The neologism (new word) neurotheology seems to have been first used in print in 1962 in Aldous Huxley’s novel Island, a utopian opposite to his dystopian novel Brave New World. In the story, neurotheology is a disciplined study of religious experiences. Huxley (1894-1963), a prescient thinker, was often ahead of the zeitgeist with his ideas. Some of the areas of Huxley’s neurotheology would be considered pseudoscience, but overall he was a vanguard trail-blazing into previously uncharted territory of inquiry through a work of plausible fiction. By this time he had his religious experience with the help of mescaline and had written The Doors of Perception (published in 1953) which described his experience. After The Doors of Perception and both before and after Island, Huxley would experiment with LSD. Huxley used psychedelics in a careful, controlled manner with the objective of empirically studying transcendental states of consciousness. But Huxley was not the first to attempt to study transcendental experiences in a scientific manner, only the first to use the word “neurotheology”.
William James (1842-1910), a prominent psychologist, philosopher and trained physician was intensely interested in the religious experience and the altered states of consciousness afforded by mind-altering substances. He gave a series of lectures which were later collected in the bookThe Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902 [James, 1902]. Insofar as could be done in his time, he attempted to make a rational, scholarly, systematic and scientific study of transcendental experiences. James wrote that “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” [James, 1902].James attempted to “synthesize scientific, psychological and religious points of view…It was entirely in keeping with Jamesian pragmatism that if there were such things as mystical or transcendental states, they should be verifiable through a repeatable experience” [Boon, 2002] We will return to William James more than once in this essay.
Louis Lewin (1850-1929), a German pharmacologist, was among the first to examine and write about mind-altering substances in a scientific manner. [Lewin, 1874, 1894, 1931]The peyote cactus was originally given its scientific name Anhalonium lewenii in honor of Lewis (but was later reclassified as Lophophora williamsii). Lewin thought of visions such as those that Ezekiel had “as hallucinatory experiences, equivocating between his own feelings of religious faith and the notion that ‘visionary states are…generally temporarily limited intermediate and transitory states caused by substances produced in the organism.’ ” [Lewin, 1931]His hypothesis that the human body can produce vision-inducing substances was very ahead of his time. As we will see, it was not until the late 1900’s/early 2000s that Dr. Rick Strassman would attempt to verify that the human brain produces the vision-inducing DMT.
The polymath Cambridge man Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) made early attempts at a rational approach transcendental experiences with meditation, ritual, and mind-altering substances in various writings in the early 1900s. He coined the term “Scientific Illuminism” and publishedThe Equinox (running from 1909 to 1998) which was “The Review of Scientific Illuminism”. Scientific Illuminism can be summarized by the motto “the method of science, the aim of religion” which was printed on the masthead of each issue of The Equinox. This early attempt at using the scientific method to study transcendental experiences is a foreshadow of today’s neurotheology. Crowley considered the psychological and neurological correlation of transcendental experiences in various writings, much of which was printed in The Equinox. Crowley kept careful notes of his experiments with meditation, ritual magic, yoga, and such substances as hashish and peyote. Experienced with meditation, he considered the experience of a very strong dose of hashish to be roughly analogous to the mystical experience. In fact, he explicitly wrote that a large dose of hashish could give a weary student of meditation a preview of what sober meditation practices may one day achieve. He wrote, “I have no use for hashish save as a preliminary demonstration that there exists another world attainable – somehow.” [Crowley, 1909]
Crowley came of age in Edwardian England in a younger generation than the American William James and the German Louis Lewin, in a social climate where the use of mind-altering substances to study consciousness was looked at more suspiciously. More so than James, Crowley had to counter the prejudice against mind-altering substances in his culture, though they were all available at pharmacy shoppes. He reminds the reader of a time when the micro-organisms discovered with microscopes were viewed with great suspicion and makes a brilliant analogy; “My dear professor, how can you expect me to believe this nonsense about bacteria? Come, saith he, to the microscope; and behold them… Is it fair observation to use lenses, which admittedly refract light and distort vision? How do I know those specks are not dust?…suppose he retorts, ‘You have deliberately trained yourself to hallucination!’ What answer have I? None that I know of save that microscopy has revolutionized surgery…Then my friend the physiologist remarks: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with drugs and a special mental training, your results will be invalid.’ And I reply: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with lenses and a special training, your results will be invalid.’…So there we are.” [Crowley, 1909] This analogy was picked up decades later by Alan Watts and Timothy Leary.1
What is important here is that Crowley was very clear about maintaining a skeptical attitude about the subjective nature of transcendental experiences and that he insisted that if mind-altering substances were to be used, that they be used by persons with extensive physical and mental training and then only in a careful, methodical, scientific manner. The individual experimenting with these substances were to have background education in the philosophies, psychology, theology and in both Western and Eastern mysticism. Otherwise, the seed would fall on barren ground. 1
In the mid-1900s, vice president of J.P. Morgan and Co. and amateur mycologist, R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986) went in search of the almost unheard-of ‘magic mushroom’ in Southern Mexico in a serious of expeditions. He eventually found what he was looking for. On the night of June 29th-30th, 1955, Wasson and photographer Allan Richardson attended the ritual of a Mazatec healer Maria Sabina in which they ate a considerable dose of psilocybe mushrooms. They both had a profound religious experience. Wasson wrote about this experience in an article for LIFE magazine. In his article, Maria Sabina’s name was changed to Eva Mendez and the village location was not given in attempt to shield her from tourism. [Wasson. 1957] Wasson would later write at length about the hypothesis that natural hallucinogens gave rise to religious thinking in human-kind. [Wasson, 1968; Wasson, R. Gordon, et al., 1978; Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl A. P. Ruck, 1986]2..
