The Council on Spiritual Practices is a collaboration among spiritual guides, experts in the behavioral and biomedical sciences, and scholars of religion, dedicated to making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people. There is evidence that such encounters can have profound benefits for those who experience them, for their neighbors, and for the world. CSP has a twofold mission: to identify and develop approaches to primary religious experience that can be used safely and effectively, and to help individuals and spiritual communities bring the insights, grace, and joy that arise from direct perception of the divine into their daily lives. The Council on Spiritual Practices has no doctrine or liturgy of its own.
Naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned experiences interpreted as personal encounters with God are well described but have not been systematically compared. In this study, five groups of individuals participated in an online survey with detailed questions characterizing the subjective phenomena, interpretation, and persisting changes attributed to their single most memorable God encounter experience (n = 809 Non-Drug, 1184 psilocybin, 1251 lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 435 ayahuasca, and 606 N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT)). Analyses of differences in experiences were adjusted statistically for demographic differences between groups. The Non-Drug Group was most likely to choose “God” as the best descriptor of that which was encountered while the psychedelic groups were most likely to choose “Ultimate Reality.” Although there were some other differences between non-drug and the combined psychedelic group, as well as between the four psychedelic groups, the similarities among these groups were most striking. Most participants reported vivid memories of the encounter experience, which frequently involved communication with something having the attributes of being conscious, benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal, and all-knowing. The encounter experience fulfilled a priori criteria for being a complete mystical experience in approximately half of the participants. More than two-thirds of those who identified as atheist before the experience no longer identified as atheist afterwards. These experiences were rated as among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant lifetime experiences, with moderate to strong persisting positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning attributed to these experiences. Among the four groups of psychedelic users, the psilocybin and LSD groups were most similar and the ayahuasca group tended to have the highest rates of endorsing positive features and enduring consequences of the experience. Future exploration of predisposing factors and phenomenological and neural correlates of such experiences may provide new insights into religious and spiritual beliefs that have been integral to shaping human culture since time immemorial.
When the link between psychedelic drugs and mystical states of experience was first discovered in the 1960s, Huston Smith challenged scholars in religion and philosophy to consider the implications. Very few took up his challenge. Beginning in 2006, hundreds of studies have linked psychedelics not just to mystical states of experience but to potential treatments for many mental health disorders. Regulatory approval for therapies is on the horizon, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide could be treated. Research findings challenge the underlying rationale of the War on Drugs, leading to decriminalization of specific psychedelic drugs or to authorization of their use in mental health contexts. Religious institutions are slowly adapting, with some referring to psychedelics as sacraments or as pathways to deeper spirituality. Religious leaders are also beginning to speak out publicly in support of careful use of these drugs, and some are training to become “psychedelic chaplains” to work alongside mental health professionals administering these drugs. Scholars in theology and religion are encouraged to engage these trends, to explore challenging philosophical and theological issues surrounding mystical states of experience in general, and to consider the long-term cultural impact of the most recent psychedelic research