Psychedelics (Entheogens) and Spirituality

People have used psychedelics to commune with the divine and create bonds among the living and the dead, the spiritual and the natural worlds for centuries and possibly millennia. Pre-Incan civilizations consumed the San Pedro cactus, which contains mescaline; Vedic and Zoroastrian traditions consumed soma, which some scholars believe may have been based on mushrooms containing psychoactive ingredients; Bantu diviners use psychedelic herbs called ubulawu during healing ceremonies; and early Christians may have consumed sacramental wine laced with a psychoactive ingredient. 

As scientists increasingly explore the potential benefits of psychedelics, the spiritual aspect of these substances remains central. Some contemporary religions incorporate them as a sacrament, and many psychedelic users report having deeply spiritual and mystical experiences outside of a structured religious context. Here’s some background on the role of entheogens in both organized religious traditions and individual religious practices.

Nomenclature

Also known as psychotomimetics, hallucinogens, or psychedelics, entheogens are psychoactive substances that induce profound changes in perception. The word “entheogen” comes from the ancient Greek “entheos” for “divine,” and “genesthai” for “generate,” and refers to a connection with the inner divine; it’s commonly used when the substances are taken with spiritual intent or when they have spiritual effects. 

“Entheogen” is the preferred term of the Decriminalize Nature movement, which aims to change laws against “entheogenic plants and fungi” or to deprioritize enforcement of those laws. It has effectively done so in a growing number of U.S. cities.

Recognized Churches and Psychedelics

In the United States, a few select groups can legally use an entheogen in their practices. Indigenous people can use peyote in traditional Indigenous religious ceremonies, including those of the Native American Church. (Note: The American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments, which grants Indigenous people that right, uses the term “Indian” rather than “Indigenous.”) The União do Vegetal can use ayahuasca during its ceremonies. The Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, a church in the Santo Daime tradition in Ashland, Oregon, can also legally use ayahuasca in the United States.

Native American Church

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Native American Church (NAC), which uses peyote as a key component of its religious ceremonies, formed in the Oklahoma Territory. The practice of peyote use spread from southern Texas, where it grows wild, across the United States and eventually into Canada. During a time when many Indigenous groups were losing their land and being forced into residential schools, peyote became a way to heal trauma and maintain cultural autonomy. 

The National Council of Native American Churches describes the purpose of the practice as a way to build community: “[w]hile peyote plays a central role in the [NAC] service, it is not to induce visions (per the common misunderstanding), but to bring people closer to their creator and to facilitate healing and fellowship.” An estimated 250,000 NAC practitioners in eighty chapters are spread across North America. 

Since its founding, NAC groups have been targeted by prohibitionists, and NAC members have repeatedly been arrested or had their peyote confiscated. Practitioners have won several legal battles affirming their right to use peyote for religious purposes.

Recently, however, NAC’s access to peyote has been threatened by a shortage of the cactus. Peyote is a slow-growing plant, and it can take a decade or more for a seed to develop into a cactus with enough mescaline for an effective dose. The species has been decimated by a growing demand from non-Indigenous users who want to experience the drug; cattle ranching, agriculture, and oil and gas development on the desert land where peyote grows; and poaching and unsustainable harvesting practices. Because of this, peyote is designated a vulnerable species, and NAC members are trying to save it. The Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative owns six hundred acres of land in Texas to grow peyote, promote Indigenous health, and support a sustainably harvested crop that can last generations.

Some members of the NAC have also asked non-Indigenous people to abstain from using peyote. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 2020, NAC member Steven Benally said, “Peyote is sacred medicine crucial to our religious identity and the survival of our community. The spiritual healing power it offers is only attainable through Native American protocol. It is intended to nourish the soul in troubled times and inspire our children to become responsible men and women.”