We will now return to Huxley. Huxley was very influential to the eminent religious studies scholar Huston Smith (who would go on to augment his religious and philosophical studies with psychedelics), psychologists Dr. Timothy Leary (1920-1996), Dr. Richard Alpert AKA Ram Dass (1931-present), Dr. Richard Metzner (1936-present) and many others. Huxley, Leary, Metzner and John Spiegel (later president of the American Psychiatric Association) and others worked as founding board members for the Harvard Psilocybin Project which operated from 1960 to 1962. Huston smith and Dr. Richard Alpert would work with Huxley, Leary, Metzner and others in various studies with psychedelics. [Alpert, Leary and Metzner, 1964; Dass, 1971. 1974, 1977; Huxley, 1932, 1954, 1962; Lattin, 2010; Leary 1968, 1968, 1973, 1977; White, 1998]
Though some of the Harvard Psilocybin Project made advances in more down-to-earth psychology such as the Concord Prison Experiment which was highly successfully in rehabilitating prison inmates, it also studied the application of psychedelics in religion and spirituality. The Marsh Chapel Experiment (also called the “Good Friday Experiment”) was a double-blind study in which volunteer graduate students of divinity school were given either a placebo or psilocybin during the Good Friday service in Marsh Chapel. This study demonstrated that under the right conditions, psychedelics can give one a profound religious experience that left lasting positive traits. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) http://www.maps.org/ followed up with the subjects in 1991 and found that they all considered their session with psilocybin to be a positive turning point in their spiritual and practical lives. 3 In this and many other experiments by Leary, Alpert, Metzner, Smith and many others both within and without the Harvard Psilocybin Project, it was demonstrated that in the proper set and setting, psychedelics were extremely conducive for transcendental/spiritual/mystic/religious experiences and for making lasting positive changes in the individual’s psychological, emotional, spiritual and practical life.
Huston Smith (1919-present) is considered a world authority on comparative religion today. Though he studied religion and spirituality for decades preceding his psychedelic experiences, he never felt he truly understood religious experiences until he had his own on psychedelics. Like Huxley, he was a strong advocate for careful use of psychedelics with the intent on producing religious experiences. He has written some excellent work on the mystical and religious aspects of psychedelics (see hisCleansing the Doors of Perception [Smith, 2000] Leary, Alpert and others would go on to be more loose and egalitarian in their experiments, conducting much experimentation in situations well outside of formal science and academia. Understandably, much criticism has been leveled at them and their camp and their lives took on some wild transformations which are beyond the scope of this essay.
Beside Huxley, these researchers did not seem to use the term “neurotheology” in their studies but it is exactly what they were conducting and this is why they are discussed here. They were conducting “neurotheology” with what technologies and knowledge they had at the time – mainly pharmacology and psychology. They also incorporated “spiritual technologies” such as meditation, yoga, prayer, and continued studies of Eastern mysticism such as Tibetan tantra. In fact, Leary, Alpert and Metzner would use the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which was meant to guide the soul of dying and dead individuals towards the “light at the end of the tunnel”) to guide psychedelic trips, enabling the individual to go through a death-and-rebirth experience while perfectly alive. [Alpert, Leary, Metzner, 1964]
Meanwhile, behind the iron curtain, Dr. Stan Grof (1931-present) was independently studying LSD on hundreds of volunteers in a psychiatric context with no religious expectations. Though mutually unaware of the similar experiments in the United States, he too would see that psychedelics could impart transcendental/religious experiences resulting in life-long positive changes.
On the western side of the cold war, LSD, psilocybin and mescaline would be banned and scheduled as highly illegal substances (LSD in 1968, psilocybin and mescaline in 1970), effectively ending all scientific and medical study of these substances in the West.
Turning back to the 1950s again, Dr. John Lilly (1915-2001) was experimenting with isolation tanks which by themselves can be conducive to transcendental/religious experiences. Dr. Lilly would later find that using LSD in in isolation tanks was an extremely powerful combination. Lilly would later work with Huxley, Alpert and others in this area which was in-effect early neurotheology.
Though it is generally agreed that Huxley was the first to use the word “neurotheology”, it is my own argument that research with psychedelics, isolation tanks, yoga, meditation, prayer, etc. was the beginning of neurotheology despite the inconsequential fact that seemingly no one was using the term outside of Huxely’s fictional Island. [Huxley, 1962]
Beside what has thus far been mentioned, there have been other works here and there viewing the religious experience in a scientific manner. We will turn to some of these in following chapters.
