Some thoughts on ethical guidance, nature, and supernature

If nature is a person or like a person, then he, she, or it can be a source of ethical guidance. If nature is impersonal, then any ethical guidance can only come from someone or something unnatural or supernatural.

If the characteristics of a person are attributed to nature, as in “Nature wants you to be happy,” then the distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism is erased, and this is no different from theism, which is fine by me. But the naturalism of those who reject supernaturalism does not attribute any person-like features to nature. Nature, conceived this way, is not something that cares whether you are happy or not. It is not merciful or ruthless, nor even indifferent, since to call someone or something “indifferent” implies that he or she or it might have cared but doesn’t. Nature in this sense is not conscious or potentially conscious, and a fortiori has no thoughts, plans, or emotions. If there seems to be any consciousness, design, or purpose in it, that is either something imposed upon it by something or someone outside it, i.e., something or someone unnatural or supernatural, or else only an illusion that can be explained as the result of chance mutations, heritability, and natural selection. But then since any explanation implies a conscious being who discovers it, communicates it, or understands it, the explanation itself must either be an illusion or else something imposed on nature by someone who is outside nature. We ourselves cannot be a part of nature, as understood by those who reject supernaturalism, unless we don’t really understand anything. And, although undoubtedly there is a lot we don’t understand, there is no reason to believe we don’t understand anything. Hence the alternatives concerning ethical guidance stated in the first paragraph.

Christianity and philosophy, etc.

Here are some more musings from my notebook, on Christianity and philosophy, Free will and God’s foreknowledge, Coming down from the peak psychedelic experience, and Prelife and afterlife.

Christianity and philosophy

Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. You can’t love God with all your mind while believing that trying to be a good philosopher is incompatible with being a Christian.

Philosophy the handmaiden of theology

Someone I read recently—was it Galen Strawson?—said that philosophy is not the handmaiden of anything, denying the traditional metaphor of philosophy as the handmaiden of theology. Well, I think philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. Having tried to quit that job, she has gone astray in naturalism, physicalism, scientism, producing monstrosities such as Nietzsche’s esteem for the “will to power”, Parfit’s reductionist view of personal identity (Hume’s bundle theory); Dennett’s “explanation” of consciousness; Singer’s arguments for infanticide; the neo-paganism of worship of “the planet” (It might be instructive to ask oneself what makes this planet “the” planet.); and tortured attempts to deny the immorality of abortion. (Since this thought touches on political controversies, I’m afraid some readers will stop reading right here, since, for many, politics has replaced theology. But I hope not.)

Free will not compatible with God’s foreknowledge

It is possible for God to create only things that have no will of their own, so that He could have foreknowledge of everything, and it is possible for Him to create some creatures that do have a will of their own, who can either do His will or not. But it isn’t possible for Him to do the latter and for Him to have foreknowledge of what they will do. If God infallibly knows I’m going to do X, then I can’t choose to do Y instead. And it doesn’t help to say that God knows that I’m going to decide to do X, so that it is still my decision. That is because a decision is a choice between two or more equally possible alternatives, and if God already knows what is going to happen, there are no alternatives.

You may ask, “Who are you to say that there is something that is impossible for God to do?” But it is more about what it is possible for me to believe. If God can know what I will freely choose to do before I have decided, then either I don’t understand what it means to freely choose to do something or I don’t understand what it means for God to know something.

Some will respond, “That’s right. You don’t understand what it means to freely choose to do something. You think it’s possible, but it isn’t.”

But the only arguments for determinism that I know about confuse explanations in terms of a cause and effect relation with explanations in terms of a person’s reasons for doing something. If a person’s reasons for making a certain decision are irrelevant, because the fact that the person thinks of those reasons is determined by causes outside that person’s control, then the determinist’s reasons for deciding determinism is true are irrelevant. If the question of free will vs determinism, or any other topic, is something that can be reasoned about, then being convinced of one answer and being convinced by the opposite one are both compatible with the very same chain of causes leading up to the moment of becoming convinced, and the conviction can only be explained in terms of the different reasons for believing one answer or the other.

Someone else may respond: “That’s right. You don’t understand what it means for God to know something, and you shouldn’t even try. His knowledge is so far beyond our knowledge that we shouldn’t try to understand what it is like.”

But that gives me no reason to believe that it is possible for God to have foreknowledge of what I will freely choose to do, because if I don’t understand something, it is insincere to claim that I believe it.

I believe that we can and do have the ability to make free choices about at least some things, and that this is the way God wants it to be. My reason is that the thesis that we can’t make any free choices implies that we are all wrong in the way we talk, think, and act almost all the time. It would require a very compelling argument to become convinced of that, but if it is true, then becoming convinced would have nothing to do with any argument, good, bad, or indifferent.

Do we come down from a peak psychedelic experience, and if so, why?

Art Kleps wrote that the lesson of a peak psychedelic experience is always the same, that life is a dream, but that it is immediately repressed in a thousand different ways. Did he think it wasn’t repressed in his case? Or, that there are degrees of repression, so that in some cases, as in his, the truth is closer to the surface, though it is still repressed? By the way, it is no more meaningful to say that all is a dream than it is to say that all is real.

As I understand Freud’s theory of repression, repression occurs when the ego, having become conscious of something it fears as a threat to its existence, somehow manages to render itself unconscious of it, at the price of a distorted and unrealistic view of the world at the conscious level. The goal of psychotherapy is to bring this repressed material to consciousness again so that the ego is confronted once more with what it fears as a threat and can come to see that is isn’t a threat after all and can correct the distorted perception of the world at the conscious level that was caused by consigning the threat to the unconscious.

Then, if the revelation of the peak psychedelic experience is always immediately repressed in a thousand different ways, so that afterwards the tripper’s view of reality is distorted, what is the point of having it? The answer could be that even a repressed revelation is better than no revelation, and that the resulting distorted view of reality is less distorted than what came before the trip. Or, the answer could be that all that matters is the peak experience itself, and that all the non-peak times are irrelevant.

But how helpful is the Freudian conception anyway when it comes to understanding how to integrate a peak psychedelic experience into one’s life? Suggestion: Admit that one can’t really stand to remain in ecstasy, but affirm that one remembers it as the standard of excellence—which is like admitting that one is not God. This is how having had the experience helps one to be in the right relationship with God. It helps one to know God and oneself better.

“I don’t need anything but the Bible to know God.”

To those many who say, “I don’t need anything but the Bible to know God”:

The Bible itself tells you that Jesus said that He would send a Comforter. I think that the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, can take many forms. Who are you to say He cannot come to someone in the forms of a peak psychedelic experience? I’m not saying that anyone needs to take a drug in order to know God. I’m saying that it makes sense to me to think of some peak psychedelic experiences I have had as a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, where everything is fundamentally all right.

Prelife and afterlife

In response to my confession that I think it is reasonable for me to believe in an afterlife because I can’t imagine my own non-existence, Roger Cook posted a comment on a Facebook link to as follows: “Since you weren’t conscious before you were born, why is it so hard to imagine that kind of oblivion happens to you again upon your death?”

My answer: It’s not at all hard to imagine that the same kind of “oblivion” that preceded birth will follow death, that is, an “oblivion” that turns into a new life.

Early morning thoughts, or the charm of ruin and spiraling springs of infinite divisibility

The charm of ruin is that processes of decay, “wear and tear,” aging, entropy, failing health, rust, erosion, staining, crumbling dustiness add a touch of sad nobility to the spiraling springs of evernew freshness, the stark shocking brilliance of all that God pours into the world moment by moment. The tinkling of the bells I hear on the patio right now is both old and new.

You do not need to fear getting lost forever in the spiraling springs of infinite divisibility because the infinite series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 . . . adds up to 1. Here’s the proof:

n = 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 . . .

2n = 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 . . .

2n – 1 = 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 . . .

2n – 1 = n

2n = n + 1

n = 1

The happenings that make you angry, hurt you, or make you sad, though they may flare up and burn intensely for an instant or drag you down dully for days on end, are being absorbed into immense joy and relief, which is all the richer for them. Here’s the proof:

Your unfolding future.

