The Religious Science of Johns Hopkins: The Message is the Medium
Meditating on the crafted narratives emerging from a psychedelic clergy study.
This is part seven of a series detailing spiritual missions, hidden issues, and unexamined consequences of a psychedelic clergy study at Johns Hopkins University.
In part one, I gave an overview. 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 parts four, and five I talked about the reckless ambitions of the Christian non-profit I worked for, funded by a Hopkins researcher, and some of its fallout. In part six, I called for an investigation.
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I have been told I shouldn't publish these things, because they will weaken the image of the psychedelic movement, and that any means are justified in popularizing LSD because it is the only thing that can prevent nuclear war. This silliness is part of the Psychedelic Line, the collection of half-truths, wishful thinking, and lies repeated until they are believed, that has the movement morally paralyzed.
With all these painful puzzle pieces of the Johns Hopkins religious professional study’s past laid out—knowing I’m missing many myself—I want to return to the present.
As I talked about at the beginning, the study’s findings have not been published yet, but they were previewed in a popularly attended panel in June 2023 during the largest psychedelic research gathering in history, over 10,000 attendees for the MAPS Psychedelic Science 2023 conference. Again, presenting the study was NYU’s Dr. Anthony Bossis alongside Hopkins’ Dr. Roland Griffiths and RiverStyx’s T. Cody Swift. Having heard some of the snippets of participant stories in the introduction, alongside the undisclosed social context that I’ve shared, in this piece, I want to take one last look at what they said in contrast to what you now know and what they knew as they said it, focusing on some of the narratives emerging from the study, and to start making sense of some wounds.
And to not forget anyone’s humanity here.
Before this all started, I invited all and will repeat it here: I will share any comments people involved here want to say in a follow-up post at a future date, sometime before Net Zero Trauma arrives in 2050. And I will respect it if that’s not their choice.
The next piece will be the last piece for a while. And thank God.
But before I share the framing you’re meant to repeat with a smile, I just want to say one thing about going to the movies.
The Message is the Medium
For the past two years, the publication of the study was hyped as just around the corner, only for it to be delayed without explanation despite all interviews being completed years earlier. Why? Who knows, add it to the pile of questions for lead investigator Dr. Roland Griffiths. But through it all, the guiding light of PR remained. Nobody’s lost sight of the Message.
If they—we—were primarily interested in public relations, we would be no different from the rest of the psychedelic movement. If the “political science” of MAPS is engineered to produce a particular political result, religious science is the production of psychedelia’s religious marketing. Not a seeking of theological truth, but a new grammatical toolkit for you to articulate the psychedelic Message: if you can’t feel God, you can just make God come to you.
Marshall McLuhan famously advised Timothy Leary in his creation of the 1960s phrase, “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out.” McLuhan was perhaps even better known for coining, “the medium is the message.” It means something like, “the form of a thing transmits something to you in and of itself; the form conveys meaning alone.” As in, there’s something about going to the movies that says something at least as much as what the movie actually is. And it’s true, there was something about seeing Barbie alongside a pink army of strangers you didn’t know were in the reserves that communicated a more coherent message than the third act (I still enjoyed it).
When instead the Message is the medium, it is the Message which dictates the plot you’re forced to live in. If you want to hang around in professional psychedelics, you don't get to opt out of the Message into truth as it is. That’s not part of the movie.
It might be expected that a growing psychedelic professional world would have a PR department. Psychedelic capitalism begets psychedelic marketing. But in professional psychedelics, PR is the format. The Message is the medium.
The way things seem to go is that to produce art, music, vibes, and now old-time religion in the movie of professional psychedelics seems inevitably, to hand over your voice—certainly your still, small one—in service of that medium. The marketing message is the frame which everything has to be forced into. Because the Message is the medium.
My home North Carolina’s state motto is esse quam videri, Latin for “to be rather than to seem.” With hyper-suggestible drugs and their effects, often so much of what starts as “seeming” can practically transform into the reality we wish—almost.
