Each day this week, I will share a new piece on a different part of its story.
In part one, I gave my “high-level findings.” In parts two and three, I provided some groundwork for the spiritual missions of the Hopkins team and what are some heightened ethical concerns for high-suggestibility drugs and belief transmission.
In this piece, I will share some of my experiences in a psychedelic Christian non-profit I worked for that had the mission of being “spokespeople, ambassadors, advocates, and allies” for psychedelics, a non-profit centered on the release of the study from its start. This organization was originally funded by a Hopkins study team member, had a Hopkins study team member on its Board, and has been reckless with the awareness of some Hopkins team members.
In a future piece, I will share how this all came out of unethical behavior by a Hopkins guide, and either nobody noticed, nobody cared, or nobody wanted it known.
“It’s one thing for people to develop a curiosity [about psychedelics] on their own, to ask some friends about it, to find some mushrooms in the forest and take them with friends, and it’s another for people to be manipulated by advertising and promotion into having an experience that they might not have chosen on their own. So I see the biggest red flag as being promotion.”
Bob Jesse, 2021
So far I've given some background information into the Johns Hopkins religious professionals study — the spiritual beliefs and motivations of its designers, as well as the problems of psychedelic suggestibility and its potential to bring undue influence onto participants, including belief change.
Now I want to share where I personally entered the picture, working for a non-profit that sought to be “ambassadors” of psychedelics to Christianity, with further funding and influence from the study team and funder. This included an initial agenda to develop public relations for the study’s release—this started over two years ago, but the study has still not been released. In time, I would come to view the web of conflicts of interest here as blurring all sorts of boundaries, with competing incentives from their competing roles in the same social system.
That’s not how I saw it at first. Over the pandemic and into the fall of 2021, I began an internship through Harvard Divinity School working in the emerging social milieu of the study through the non-profit Ligare, “A Christian Psychedelic Society,” named after a Latin root word of religion, meaning “to bind,” created by study participant the Rev. Hunt Priest. It soon became a kind of unofficial gathering for many (but not all) of the study’s Christian participants, and included a small group of employees, advisors, and as the Rev. Priest described, an underground “mycelial network” of psychedelic Christians waiting to bloom. At first, I was tremendously excited to work with them. By April 2022, I had ended my internship early and began cutting ties with all my psychedelic involvements so I could think about things more clearly.
As it’s clear to scientists by now, I’m not a scientist. But I know at least some researchers have asked for thicker descriptions of social networks that emerge from trials. And I think it is important for the public to understand more context around the study that is at risk of being obscured.
Before Ligare, the Rev. Priest had been an Episcopalian parish priest, and I have every reason to believe he was a good one, and no reason to believe he was a bad one. I still love the man. Before ministry, he’s talked on podcasts about his first career as a marketer for Delta Air Lines. The Rev. Priest has discussed in podcasts how he brings his prior background as a marketer into his ministry work, which he’s described as not selling people anything, just to help them see what they can’t. I always found Hunt warm, kind, and gently peace-seeking. A generous spirit who was easy to get along with. We immediately hit it off, collaborating on a Psychedelic Christianity group in the old social app Clubhouse (is it still alive?), getting ready to share the best secret we ever had: a psychedelic kind of gospel, based in the healing ministry of Jesus.
The beginning of this project was among the most meaningful times of my life. I had experimented with psychedelics for over a decade in non-Christian contexts, and had begun my psychedelic professional career as a spiritual seeker. But now that some psychedelic experiences played a role in my return to the Christian faith, I could not have been more excited to begin work on psychedelic Christianity. I sought all conversations I could with insiders, sending emails with exuberance to anyone I could to see if I could be an asset. As part of Ligare, I felt like I was helping usher Christianity into a pluralistic, deeply spiritual future that its dead religious carcass could not.
With the social climate of the “psychedelic renaissance” not yet in full bloom, many years would pass between the Rev. Priest’s participation and before the start of Ligare. As discussed in the last piece, psychedelic agency is complex; there was a significant cooldown period, and it sounds like over the years the Rev. Priest had discerned the decision with the help of some friends who were in the study too. I first met the Rev. Priest at the tail end of this discernment, before Ligare started. I believe things began changing for the worse once he stepped into the role of taking funding to be a spokesperson, and needing to keep securing funding to keep going—the harsh realities of non-profit work in a capitalist society, when your donors are your customers. And even after that time, the influence of Hopkins was still deeply enmeshed into Ligare’s ethos, with core parts of its mission, agenda, and Board of Directors related specifically to the religious professionals study—not selling, just helping people see what they can’t.