How to be a member

Here is how to be a member of the Institute for the Advancement of Psychedelic Christianity:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.
  2. Find a church you like and go every Sunday.
  3. Believe that a peak psychedelic experience is a way of being in the right relationship with God.
  4. Read and think about the writings I have posted on this website. Yes, all of them.
  5. Listen to Mary Jo’s music that is linked to this website.
  6. Read Psychedelic Christianity.
  7. Read Dreams and Resurrection.
  8. (Optional, for the hard-core) Read God Is a Symbol of Something True, keeping in mind that I have changed my mind about some things I wrote there.
  9. Post comments and questions.
  10. Tell anyone you know who might be interested about this website.

Belief in life after death

What turned me around on belief in life after death was a sentence I read in Who Knows? A Study in Religious Consciousness by Raymond Smullyan. He wrote that he believed in an afterlife because he couldn’t imagine himself not existing. At the time, I didn’t believe in an afterlife, and I was surprised to read that he did. He was an expert on formal logic with a great sense of humor, and at the time I thought that the idea that someone who had died could still somehow also be alive was self-contradictory. But I thought about it and asked myself if I could imagine myself not existing, and I realized I couldn’t.

You might say, “So what? Just because you can’t imagine something doesn’t prove that it’s impossible.” And I don’t dispute that, but my response is that if I can’t imagine it, I can’t believe in it either. I can easily imagine that I have died and, say, people are attending my funeral and seeing my dead body lying there in a casket, and that from their point of view, all the evidence will show that I have become permanently unconscious. But what I can’t imagine is that my point of view simply won’t be there or anywhere else. I can’t imagine being permanently unconscious.

I don’t know if I have ever been absolutely unconscious. I have been anesthetized for surgery and know what it is like to recover consciousness and to be unable to remember anything that went on from the time that I lost it. This isn’t all that different from falling asleep and then waking up later with no memory of any dreams. I’m not sure, though, that I was really absolutely unconscious. It may be that I quickly and irrecoverably—at least for now—forgot dreams that I had. At any rate, it’s clear to me that I have never been permanently unconscious, since I am conscious now.

Objection: Just because something has never happened, it doesn’t follow that it never will.

Response to the objection: That’s true, but it gives us no reason to anticipate any particular occurrence or set of occurrences.

Objection: But everyone eventually dies. Experience shows that. And dead bodies exhibit no signs of consciousness and don’t come back to life, with the possible exceptions of Jesus and the few he miraculously brought back to life and the one Peter brought back. And those exceptions wouldn’t be considered miracles if we had empirical evidence that they were likely to occur anyway. So, barring a miracle, you have ample reason to believe that when you die, you will become permanently unconscious, despite the fact that you have never yet been permanently unconscious. Right?

Response: No, that’s not right. I am not disputing that from the point of view of anyone else who may be around when I die, I will die and stay dead and my dead body will exhibit no signs of consciousness. What I am disputing is that that is how it will be from my point of view.

—Well, you won’t have a point of view.

There is no evidence for that assertion, absent the assumption that there is no meaningful distinction between my own evidence that I am conscious and someone else’s evidence that I am conscious. And there is no justification for that assumption.

—Just because something has never happened, it doesn’t follow that it never will. So, despite the fact that you have never been permanently unconscious (since you are conscious now), it doesn’t follow that you never will be.

This is on equal footing with: Just because something has never happened, it doesn’t follow that it never will. So, the fact that no one has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it is like (assuming that is true) doesn’t imply that no one ever will.

I am not denying the abstract possibility that I might become permanently unconscious, so that my point of view simply ceases to exist, even though I can’t imagine what that would be like. I’m only claiming I have no good reason to expect it, and I don’t really know what that is that I would be expecting. So it seems rather ridiculous to say, “Nevertheless, that’s what I believe will happen.”

—If your dead body here has become unconscious and follows the pattern of previous cases where consciousness never has been recovered, but you nevertheless continue to be conscious and to have a point of view, where will you be? Will you have a body? Will other people be there? Will you be somewhere else in this universe, or in some other world? How can you answer such questions? How will it be you who has died, as witnessed by those you have left behind? Isn’t such a state of affairs also something you can’t imagine?

Consider what happens when you dream. From the point of view of anyone who sees you asleep, you are unaware of the world in which they are awake. But from your point of view, you are in a place that is “here” just in the same way you are”here” when you are awake. “Here” = “where I am.” Roughly at least once in every 24 hours, we fall asleep and lose awareness of the world. But we don’t realize it. We dream and in the dream we are aware of a different world. When we wake up we often forget our dreams, but it doesn’t follow that we didn’t have those dreams; and when we remember them, we notice that there are both striking resemblances and striking differences between the events and scenes of the dreams and the events and scenes of our waking life. None of this is apparent to any third-person observer of us when we are asleep Our only evidence that we dreamed what we dreamed is our own memory of it. It is also evident from the first-person point of view that I am the one who fell asleep and dreamed and then woke up. Every experience is from a first-person point of view.

The dead have awakened from this dream. From our point of view, they are now permanently unconscious human remains. From their point of view, we are like the memories of a dream, while they are awake, walking around, doing things in what to them is “this world,” while what we call “this world” is the memory of a dream or a dream which has been forgotten.

Alternatively, the dead have fallen asleep and are dreaming. They are unaware of the world they have left behind or even that they have left it behind. Events of what we call “this world” may affect in some symbolic ways what happens in the dream world which to them is just “this world,” i.e., “the one I am in.”

All of this is quite easy to imagine and is consistent with a wealth of experience. Being sucked away into nothingness from then on forever, on the other hand— on what experience is that fear based after all?

I treat this topic more extensively, and other interesting ones as well, in Dreams and Resurrection. For a sample and info, click here:

Why only random miracles?

Here is a question someone asked on my Dreams and Resurrection Facebook page: If Jesus was truly who he claimed to be, instead of performing random miracles, why didn’t he just present medical and natural knowledge time has only given us at the expense of suffering?

My response: That is an excellent question. I wish I had a short, snappy answer that would awaken all minds hearing it like a million light bulbs turning on all at once. But I don’t. I’ll try this instead: I believe that if God could make it possible for us to experience only joy with no suffering, he would do it. Since we suffer, then He can’t do that. But I do think that He can make it so that we can experience such a joy that we don’t mind that we also suffer. I have felt it. God could have guaranteed that there would be no suffering by not creating us in the first place. But that’s like saying that suicide is the surefire cure for suffering. And it would be, if death were permanent unconsciousness. But I am not aware of any reasoning, deductive or inductive, that leads to the conclusion that one’s own death is equivalent to losing consciousness and never regaining it. We have strong inductive evidence that death is not permanent unconsciousness in that we die to the world of our dreams when we awake every morning. And I can’t imagine, from my own first-person perspective, being permanently unconscious. I am willing to pay the price of suffering for the experience of joy.

Jesus’ message was that the kingdom of God is near. He healed particular people whom he encountered because he felt love and compassion for them.

That clause “if Jesus was who he claimed to be” is unfortunate, I think. This is something I think C. S. Lewis is wrong about. He makes it sound like Jesus lords it over us. I think Jesus was telling us we are children of God just as much as he is. And he was telling us that we will have, or in some sense already have, the cure for all suffering, which is the joy that makes us not mind that we suffer. It doesn’t follow that we should glorify suffering or not bother to relieve it when we are able. That it does not follow is the lesson of the healing miracles.

If Jesus had revealed the natural and medical knowledge that we have discovered over the intervening centuries and that has allowed us to alleviate suffering, then you could ask why God didn’t do it sooner, from the very beginning. But what He has done from the very beginning is to create the conditions under which naturalistic humanism is worth pursuing. It is worth pursuing only because death is not permanent unconsciousness and because there is a joy such that one doesn’t mind suffering. Naturalistic humanism alone, without those conditions, could never deliver us from fear and anxiety about suffering, death, and meaninglessness.

Recent musings from my notebooks: H. H. Art Kleps, Buddhism and Christianity, Unamuno, C.S. Lewis

A dream about His Highness Art Kleps

A dream I had last night has convinced me to take up the thorny subject of His Highness Art Kleps again. Immediately after the dream I was of the opposite opinion. I was glad I woke up, and thought, “I should forget about writing any more about him.”