União do Vegetal

The União do Vegetal (UDV) church was founded by José Gabriel da Costa in 1961. Da Costa, also known as Mestre Gabriel, grew up in a largely Catholic society in Bahia, Brazil. (“Mestre” means “teacher” in Portuguese.) As an adult, he became a rubber tapper and moved to a camp in the western Amazon, where he first encountered ayahuasca. Da Costa blended elements of his Catholic upbringing with Judaism, Afro-Brazilian religions, and teachings by the nineteenth-century French spiritist Allan Kardec. Followers often associate da Costa with Jesus, and the UDV defines itself as a “Christian reincarnationist religion.”

In 1965, da Costa moved the UDV to the city of Porto Velho and created a structure for the religion. The UDV is organized around núcleos, congregations of fewer than 150 people led by a representative mestre. During services, members of a núcleo drink ayahuasca, which they call hoasca, and achieve burracheira, an altered state that the UDV compares to religious ecstasy and believes brings practitioners closer to a god-like “Superior force.  

After da Costa’s death in 1971, the UDV church has continued to grow and operate as a centralized religion. It now claims to have more than twenty-one thousand members in eleven countries around the world. In 2006, in an 8–0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of UDV church members to use ayahuasca during its ceremonies.

Santo Daime Religion

The Santo Daime religion was founded in the city of Rio Branco in the 1930s by Raimundo Irineu Serra, an Afro-Brazilian rubber tapper who is now referred to as Mestre Irineu. Like the UDV church, Santo Daime theology is a mix of Christianity, Kardecist Spiritism, Afro-Brazilian religious practices, and Indigenous shamanism. 

As the rubber industry collapsed in the early 1900s, the economy in the Amazon declined. Many people, including tappers like Irineu Serra and Indigenous people from the Amazon, migrated from the rainforest to urban centers where ayahuasca and Catholic traditions mixed. Irineu Serra believed that after drinking ayahuasca he encountered the Queen of the Forest, whom he equated with the Virgin Mary. Santo Daime sprang out of this content, combining the Indigenous belief that plants have spirits with Christian ideas that teachings originated from the Virgin of Immaculate Conception.

After Irineu Serra’s death in 1971, Santo Daime split into several sects. Some churches follow the teachings of his disciple Sebastião Mota de Melo, known as Padrinho Sebastião. 

Although Santo Daime has a different set of beliefs from those of the UDV church, both use ayahuasca during their ceremonies. Santo Daime followers call ayahuasca daime and believe it’s the blood of Christ, just as wine in the Catholic eucharist is believed to be Christ’s blood. Daime is drunk in group settings where practitioners pray, sing hymns (called icaros), and dance. These rituals are called trabalhos, or works, because they are physically and psychologically demanding. The visions that practitioners experience are understood to be guidance from the spiritual or astral plane.

Santo Daime began to spread throughout Brazil and internationally in the 1980s, and can be found in at least twenty-three countries across the world. In the United States, only one Santo Daime-related group, the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, has federal permission to import and use ayahuasca.

Mystical Experiences 

Many psychedelics users report mystical experiences, particularly in high-dose sessions. Some studies suggest these experiences can have profound and lasting effects on behaviors and attitudes. Among scholars, “mysticism” refers to a larger set of phenomena that can include visions, voices, and occult experiences, while “mystical experiences” or “mystical-type experiences” denotes a much narrower category.

Characterizing and Measuring Mystical-Type Experiences

Mystical experiences, according to the philosopher Walter T. Stace, are characterized by the experience of profound unity, expressed by the idea that “All is One”; the sense of that “One” as consciousness or a living presence; a sense that what is experienced is real; a deeply felt positive mood; the feeling of accessing the sacred or divine; paradoxicality; and a sense that the experience is difficult to put into words. Similar characteristics were identified by the American psychologist and philosopher William James in the early 1900s.

