The Religious Science of Johns Hopkins: In the Name of the Holy Spirit
A Johns Hopkins psychedelic guide allegedly committed a boundary violation based on a clergy participant's report. There must be an investigation.
Part six 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 a roadmap. In parts two and three, I shared the spiritual missions of the Hopkins team and heightened ethical concerns for high-suggestibility psychedelic drugs and belief transmission. In part four, I talked about the reckless origins of the Christian non-profit I worked for, funded by a Hopkins funder and researcher. In part five, I talked about the social entanglements and consequences of conflicts of interest with one of the study’s funders.
Earlier in this series, I established through public statements that a joint Johns Hopkins/NYU psychedelic trial for religious professionals has the appearance of being part of a strategic approach to bring psychedelic spirituality to culture through Johns Hopkins’ scientific reputation.
In this piece, I will discuss how since 2021, a participant in the clergy psychedelic trial (the Rev. Hunt Priest) has repeatedly and publicly alleged, including in written testimony, that in 2016 his guide Dr. William Richards touched him in a spiritually-evocative way. The described touch egregiously violates Hopkins protocols, a touch that the Rev. Priest described as like when he has offered “anointing” as a priest. Then, according to the Rev. Priest’s account, Dr. Richards later allegedly suggested the Rev. Priest had experienced the Holy Spirit.
The Rev. Priest has proclaimed himself to have experienced the Holy Spirit and to have received a form of “ordination” in his experience, inspiring him to start a psychedelic non-profit Ligare, with an agenda to create “ambassadors” for psychedelic drugs to Christianity to make them “widely available.” The study team’s funder and researcher, T. Cody Swift, funded this non-profit through his RiverStyx Foundation, which has led to illegal and reckless behavior from Ligare. RiverStyx funded Ligare an additional $52k in February 2023.1
The Rev. Priest has shared the story many times in podcasts, public appearances, and with his full name and publicity information in the book Triumph Over Trauma by Randall Hansen, PhD.2 His report has been in at least one Hopkins researcher’s inbox since January 2021.
Given the breadth of what has been covered so far—the spiritual beliefs of researchers in this study, the capacity for hyper-suggestible psychedelic drugs to unethically induce belief changes, the nature of Ligare’s founding agenda to promote the study, the web of social entanglements—there are an incredible amount of questions that demand answers. It raises serious concerns about more potential hidden misconduct and how much of the study’s data is based on unethical conduct, and what Hopkins researchers have known or done about it. While lead investigator Dr. Roland Griffiths, Dr. William Richards, Hopkins advisor Robert Jesse, and T. Cody Swift should answer these questions, there must also be an investigation by the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelics and Consciousness Research and the Johns Hopkins University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
Standards for Touch
If psychedelics increase suggestibility, both during a session and in the “afterglow” the next day, then touch can be an amplifier of this suggestibility factor. Touch is already used very conservatively in non-psychedelic therapeutic settings due to the impacts on boundaries. But the practices of psychedelic therapists, as a culture, have long pushed far past these boundaries, sometimes seen as relics of Puritanism, obstacles to healing.
But the Hopkins psychedelic center appears to officially have a conservative approach to touch.
In 2023, Dr. Sandeep Nayak, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Hopkins psychedelic center, gave a presentation at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting in a session on psychedelic therapy ethics on the issue of touch:
There are very strong reasons why touching is not a part of traditional psychiatric therapy…Tell patients you may grab their hand or gently touch their shoulder, but that it will absolutely not go beyond that, Therapeutic touching is a boundary crossing; we need to ensure that it doesn’t turn into a boundary violation.