In the dream a small van with silver and black paneling pulled up to deliver party supplies. The driver also handed over a receipt for $2000 which had been charged to the church account. With a sinking heart I remembered that I had placed the order, and at the same moment I realized that Art had just arrived. “Who ordered that?” he demanded to know, and then he instructed me to tell the guy to take it back and not to pay the bill. I put off telling him that it had already been paid. He was already accusing the man who delivered it of fraud, and I knew that it wasn’t fraud and that Art was going to want me to back up the claim that it was. Then he asked me, “Why did you order it?” I replied that I had had a feeling that something important was going to happen so that there would be a celebration. I was being dishonest, and trying to flatter him that his arrival was the important event. In fact I had had no such premonition and was just hoping Art would be pleased with me or at least not mad at me. At the same time I was disgusted with myself for letting myself be controlled by Art in this way.

As I began to realize it was a dream and to wake up, I was dismayed that this ghost from my past still had this power over me in my dream. I thought about the fact that I have been thinking for some time about writing about my relationship with Art, and at that moment, I resolved not to do it. I just wanted to be done with him. But now I’m thinking that I don’t need to be done with him. I just need to change the relationship by making it clear to myself that it was good and right for me to be a loyal disciple of his for a while and then to quit, and that it is not clinging to the past to want to think about what he was right about and what he was wrong about. Yes, he is dead, but also he is still alive, and that is consistent with what he taught and with what I now believe and tell anyone who is interested.:

Art Kleps says (in “The Excommunication of Timothy Leary”, DTS,

“The understanding which the peak psychedelic experience brings to everyone is always and everywhere identical (but is repressed in a million different ways): Life is a dream, and it is your dream. This message, which we may call ‘solipsism’ or ‘nihilism’ or ‘yogacara’ or ‘madhayamaka’ or ‘Zen’ Buddhism is the message of every great mystical philosopher in human history—the message, within the dream, that tells you it is a dream.

“Everything else is repression.

“Three dimensional space is an illusion. The flow of time is an illusion.

“History is an illusion. Timothy Leary is an illusion. I am an illusion.

“Within your illusion, the great religious traditions (repressed, no later than they begin, in a million different ways) always stand for the assertion that one does not ‘attain immortality’, but rather realizes, upon one’s enlightenment, that there is no ‘death’ any more than there is any ‘life’, other than as fake dramas to maintain the illusion of externality, multiplicity, and space-time. One’s mind does not exist in the world, the world exists in one’s mind. What is the nature of that mind—that is the question. The ‘conscious’ wish system, obviously, is only a part of it. The ego may steer, but it does not rule. There is more to it than that.”

But I say (Dreams and Resurrection, pp. 24-5):

“. . . [I]f I am dreaming right now, then there must be a waking reality relative to which this is a dream. Even though I am not consciously aware of anything in that reality, I may be in some way dimly aware of it or it may be affecting what I am dreaming. So, the relativistic conception of dreaming and waking does not have the consequence that there is no reality and all is merely a dream. We would be equally justified in saying that there are no mere dreams and all is reality. We are more justified, though, in thinking that sometimes we sleep and dream, and other times we are awake; that these alternate on a fairly regular basis; that, although it is possible that in the future we will sleep and never dream again, or sleep and only dream, and not wake up again, or that we will wake up once and for all and never sleep or dream again, we have no basis in experience that would justify us in expecting any of those possibilities.”

The medieval sense of “comedy”

The medieval sense of “comedy” is that of a narrative that ends happily. It is in that sense that, for example, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a comedy. The central revelation of a peak LSD trip and of Christianity is that life is a comedy in this sense, not in the sense of a performance intended to provoke laughter (which is consistent with the fact that life does include times of laughter).

Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent, that the cause of suffering is wanting some things to be permanent, and that there is a solution to the problem of suffering, which is the realization that nothing is permanent. Christianity teaches that we are permanent (“we” includes all subjects of experience), and that suffering is bearable because in the long run joy is so much greater. So, I suppose both Buddhism and Christianity teach that life is a comedy in the medieval sense, and the whole issue depends on whether it’s true that nothing is permanent.

For Unamuno, who wrote The Tragic Sense of Life, the life that is tragic is a life with no afterlife. For him, the life that includes the afterlife is a comedy, in the medieval sense, and not a tragedy. And this is because he hoped for the apokatastasis, the restoration of all things.

C. S. Lewis would say that he, too, hopes everyone will be saved, but he doesn’t realize, as Unamuno does, that if even one person is not saved, then life is a tragedy, after all, for all of us. The evidence that he doesn’t realize this is that he is happy to defend what he calls “mere Christianity,” which teaches that some, maybe even most, people will be damned forever. The ethics of this misunderstanding of Christianity is no better than the utilitarianism of nonbelievers. One should repent of one’s sins, ask for and accept God’s forgiveness, and teach others to do the same; and do this in the hope of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” while allowing that many will not attain happiness at all, because if they haven’t repented and accepted forgiveness before their death or Judgment Day, whichever comes first, it is too late for them forever.

Jesus didn’t say, “Maximize utility,” or “Do the best you can do.” He said, “Be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

Art Kleps says (Millbrook , Bench Press edition, p.93):

“It all comes back to Dick Alpert’s question to me when I was explaining what I had realized back at Millbrook: ‘I do have a life of my own, don’t I?’ That’s his business. All I know about him is what I know about him, and, if he ‘thickens the plot’ I’m glad he is there to serve as a character in my story. I am content to have him think of me in the same way.”

But I say:

When Art says, “I am content to have him think of me in the same way,” he shows that he does think Dick Alpert has a life of his own. Even when he says, with emphasis, “That’s his business,” he implies that Alpert does have a life of his own. But when he says, “All I know about him is what I know about him, and, if he ‘thickens the plot’ I’m glad he is there to serve as a character in my story,” he says something consistent with the solipsistic reasoning that since he can’t know Alpert’s experience in the same direct way that he knows his own—that is, as the subject of that experience—then he can only know Alpert as an object of experience and that, as far as he knows, he himself is the only subject of experience that exists. And that reasoning is flawed. It is true that my experiencing of something is not the same as your experiencing of that same thing (or event or process). But to believe that is to believe that I am not the only subject of experience. It’s not just your business whether or not you have a mind of your own. It’s my business, too, because it makes a difference in how I should treat you.

C. S. Lewis and universal salvation

In God in the Dock (p. 157), Lewis says there are two sides to Jesus: “On the one side clear, definite moral teaching. On the other, claims which, if not true, are those of a megalomaniac, compared with whom Hitler was the most sane and humble of men. There is no half-way house and there is no parallel in other religions.” And he makes a similar argument in Chapter 3 of Mere Christianity.

But in Hinduism there is the doctrine that the Atman, the true inner essence of each one of us, is Brahman, the ultimate reality. Lewis might reply that this is different from what Jesus was saying, because Jesus was saying that he alone among men is the Anointed who has the power to forgive sins, not that all men do. These claims, Lewis argues, are either the ravings of a lunatic or they are true. But a third possibility is that Jesus means that he is the only one so far who truly realizes that God is a loving Father and that we are all his children, so that if only we all realize it, we, too, could say—and mean it—“I am begotten of the One God, before Abraham was, I am,”—and Abraham could have said and meant it, too. Lewis thinks this possibility is ruled out by the creeds (Jesus is the only begotten Son, and we are made by God, not begotten), but how is Jesus’s recognition that he is a child of God so different from our believing Jesus when he says that we are also the children of God? Isn’t this what Paul means by our “putting on Christ”?

On p. 178, in his “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger,” Lewis writes: “. . . I think that Jesus Christ is (in fact) the only Son of God—that is, the only original Son of God, through whom others are enabled to ‘become sons of God.’” This is in reply to Dr. Pittenger’s speaking of “the validity of our Lord’s unique place in Christian faith as that One in whom God was so active and so present that he may be called ‘God-Man’” (p. 177). Lewis’s response is that if “may be called” does not equal “is,” then he disagrees.