In the early 1960s, Walter Pahnke, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, developed the forty-three-item Mystical Experience Questionnaire based on James’s and Stace’s frameworks for mystical-type experiences (later revised by Pahnke and William Richards to one hundred items). He used this questionnaire in his 1962 Good Friday Experiment in Boston. In that study, twenty Protestant seminary students were invited to a Good Friday church service where half were given psilocybin and the other half were given a placebo. The psilocybin group responded differently from the placebo group on several measures, including sense of sacredness, transcendence of time and space, and alleged ineffability. Significant differences between the groups were found to have persisted twenty-five years later.

In 1975, the psychologist Ralph Hood published another assessment instrument, called the Mysticism Scale, or M-Scale, based on Stace’s characteristics. Since then, Hood’s M-Scale has been used in numerous drug and non-drug studies.

Correlation with Behavior Change

Beginning in 2001, researchers at Johns Hopkins University conducted an experiment with psilocybin and healthy volunteers. Unlike the Good Friday Experiment, volunteers received psilocybin or a placebo in individual sessions under supportive conditions. Using Pahnke’s scale and Hood’s M-Scale, researchers concluded that psychedelics often occasion mystical-type experiences and that these experiences frequently—for two-thirds of the recipients—remain important and meaningful to participants months and over a year later. Hopkins researchers also analyzed the Pahnke scale using survey data to come up with a more refined measure, a thirty-item questionnaire called the MEQ30. They further validated this in experimental psilocybin sessions.

The initial Hopkins psilocybin study, published in 2006, and subsequent studies have investigated the links between participants’ psychedelic-occasioned mystical-type experiences and effects on personal traits, moods, attitudes, and behaviors. One study found that more complete mystical experiences correlated with increased levels of openness after the trip, which is a personality trait associated with higher levels of creativity, receptivity to new ideas, and motivation to expand life experiences. A pilot study examined the effectiveness of treating nicotine addiction with a combination of psilocybin and cognitive behavioral therapy. The results correlated high MEQ30 scores with greater success in quitting smoking.

Similarly, a study on alcohol addiction found that combining two psilocybin sessions with therapy was effective at helping people quit drinking and stay sober. The study authors wrote that “the intensity of effects in the first psilocybin session (at week 4) strongly predicted change in drinking during weeks 5–8 and also predicted decreases in craving and increases in abstinence self-efficacy during week 5.”

Neuroscientific Theories 

It’s well documented that psychedelics often occasion mystical-type experiences, though the brain mechanisms of these effects are not clear.

One possible explanation is that psychedelics work on the default mode network (DMN), a group of brain regions thought to work together to create our sense of self. First described in 2001 by the Washington University neuroscientist Marcus Raichle, the DMN is most active when the brain is in a resting state (in the absence of a specific experimental task). The DMN links parts of the cerebral cortex, including the posterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, with deeper and evolutionarily older structures of the brain involved in emotion and memory, like the hippocampus.

Neuroimaging studies suggest that the DMN is involved in such higher-order “metacognitive” activities as self-reflection, mental projection, remembering the past and envisioning the future, and theory of mind—the ability to attribute mental states to others. It’s also associated with internal dialogue and is central to our ego. Activity in the DMN and the strength of coupling among its different brain regions falls during psychedelic experiences, which is correlated with reports of a dissolution of the sense of self. Some researchers hypothesize that this may be why people who have mystical experiences with psychedelics often describe a sense of oneness or unity and a dissolution of ego as central to the experience.  

But there are problems with the DMN theory. One is that DMN activity is affected by many substances, including alcohol, which don’t cause mystical experiences and aren’t associated with ego dissolution. Some studies suggest that psychedelics affect the connection between the DMN and the claustrum, a thin sheet of neurons that may play a key role in consciousness.

Another possible explanation involves the thalamus, a brain structure that takes information from almost all of the senses (hearing, touch, sight, and taste, but not smell), and relays it to other parts of the brain. In the thalamic-gating model, the thalamus prioritizes some sensory stimuli and filters out others so that the brain isn’t overloaded. Studies suggest that psychedelics disrupt this filtering system, opening the sensory gate and allowing many more stimuli to affect the brain.