In the study’s presentation, RiverStyx’s T. Cody Swift presented high-level findings and quotes from participant reports. Even over smuggled audio (thank you carrier), I could see some wheat in the weeds. And I found some of the thoughts and feelings publicly shared by participants about the conference to have real goodness. Rabbi Kamenetz described not just the study presentation, but how hopeful the conference gathering was to him for the future of Judaism and his work. He described feelings of warmth, and fullness, and a mutual embrace, alongside some of his feelings of ambivalence, and his own complexity.
However much darkness of my heart I’ve conveyed here, I hear this ambient undercurrent of mutual blessing and I can feel that it also is real. And good. Like Jacob and Esau of the Book of Genesis, religion and psychedelia as long-strained brothers of deception and anger, finding each other in a reconciling embrace, witnessing to each other, “After all the pain, look at how much we’ve each been blessed. Won’t you now accept my gift? For to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
It’s good wheat in the weeds. I can’t rest in a field of cheap grace after reflecting on what’s been done. But it’s good wheat. Let the reader understand: my least favorite Christian trope is the forced happy ending, and we’re not at the end yet, anyway. There has to be accountability here. What has happened is appalling. If we want real truth, justice, reconciliation, accountability, ownership…if we decide we want these things more than the Message, then the movie doesn’t have to be so depressing, retraumatizing, and predictable. If Johns Hopkins must circle wagons in denial of what’s obvious to everyone outside their bubble, it will just be a painful epilogue, a missed opportunity, and a helpful warning to society.
If Dr. Roland Griffiths is a truer believer than he lets on, he no longer sounds like an optimistic one. In introducing Swift to introduce the findings, Dr. Griffiths contrasted himself with Rick Doblin’s rapid approach to introducing culture to psychedelics, while he desires an approach over several generations, because “not everyone will know the risks…But there really are catastrophic risks.” Indeed. I guess I’m curious—why are cultural strategies being talked about at all here in a scientific presentation? Have we lost what science is actually supposed to be about? Scientists, you know I’m not a scientist, are you really letting us religious people be the skeptics in the room now?
He took several minutes to emphasize cautions. He did note their screening was more intensive and conservative than will be likely in future programs, which means there may likely be greater reports of adverse experiences in future studies (of more clergy?). With later punctuation, to his concerns, “These interventions are so powerful at an individual level, and we must assume at a cultural level….We can’t see what we can’t see yet.” But for as much time Dr. Griffiths spent on the risks of expanding psychedelics into culture too fast, many of his participants were speakers and leaders in several events at the conference that week. And I’m sorry, but one more time: for a guy who likes to give the impression that he’s doing objective, spiritually-neutral, culturally-agnostic science, he spent a lot of time discussing cultural impacts.
And while Dr. Griffiths and others at Hopkins have spoken of risks, they have spent few resources in researching long-term harms. As Jules Evans noted in his conference write-up, after 20 years of research, “Why didn’t Johns Hopkins or the other big research teams yet produce any research on long-term harms? Why did no one fund any such study in the US?”
As for the presentation of the study itself, the framework of “high-level findings” was just a framework, just a medium for the Message, that allowed for papering over the specifics, including important ways things went wrong for some participants. Maybe not officially in the data, nor in the movie, but here in the reality that matters.
Neither Dr. Griffiths, Dr. Bossis, nor Swift disclosed the study’s conflict of interests with RiverStyx, neither in the written conflicts of interest disclosures before the conference nor any mention on the stage. Swift introduced himself during the presentation as simply “a Marriage and Family Therapist in California.” This is true, and Pope Francis is a pastoral counselor in Italy.
It is no doubt that these high-level findings and quotes from participant reports have something real in them, something inspiring. The reported experiences described reinvigorated, refreshed, and inspired clergy. Noting that participants did not have many visual God images, Swift described participants as rather feeling God, experiencing God “in relational qualities…radical closeness, intimacy, God as sexuality, God as love.”
According to Swift’s interpretation, these were “resonant with their theological beliefs but often extended beyond those beliefs.” For whatever the truth, and I’m sure it’s somewhat true, it’s a good tool in the rhetorical kit: resonant, but beyond. As Swift would frame, “they reported understandings as more personal and deeply felt yet more mysterious,” and the result appeared to have demonstrable benefits. According to Swift, four out of twenty-four participants experienced an uptick in attendance in the year after their trips. Notwithstanding other factors why a church could coincidentally rise in attendance, if this is an indication of the trial’s success, does this mean the trial failed for the other 20 clergy?