My question is this: Does Jesus tell us we can become children of God in the same sense and to the same degree that he is, or only in some different sense or to a lesser degree?

On p. 180, Lewis has this to say: “Moderns do not seem startled, as contemporaries were, by the claim Jesus there [in the Synoptic Gospels] makes to forgive sins; not sins against Himself, just sins. Yet surely, if they actually met it, they would feel differently. If Dr. Pittenger told me that two of his colleagues had lost him a professorship by telling lies about his character and I replied, ‘I freely forgive them both’, would he not think this an impertinence (both in the old and in the modern sense) bordering on insanity?” In Chapter 3 of Mere Christianity he makes the same point: “We can all understand how a man forgives offenses against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct.” (p. 51)

My answer: For those who saw Jesus as just a boastful liar who was really nothing more than the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, it would fit that he would grandiosely claim to forgive sins not done against him. But those of us who believe Jesus should ask ourselves: Is Jesus telling us, “I am the Son of God and you aren’t and never will be. At best you can be a son or daughter of God in some lesser sense.”? The creeds may suggest this, and Lewis may agree, but I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying in the Gospels. It follows that we, too, can in our better moments forgive others for sins done against others and not ourselves only, without being raving lunatics. If God forgives all sins of everyone, surely it is not lunacy but the height of sanity to try to do the same.

It isn’t clear to me whether or not Lewis believed in universal salvation. I do. What I mean by universal salvation is not that God makes everyone accept His forgiveness and obey the two greatest commandments, because that is logically impossible. No one, not even God, can make someone else accept a gift, because then it wouldn’t be a gift, or love himself or herself or anyone else, because then it wouldn’t be love. When I say I believe in universal salvation I mean I believe that God offers forgiveness and love to everyone, and that everyone, sooner or later, realizes this and accepts it. I also mean that if even one person rejects it and misses out, then no one is saved. The promise is that God will be all in all, not all in some.

The reason to try not to sin and to try to love one’s neighbor as oneself and to do what is fair, decent, and morally right is not fear of everlasting punishment if one doesn’t or hope of heavenly reward if one does. The only good reason is that it is an obligation that one takes on oneself. It comes from inside. This doesn’t mean that it is a mere fancy or a social construct. The obligation we take upon ourselves is as real as anything can be. To say that we are all sinners means that we don’t live up to our ideals. But they are our ideals, not someone else’s. Thus, we don’t need to believe in God in order to account for why we care, not only about being treated fairly, but also about whether we treat others fairly.

The reason to believe in God is to account for the ultimate subjective, personal fact for each one of us that he or she is just this person and nobody else. If there were not these facts—one for each of us—none of us would have any reason to care about what happens, or any ability to do something about it even if we did. And it is not up to any of us to choose which person he or she is, out of all the persons there are (although it is up to each of us to choose what to do given who he or she is). It is just given. It doesn’t make sense to think of this most personal fact as given by an impersonal nature. God, then, who is a person and not a thing or a force or a collection, and who has a power none of us has, is the one who makes it so that each of us is who he or she is, out of all the persons there are.

The major flaw in Sam Harris’s ethics

Sam Harris believes that all questions of value depend on consequences in terms of “the well-being of conscious creatures like ourselves.” (The Moral Landscape, p. 62) The major flaw in his ethics is that he doesn’t understand the overriding importance of the question of whether our fate is eternal death or everlasting life. He argues convincingly that the thinking of a Muslim suicide bomber is not a repudiation of consequentialism, given his or her expectation of experiencing an eternity of happiness after death and that he or she will also gain admittance for seventy close relatives. Of course Harris believes—and I agree—that there is no good reason to believe such behavior will please God, but for Harris the reason is that there is no God, whereas for me the reason is that God hates cruelty in this world or in any world. But if God (in Harris’s terms, “if the universe were so designed that . . .”—but if you’re going to talk about the universe being designed, why shy away from “God”?) gave us life, consciousness, and self-consciousness for a limited time after which we would become permanently unconscious, God would be a cruel god. It isn’t that an afterlife makes what happens in this life irrelevant. It’s the opposite. The prospect of one’s ultimate fate being the complete and permanent loss of consciousness is what would make what happens in this life irrelevant.

I used to think, as Harris no doubt thinks, that even if one becomes permanently unconscious upon dying, the objective fact will remain that one did have exactly the life that one had. But I have become convinced, at least partly by reading Unamuno, that that objective fact will be worthless because eventually it won’t be experienced by anyone other than God, if He exists—and God would have no reason other than cruelty to create me with an abhorrence of the very thought of permanent unconsciousness and then make that my fate.

Harris rightly rejects a worldview according to which the universe is so designed that it is justified for suicide bombers to kill themselves and other people because they will be rewarded in the afterlife for doing so. But he endorses a worldview according to which the universe is so designed that living, conscious, and self-conscious creatures exist for a time who love life and love others and want themselves and those they love to go on living, but who inevitably die, once and for all, and become permanently unconscious. He has no more reason to accept the second worldview than he has to accept the first one.

Pointing the way to psychedelic Christianity

There are two pieces of psychedelic literature I have recently read that I see as pointing the way to psychedelic Christianity. They are “A Mescaline Experience,” by H. H. Price and Cleansing the Doors of Perception, by Huston Smith.

What I mean by “psychedelic Christianity” is an understanding of Christianity that acknowledges psychedelic experience as a way of being in the right relationship with God. This does not mean that one can’t be a true Christian without having had a psychedelic experience. Neither does it mean that anyone who has a psychedelic experience is automatically transformed into a Christian. Psychedelic Christianity, as I understand it, is the religion of those who acknowledge that a psychedelic trip can result in the same kind of total transformation of one’s worldview as happened to Paul as a result of his experience on the road to Damascus, and that the deepest truths of the Christian religion are the best way to understand it, as they are the best way to understand the ultimate goal of living, which is for God to be all in all in such a way that every creature that God has created also continues to be there, in his or her or its own uniqueness, enjoying the goodness that God has given. That is, all that is implied by the term “psychedelic Christian” is the acknowledgement that Christianity and psychedelic experience are not in competition with each other but are perfectly compatible.

H. H. Price’s article was originally published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 58:1 (1963), and has recently been republished on Peter Sjostedt-H’s website, at

Price is a philosopher whom I have admired ever since I first came across his work several years before I retired from teaching philosophy at Citrus College. I highly recommend, in particular, his Essays in Philosophy of Religion. In “A Mescaline Experience” he describes his first (and perhaps only) psychedelic trip, which took place in 1952. I will quote from it and then explain how I think it points the way to psychedelic Christianity.

He writes: “To say that what had now happened was from an esthetic point of view a change for the better is to say much too little. To put it quite simply, all the things around me, even the most commonplace and dingy objects, became so utterly beautiful, at once so wonderful and so satisfying, that I felt I should be content to go on gazing at them for the rest of my life….

“It was wonderful, yet tranquil and peaceful, completely satisfying, so that nothing better could be wished for—or so it seemed to me at the time.”

Then he describes going outside: “All I can say is that this outdoor scene was as completely delightful and satisfying as the indoor scene had been, and I well remember thinking at the time that even the Celestial City could not be more beautiful than this.”

But in his general conclusion later in the article he seems to back down from what he had written before: “The very most I will dare to claim for my own experience is this: If there be a place, or rather a state of consciousness, corresponding at all to traditional ideas of Heaven or of Paradise, and if it can be supposed that something analogous to visual experience is possible to persons in that state, then I can believe that the visual world they experience might be something like, but better than, the wonderfully lovely and satisfying visual world which mescaline disclosed to me, though all its contents, in my case, were perfectly ordinary physical objects.”

Why the two “ifs”? What his experience showed, according to his description of it, was that there is a state of consciousness corresponding to traditional ideas of Heaven or of Paradise. He reported that he well remembered thinking “that even the Celestial City could not be more beautiful than this.” And he remembered thinking that the experience was “completely satisfying, so that nothing better could be wished for,” but then he added “or so it seemed at the time.” But he gives no reason to justify the “or so it seemed at the time.” Did he later come to see that there was something illusory about the experience? He gives no indication that that is the case. He objects to William James’s characterization of “our normal waking consciousness” as “rational consciousness” by noting, “I am not prepared to admit that the ‘mescaline’ type of consciousness is irrational. So far as I can see, this drug (unlike some others) does not affect one’s reasoning powers at all.”

