The Psychedelic “Tradition”

Note from the Editors: This article is part II of a III-part series on the use of Psychedelics as viewed from the Right. Read part I, here. Part III, here.


Psychedelics from the Right, Part II: A Response to “A Conservative Case for Entheogenic Practice”

As an artist whose main area of focus is religion, I’ve dedicated much of my life to weird ideas, odd things, fringe topics, the paranormal, and mysticism, and also psychedelics. Psychedelics were part of my spiritual path for a long time, but eventually I stopped using them. I think this gives me an atypical perspective as it’s rare for someone to go ‘all in’ on that path, then turn around and adopt a negative view of it while still staying oriented towards the same kinds of topics.

I usually don’t go into my personal track record with psychedelics, but I would say I integrated psychedelics into my life and worldview to the greatest extent that someone could without going to live in some type of psychedelic commune. I was using them as often as I thought I safely could, in every context I could think of. I’ve done all the psychedelics that everyone has heard of, and a few that almost no one has. Some were so rare that I had to personally track down governmental lab reports about them to discover what their psychoactive compounds were.

I’ve done psychedelics in combination, I’ve fasted for multiple days and then used ayahuasca, I’ve smoked DMT while on other psychedelics, and I’ve been present for a lot of people’s first psychedelic experiences. I did acid at Alex Grey’s birthday party and slept under one of his paintings. I’ve met people who call themselves shamans and operate in this context professionally  — leading what some might call small psychedelic cults. None of this means that my assessments are necessarily correct, but nobody could say I lack experience.

I should also say at the outset that I am Christian, although I’ll be setting this aside as much as possible. I mention this because in the past I’ve been accused of being locked into an anti-psychedelics position because I am Christian, as though this is the position that I have to take because of my religion. However, I broke with psychedelics and adopted a more negative perspective on them before becoming Christian. In other words, my point of view developed independently, based on my experiences, research, and observations, not because of doctrine.

People often act as though any cases of people damaging themselves via psychedelics are just isolated, or urban legends, or exaggerated. They’re not. I personally am one degree away from an otherwise normal person who broke into a house the first time he took acid and went to jail. I also know someone whose boyfriend jumped out of a window and accidentally killed himself while on acid, and I’m just a random guy.

On the whole, people advocating for psychedelic use tend to shield themselves from potential pushback by pointing out that “it is indeed dangerous, it’s not for everyone.” I have a big problem with this, as the same people usually get to promote it as something people really should be doing if they can handle it. And then it’s people like me get who get to try and pick up the pieces when someone’s life really falls apart in a tragic and dark way as a consequence.

I feel this an existential issue and the difference between two radically divergent views of life. On some level, painting a positive picture of psychedelics means that you are advocating for some people to use them. From my perspective, that makes you a kind of spiritual guide, which opens you up to spiritual critique, and that is something I take seriously.

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Modern psychedelic use in the West is almost its own folk religion. It has its own mythology and view of history, its own ritual practices, its own conception of its origin in a mythical golden age, its own axiology (that means its own system of determining what is important and worthwhile in life): its own framework for understanding life, our world, and what we should do. One problem is that these aspects tend to be implied, not stated outright, and accepted as obvious. This means that they’re rarely explicitly questioned.

One overarching idea is that psychedelics themselves are at the root of religion. It’s assumed that if you go back far enough in history into primitive humanity, you find an ancient intersection of shamanism and psychedelics that is the true origin of religion as we know it today. This shamanic psychedelic experience develops over time, picking up ideas, rituals, regalia, rules, until it eventually becomes an organized religion.

The problem is that, for almost any religion whose origins we can really trace, this isn’t what happens and is even the opposite of how religions form. Religions seem to be typically suddenly sparked by some type of divine revelation, not develop through gradual evolution. Take Mormonism. A new revelation was delivered, and suddenly there you have it: a new, cohesive, self-contained system. Scientology is similar. One person made it by building a new system in total. On the world religion stage, Islam is similar: a new cohesive system emerges as a whole – as one total thing. I would also describe Christianity itself this way: you can point to the break, a single lifetime, wherein the paradigm emerged. Obviously all of these things had causes and conditions that affected their genesis and later development, but they don’t slowly and organically grow out of a primordial ur-religion and eventually become their own system. It’s the other way around.