These high-level findings avoided outright stating the theology of participants changed, certainly not so much that religious institutions should be worried. But based on their descriptions, participant beliefs did change, for many of them now accommodated psychedelic spirituality in line with the researchers’ public theology-of-no-theology.
The idea that all religions are the same at the core is a non-neutral religious view. The idea that psychedelics can get you to “the same place” as prayer, or yoga, or other practices…that is a belief. To say reaching “the same place” is the point of spiritual life is a belief, for to say states of consciousness are what religion’s all about is a belief too. And I have to say, with as much tenderness to everyone’s hope amidst nihilism, it is not an inspiring one to me.
Continuing on, Swift said, “Whereas before their theological understanding may have been conceptually or intellectually from their training, it was now felt or understood from a lived experience.” And again, however true this might or might not be for some, we have to pay close attention with all of the above that these are not direct quotes, but his combined characterization.
Despite attempts to frame participants as not undergoing spiritually dangerous belief changes, with only their beliefs about drugs becoming “symbiotic,” the belief that psychedelic drugs can be symbiotic with one’s theology is a belief change. A significant one, that should not be assumed as entirely benevolent just because Hopkins says it is. And it’s one that is, indeed, a movement into their Message.
While wanting to indicate something good happened with theology but nothing at all for religions to be concerned about—just trust them, they hold the mystery keys after all—Swift indicated that “a throughline of the study was a deepened sense of humility in their relationship to theology,” as if to say again, “Don’t worry about any changes to theology, they’re just humble improvements,” just ask the California MFT. But theology is more than just a symbol system. It is the relationship. One cannot change the relationship of theology to its outer phenomenon without inherently changing the theology itself. Theology also inherently includes the subject’s relationship to it as part of it—most simply seen in the difference between a Christian fundamentalist and a liberal Christian, each possibly sharing near-identical symbol systems with the chief exception being how they relate to it, and neither one often being that humble about it. Yet still—as each would quickly tell you—sharing very different beliefs.
There’s a carefully crafted needle being threaded here. Nobody wants to scare religious institutions by worrying them about changing their clergy’s beliefs… but of course there was hope to report changes to religious clergy’s beliefs in some way to consummate the sacred cultural psychedelic marriage. It certainly was never going to be, “We have studied religious professionals under psychedelics and we regret to report it’s too bad—it turns out they can’t be Turned On.”
No. The Message is the medium.
From the high-level findings, it would appear that the team had successfully given all the participants the “new doctrine” of long-time Hopkins psychedelic strategist Bob Jesse, and that just as he said years ago, it had been a “sanity check” into a more humble relationship with theology. They successfully produced participants who had blended their religion like Aikido, symbiotically into the Hopkins team’s without things going off the rails.
While they knew, here in reality, things were going off the rails.
Life in the Shadow of Backlash
I have often wondered what Bob Jesse really thinks about all this. I confess I haven’t asked him. But I feel a great deal of sympathy for him, even now, because the outgrowth of this study has been exactly what he had spent years warning against and wishing wouldn’t happen. Based on his comments, he didn’t want to create evangelists. Probably not even “ambassadors.”
But Pandora’s Box is gonna Pandora. Much isn’t that harmful, like Christians claiming online psychedelic turf and carving out niches to spin ourselves as something we wish we were but desperately aren’t: cool. But Christians always move late into whatever secular culture is doing in our own embarrassing brand-grabbing gold rush, and I’ve done the same. With far more alarm is how psychedelics open up the door for new forms of unethical Christian conversions, manipulative evangelism into a psychedelic gospel based on the raw power of suggestion. In my glance at the Christian psychedelic landscape outside of this trial’s immediate ripples, I found an evangelical Christian pastor describing in an academic thesis having his first experience a year ago, now boasting he had already persuaded over forty other clergy to be guided in his sessions. Is “yikes” a holy term?
That wasn’t the Hopkins vision, but it’s part of the new reality. And it was somewhat predictable.