Price does give a reason for not using the term “mystical” to describe his mescaline experience. He writes, “In my experience there did not seem to be anything like the ‘dissolution of the ego’ which most mystics have described.” He contrasts his experience of gazing at an armchair with Aldous Huxley’s report of an encounter, while under the influence of mescaline, with the legs of a bamboo chair, in The Doors of Perception.

Price: “I remember being fascinated by a certain armchair a foot or two away from me, which seemed to me the most beautiful sight I had ever seen, so satisfying that one might be content just to gaze at it for ages. (It looked very different when seen with ordinary eyes next morning.) But not only did it seem fascinatingly beautiful; there was a strong impression of being confronted with an independent entity, existing somehow for its own sake, as an end in itself, and a strong impression also of what some philosophers have called haecceitas (literally, ‘thisness’)—an impression of being confronted not merely with some independent entity or other, but with this single individual one, not as a member of any class, but just as the individual entity that it was. And that it should so exist, as the individual entity that it was, appeared to be something intrinsically good.”

Here is what Price writes about the experience reported by Huxley: “In [a] passage about a bamboo chair which he saw, he speaks of ‘not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them.’” And he quotes another sentence by Huxley: “In my present state, awareness was not referred to as ego; it was, so to speak, on its own.” Price goes on to say that nothing like that happened to him: “What philosophers have called the subject-object relation did not vanish. It did, however, seem less important and less insistent than it ordinarily does because the visible world, seen in the new way which mescaline induces, was so delightful and so satisfying that in the enjoyment of it one “forgot oneself,’ as we say. But this quite familiar ‘forgetting oneself’ does not amount to anything like the dissolution of the ego which mystics have described. It might have been very nice to be the armchair on which I gazed with such delight and fascination, or at any rate to have the experience in which such paradoxical language seems appropriate. And yet I am not so sure. It was also very nice to be, or seem to be, aware of the armchair in its haecceitas, as just this individual entity existing for its own sake, and as something whose existence was wholly good.”

How does all this point to the view that psychedelic experience and Christianity go hand in hand? Price did not mention Christianity, after all, nor any other religious tradition, except for his observation that his experience did not amount to the kind of transcendence of the ego reported by mystics, as in Huxley’s description of not just seeing, but being, the bamboo chair legs he was looking at. But consider the belief, which Christianity inherited from Judaism, that each thing that God has created is good—not “good for” something, but simply good in itself. The term haecceitas, which Price employed to describe what he saw as the individual uniqueness of the armchair that captured his attention during his mescaline experience, was originated by the medieval Christian philosopher Duns Scotus. Another medieval Christian philosopher, Nicholas of Cusa, also expresses the goodness of the existence of each individual creature and the tranquility and peacefulness experienced by Price:

“God in His infinite goodness gives being to all in the way in which each can receive it. With Him there is no jealousy. He communicates being without distinction; and, since all receive being in accord with the demands of their contingent nature, every creature rests content in its own perfection, which God has freely bestowed upon it. None desires the greater perfection of any other; each loves by preference that perfection which God has given it and strives to develop and preserve it intact.”

And we seem to hear echoes also of Genesis 1:31: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.” Notice that the scripture says “every thing,” not “everything.”

Huxley also used some Christian terminology in The Doors of Perception, and there is a Christian mystical tradition of the annihilation of the self in oneness with God; but Huxley, along with his friends Christopher Isherwood and Gerald Heard, had for years associated with the Vedanta Society of Hollywood. Vedanta, which is the non-dualistic philosophy of the Hindu tradition, teaches that the ego, that part of the self which expresses individuality, eventually realizes that it is one with the Self, which is beyond individuality. There is a clear contrast between Vedanta and the view expressed by the Christian philosopher, Nicholas of Cusa, and experienced by Price on his mescaline trip.

The contrast between Huxley’s and Price’s respective experiences induced by mescaline doesn’t in itself show that psychedelic experience supports Christianity rather than Vedanta. It can be taken instead that one has a choice between the two. But I am satisfied with that. My reason for preferring Christianity over Vedanta is that I want to have everlasting life without ceasing to be the individual person who I am. The reason I believe in God is that I just find myself with the very personal knowledge of which person I am out of all the persons there are. I’m not aware of how that is something that I could have decided, and it doesn’t make sense to me to think that this most personal fact is caused by an impersonal Nature or Brahman or Void, nor am I aware of any reason to doubt that it is a fact and, moreover, one in the absence of which no other fact could be acted upon. The reason I am a Christian is that I believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ teachings and Paul’s vision of our being children of God, who die with Christ and are resurrected with Christ, express the deepest truths about the ultimate goal of living.

I am well aware that there are psychedelic people who prefer other religious traditions as well as those who are atheists. My mission is not to try to persuade anyone to take a psychedelic trip or to become a Christian (although it is true that in Psychedelic Christianity I dare any despairing intellectual who professes the belief that life is meaningless to take 250-500 micrograms of LSD). Rather, it is to tell the truth about my experiences and to help people to see that the beauty and truth of the great Christian religion are livable options for those with (spiritual) eyes to see and (spiritual) ears to hear—and those include the physically blind and deaf. After all, the physically afflicted were among the first to recognize Christ.

Huston Smith’s Cleansing the Doors of Perception is a collection of essays on the religious significance of entheogenic plants and chemicals, written over a thirty-nine year period. ( It begins with an account of his first psychedelic experience—as part of Dr. Timothy Leary’s project at the Center for Personality Research at Harvard University in 1961 and, like Price’s, Huxley’s (and mine, I might add) via mescaline–and it concludes with a summing up of his reflections which he wrote for the first publication of this book in 2000.
[A note on terminology: Smith declares in the Preface that he prefers the terms entheogen(s) and entheogenic (“God-containing” or “God-enabling”) over the term psychedelic (“mind-manifesting”) because he thinks the latter is too bound up with a particular time period, “the psychedelic sixties.” However, he doesn’t replace psychedelic with entheogen or entheogenic in the chapters that are reprints of essays that he wrote during that time period. I don’t share his qualms about psychedelic and will use both it and entheogen interchangeably.]

When I took my first psychedelic trip, in 1968, while I was somewhat apprehensive at first, the experience was otherwise wholly positive and enjoyable. Like Price, I was struck by the deep, never before seen colors. I became aware of rich details of things I saw and heard that must have been there all along but that I wouldn’t have normally noticed. Everything was absolutely new and fresh. I remember saying to my friend, “I didn’t know it would be so much fun!” Smith’s first trip was quite different: “The world into which I was ushered was strange, weird, uncanny, significant, and terrifying beyond belief.” (p. 10) In the front matter of the book he quotes R. Gordon Wasson: “Ecstasy! In common parlance ecstasy is fun. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. After all, who will choose to feel undiluted awe? The unknowing vulgar abuse the word; we must recapture its full and terrifying sense.” (p. viii)

In Smith’s account of his mescaline trip, which took place at Timothy Leary’s home on New Years Day 1961, he also writes, “Later, after the peak had passed and I had walked a few steps, I said to Tim, ‘I hope you know what you’re playing around with here. I realize I’m still under the influence and that things probably look different from your side, but it looks to me like you’re taking an awful chance in these experiments. Objective tests might reveal that my heart had been beating normally this afternoon, but there is such a thing as people being frightened to death. I feel like I’m in an operating room, having barely squeaked through an ordeal in which for two hours my life hung in the balance.” (p. 12)

I later had an experience like that, too. It was the worst trip I ever had. I had a vision of the Devil—but I reminded myself that I didn’t believe that the Devil existed—and immediately after, my heart was beating so fast that I thought it would surely exhaust itself and I would soon die. I think most people with much experience with psychedelics will at some point have undergone the classic “bad trip” or “bummer.” And these colloquialisms don’t do justice to the terror. And this is part of the anti-addictive property of psychedelics. People tend to take them less frequently over time and eventually stop altogether because they feel that they have learned what there is to learn, to the point that trying to repeat the experience isn’t worth hazarding another trial by ordeal. At least that has been my experience. I’m not trying to persuade anyone not to take another trip either. But my experience was also that a bad trip could be as deeply instructive as a more pleasant one, and I went on to have other trips after that one, including a big one during which I felt no resistance at all, and it seemed to me that there was a very real sense in which I died and was instantaneously reborn.

