The Religious Science of Johns Hopkins: Religious Freedom
Conclusion of a series on a psychedelic clergy study.
This is the final piece 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, and in part seven I examined the narratives being presented.
He has a spirit that has made him unable to speak.
This kind can only come out through prayer.
Mark 9:17, 29
The thesis here was truth and mercy. These are the two antidotes to Jacob’s deception and Esau’s revenge. I’ve been more Esau lately than what feels good, and yet more truthful than I could bear to give. And yet in our desire for justice we cannot live furious forever. Mercy is a gift to Esau as much as his brother who asks him for it. And just like all who manipulate for power, Jacob gets his own cosmic justice anyway—Jacob may have stolen a blessing, but as the story goes, he didn’t realize he just put himself in the queue for a broken hip and 14 years of servitude, living out deception’s implications in an encounter with the truth he wished wasn’t so. The truth is a gift to the liar once accepted. It is a gift to all of us liars.
And the mercy of God is sovereign no matter who’s lying, who’s angry, who’s betrayed, who’s traumatized, who’s…you get it.
Mercy is always humming for us. It’s not mine to grant. It’s mine to ask for. And it’s a gift to us all.
But I write here today with more freedom because some people of psychedelia’s past spoke to the dark in their own plain way so that I could hear it and be more free. Eventually, many of them moved on, sometimes before knowing where to, but anywhere but here. The good seed they planted sometimes took time, but it did take root until it grew into the wheat of truer cognitive liberty and a little more justice.
Sometimes I wonder how much of my pain of the last year is the pain of having a story I didn’t know how to tell.
I can say now that having told what I can of my part of it, there is something freeing in that. And I know there are many more stories locked in the toxic swirl of that culture. Some of them are within this story, but those stories aren’t mine. Some participants may not see themselves at all in this story—I hope they don’t.
But to the participants, from one religious professional to another, of course you have the right to interpret your experience however you want. You have the right to tell your story. I’m just telling my colleagues as I see it: I believe you were subjected to a disturbing religious science experiment that jeopardized your agency for someone else’s golden calf. Hopkins built stronger-than-normal trust bonds, gave you high-suggestibility drugs, and recruited you into something that, if it’s not a cult, boy, you sure understand it better when you study cults. These are disturbing and plain things, and I would be remiss not to say them.
While the newly proposed FDA guidelines for psychedelic clinical trials state that “adequate measures are taken to minimize bias on the part of the subjects, observers, and analysts of the data,” funders held multiple roles while researchers committed alleged unethical behavior and cultivated inappropriate relationships, blending into a convoluted matrix of conflicts of interests that likely heightened suggestibility effects and transformed some believers into worshipers at the idol of the grand Psychedelic Meaning Loop.
In presenting their initial findings to a conference, binding all individual stories into a bundle, I believe researchers obscured all these conflicts of interest and unintended consequences in favor of a narrative that propagated their spiritual and religious motivations at the expense of a fuller truth.
It cannot be denied that as of today, some participants still feel their experience was a tremendous blessing. And in my opinion, the Hopkins psilocybin team has used science to steal their own blessing. I believe the religious professionals study is a case study in the shadow of psychedelics happening in the highest-profile research. I hope it is a call to a much higher standard of conscious ethics around psychedelics, their power for suggestibility, and conflicts of interest, raising awareness of what cannot be an acceptable precedent—not for science nor religion.
The manuscript is apparently submitted. I am calling for the relevant institutes to investigate, less because I am optimistic they will but more so that it is on the record that they won’t. Moreover, I am calling for much more public scrutiny to what was attempted and what happened.
I want to revisit the concerns of Dr. Rick Strassman. Here are his views as described by Danielle Giffort in Acid Revival:
Echoing the warnings that he received from researchers nearly thirty years earlier, Strassman argues that clinical psychedelic research must avoid "overreaching into theology and religion.” Strassman concludes his scathing book review with a reminder: “Leary's alarming mantra: 'turn on, tune in, and drop out' evidenced the inability of psychedelic researchers to rein in their own messianic pretensions. This is something that the field, now just recovering from decades of neglect, cannot afford.”