Very, very carefully, and probably not very quickly. What that might look like in my mind is a group of people who get along well, maybe who have had some ritual going on for some time as a group with a solid identity…and for that group to start adding some self-awareness about the desire to follow that path…Find a sincere group of people who have some sense of doctrine, ethics, and ritual, who are prepared to go down that road, and it’s going to be a long, hard, and probably scary road. But I do believe it will happen.
In my opinion, Jesse seems to have hoped for a religious science that would function as good PR for psychedelic mysticism to religious institutions. But even more than that, in my opinion, it seems he mostly hoped that his mystical “doctrine” might create a couple of quiet religious reformers, people who would privately experiment with different community structures before stepping forward to mount legal cases for religious freedom, just as he’s long supported for psychedelic religious groups. It seems like psychedelic “ambassadors” could be a kind of nightmare for bringing about the psychedelic elite’s personal Satan named Backlash.
While Jesse has repeatedly said he doesn’t like psychonauts being promotional, he’s been a chief engineer for strategic science which is the most promotional thing to happen to psychedelics in the last 60 years. And despite my sympathy, Jesse’s emphasis on preventing backlash has contributed to a psychedelic culture that has wanted to handle things in-house with disastrous results. I believe this approach deserves some “credit” for setting up The Silence, a climate of fear of a cultural re-oppression that might have contributed to the psychedelic subculture’s Code around abuse and harm.
This kind of thinking is, and has to be, anathema to true spiritual conviction. A spiritual community has to take the risk to sacrifice into its fears, or else the thing it’s preserving isn’t really the Real Thing anyway. When you think you can control the Real Thing, all rules are legalism. All rules are red tape—you cut corners, you omit inconvenient stories, you don’t confront the truth even to yourself.
Wrestling with Trust
I know that if my old self were here, the young excited psychonaut, I would need to be patient with him, and he with me. I would especially need to be patient as he came to have a greater sensitivity, though not a mastery, of not only the dance patterns of the sacred, but the counterpatterns of evil.
All throughout working on this, I have been wretching with all the ethical and moral dilemmas—not just the ones I was trying to call out, but the ones within myself. I kept wishing that I had been a better communicator, I had tried more creative routes, that I hadn’t waited, or hadn’t been so psychologically beaten down into waiting. I never stopped feeling like this whole situation was deeply unfair—and there’s so much about our lives like that, blessed in the midst of deep unfairness. It wasn’t fair to participants, and it’s not fair to them for me to talk about it. And maybe it’s not even fair that the researchers had to prove their spiritual beliefs through science so the United States government could say they’re valid. I know first-hand that there are so many deeply unfair double-binds in the process of trying to apply to the DEA for a religious exemption. For most, applying for religious freedom as groups of new churches is not easy, and potentially a kind of entrapment—and that’s church as defined by the IRS, even if the “church” self-definition feels gross to many. The only groups that have won their legal protections through that route have been nominally Christian and/or Indigenous. For groups that don’t want to be Christian, or know that psychedelics mean something spiritually important to them but have trouble defining it, this process is almost a non-starter—but some still try.
But with all my wrestling, when it came down to it, I felt I had to say something. As much as I love many people here as individuals, I can’t live with knowing people would get hurt if I didn’t say something. As complicated things are, sometimes it felt as simple as knowing I couldn’t trust anyone here with informing people enough, instead choosing, again and again, to manipulate people into their beliefs, name-checking risks vaguely but doing so little actually to educate them—and maybe that’s because these risks are highly, highly unknown, and scary to meditate on, and uncomfortable to listen to people who have experienced them.
I can’t trust what’s coming from this study to keep people safe. I can only trust it will market them for their movie. As complicated as things are here, some things are that simple.
I know there are some people who will have some visceral reactions to their friends being criticized. Some will have a visceral fear-based response to having unsettling questions raised about things that do demand investigation. And some are going to have bang-on criticisms of things I missed or messed up. I know there are going to be many other strong feelings. I have them too.
Believe it or not, I try to be careful in what I say. But I can say that one reason I am writing is that I, personally, would not trust a single person in my life to be kept safe by anybody in this study. I grew up in the liberal church. I come from a liberal Christian family. I have to write because I can’t trust anybody in my area of highest concern with the actors here, least of all in the hands of the Johns Hopkins theology. I wouldn’t trust my people to be in the care of Ligare, and I wouldn’t trust them in the care of these particular researchers.