There are some people who have a glimpse of Hell on their first trip, with the result that their first trip is their only trip, and they find it difficult to conceive why anyone who has had such an experience would ever want to take another trip. But despite the terror Smith underwent on his first trip, he also knew that there was something of deep value in it, and it was not his last. He continues, “For several years following my initiation, the entheogens were the center of my reflective and social life. Reflectively, to have become overnight a visionary—one who not merely believes in the existence of a more momentous world than this one but who has actually visited it—was no small matter. How could what felt like an epochal change in my life have been crowded into a few hours and occasioned by a chemical?…if chemistry does not tell the whole story, what is that story? And what part do chemicals, replacing angels as divine intermediaries, play in it?

“Questions like these assaulted me with an urgency that reconstructed my social life. Family and friends remained in place, but beyond those I sought out associates who shared my compulsion to talk about and understand our shared secret. This is the stuff of which churches are made, and with the Harvard Project an ad hoc ‘church’ emerged…. What to make of the entheogens was the question, and we lived for the times when, like Socrates and his friends, we could hang out together to talk.” He reports that once every month or so, they gathered to take their sacrament “in a vaguely ritualistic context—incense, candles, favorite poems, passages from sacred texts, and spontaneous inputs in the style of Quaker meetings.” (pp. 15-16)

The foregoing is from the introduction to Chapter 2, “Do Drugs Have Religious Import?” which consists of an essay that was originally published in the Journal of Philosophy (Oct. 1, 1964). His answer to the question in the title is an unequivocal Yes. He criticizes R. C. Zaehner’s case for a No answer as a refusal to look at the evidence: “What we seem to be witnessing in Zaehner’s Mysticism, Sacred and Profane is a reenactment of the age-old pattern in the conflict between science and religion. Whenever a new controversy arises, religion’s first impulse is to deny the disturbing evidence science has produced…. When the fact that drugs can trigger religious experiences becomes incontrovertible, discussion will move to the more difficult question of how this fact is to be interpreted.” (p. 24)The scientific evidence he has in mind here is the Good Friday Experiment, about which I will say more later.

He goes on to tackle the difficult question of the relation between psychedelic experience and the rest of one’s life, and concludes, “Drugs appear to be able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives.” (p. 30) He criticizes what he calls “the religion of religious experience,” which he characterizes as having as its goal “the acquisition of desired states of experience irrespective of their relation to life’s other demands and components.” He writes, “If the religion of religious experience is a snare and a delusion, it follows that no religion that fixes its faith primarily in substances that induce religious experiences can be expected to come to a good end. What promised to be a shortcut will prove to be a short circuit; what began as a religion will end as a religious surrogate.” (p. 31)

Here we begin to get to the heart of why I think Smith’s book points towards psychedelic Christianity. A lot hinges on what he means by a religion’s “fixing its faith primarily in substances that induce religious experiences.” I think what he means is that what is of supreme importance is not the substances themselves, as if one were to set a pill on an altar and bow down to it, nor is it the religious experiences themselves “irrespective,” as he says, “of their relation to life’s other demands and components,” as if one accrues merit points for each psychedelic trip, with the times in between counted as boring details. Rather it is the difference the religious experiences make in one’s life, including all the times when one is not on a psychedelic trip. Somewhere in his writings, Smith coins (or possibly quotes—I don’t remember which) a slogan: “Altered states should lead to altered traits.” Of course, it isn’t just any alteration either. It should be an alteration for the better. But I can easily see a religion being accused by outsiders of putting its faith primarily in substances that induce religious experiences, when what is really happening is that its adherents emphasize the importance of the substance because they have observed that it tends to produce religious experiences which in turn lead to lives that are changed for the better.

Such is the case of the Native America Church, whose members have had to fight legal battles to establish their right to use peyote, which contains mescaline, for religious purposes. In one of the later chapters of Cleansing the Doors of Perception Smith quotes from a collection of testimonials by members of the Native American Church. Many of these testimonials emphasize the efficacy of peyote, which they call “the Medicine.” Some of the quotations taken in isolation could be misinterpreted as expressing worship of peyote, but when one reads them all, one understands that the reason they believe in the Medicine is not that it enables them to acquire desirable experiences with no connections to the rest of their lives, but rather because it has changed their lives for the better.

It is quite clear in this chapter that Smith does not regard the Native American Church as vulnerable to the criticism of being a religion of religious experience which will end as a religious surrogate rather than a genuine religion. Is this why I say that Smith’s book, like Price’s essay, points the way to psychedelic Christianity? It is part of the reason. The example of the Native American Church shows that the sacramental use of psychedelics in the context of a church is a workable possibility. But Native Americans might not want to characterize their religion as psychedelic Christian. The testimonials in Smith’s book indicate the religion of the Native American Church is theistic and in accord with the spirit of Christianity, but the members don’t appear to be eager to identify their religion as Christian. For example, Albert Hensley, a Winnebago, is quoted as saying, “Our favorite term for Peyote is Medicine. To us it is a portion of the body of Christ, even as the communion bread is believed to be a portion of Christ’s body for Christians. In the Bible, Christ spoke of a comforter who was to come. Sent by God, this comforter came to the Indians in the form of this holy Medicine. We know whereof we speak. We have tasted of God and our eyes have been opened.” (p. 117)
An unidentified Kiowa says this: “In the first creation God himself used to talk to people and tell them what to do. Long after, Christ came along among the white people and told them what to do. Then God gave us Indians Peyote. That’s how we found God.” (p. 118)

Having read the testimonies Smith has collected, I would count members of the Native American Church as psychedelic Christians, but I suspect that a history of being disapproved of by non-psychedelic Christians leads them to contrast their religion with that of Christians who don’t believe in the Medicine.

To complete the picture of why I think Smith’s book poses a problem to which psychedelic Christianity is the solution, we need to consider, first, his criticisms of Leary’s leadership of the psychedelic movement, and then what he writes about his participation in the Good Friday Experiment.

The problem, again, is the difficult question of how best to integrate one’s psychedelic experiences with the rest of one’s life. The solution to this problem is not made any easier by the answer of the mainstream culture, which is that no one should have any psychedelic experiences in the first place, or, for anyone who has done so, that he or she should stop doing it. But this is nothing new. Christianity itself was illegal for a longer period of time than psychedelics have been illegal.

Timothy Leary’s attempted solution to this part of the problem was to seek publicity in the hope that curiosity would induce enough people to try psychedelics to ensure that the good news would spread by word of mouth so that societal resistance would be overwhelmed. Smith thinks this is where the psychedelic movement “went off the rails,” as he puts it. Smith is not alone in this kind of criticism of Leary. Albert Hoffman, the discover of LSD, says the following in an endorsement printed on the back cover of Smith’s book: “His [Smith’s] views are completely in accord with my own,” and he expresses similar criticisms of Leary in his book, LSD: My Problem Child. And Michael Pollan, in his new book, How to Change Your Mind, similarly blames Leary, whom he calls a “disgraced scientist,” for the backlash that curtailed scientific research into the promise of psychedelics. This is a topic for another day, but I will just say, at this point, that, as someone who would have been unlikely to have been chosen as an experimental subject or as one of the leaders of society to be informed of the secret of LSD, I am grateful to Tim for letting the cat out of the bag.