1. Watts wrote “There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope, and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these three drugs. If they are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear.”
But it is important to note that he also wrote that the “psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. When you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope; he goes away and works on what he has seen.
Furthermore, speaking quite strictly, mystical insight is no more in the chemical itself than biological knowledge is in the microscope.There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope, and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these three drugs. If they are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear. Strictly speaking, these drugs do not impart wisdom at all, any more than the microscope alone gives knowledge. They provide the raw materials of wisdom, and are useful to the extent that the individual can integrate what they reveal into the whole pattern of his behavior and the whole system of his knowledge. As an escape, an isolated and dissociated ecstasy, they may have the same sort of value as a rest cure or a good entertainment. But this is like using a giant computer to play tick-tack-toe, and the hours of heightened perception are wasted unless occupied with sustained reflection or meditation upon whatever themes may be suggested.”
2. “The hallucinogenic mushrooms are a natural product presumably accessible to men in many parts of the world, including Europe and Asia. In man’s evolutionary past, as he groped his way out from his lowly past, there must have come a moment in time when he discovered the secret of the hallucinatory mushrooms. Their effect on him, as I see it, could only have been profound, a detonator to new ideas. For the mushrooms revealed to him worlds beyond the horizons known to him, in space and time, even worlds on a different plane of being, a heaven and perhaps a hell. For the credulous primitive mind, the mushrooms must have reinforced mightily the idea of the miraculous. Many emotions are shared by men with the animal kingdom, but awe and reverence and the fear of God are peculiar to men. When we bear in mind the beatific sense of awe and ecstasy and caritas engendered by the divine mushrooms, one is emboldened to the point of asking whether they may not have planted in primitive man the very idea of god.” – Wasson. R. Gordon. (1957) “Seeking the Magic Mushroom: A New York banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions”, LIFE Magazine, June 10th, 1957
3. “…the experiment’s fascinating and provocative conclusions strongly support the hypothesis that psychedelic drugs can help facilitate mystical experiences when used by religiously inclined people in a religious setting. The original experiment also supports the hypothesis that those psilocybin subjects who experienced a full or a partial mystical experience would, after six months, report a substantial amount of positive, and virtually no negative, persisting changes in attitude and behavior. This long-term follow-up, conducted twenty-four to twenty seven years after the original experiment, provides further support to the findings of the original experiment. All psilocybin subjects participating in the long-term follow-up, but none of the controls, still considered their original experience to have had genuinely mystical elements and to have made a uniquely valuable contribution to their spiritual lives. The positive changes described by the psilocybin subjects at six months, which in some cases involved basic vocational and value choices and spiritual understandings, had persisted over time and in some cases had deepened…The long-term follow-up interviews cast considerable doubt on the assertion that mystical experiences catalyzed by drugs are in any way inferior to non-drug mystical experiences in both their immediate content and long-term positive effects…” – Doblin, Rick (1991). “Pahnke’s “Good Friday Experiment”: A Long-Term Follow-Up and Methodological Critique”, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology Vol. 23, No. 1
Alpert, Leary and Metzner (1964). The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead;
Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs
Crowley, Aleister (1909) “The Herb Dangerous (Part II): The Psychology of Hashish” (written under the pen name Oliver Haddo), The Equinox Vol. 1 No. 2, Fall 1909, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd.
Dass, Ram (1971). Be Here Now,
Dass, Ram (1977). Grist for the Mill (with Steven Levine)
Dass, Ram (1974) The Only Dance There Is
Huxley, Aldous (1932) Brave New World
Huxley, Aldous (1954) The Doors of Perception
Huxley, Aldous (1962) Island
James, William (1902). The Varieties of the Religious Experience
Lattin, Don (2010). The Harvard Psychedelic Club
Leary, Timothy (1968). The Politics of Ecstasy
Leary, Timothy (1968). High Priest
Leary, Timothy (1973) Neurologic (with Joanna Leary)
Leary, Timothy (1977). Exo-Psychology: A Manual on The Use of the Nervous System According to the Instructions of the Manufacturers
Lewin, Louis. (1874). “Über Morphium-Intoxication” (“On Morphium Intoxication”) in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Praktische Medizin;
Lewin, Louis. (1894). “Über Anhalonium Lewinii und andere Cacteen” (“On Anhalonium lewenii and other cacti”) in Archiv für Experimentelle Pathologie und Pharmakologie;
Lewin, Louis. (1931) Phantastica
Smith, Huston. (2000). Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. Tarcher/Putnam, ISBN 1-58542-03404, Council on Spiritual Practices, ISBN 1-889725-03-X
Wasson. R. Gordon. (1957) “Seeking the Magic Mushroom: A New York banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions”, LIFE Magazine, June 10th, 1957
Wasson, R. Gordon. (1968). Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality,
Wasson, R. Gordon, et al. (1978). The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries.
Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl A. P. Ruck. (1986). Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion
White, Timothy (1998). “Understanding Psychedelic Mysticism: An Interview with Huston Smith”. Shaman’s Drum: A Journal of Experiential Shamanism Number 49, Summer 1998