With the abundance of concerns raised, I urge you to look at the holistic picture of the Hopkins religious professionals study—does this seem like a healthy and professional research environment? Does it seem like a healthy culture for participants or for researchers? Or does this seem more like an environment that sought to manufacture religious consent?
To the participants, your experience and your interpretation absolutely matter and you absolutely have a right to both in ways that complicate what’s been said. But one of the deeply unfair things here is that science, true science in its true form, is not private—science is intrinsically a public project. A pursuit of truth. And so while you have the right to your experience, society also has a right to say that the behavior in this experiment was absolutely disturbing from our stance outside of it. The public has the right to the opinion that it was a bold-faced attempt to transmit a “doctrine” so that one particular psychedelic Message would go forth, sometimes at the expense of more important values.
And the public has a right to say this is not and cannot be okay.
And it doesn’t mean stolen blessings don’t have real ones in time.
Perverse Incentives and Profanities
What I have most come to most believe from this experience is that psychedelic religion needs to be left in the world of religious freedom. Seek it out in psychedelic communities and pursue a legal strategy. Let science do science, not spiritual PR. Whatever is genuinely of the Spirit in psychedelics needs no advertising. It needs no flawed studies pushing a theological vision. That is not the Spirit. That is an imposition of power of a particular religious viewpoint through seduction.
But I remember and understand the perspective of why this scientific route feels justified. However we feel about drug scheduling, it is the drug war that has created perverse incentives to secure non-Christian religious freedom through manipulative means.
Perverse incentives to avoid bad publicity.
Perverse incentives to manufacture good publicity.
And so, then, personal perverse incentives to retain status, lead the way, burnish a persona of authority. Nothing new under those suns.
The old perverse incentives of academia, research funding, and minding your own business rather than getting involved.
There are certainly perverse incentives to be the ones who “save dying Christianity.”
And maybe because traditional Christianity is still seen as the hegemonic evil (not the least of which by liberal Christians), maybe people just don’t care about seducing Christian pastors into being their mouthpieces—they just see it as a gift. And when so many progressive Christians can’t find God in their own tradition, they have the perverse incentives to find God in something else.
Ultimately, this led to perverse incentives to create research to validate spirituality instead of arguing for religious freedom rights, not only because mainstream culture doesn’t “get” psychedelia, but because so many psychonauts retain a distrust of religion.
But perhaps the greatest perverse incentive here is the incentive to try to secure access to the sacred in a way that profanes it.
Anything we hold sacred has the ability to be profaned. And I don’t mean in the delightful profanity we all sometimes take in barbecuing someone else’s sacred cow that we see as a false idol—sorry about that. I mean profaning science to manipulate public opinion, profaning religion in the freakin’ name of the Holy Spirit, and profaning psychedelics in the same way as the US government: by pretending you can control them.
And it profanes whatever you want to call the group of people having conversations about these things. But I know one of the unspoken lies is that the psychedelics are the sacred thing about its “community”—as if what makes the Shipibo people holy is the fact that they use ayahuasca and not the fact that they are made in the image of God.
I don’t see the sparks and seeds of the holy in psychonauts in the drugs, but in the desire to know something realer than the lies of religion, finding it in experience. But the idolatry of spiritual experience creates perverse incentives to slowly erode one’s moral code. And that must go.
A few pieces ago, I talked about how the parable of the lost sheep gets inverted to make inconvenient sheep. For the uninitiated, the story is simply that the Good Shepherd does not toss out one to save ninety-nine. The Good Shepherd lives in pursuit of the lost sheep wherever she hears their cry. The pragmatic shepherd says we have to move on without the lost. The Good Shepherd strikes her staff to smash the idolatry of perverse incentives.