But this does not appear only to be Dr. Nayak’s opinion, it appears to be in line with standards co-authored by Dr. Richards himself fifteen years ago alongside Dr. Griffiths and Dr. Matthew Johnson in the article “Human Hallucinogen Research: Guidelines for Safety.” A version is hosted on Hopkins advisor Bob Jesse’s Council for Spiritual Practices website. This is what the guidelines have to say about touch, the extent of which is hand-holding:
Appropriate forms of reassurance may include a supportive touch to the arm or shoulder with verbal reminders that the participant is in a research study, has taken the hallucinogen, and that he or she will return to normal consciousness in ‘a few minutes’ or ‘a few hours’ (or whatever the appropriate estimate may be, depending on the specific drug under study and when it was administered). During an intense hallucinogen-occasioned experience when verbal interactions may be of limited help, a powerful form of reassurance (sometimes called ‘interpersonal grounding’) is simply holding the hand of the participant.
If this form of reassurance does not help the participant’s distress, then the protocols call for “pharmacological intervention” as a last resort:
Although pharmacological intervention is a last resort and should rarely, if ever, be needed, medications should be readily available for use if the need arise. For cases in which acute psychological distress is insufficiently managed with reassurance alone, treatment with a benzodiazepine anxiolytic is the pharmacological intervention of choice.
If the Rev. Priest’s testimony is to be believed, Dr. Richards allegedly did not even follow his own standards for touch.
“I Think We Call That The Holy Spirit”
Here is the relevant part of the Rev. Priest’s testimony about the suggestive touch:
Midway through the first session at Hopkins I began to experience a sensation of something lodged inside me. Not understanding what it was, I imagined it to be energy that had to be released, but with no easy way out. The current of energy, subtle at first, formed in my pelvis and intensified as it moved up my spinal column. When it eventually became lodged near my larynx, a blockage was created which then expanded and began to feel impenetrable. The pressure was so intense that at one point I thought the skin around my Adam’s apple was going to blow open. In my mind I struggled to break it up and quite unexpectedly (and uncharacteristically) began to speak in tongues, the spiritual gift mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. It’s not something I ever imagined myself doing.
Not long after, my physical discomfort caused me to become agitated, causing my guides to sense that I was struggling with something difficult. I told them something was trying to get out of me. After asking permission, Bill placed his hands on the top of my head as I sometimes do when offering healing prayers and anointing a parishioner (the sacrament of Unction) and Darrick sat at my feet and allowed me to press my legs against him as I had done for my wife when she was in labor with our son. The blockage didn’t fully clear, but as the psilocybin began to wear off I knew that the blocked energy had mostly moved through me.
Although Dr. Richards asked permission, the Rev. Priest's being under the influence of psychedelics undermines his ability to give true consent, especially to an alleged touch that violated Hopkins' established standards for physical boundaries.
According to the account, the Rev. Priest was allegedly subjected to additional unethical behavior in the follow-up session that compounded the impact of the alleged boundary violation. In the follow-up conversation that, according to Dr. Richards' description of protocols,3 seems to have happened the next day during a state of increased suggestibility, Dr. Richards allegedly offered a suggestive explanation for his experience that the Rev. Priest continues to describe:
“In our conversation afterwards I asked them what all that energy was about. Bill smiled and said, ‘In Christian language, I think we call that the Holy Spirit.’”
In the fullness of the power dynamics of suggestibility—a closer than usual trust relationship, a guide who treats you as a “colleague,” who has just given you evocative touch reminiscent of one’s religious practice, in the first experiences with a drug—the totality of this should be deeply disturbing.
I want to emphasize this again in the most straightforward terms: according to this account, Dr. Richards allegedly touched a participant under the influence of psilocybin in a highly evocative way, along with another guide. Later, he allegedly offered the participant a religious interpretation of his experience. This behavior is deeply inappropriate in a clinical setting with a psychedelic subject. Was this not noticed by researchers because it was so commonplace? Or was it known by researchers to have been a boundary violation, but obscured until the Rev. Priest made it public?
This behavior can have drastic impacts on one’s interpretation of one’s experience, imparting theological meaning onto one’s psychedelic experience that one might not have decided for one’s self. In this case, the suggestion of the Holy Spirit is not minor—traditional Christian theology of the Trinity makes this meaning extra powerful, with Dr. Richards allegedly implying that the event could be interpreted as a sign of God.