Ligare was able to start thanks to help from members of the study team. In addition to other donors, an initial $20k seed funding for Ligare itself would come from study funder RiverStyx, co-directed by psychedelic philanthropist T. Cody Swift, who also funded the Hopkins religious professionals study from its origins in 2015. Besides funding the study to produce the data, Swift also collected the data for the study as a co-interviewer of all participants, and analyzed the data, developing “high-level findings”—helpful throughlines telling the story of the data. Not selling, just helping people see what they can’t.
RiverStyx has funded over $1.5M to Hopkins in total, and an additional $300k earmarked for the religious professionals study.1 My first paychecks for Ligare were processed by the leading psychedelic organization MAPS, who has received $3.8M from RiverStyx (and whose Public Benefit Corporation Board of Directors includes RiverStyx co-director Miriam Volat), acting in a so-called “fiscal sponsor” role—to be clear, MAPS didn’t fund Ligare to my knowledge; being a “fiscal sponsor” is a technical term for helping new non-profits process payroll before some IRS hurdles clear. Ligare’s original Board included a joint RiverStyx employee and Hopkins study team member, Rachael Petersen.
The name Ligare itself, a Latin root for religion that the Rev. Priest would emphasize as “to bind,” has a nice poetic sound, with an intention pointing to unity, even if it had to be explained a lot. In Hopkins guide Dr. Bill Richards’ 2015 book Sacred Knowledge, Dr. Richards explains it in the ending of the second chapter as part of his vision for religious integration of psychedelics:
If indeed the word "religion," originating in the Latin religare, is to continue to signify that which most profoundly binds us together and reflects a shared perspective on what gives life its deepest purpose and meaning, I personally do not support abandoning it in favor of "spirituality." Throughout the ages, most religious institutions have respectfully included and accommodated experiences called spiritual or religious, however engendered.
Ligare was a tiny fishing-boat of psychedelic disciples with wind at our sails. Whether we explicitly said it or not, the atmosphere was feeling beyond blessed to have found ourselves stumbling into the history books: wow! The first Christians at the frontlines of the revival of psychedelic religion—maybe even heroes for the dying liberal church. How friggin’ blessed were we. The future was brighter than light, and the dreams were big.
In a sample agenda emailed in April 2021, the Rev. Priest identified four core areas demonstrating the extent that Ligare’s ambitions were centered on the study. “Mission,” “Projects: Immediate Need,” “Projects: Before Release of the Religious Leaders Study,” and “Projects: After release of the Religious Leaders Study.”
Some line-items from the emailed April 2021 Ligare agenda included:
“To build a network of religious spokespeople, ambassadors, advocates, allies; beginning with those in the Religious Leaders Psilocybin Study and quickly expanding. 1st year goal: 300 Ambassadors, second year 3,000.”
“To gain widespread acceptance of psychedelics as a tool for emotional, physical and spiritual well-being by members of religious communities and leaders of local, national and international religious institutions.”
“Identify the benefits of psychedelics that will most resonate with religious people.”
“Develop ethical standards for religious use, including equal access is a core guiding principle.”
“A presence at every significant religious conference or meeting.”
“Prepare for legal religious use in US by planning, organizing and executing Christian retreats in places where use is permitted. Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, the Netherlands, Portugal.”
“Leverage the 60th anniversary of the Good Friday Experiment with a celebration of the study and increased understanding and acceptance of Psychedelics in the religious community.”
There were many more mundane items and normal non-profit things, too. And I applauded the agenda at the time. Looking back, I am struck by how presumptive our agenda was. Why were we so focused on expansion? Why were we so sure of what we were doing to encourage people into psychedelics as “ambassadors”? Why were clergy already so eager to capitalize on a movement? Why were we so certain of the safety risks and efficacy of psychedelics as therapy and its compatibility with our religion? Why was the only ethical concern delineated as “equal access”? Were we really examining our intentions or ambitions?
I understand the dilemma of issues that surround psychedelics and the tension between sincere spiritual beliefs, the desire to share the benefits of one’s faith, and legal realities. While Ligare was focused on Christianity, I was also working for religious freedom rights for non-Christian underground psychedelic churches. Underground churches are, by and large, private practitioners who do not proselytize their beliefs—I have a lot of concerns about that world, too, and concerns about psychedelic usage in general for spiritual purposes, but such churches at least operate in what I always thought was Bob Jesse’s ethic: practicing in as much legal freedom as a grey area allows and figuring things out quietly in peace—though “quietly” sometimes means covering up abuses and a lack of transparency. Psychedelics evangelize themselves just fine. Things get dark and weird fast when you start marketing them, no matter how you market your marketing.
So why did RiverStyx fund them as ambassadors for the study? Why did they give them $52k more in February 2023 after things had gone wrong?
Ambitions Beyond Competencies
It did not take long for Ligare to begin adopting its ambassador aims into plans that extended beyond any reasonable assessment of its competencies.