Mercies of a Stolen Blessing
The story to me here is a story of pursuit after what so many psychonauts have wanted for so long—not merely legal rights, but proof of spiritual legitimacy from mainstream Western religion in all its constellation. This seems to me what Dr. Bill Richards has sought: a blessing, and in his mind, also to bless. But psychedelia never actually needed that from the mainstream culture. In fact, it’s famously thrived on countering it. And while the political realities made many psychonauts feel they had to pursue propagandistic subterfuge to secure legal freedoms, it does not make such tactics any less deceptive. And whatever the realpolitik gains, such deceptive tactics ultimately “profane the mysteries” of psychedelics. It also profaned religion and science—but what hasn’t these days?
It doesn’t mean there can’t be a blessing. God uses all things. In the case of the Jacob of Genesis, sometimes we can be totally manipulative in seeking a blessing without negating the blessing. But it also doesn’t negate the deception, nor can we throw our moral compass into some oceanic bliss.
Jacob got his blessing through deception. But he also showed that the greater trickster was God, using our sin toward his plans.
The Prodigal Son is a parable influenced by Jacob and Esau. Like Jacob, the Prodigal Son just wanted his blessed inheritance early. He got greedy. He made a mess of his life, and made life harder for everyone around him. But mostly, he just embarrassed himself. He lost his dignity. When he came back home, the brother’s temptation was to lord it over him and to make him pay. But the Father just wanted to celebrate his return, and tell him what he really wanted to hear: you are loved. There are no mistakes that can keep you from being worthy of love.
And however furious I’ve been, however descending into madness I can go, and however wrong I think this study is and needs investigation, I will be damned if I’m going to live my life as a Prodigal Brother, and I will be damned if I can’t see whatever mercies of a stolen blessing come in time.
When Jacob had his holy struggle, he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” But the Prodigal Son was set free when he realized he didn’t need to wrestle with God, or man, or the law, or mainstream religion, or anybody to seek his blessing. He didn’t need to deceive and take it through subterfuge, sleight of hand, and an abusive culture. He didn’t need to leverage the levers of credentialism. He already had a blessing, and he never lost it.
Esau could not forgive unless he knew he had been deceived.
And he could not be given the gift of being a forgiver until his deception was acknowledged and seen by the brother who deceived him.
Grace, Hope, Vision, Freedom
Grace (and moral luck)
I believe that the researchers, the participants, and many of us in that sphere were caught up in the incredible opportunity we had somehow found ourselves in. We had stumbled into a moment of time and place to be at the forefront of psychedelics and institutional Christianity. But none of us were, or are, entitled to any position just by virtue of first-mover effects. Such lucky historical timings entitle us to nothing. And in my view, the result was like inverting the Hank Hill joke about Christian rock music: so far, it seems “psychedelic Christianity” does not make psychedelics better, but Christianity worse.
But I want to give one last word of consideration for the Rev. Priest. For all of us who had discovered a new hope to revive our dying religion or bless our start-up one, the Rev. Priest was simply doing exactly what our collective utopian visions demanded of him: pretend like everything is still a utopia. However we feel about anything else, if there was one thing the Rev. Priest was great at, it was making the psychedelic world feel blessed. And all I’ve been able to do lately is make people feel judged. And what would Jesus think of that?
In my view, the study itself has a chance to set dangerous precedents with what is ethically acceptable, much less healthy, out of science and psychedelic religion. It is set to tell a story about clergy and psychedelics that obscures how the power of high-suggestibility lingers into impacting morality, critical clarity, and discernment of vocation.
Many of us have achieved moral injuries working in psychedelics. I cannot heal from mine unless I name them. But I also must recognize that I was morally lucky that I was not given more power, that I was not more successful in trying to grift my way up the psychedelic career ladder. I imagine some may characterize my actions here as the impotent signs of jealousy. Maybe. But to attain the goals I used to want would have only accrued more entanglements of incentives that would have made it harder to leave behind without more moral wounds. If I had been more successful in attaining the dead visions of my old dreams, then I might have also very easily wanted to stay and be silent. It is always useful to consider what would make one act in the same way as someone else in the story, what would put us in the shoes that couldn’t walk away. There is always grace to be found in simply thinking of that.