Smith begins his criticism of Leary’s leadership with a backhanded compliment, as follows:

“History shows that minority faiths are viable, but only when they are cradled in communities that are solid and structured enough to constitute what in effect are churches. To date [1967], the psychedelic movement shows no signs of having within it the makings of such a church . . . but perhaps I should qualify that in one respect. The psychedelic movement does have a charismatic leader: a man of intelligence, culture, and charm who is completely self-assured and apparently fearless. When Arthur Kleps, head of a branch of the short-lived Neo-American Church, testified before the Special Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Narcotics that ‘we regard Dr. Timothy Leary with the same special love and respect as was reserved by the early Christians for Jesus, by Muslims for Mohammed, and by Buddhists for Gautama,’ we sensed the presence of charisma, the magnetism of a person who is regarded by his followers as an embodiment of spiritual power.” (p. 36)

These comments interest me personally because I was a member of the Neo-American Church from 1971-1978 and knew Art Kleps well, years after Smith had called the church “short-lived” in 1967. And you can do an internet search and see for yourself that the church still maintains an active website and accepts members, even though Art Kleps died in 1999. And Art was the founder of the Neo-American Church, not head of a branch of it.

Some nine years after his Senate testimony, Art excommunicated Leary from the Neo-American Church for the occultism evident in his “Starseed Transmission” statement. And three years later I left the Neo-American Church, having doubts about the philosophy of solipsistic nihilism that Art espoused.

My experience supports the statement that Smith makes after acknowledging Leary’s fearlessness and charisma. He says that having a charismatic leader is not enough. Then he goes on to make three principal criticisms of the psychedelic movement (as it was in 1967): that it lacks a social philosophy, that it is antinomian, and that it fails to draw the line between the exoteric and the esoteric. (p. 37)

As for the criticism that the movement lacks a social philosophy, after noting striking parallels between Tertullian’s admonition to the early Christians on how to live in confrontation with the Roman Empire and Leary’s advice to those who had tuned in to psychedelic experience that they should drop out of American social institutions, Smith points out that an important difference is that the early Christians, unlike the psychedelic enthusiasts, expected the imminent end of history through divine intervention. He argues that this apocalypticism gave them a philosophy of history that justified their refusal to take part in politics, trade, or academic philosophy. (pp. 37-38) But is it really so clear that the psychedelic movement, especially in those early years, lacked this element of apocalypticism? I think that many of us regarded the sudden widespread availability and use of LSD as divine intervention that marked, perhaps not the end of history, but the end of it as we had known it up to that point.

Smith continues in his criticism of Leary’s leadership by noting that another possibility, rather than apocalypticism, as an alternative to the shortcomings of the prevailing culture, would have been a revolutionary social program of improvements that the psychedelic counterculture would make. But he doesn’t think Leary or any other psychedelic leaders have put forth any such proposals. (p. 38) In response, I ask that we consider the American, French, and Bolshevik revolutions, and the fact that two of the three resulted in rule by terror. It might have actually been a good thing that Leary didn’t have much in the way of a detailed proposal as to how society should be run and instead advised people not to follow leaders, while at the same time acting as though he thought he was one.

Smith thinks there is one other possible path that could have been followed. Rather than expecting divine intervention or advocating a revolutionary social program to improve society, the psychedelic movement could have established utopian enclaves in which lives could be lived independently of the mores of the mainstream culture. And he recognizes that some attempts were made in this direction, but he observes that none have proved to be viable in the long term. (ibid.)

He concludes that the psychedelic movement, being neither apocalyptic, revolutionary, nor utopian, has failed to produce a social message that is worthy of respect, and this is his first main criticism of it. (p. 39)

His second main criticism comes under the heading of antinomianism, “the belief that it is possible to advance in virtue to a point where one stands above the law and is entitled to lay aside its commands in the name of a higher morality.” (ibid.) He doesn’t explain or give any examples of the ways he thinks Leary or other psychedelic leaders have advocated antinomianism. I assume he has in mind the fact that they continued to use LSD after it was made illegal and encouraged others to do so also. I know that Art Kleps and all members of the Neo-American Church held the position that using psychedelic substances to stimulate visionary experience was protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Smith himself made the same argument in favor of members of the Native American Church being exempt from laws against the possession of peyote. Did he think the Native Americans should have ceased practicing their religion if the U.S. Congress had not effectively agreed by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993? Was the Native American Church guilty of antinomianism before that by insisting on the rights of its members to use peyote as a sacrament?

Again, the force of Smith’s charge of antinomianism against the psychedelic movement circa 1967 comes down to the problem of finding a context of guidance as to how to live one’s life in the light of one or more religious experiences induced by the ingestion of a psychedelic. This problem is especially acute when the powers-that-be regard the use of psychedelics as dangerous and destructive and pass and enforce laws against it. Under such circumstances, defying the law is necessary in order to find out if taking a psychedelic really can produce a religious experience, but finding out that it can doesn’t solve the problem of how to live one’s life accordingly.

Now we come to Smith’s criticism of the psychedelic movement circa 1967 that I find most objectionable: that it fails to observe the esoteric/exoteric divide. He cites Jesus’ admonition not to cast pearls before swine, and writes, “In its early centuries, Christianity reserved a number of its dogmas for those who had undergone probationary instruction and been baptized. The promise that was exacted of them, ‘I will not speak of thy mysteries to thine enemies,’ still appears in orthodox Christian liturgies.” Next, he cites examples from Hinduism and writes, “India honors higher states of consciousness fully as much as today’s psychedelic proponents do, but insists that if they are accessed by persons who are unprepared for them, one of two things will happen. Either (as I have said) the subject will be damaged, or the significance of the experience will be missed and the encounter trivialized. . . . The psychedelic movement pays lip service to these dangers by advising screening and preparing subjects, but on the whole it honors the esoteric/exoteric distinction only perfunctorily.” (p. 42) He then discusses the Ch’an/Zen tradition in Buddhism, which came to emphasize integrating the satori experience into daily life. However, as far as I can see, this fact has nothing to do with the esoteric/exoteric divide, but is a return to the main point about the value of the peak experience being realized in how one lives one’s life.

I object to Smith’s criticism of Leary’s failure to reserve the holy teachings for the select few because I think it is unChristian and unpsychedelic. (It is interesting that Art Kleps criticized Leary from the opposite direction, that is, for the esotericism implied in his latching onto the fad of occultism.) True, Jesus said we shouldn’t cast pearls before swine and distinguished between his followers, to whom had been given the secret of the Kingdom of God, and those outside who look but don’t perceive and listen but don’t understand. (Mk 4:11-12) And he told the twelve when he sent them out that if any place didn‘t welcome them and refused to hear them, “You, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mk 6:7-122) But he never told them to withhold from anyone the message that the Kingdom is near. On the contrary, he said, “There is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” (Mk 4:22) And he said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

And I say that is unpsychedelic to arrogate to oneself and one’s associates the right to decide who gets to try psychedelics and who doesn’t. The peak psychedelic experience blows away such pretensions.

I have great respect for Huston Smith’s life and work. I used his The World’s Religions as a text in the Great Religions of the World class I taught for years. His ability, to present the viewpoint of each of the world’s religious traditions as if looking out from inside that tradition, has no equal that I know of. He is a saint for explaining clearly why religion matters in an era when too many people think “scientific” materialism will do the job, and he is a psychedelic hero for helping Congress to see the light about the religious rights of members of the Native American Church to use peyote. But I think his assessment of the psychedelic movement and his recommendations for the way forward are unworkable and unduly pessimistic. He writes, “Despite the fact that I do not see within the psychedelic movement the makings of a viable church, I hope that (as legal use of the entheogens seems destined for the immediate future to be restricted to research) ‘religious research’ will not be considered a contradiction in terms. If a sincere group wishing to use the entheogens for genuinely religious purposes were permitted to do so while qualified observers kept close check on what happens to the group and in the individual lives of its members, the result would at least be interesting, and might be instructive.” (p. 43)

When Smith says that he doesn’t see within the psychedelic movement the makings of a viable church, he is evidently excluding the Native American Church from what he is calling “the psychedelic movement,” because it clearly is a viable church, as he himself recognizes. More importantly, for everyone who believes that psychedelics can induce genuine religious experiences but who is not a member of the Native American Church, Smith’s conclusion involves an abject surrender of the First Amendment right to freely practice one’s religion. His statements raise a serious question: Who are the ones qualified to permit or to forbid a sincere group to use entheogens for genuinely religious purposes? In regard to his hope that religious research might be permitted, presumably the “qualified observers” who are supposed to keep “close check on what happens to the group and in the individual lives of its members” will not themselves be members of the group or even sympathetic “fellow travelers,” for that would compromise scientific objectivity. But no self-respecting sincere and genuine religious group would consent to having purportedly neutral “researchers” to keep close check on the individual lives of its members in a social and legal context where governmental officials claim the authority to pass judgment on whether or not they should be permitted to continue to practice their religion.