I am not here to condemn anyone for taking private risk into their own hands, or feign outrage over normal aspects of everyday psychedelic user experiences. However, I’ll just keep saying it, once one begins to influence others to take psychedelics, the ethics, responsibility, and accountability change significantly. This is not my original opinion—again, as the quote up top shared, Hopkins sponsor and advisor Bob Jesse has said the same thing many times. And I wonder if the Hopkins team has held themselves to that same standard.
In the case of Ligare, it was a non-profit serving as ambassadors for unproven medical treatments, with understudied risks. But according to conversations with multiple Board members, Ligare quickly felt emboldened to conduct retreats, all with the knowledge of at least some Hopkins study team members. These included both some domestic underground, unregulated retreats and a legal one in the Netherlands.
It turned out that Ligare’s ambitions were not just to have a psychedelic retreat in the Netherlands—but to run its own study of clergy.
In May 2022, Ligare conducted a retreat in the Netherlands in which they gave more Christian clergy psilocybin in a single group ceremony, assisted by former staff of the Synthesis Institute (who has since had public struggles, covered by excellent reporting from Jules Evans) and a self-trained underground practitioner. I was not aware until January 2022 that the idea was also to gather data from the experience through surveying participants when Ligare asked me for help designing the survey. I was also originally asked to help facilitate and asked to develop a preparation document for participants to help them psychospiritually prepare for their psychedelic journey. After initially feeling honored to be a part of yet another milestone in the Psychedelic Reformation, I became increasingly uncomfortable with my utter lack of qualifications for all of these requests, disconcerted that I was asked in the first place, and I backed out of helping and did not go.
From my internship discussions with the Rev. Priest, there were two main reasons for the Netherlands retreat-turned-study: one, to help give clergy experiences so there might be new clergy ambassadors who could talk positively about mushrooms after taking them in a legal setting. Two, to gather information that could be used for future ceremonial work, with a keen eye towards having group sessions in Oregon once it was legal there. A big part of the Rev. Priest’s thinking, as he would tell me several times, was to provide Christians psychedelic experiences first before having any conversation about theological concerns, much less the significant scientific ambiguities around the risks and outstanding unknowns.
While I was initially so enthusiastic to officially begin work with Ligare in September 2021 to start “getting ready for the study,” as we would say. I do not believe their behavior has represented competency, self-awareness, or reflected the responsibility of the power given to themselves to “educate” Christian laypeople about psychedelics. As Bob Jesse himself said in the quote up top: it is one thing to engage in private psychedelic usage, whether personal or religious, and take on risk yourself. It is another to assert authority and ability to be a leader who responsibly conveys risk to parties who may not otherwise engage in psychedelics. To this end, Ligare is enabled by a culture that has demonstrated a preference for PR over people.
In time, I came to understand Ligare’s goal was mostly just to persuade Christians of particular narratives around psychedelics. Thanks to connections at progressive mainstays like Sojourner’s and the Center for Action and Contemplation, Ligare is a useful vehicle for disseminating psychedelic narratives to people who think they can trust them to tell them the truth. With Ligare affiliates beginning to step into increasing publicity through conference and festival appearances to “educate” Christian audiences, all I can say is that it shouldn’t have to be me saying this goes against everything the allegedly cautious sages of Hopkins study team members pretend to stand for. And yet, again, Ligare was funded with an additional $52k from RiverStyx in February 2023.
This whole thing is not about painting the complexity of any participant’s experiences with a broad brush, or making it sound like most of them were involved in this. Most of them weren’t. I’ve only met around half of the 24 participants, and I still rather like them on a personal level and love the Christians as fellow members of the Body of Christ, and to my knowledge, most of the other study participants have stayed far out of the limelight. Also, Ligare has always included lots of people who were not at all involved in the study—the “mycelial network” has grown. But looking back now at those of us who did seek the limelight, I have often wondered, does anybody need clergy to be ambassadors for these substances? What does it mean for Christian clergy to be ambassadors for a path that, unavoidably, will include some percentage of bad experiences, even in the “safest” of settings? Are the people who get hurt “the lost sheep,” or the inconvenient sheep?
If you don’t believe me, believe Bob Jesse’s words. Even if the thirty-year project to bring psychedelic spirituality to culture created something he claims to be one of the biggest red flags.
Even if, for some reason, when he said, “it’s another [thing] for people to be manipulated by advertising and promotion into having an experience that they might not have chosen on their own” somehow doesn’t apply to Hopkins placing promotional materials in the Christian Century. Where there was an article with Dr. Bill Richards implying that if only clergy were brave enough, they could meet “the really real God.”
In the next piece, I will share more about the web of conflicts of interest that seem deeply inappropriate for scientific research, and the road paved with good intentions.
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