Highlighting issues with passion does not prevent healing nor preclude forgiveness. In truth, it is naming wrongs with the fire of love that makes forgiveness possible. But it requires both Jacob and Esau to see the wrong. Forgiveness is a two-party state of consciousness.
Hope (beyond hope)
The history of religion is one littered over and over again with self-deification of humanity’s belief in its own projects, cloaked in the name of a triumphant transcendent principle. Why should the principle researchers of this study pretend this ended up anything different?
I can’t speak for where the study’s religious participants and study team designers should place their hope. For Christians, our hope is placed in Jesus Christ, however we understand him, for if we know history we have seen so often what happens when best liberal intentions self-deceive into thinking we can bring about his kingdom. This does not mean progress is impossible—it means that changing the most fundamental condition of our impossible situation of being trapped in our stuff is a fool’s errand. It means that for Christians, any progress we make in which we are so proud of ourselves for making it—for being on history’s Right Side, as if we are not doomed to be just as direly on its Wrong Side—should be distrusted.
Nobody should have expected anything different, but we all did, because we hoped. There is a kind of hope, just as powerful of a psychoactive as any, that drives psychedelic movements. A hope that seeks to turn back the clock to a time before our undefinable traumas, to reverse humanity’s march towards The End as much as immanentize it. But a true hope, an eternal hope, is a hope that is unseen.1 It is a hope beyond all vision—mine, Hopkins’, and institutional Christianity’s. It is a hope beyond whatever ecstatic realm we can conjure, beyond the most sober pragmatism of our doomed-out-of-the-box plans, beyond all idols of our minds and spirit. We must escape the traps of our partial visions in order to live in the hope that cannot be seen.
Vision (a different one)
Even to the Christian mystics, mystical experience is not the core of the gospel. It doesn’t mean Christian mystics cannot give thanks for the workings of the Holy Spirit wherever it goes, however it blows; working through sinners—God’s only option. It doesn’t mean a Christian can’t be happy for a psychonaut. But it might mean a better understanding of where those paths diverge, and why.
And where I diverge is rejecting the Message that we can make God come to us simply by taking a psychedelic, no more than we can turn on a fan and call it the Wind. I am going where Thomas Merton went, into the “mysticism of is-ness:”
We have to distinguish between the kind of mysticism of exaltation, which transports a man into what he is not, and is always reaching out to what man is not, is not yet, or even cannot be. Reaching out into the future, or reaching out into the 7th heaven, or reaching out into levels of experience that are not granted to ordinary men, and so forth… or the other kind of mysticism, which perhaps is not mysticism, which simply grows deep into the ground of what one is.
And I would say that the most crucial thing, at least for me, is the repeated affirmation of the necessity to dig into what one is. A mysticism of is-ness, a mysticism of existence, a mysticism of accepting what is here and now right in front of your nose. And seeing that it is useless to reach out to what one is not and what one will never be. And to try to have what one can never have. If one consistently despises what one is and what one has, and where one is, then one fails to see that it's all right there.
Now of course LSD, I suppose, does in a certain sense, do that. But yet it doesn't. Because after all, you need LSD to make the passage, and we don't need anything to make the passage. The passage is immediate. There is no passage; you aren't going anywhere. You’re where you are.
And it isn't a question of being turned on. It's a question of being grateful for what one is. It isn't a question of ecstasy, or being elevated above one's human condition. It is a question of being human and realizing that there is, in a certain sense, nothing greater than to be human since the son of God became human. You don't even have to bring in that explanation to us, the ground of our faith, but it's built into humanity itself.2
I think the prime danger of psychedelic theologies is the same danger of the mysticism of exaltation, another form of “mistaking church for God” in an outsized belief in spiritually arriving through a preferred experiential method, which leads to idolatry of the method, which leads to sacrificing people harmed by the method to preserve the reputational social power of the method. At the same time, ecstatic experience expresses a real need, or at least a hunger in need of a refined appetite, that cannot be discounted. I would be derelict in my duty if I did not commit to giving people more alternatives than simply Christian platitudes. Merton believed theology must address real needs. Where we do not think psychedelics address our needs, we ought to work to discover and articulate that which does.