This is how the Rev. Priest interpreted the experience in the same testimony:
The ritual act of laying on of hands is mentioned multiple times in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. (See Numbers 27:15–23, Deuteronomy 34:9, Acts 8:14–19, Acts 6:5–6,) For Christians the laying on of hands is used sacramentally as part of healing rituals, Confirmations and ordinations. The connection to healing was pretty obvious for me, but the connection to the sacrament of Ordination was a recent epiphany. Somehow, in the midst of the second session, I found myself on the sofa, moving back and forth between lying on my stomach and being in a kneeling position. I came to know, in the midst of the movement, that I was kneeling and then prostrating myself in front of the Universe. If a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” then my call to leadership in the Christian community was affirmed and deepened. The grace-filled gift I received at Hopkins brought me spiritual growth, clarity about my vocation, emotional healing, and a desire to make the experience available to all who need and desire it.
I have no reason to doubt the Rev. Priest experienced the benefits he described. I hate the feeling that I am jeopardizing any sense of grace. But also, I have had many conversations with many people over the past two years that have been worried about the Rev. Priest’s health and his behavior. One person previously aware of the Rev. Priest emailed me yesterday, saying they had previously become concerned about the Christian retreats he's been leading and could not recommend their psychedelic-curious Christian parents to him anymore.
On a Ligare-hosted forum in September 2022, Dr. Richards seemed pleased with the results: “I just want to say how happy I am that this meeting is happening and that Hunt is devoting his life right now to facilitating this emergence in which we so desperately need.” In the same conversation, their objectives appear to have merged to be on a shared mission to “guide” the church into the truth they already know about the psychedelic experience:
Rev. Priest: I agree Bill, I think chaplains and pastoral counselors don’t need a whole lot more - just need maybe an experience and a little bit of training about how this unfolds, cause they’re dealing with people in these major life transitions and spiritual moments and bringing religion and spirituality into the conversation.
Dr. Richards: We need social structures to help people integrate these profound experiences, and then I think good grief! We’ve got them. They’re called churches and synagogues and mosques and temples. All we have to do is somehow awaken them, guide them, educate them..
Rev. Priest: Calm them down!
Rev. Priest: Exactly.
It cannot be overstated how impactful Dr. Richards’ alleged behavior was.
It must also be noted how his self-described proclivity to regularly offer suggestions has been an unexamined aspect of Dr. Richards’ regular approach, perhaps because it is not too far afield from other psychotherapy approaches that are fine in non-psychedelic settings. But this isn’t normal therapy. And the following approach he describes in his book gives too much interpretive power into a guide’s hands:
Sometimes there are spiritual experiences beyond what the person ever conceived as being within the realm of possibility that need to be acknowledged. There are times when volunteers may be groping for words or concepts and the guides are able to normalize their experiences by articulating ways of thinking that others have found helpful or by suggesting readings from the writings of mystics from years past or of more recent explorers of the mind.
It greatly confounds the data if Dr. Richards is regularly filling in the blanks for participants with his own rolodex of mystical terms. How much trial data has been coded with similar language to discover patterns only because Dr. Richards prompted it from a similar set of psychospiritual vocabulary?
It is one thing for me and other psychonauts to initially not see that this was allegedly a boundary violation. Perhaps we think it is not a big deal in an underground setting, especially if we do not understand the depths of the ethical implications around psychedelic hypersuggestibility. But again, this alleged touch egregiously violates the standards established by Dr. Nayak and even Dr. Richards himself. This is supposed to be the gold-standard of clinical research. And if it happened as described, not only has nobody done anything about it, it seems that the Rev. Priest has been financially rewarded for telling the public about this experience.
But a more important bottom line is that after allegedly committing a boundary violation, Dr. Richards’ alleged suggestive interpretation made things even worse. And this behavior was in the context of Dr. Richards’ public desires to bring psychedelics into religion, under the guise of scientific authority, combined with the drug effects and a power imbalance, and it significantly jeopardized the agency of this participant.