I wouldn’t trust the actors in the movie to identify a spiritual wrong. I wouldn’t trust them to own a wrong. And I certainly wouldn’t trust them to stand up for what’s wrong, no more than I would trust a fish to fly. I would only trust them to say what they thought needed to be said so that the Message could be maintained. And I would like nothing more than to be able to totally wrong about that and change my opinion. But nobody is entitled to work with psychedelics, and nobody is entitled to trust.
Everyone is entitled to take risk into their own hands. And in the hands of people who make false assurances of psychospiritual safety, that’s all I can honestly feel like you are doing.
Like the Jacob of ancient days, if many psychedelic movement people want not only legal protections, but a blessing, there are also a whole lot of other people who want some of the leaders—for one, sweet moment—to take some responsibility for their actions, their emotional wake, and the unintended consequences. To say one sincere apology for something real.
Many “luminaries” have begun talking about risks as a new medium for The Message, but I haven’t seen much teeth there. Have they talked about the risk of moral injury, of knowing people have died who overenthusiastically read their books? Have they talked about the risk of losing your clarity, your thinking, your worldview, where you might find yourself appearing at an abusive organization’s conference not only unable to speak your full voice, but doing their propaganda for them?
With the confidence in which they presented the study coupled with the cautions Dr. Griffiths offered, you would have no idea the dense web of conflicts of interest underlying the social matrix between participants and researchers, risking what Dr. Matthew Johnson had called “guru” complexes. You would have no idea about Dr. Richards’ alleged behavior, or any issues had ever come about from one of their participants (that they funded) had ever come to their attention. But they had. This was outside the technical scope of the study. It was outside the movie, and so it had to be outside the Message.
But it wasn’t outside of their true responsibility.
There would have been inappropriate things to disclose. But an honest report would have said far more of what I saw emerging out of an unhealthy study culture. I haven’t come close to telling the full story, not that I even have it—but neither have they. And it probably won’t ever be fully told.
Freedom From the Press
As I wrote in a piece last year pleading for the psychedelic movement to operate more like a proper field, bringing in the fullness of self-criticism, I just want people to be free of the need to do psychedelic PR. I want psychedelic research to be free of self-deception. I want Bob Jesse to be free of the weight of thinking it’s his job to steer psychedelia’s public image. I want Dr. Griffiths to be free to step outside the movie he’s masterfully directed and edited to experience the freedom of accepting he’s not the genius sage others have put on their pedestal. He’s just a human who wound up holding too many people’s hopes, dealing with too many people’s weird symbolic energy, all too big for anyone’s psyche.
In a similar vein, I am not so sure that what is happening here is not just religious people performing PR for a psychedelic movement who were elevated onto pedestals of status and acclaim, rather than a genuine deep inquiry that can speak with any integrity to its voice, any separation of itself and its values. I know I couldn’t water any of this grass to actually get greener until I found myself feeling truly free of the Message’s medium. And that should tell you where things really stand with psychedelic “cognitive liberty.”
Maybe there will be something more of a beautiful mutual blessing happening with psychedelics and religion, like Jacob and Esau. But this can only happen with a strong sense of healthy boundaries and defined values. Otherwise, psychedelic religious professionals are not Jacob blessing Esau, or Esau forgiving Jacob—they’re at risk of merely being the goatskin on Jacob’s arms. The means of deception.
We don’t have to pretend that things went according to plan here. Johns Hopkins doesn’t have to pretend this was anything close to a “healthy normal” research environment or a model to admire. This doesn’t have to be anybody’s defining moment. This study didn’t—and can’t—save religion from itself, or psychedelics from itself. I want psychonauts and would-be’s to be free of that disastrous, load-crushing weight.
I want people to be free of the prison of the Message.
The next piece is the last one. I will tie up some loose ends, ask a few questions to make other ends looser, and say a few last things about hope and vision.
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Bob Jesse, “From the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Findings to the Reconstruction of Religion,” presentation for MAPS Psychedelic Science 2013, youtube.com/watch?v=lM-yinhpOgQ, timestamp 49:05.