Magic mushrooms inspire ‘spiritual’ experiences. The role of this finding in assessing the claims of organized religion.
In 2006, Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins Medicine found that psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, can elicit powerful mystical experiences. He asserts that this finding should not be viewed as a threat to religious belief. I disagree.
The current finding absolutely should be viewed as a threat to religious belief. Here we have research which demonstrates that a chemical can cause deeply profound mystical experiences that people often attribute to a God that they believe in. Griffiths further states that there is good reason to believe that similar neurological processes are involved in giving rise to standard religious experience as are involved in mushroom-aided spirituality. The mushroom-aided spiritual experience is different for different people. A secular meditator may simply feel a deeper connection to those around them, while Mormons, Christians, Muslims, practicing Jews, Wiccans, Hindus, and African spirit and demon believers will each attribute the experience to their supernatural beliefs. This chemical has been found to create altered states of consciousness, which includes altered perceptions of self and the perceived relation between self and other. This type of multiply-interpretable experience is a core element of religiosity and it can be created by a mushroom.
Lets fit this into the broader picture of considerations of the validity of religion. As has been pointed out ad nauseum, apologists for the theistic religions have over the course of thousands of years not managed to provide a solid argument for the existence of either god generally or their god or gods in particular. Arguments for God tend to involve arguments from ignorance (“I don’t know how life and the universe could have occurred unless someone designed them, therefore they were designed”), authority (e.g., the Bible says, my Priest says, my dad says, or 75% of the population believes X so there must be something to it, and how dare you for saying there isn’t!), hindsight-informed cherry-picked interpretation of vague scriptures, morality (morality could not exist without a God), consciousness (the claim that consciousness is qualitatively distinct from the material world and therefore could not be the product of natural processes), and/or personal experience.
Arguments from ignorance can be thrown away immediately because they do nothing more than question beg (“Then who made God?”, “how do you know that a God had to have been involved?”). Furthermore, research and theoretical work in the physical and life sciences have demonstrated how complexity can emerge from simple beginings; they haven’t provided us with the answers to the question of origin, but that is not reason to pretend to know that God is the answer. Arguments from authority can also be dismissed. Trusting the Bible because it is the Bible is circular (“The God of the Bible is the one true God because the one true God wrote the Bible and said so”). Unless the Priest, parent, and societal majority can address the holes in religious theory that have existed since their inception, their authority is invalid as it is solely political, as opposed to merit-based. Arguments for morality fall through because there is no evidence for the existence of an objective morality, regardless of how convenient it might be if there were, and there is a rich and rapidly developing base of evidence from evolutionary biology and developmental psychology which is doing a fine job of naturalizing moral cognition. The argument from consciousness is just flat wrong. Click here for my brief analysis of dualism and material. Next, arguments from scripture are just patently invalid. They overwhelmingly rely on the superimposition of known events on vague statements, they often take intra-scriptural “prophecy” as being valuable (e.g., fulfilled Old Testament prophecy in the New Testament), they involve ignoring vast expanses of text which either bare no apparent resemblance to known happenings or are contradicted (e.g., creation stories versus evolution and physics), and so on. Further, were these statements even meant to be prophetic, so much as cautionary (i.e., rather than being statements of what will happen, they were actually cautionary statements of what would happen if…)? Finally, arguments from personal experience. These fail for a few reasons. Firstly, people of all different religious backgrounds have mystical experiences. They cannot all be right? At minimum all but one of these groups is partially deluded, and there’s no way to know who is who and what is right and what is delusion. Secondly, there are a variety of nonreligious ways to produce religious experience. In addition to drugs like psilocybin, one can engage in years of secular mindfulness meditation to cultivate deep profound life changing and mind-expanding experiences of dissolution of the self as being separate from the world, a core element of religious experience. Qualitatively similar experiences can also be generated in emotionally intense relatively anonymous social settings such as a charged political rally of thousands.
Now consider all of the above in light of some other relevant findings in the cognitive sciences. Firstly, humans have an overdeveloped proclivity to infer agency, or mindedness (see Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer). We have a natural tendency to attribute human-like mindedness to nonhuman referents, such as animals and the universe as a whole. Human history is replete with examples of humans attributing confusing physical and social phenomena like lightening, thunder, rain, the sun cycles, illness, good luck, bad luck, good and evil intentions, and so forth to Gods, spirits, and demons. As science has progressed over the centuries many of these Gods have been relegated to mythology. Germ theory supplanted belief in witchcraft, astronomy obviated the need for belief in Thor to understand thunder, and so on.
In addition to our natural inclination toward explanations invoking intelligent design and guidance, we are also very trusting of our elders as youths and we build conceptual frameworks around earlier conceptual precursors. So, we will trust our elders when they give us supernatural explanations for things, and as we build more and more of our framework for interpreting reality, life and meaning on top of the initial framework, it can become more and more emotionally unsettling to revise previous beliefs. Among the costs of this are personal anxiety and social instability.
So lets look at the big picture. Religious organizations have as of yet not produced a strong argument for the intellectual validity of religious belief. Arguments from ignorance, authority, scripture, morality and personal experience fall through. Many of the questions that people previously thought were intractable and/or unnaturalizable have benefited strongly from scientific research (e.g., the existence and diversity of species, weather patterns, moral cognition, illness, etc.). Research in the cognitive sciences have shown that people are inclined to infer agency and that they are very trusting of their elders during their youth and will quite readily take in a certain range of religious stories (for information on what sorts of things make a religious story memorable, believable and persistent, see Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained). And now on top of this it has been found that a known chemical compound can inspire religious experience.
The case against religion is getting more and more comprehensive. There’s the insufficiency of the arguments for belief. There’s the cognitive basis for the formation of the beliefs. Then there’s the fact that spiritual-type experiences are brought about by a host of religious and secular practices. And we now have scientific evidence for the provocation of religious experience using drugs. Furthermore, we’re in the process of learning about how spiritual experiences can be created at the level of the brain.