Going back to part three, it’s behavior that also seems to be exactly what Hopkins psychedelic researcher Dr. Matthew Johnson warned against in his comments concerning clinicians “playing guru” in 2021:
A patient can certainly bring up religious beliefs and concepts in therapeutic discussion, e.g., Buddha, Christ, kundalini, and plant spirits, but it is not the role of the clinician or scientists to introduce such concepts. The goal of the clinician should be a create an open and supportive environment where the patient can make her or his own meaning, if any, from such experiences.
The alleged behavior from Dr. Richards is intolerable, not the least of which by Johns Hopkins own standards. The truth of what other members of the study team knew about this behavior and did in response must be discovered.
Behavior and Interpretation
The Rev. Priest is entitled to continue to interpret his experience however he wants. As a religious professional myself, I have some theological questions about his interpretation, but neither he nor I can dictate the Holy Spirit—nor can Bill Richards.
But however he wants to interpret it, behavior is behavior, and the alleged behavior can’t be a precedent. It can’t be something a Hopkins research subject touts as the clinical standard. The Rev. Priest can interpret the alleged behavior however he wants. But the alleged behavior he described is a boundary violation.
I can, unfortunately, hear some underground psychedelic practitioners saying who cares, this wouldn’t be a big deal in the underground, and it’s true, and far worse unethical behavior happens there. But this isn’t the underground. This is allegedly gold-standard research that is supposed to be keeping people’s cognitive liberty safe by keeping them safe from researcher practices that are, in the words of Michael Pollan, “perilously close to the world of shamanism and faith healing.”4
If the Hopkins study team didn’t notice it, why? If they did, what did they do?
And why didn’t I notice it while I was in it? Why did I fail the Rev. Priest?
The deeply awkward and unavoidable, horrible reality is that some of us just witnessed several people capitalizing off an alleged boundary violation in front of all of our eyes. And we didn’t even see it. Once I saw it, I agonized so long about what to do here, I thought about anonymizing it, but he’s made it so public, and his own behavior has been noted as dangerous.
The Rev. Priest deserved the chance not to allegedly have his boundaries violated, to interpret his experience for himself, and to figure things out for himself. And I’m sorry, there is just no dignified way for me to speak to this. It just has to be said. It cannot stand.
I did not understand the full depth of psychedelic suggestibility until I started listening a lot more closely to the experiences of survivors. The Rev. Priest deserves all the mercy and grace in the world for how this experience twisted his best judgment and good character. This whole experience has given me a new interpretation of how I experienced his behavior.
It’s so unfair for anyone to be put in this position. To be seduced by a promotional ad in the Christian Century, reading Dr. Richards imply that if you’re brave enough, you could meet “the really real God,” then allegedly have your boundaries violated, then later incentivized to change your ministerial vocation with funds from the spiritually-ambitious Hopkins team. Nobody has a chance against that.
And nobody cared as long as everyone felt happy and high—and I don’t mean on the drugs, I mean high on the status, the grand narrative of history, all that nonsense driving this whole thing.
Nobody cared about the Rev. Priest’s dignity. And I mean his real, God-given dignity. Not any fleeting psychonaut fame that is gone the second you break the Code of Silence. Not the false dignity of an imagined status, or a bogus hagiography.
What happened here was wrong, so wrong, and it was out in the open, and not even me, a psychonaut, saw it for what it was. Why? Because I was gaining off the narrative that was happening. I was connected. I was rewarded by the Message. I was set up for success by the Message. And now I am beyond disgusted.
Why did I air so much dirty laundry in the previous two parts? Why did I expose all these social ties? So that everyone knows that this trainwreck isn’t about Hunt’s failure. We all failed him. And either the Rev. Priest is lying, the Hopkins team engaged in a cover-up, or they have embarrassing levels of incompetence, and that needs to be investigated. But every one of us failed him.