In Smith’s book, there are only two psychedelic trips of his own that he describes in any detail. I have already quoted parts of his description of his first trip in Timothy Leary’s home on New Years Day 1961. You will recall that he found that trip to be terrifying but also productive of an epochal change in his life, and he said to Leary, “I hope you know what you’re playing around with here.”The other trip that he describes in some detail occurred on Good Friday of 1962, during what came to be called the Good Friday Experiment or, sometimes, “the Miracle of Marsh Chapel.” The contrast between Smith’s remarks to and about Leary and his comments about Walter Pahnke, the designer of the Good Friday Experiment, is quite striking. (It is worth noting that Leary was one of the two academic advisors who were responsible for supervising Pahnke’s project.) Of Pahnke he writes that “it is difficult to imagine how the history of the entheogens might have been different had he not died in a scuba-diving accident, for he brought to his serious involvement with mysticism the scientific training of a medical doctor and his intention to devote his career to studying the resources of chemicals for religion.” (p. 16)

Chapter Seven of the book consists of an interview of Smith by Thomas Roberts, Professor of Educational Psychology at Northern Illinois University, about a previously unreported incident that occurred during the Good Friday Experiment. Smith tells about the design of the experiment and the previously unreported incident (one of the members of the experimental group thought he had been chosen by God to announce to the world the dawning of the Messianic Age and had chosen a singularly ineffective method of carrying out his mission), and then Roberts asks him, “Anything else?”

Smith replies, “Only the gratitude I feel toward Wally for having mounted the experiment…. [I]t enlarged my understanding of God by affording me the only powerful experience I have had of his personal nature. I had known and firmly believed that God is love and that none of love’s nuances could be absent from his infinite nature; but that God loves me, and I him, in the concrete way that human beings love individuals, each most wanting from the other what the other most wants to give and with everything that might distract from that holy relationship excluded from view—that relation with God I had never before had. It’s the theistic mode that doesn’t come naturally to me, but I have to say for it that its carryover topped those of my other entheogenic epiphanies. From somewhere between six weeks and three months (I should judge) I really was a better person—even at this remove, I remain confident of that. I slowed down a bit and was somewhat more considerate. I was able to some extent to prolong the realization that life really is a miracle, every moment of it, and that the only appropriate way to respond to this gift that we have been given is to be mindful of that gift at every moment and to be caring toward everyone we meet.” (p. 105)

And what was the design of the experiment? It was elegantly simple. There were twenty volunteer subjects, mostly students from Andover Newton Theological Seminary. There were ten more volunteer guides who had previous experience with entheogens. (Smith was one of the guides.) Fifteen of the thirty would receive a dose of psilocybin, and the other fifteen would receive as a placebo nicotinic acid, which produces a tingling sensation. It was a double-blind experiment. That is, neither the volunteers nor the investigator would be informed, until after the experiment, who had received the psilocybin and who had received the nicotinic acid. The experiment would take place on Good Friday in a small chapel, Marsh Chapel, in the basement of the building at Boston University where the Dean of the Chapel, Howard Thurman, would be conducting the Good Friday service, and the service would be piped into the chapel where the subjects were. The day after the experiment the subjects were to write a report about what they had experienced, and these reports would be scored by independent raters “on a scale of zero to three for the degree to which the subject’s experiences included the seven traits of mystical experience that W.T. Stace lists in his classic study, Mysticism and Philosophy.” The subjects were not told of Stace’s book beforehand nor were they encouraged to read any literature on mysticism they were not already familiar with from their studies. (p. 100)

Smith reports that the results were unambiguous. With the exception of one borderline case, those who had received the psilocybin reported religious experiences that matched the criteria on Stace’s list. Those who had received the placebo did not. Twenty five years later, Rick Doblin of the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, located the participants and conducted follow-up interviews. The subjects who had received the psilocybin still vividly remembered details of the experiment and regarded it as a life-changing and beneficial event. Members of the control group reported that the experiment had had little impact on their lives, except for two of them who reported to Doblin that the service had had a beneficial effect in that it had inspired each of them to try psychedelics after the experiment. (

Smith’s book highlights two interrelated problems concerning psychedelics: 1) the problem, for each person, of how to integrate psychedelic experience into his or her life as a whole, and 2) the problem, for society, of how to adjust to the existence of a sizable minority who have experimented with psychedelics and believe their lives have improved as a result. Smith thinks a viable church is the solution and criticizes the psychedelic movement for being unable to produce one, not counting the existence of the Native American Church, which predates what he calls “the psychedelic movement.” My claim is that psychedelic Christianity is the best solution for both of these problems.

What I mean by saying that psychedelic Christianity is the solution is that we don’t need a new church, we just need a deeper understanding of the one we already have. The worship service that was piped into the chapel where the Good Friday Experiment took place did not use some special “psychedelic” liturgy, nor was it the ritual of an exotic religion borrowed from someone else’s culture. Rather it was the product of centuries of organic development of rituals and language that evoke the sacred and connect our modern world with ancient truths.

The great Christian themes are forgiveness, love, and victory over death. One must take up one’s cross, that is, recognize that life involves one’s own personal suffering as well as joy and that one does have to die one’s own death from this life, while at the same time one is saved from eternal death and separation from the people one loves. Psychedelic experience has no truths truer than these to teach, but it can intensify one’s gratitude for them, making it easier to fulfill the greatest commandment.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:36-40)

I’m not saying it is easy except during rare moments, but integrating one’s psychedelic experience into the rest of one’s life, turning altered states into altered traits, is no different from one’s goal as a Christian to live one’s life, day by day and moment by moment, in accord with the good news that the Kingdom of God is near. In the Kingdom of God everyone fulfills those two commandments.

Of course, there are those who think that Christianity doesn’t make sense and so won’t be persuaded that psychedelic Christianity is the solution to anything. Up until eight or nine years ago, I would have been one of them. My psychedelic experiences convinced me that religion is important, but not that there is a personal God. That has come after a long time of reflecting on philosophical questions, especially the question of personal identity, as I already mentioned.

There are some people who understand Christianity in a way that doesn’t make sense to me. For example, I think people are right to be cautious about all drugs—legal, illegal, psychedelic or not—and that some people would be better off never taking any drug than risking addiction to a bad drug. But I also think some drugs can save lives and some can save souls. Drugs can be used to commit suicide. On the other hand, I have heard of more than one case in which someone who was suicidal was persuaded by a friend to try taking a psychedelic and came to love life again. So, it isn’t wise to take either of the positions “Drugs are good!” or “Drugs are bad!” But several people on separate occasions independently of one another (but not independently of a source who came up with it, I imagine) have argued that since the Greek word pharmakeia means “sorcery,” and the Bible condemns sorcery, it follows that the Bible condemns the use of psychedelic drugs (pharmaceuticals). Of course, it would equally follow from those premises that the Bible condemns the use of aspirin, insulin, blood pressure- and cholesterol-lowering drugs, and everything else one can buy at a pharmacy. But that doesn’t seem to bother them, and they go ahead and warn others that I am a false prophet leading people astray, and so is anyone else who says psychedelics and Christianity are compatible. Such people are no doubt sincere and mean well, but I think they resemble the scribes and Pharisees who condemned Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath and charged that his healing must be by the power of Beelzebub.

And, of course, there are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Neo-Pagans, and followers of other religious traditions, who do not accept Christianity, psychedelic or not. I would be willing to engage any such person in a mutually respectful conversation in which I would learn about his or her worldview and would try to explain why Christianity makes sense to me. In this essay I have just wanted to explain how I think both Price’s account of his mescaline experience and Smith’s book about the religious significance of psychedelics can be taken to support the view that the truths learned through psychedelic experience and the truths that Christianity teaches are the same, and, as I said, that we don’t need a new church but rather a deeper understanding of the one we already have.