Take ancient Egyptian history. Do we see an Egyptian shamanism that naturally and organically grew into the full Egyptian religion? In my opinion, no. Again, it’s the opposite (and a lot of the development appears to have been negative, for example comparing the Pyramid texts to the later coffin texts and so-called Egyptian books of the dead) there is a clear regression. Rather than a slow development, it feels and looks more like something that just “fell from the sky” as a complete system from the beginning. 

With this in mind, it’s hard for me to imagine substance-based shamanism slowly developing into a “fully formed” religion. It’s just as likely that the shamanisms we see today are not sparks of the original proto-religion, but degradations of religion: the last dimension left when the actual structure and bones of religion are gone — the decayed remains of once cohesive, living systems.

So the general assumption that (psychedelic) shamanism is the ultimate original religion, and thus is the ultimate traditional “thing,” is at best just one possibility. It’s at least not a foundation that is certain enough for us to start building our house upon. This point leads to the second presupposition modern Western psychedelic culture makes.

Modern Western psychedelic users use psychedelics with a particular aim in mind: to gain wisdom. If you had to fit them into an archetype, they are almost like philosophers, or maybe alchemists. They have a substance or a tool (psychedelics) that does something to them, and they want to use this tool to gain insight about themselves, or about their world. But this is not the context in which traditional forms of shamanism used substances. Traditional shamans are much more like doctors or diplomats. There is a spirit world which they can access through the use of substances. While there, they can do things like negotiate the fate of souls or ask for better weather or heal physical and other wounds.

It may seem like a subtle point, but these two perspectives are completely different. They have essentially nothing in common except the use of psychoactive substances. The modern Western psychedelic user isn’t usually doing LSD in order to ask real spirits that live on another plane to fix his friend’s kidneys or to send rain. The traditional shaman also isn’t sitting in the jungle on ayahuasca in order to gain wisdom or just to become a better person. They are doing different things and the link between them is a fantasy of the modern Western psyche.

If you talk to certain shamans in the Amazon, some of them dread doing ayahuasca. They view it as something horrible that they go through in order to make these necessary deals and to gather important things for their tribe (we’re not talking about knowledge or amorphous emotional outcomes). They are not doing it for introspective or wisdom-gaining purposes. There is no link between modern Western psychedelic use and shamanism except the fact that they are both (in this case) using substances. But they are using them for different reasons. 

A kid in Brooklyn doing mushrooms in his apartment has genuinely nothing to do with the man in the Amazon using ayahuasca, even though he imagines that he is part of the same ancient lineage. The models and specific cases of shamanism you can study today do not paint anything like the picture that a modern Western psychedelic user generally imagines.

The final point concerns the antiquity of shamanism. I agree that there probably are ancient forms of substance-using shamanism. The author of the article I’m responding to, Sam McHall, cites the Eleusinian mysteries from ancient Greece as one example. To be honest, that’s pretty much the one convincing case to me of a well-documented, large-scale religious phenomenon that was (secretly) employing psychoactive substances. Outside of that, the antiquity of any of these practices is just a guess. 

When we look at the Amazon, it’s presupposed that people have been doing ayahuasca there “forever.” But have they? We have no idea. Everything is made of wood and decays pretty quickly in that environment. Ayahuasca is also very complex in terms of pharmacology: you have to find a plant that has a MAOI, and combine it with the plant containing DMT. When did they deduce this? How would we know? These things might not be so ancient after all. 

Sometimes we can find isolated artifacts that point one way or the other, but the assumption that these things stretch back into prehistory is, in my opinion, not warranted. Northern Africa has been inhabited for an extremely long time, but, as far as we know, people only discovered the coffee plant relatively recently – and it is much less complex to access the psychoactive components of coffee than it is with ayahuasca. In Mexico, there’s a psychoactive form of salvia, but there doesn’t seem to be an ancient tradition of using it. So, at best, the assumption that these things stretch way back into history is just an assumption. Their use might actually be relatively recent.

Someone presenting psychedelic use as potentially dovetailing with what is traditional is caught in a double bind. Virtually all the world religions are actually pretty clear in saying “don’t do drugs.” It’s as general as anything in the domain of religion. Go to a Catholic priest, a Baptist preacher, an Orthodox priest, an Imam, a Rabbi, a Zen or Tibetan Buddhist teacher, to any religious leader you can find. Those people will not tell you to do psychedelics. If giving weight to tradition means anything, it would mean noticing that all these people from wildly different worldviews spanning the entire globe essentially agree on this.

Cover art: “The Temptation of St. Anthony”, by Owen Cyclops

Owen Cyclops is an artist. You can find his work on owencomics.com.


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