I don’t know if I will ever use psychedelics again. Probably not. But I’m grateful for the gifts and mercies of the blessings those trips stole, when I was a guy eager to try and get his divine inheritance as soon as possible. But these gratitudes are wounds, too. I cannot celebrate them too much when held next to the brokenness of those harmed by them. I do not want to discount genuine healing, and I do not want to forget my spiritual vitality being restored way back when. But I also cannot forget the souls who were not so lucky because psychedelic evangelism sold them something that was deadly false. Even now, I do not want to undersell the gift of a little more seeing, however limited—what a grace to have vision at all. But I do not forget the wisdom of another ayahuasca journeyer, a now-deceased man named Matthew, whose beautiful soul’s impulsive response to these larger theological questions was just, “Fuck if I know.” And fuck if I know whether psychedelics were good for him.
I was born spiritually blind. I will remain blind. A Christian always has our mind’s idols between us and the true Christ. The future may have some marginally better understandings, but also new blindnesses. And I will continue to be in the Church so that I may keep working on my eyesight. The Church is a “hospital for souls,” and that includes an optometry department. But Christians can only aspire to be blind eye doctors. We are called not only to expose and speak to the darkness in the world, but the darkness in ourselves. We do that by being vulnerable with each other. That sacred, precious vulnerability is the thing I miss most from my psychedelic retreats. That truth and mercy. This is not a cope—it really was not the experiences. They just gave me and some pilgrims an excuse to pour out ourselves to each other, discovering a little more is-ness beyond our last blindness, only to walk by faith into the next.
That is the Real Thing. I cannot believe we need psychedelics for it.
Last March, I made a special pilgrimage to Burlington, Vermont, to pay my first visit to the birthplace of Phish, my psychedelic band of almost twenty years (but for the record, I was at first just a sober phan). I was in the middle of deconstructing how I felt about everything I’ve talked about here, and more. I was first feeling the sense that I was going to have to let go of a variety of dreams I had: psychedelic chaplain, ayahuasca church guy, and who knows what else. I didn’t know exactly what would happen, but here I was, driving past dead trees to frozen Lake Champlain, comforting my psychedelic pain with a novel nostalgia trip.
As I drove back through state highways, winding my way back home without wanting to get back anytime soon, passing by one-room libraries, general stores like a scaled-up Mary Poppins bag, chock-full of more stuff than they have any reason to be…and some country churches. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I started my degree, but it definitely hadn’t been finding myself at one of those.
And yet when I saw barn after barn peering out from fields of snow, I thought, “You know, even this time of year…I could live here.” And as I kept passing old churches in the least-churched state of the union, for the first time, in the midst of my early stages of post-psychedelic grief, I heard myself sighing in defeat, “I guess I could just be a pastor.”
And I caught myself—”just”? “Just”? Had I really inflated myself so much that I thought it was whatever to do the work my father did, or my great uncle? Had I really said, “Ahhh, I guess if I have to”? Maybe I was feeling “just” a slap in the face from my Lutheran great-great-grandfather who was old enough to know a Gettysburg that didn’t have fields nourished in blood, who built his church building with his bare hands and preached in German and English every week. And I realized—what a tremendous, tremendous honor of a lifetime it would be for me, to be so lucky and blessed if I could do that. To be with people without needing to convince them. To love them as they are, to not live for experience, and yet swim in their abundance. To share who I am and hope to earn their trust to share who they are with me. To be a fellow pilgrim seeking truth and asking for mercy, with a piece of paper that says he gets to talk about his path and let people know God loves them no matter what, in spite of everything, and not to mistake our favorite signs for the Signified who lives and reigns in magisterial love.
The day I hit send on this last piece, not yet able to turn back to see what charred bridges lay behind me, I am moving to Vermont to be just a country pastor. I want people to live with the knowledge that they are blessed and have always been blessed without any need for deception. I want people to have religious freedom. And now, I have it too.
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Thomas Merton, “Need of Modern Man to be ‘Turned On.’ LSD,” June 4th, 1967.