The Religious Science of Johns Hopkins
In August 2023, I wrote an eight-part series about the spiritual missions, hidden issues, and unexamined consequences of a clinical trial conducted jointly by Johns Hopkins University and New York University, “The Effects of Psilocybin-Facilitated Experience on the Psychology and Effectiveness of Religious Professionals.” Each episode is also available in audio form.
In part one, I give an overview of the study, which gave leaders from various religions two experiences of the compound found in psychedelic mushrooms. I became involved with part of the study’s social world during my time as a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, where I participated in field education work for a new Christian psychedelic non-profit created by a participant inspired by his study experience. I share some of my personal background and motivations for speaking out about this study, and some of my theological discernment.
In part two, I provide background with the spiritual missions of the Hopkins and NYU researchers. Having once shared many of their psychedelic spiritual and religious beliefs, I offer critical engagement with the views of four primary figures involved in the study, along with a leading psychedelic research organization that hopes to create a “spiritualized humanity.” These views include the desire to create scientific research to legitimize psychedelic spiritual beliefs to be integrated into mainstream culture, the prominent psychedelic researcher behind a new Hopkins initiative for so-called “secular spirituality,” and the “perennial philosophy” view that religions are universal and primarily predicated on exploring consciousness.
I challenge the notions that the above views are scientifically neutral, questioning whether a long-term strategy to advance psychedelic spirituality to influence cultural change is an abuse of science.
In part three, I discuss some concerns around psychedelics and their ability to make research subjects more vulnerable to suggestions in their research environment. Were these concerns adequately addressed in the study, or did the actions and environment relationships fostered by researchers and funders lead to an unethical research environment?
I share some contemporary research about psychedelics exacerbating power dynamics that can induce belief transmissions, personal identity shifts, and create chemically-induced strong social bonds between researchers and subjects in psychedelic research. I discuss how this has been a demonstrated effect in at least one previous Hopkins psychedelic study, and how it may have impacted the religious leaders study in particular. I also share a 2021 piece from the former director for the Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research warning about researchers acting as gurus.
In part four, I talked about the reckless ambitions of the Christian non-profit I worked for, a non-profit that was created by a study participant to promote the release of the study from its start, with the goal to be “spokespeople, ambassadors, advocates, and allies” for psychedelics. 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 yet continued receiving funding. Some of the behavior of the non-profit included running questionable studies of their own with no training, with a former participant now himself giving new clergy psychedelic drugs to create new “ambassadors” to further psychedelic religious marketing.
In part five, I talk about how Hopkins researchers and funders created a complex web of conflicts of interest that led to financial incentives and social status among participants in the psychedelic research world. I share why I left the non-profit, including a disgusting reaction from a clergy member to hearing stories about psychedelic abuse. I also talk about the code of silence on abuse that has long permeated the psychedelic research world, an environment with utopian dreams to create “net zero trauma” and mass mental health healing, but values public relations over real people.
In part six, I called for an investigation based on an unreported boundary violation that allegedly happened during the study based on a participant’s report. This boundary violation has been known by members of the Hopkins research team for years, but not only has it not been acknowledged, but the subject has been financially rewarded. I describe how I came to see it was a de facto psychedelic “baptism” of a Christian clergy into the psychedelic worldview of a researcher who has publicly asserted for decades that he wishes to integrate psychedelics into religion. Given what we know about the spiritual motivations driving this psychedelic research, the widely-observed nature of psychedelic hypersuggestibility, and the flagrant disregard for healthy boundaries in the researcher environment, I believe what happened in this study put the autonomy, agency, and dignity of research subjects in serious jeopardy. To date, Johns Hopkins has been silent.
In part seven, I focus on a June 2023 presentation where the researchers presented their high-level findings. I examine the narratives the researchers are attempting to present in furthering their spiritual agendas, the lack of transparency around their financial conflicts of interest and their involvement, and how the incentives of psychedelic capitalism and drug legalization beget psychedelic marketing. I discuss how much the fear of cultural backlash looms large in the minds of researchers, and how many so-called psychedelic “thought leaders” have failed to take accountability for the death and psychological destruction that has happened as a result of their irresponsible advocacy.
In the final piece, I wrap up the series with some final theological reflections on what I believe is a case study in the shadow of psychedelics happening in the highest-profile research. I discuss the perverse incentives and the profaning of religion, science, and the sacred. I turn to the Christian mystic Thomas Merton in order to find grace amid moral injuries, grounded hope, an alternative vision, and religious freedom.