I haven’t forgotten my thesis is truth and mercy. I just wish I could add dignity to my thesis. Because at this point, I feel that we have reached just a pretty undignified situation all around.
And nothing would be a more perfect, poetically tragic encapsulation of the psychedelic medical movement than if it turns out the first Christian non-profit to grace the MAPS stage to have come out of a boundary violation in a Johns Hopkins University study.
Unless Johns Hopkins wants to say they can touch you like they’re anointing you and tell you it was God, this absolutely cannot stand.
I still have a couple more things to say in the next couple of days. But first, I have to emphasize one more time the full summarized case for an investigation.
Call for Investigation
There must be an investigation into the clinical trial “The Effects of Psilocybin-Facilitated Experience on the Psychology and Effectiveness of Religious Professionals” for the following reasons:
According to the standards established by Johns Hopkins University professor Dr. Sandeep Nayak in an ethics presentation to the American Psychiatric Association, and according to safety protocols co-authored by Dr. Matthew Johnson, Dr. William Richards, and Dr. Roland Griffiths, according to a participant’s written public testimony, Johns Hopkins guide Dr. William Richards allegedly violated the boundaries of a research subject in 2016. He allegedly did this after having developed a relationship of trust with the participant and while the participant was under the influence of heightened-suggestibility psychedelic drugs, drugs known by Hopkins to induce suggestibility.
Dr. Richards allegedly committed this boundary violation in a study involving Hopkins funders and researchers, including Dr. Richards, who have publicly expressed a desire for a cultural embrace of their views of psychedelic spiritual experiences.
If normal Hopkins protocol timelines according to Dr. Richards’ description were followed, the next day while the subject still in a state of heightened suggestibility, Dr. Richards allegedly made a theologically suggestive intepretation to the research subject—whose vocation is based on his religious beliefs—that he experienced the Holy Spirit.
The description of his testimony has been in the email inbox of at least one Hopkins researcher since at least January 2021. The subject has repeatedly and publicly described his experience.
The alleged boundary violation caused the research subject to believe this moment was an “ordination” and has changed his vocation, in no small part thanks to social entanglements with Hopkins researchers.
The subject started a non-profit with funding from a researcher and funder of the study. The subject received additional funding in February 2023 after Johns Hopkins researchers were aware that the subject had engaged in illegal and reckless behavior.
The environment of this study is deeply unethical and suspicious on its own. But the added context of this alleged boundary violation not only going unaddressed, but leading to the creation of a non-profit, funded by a Hopkins researcher, advancing the public relations interests of Hopkins funders and researchers as part of a decades-long strategy leveraging the reputation of Johns Hopkins to promote psychedelic spirituality in the name of science, is nothing short of appalling. It is a violation of a research’s subject’s basic rights to dignity, agency, and autonomy. And it is a violation of the public’s trust.
This absolutely cannot stand as acceptable behavior from the Johns Hopkins University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
There is an abundance of questions that demand answers.
Was this part of his submitted participant report? When was that received and reviewed? Is this behavior on video tape? Was it reviewed?
What did lead investigator Dr. Roland Griffiths know, and when?
What did funder and co-interviewer T. Cody Swift know, and when?
What did study sponsor Robert Jesse know, and when?
What did the rest of the leadership at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelics and Consciousness Research know, and when?
Were there other participants who had alleged boundary violations and unethical suggestions? Has their video tape been reviewed?
Did Hopkins try to suppress it? Or had such alleged boundary violations become so commonplace that it was part of an unethical research culture?
There are many more questions.
This absolutely cannot stand.
There must be an investigation.
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Randall Hansen, Triumph Over Trauma: Psychedelic Medicines are Helping People Heal Their Trauma, Change Their Lives, and Grow Their Spirituality, Kindle edition, 155-160.
William Richards, Sacred Knowledge, Kindle edition, 189.
Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind, 158-159.