The scientific studies of entheogens demonstrate that all humans possess the ability to experience profound mystical experiences. These experiences of Ultimate Realty can be interpreted as direct contact with the Divine, which some might call “God”. Whatever the spiritual belief system used to make sense of these experiences, the experiences themselves are powerful and intense mystical experiences. For 72% of those who ingested psilocybin mushrooms mystical-type experiences occurred which had sustained personal and spiritual significance (Pahnke 1963; Doblin 1991; Griffiths et al. 2006, 2008).
While many Americans fear natural plant sacraments and recreational supplements, ,largely because of the prohibitionist propaganda constantly fed us by the dominant culture, use of psychedelics is at the same level that it was in the 1960s (about 17% of Americans or over 30 million citizens). Because of our innate urges to alter consciousness, many Americans become curious about drugs of all types. But because our culture does not support entheogenic consumption, we lack the educational, medical and religious resources to support these people in their attempts to have profound mystical experiences. Not only do we not support the religious use of these drugs, we deny the possibility of drugs having any positive contribution to society.
By contrast, our ancestors in archaic forager societies and existing indigenous peoples often have traditions of entheogenic consumption, in which drugs are used with sacred intention and tightly controlled ways. These traditions are typically lead by shamans who also act as the transmitters of these wisdom traditions. In profound entheogenic rituals people may have experiences in which they discover or retrieve their souls. These people may see drugs as a means to have peak experiences, receive mystical revelations, journey to the Otherworld for healing purposes, etc. Some of the spiritual highlights of one’s life might be accompanied by entheogenic sacraments.
While entheogens are taboo in most modern cultures and have been outlawed by our prohibitionist regimes, their ubiquity and prominence in other cultures is unquestioned. With controlled use, psychotropic substances can be technologies of consciousness transformation that allow individuals to “wake up” to their authentic identities transcending the limitations of ordinary life and providing a direct introduction to Ultimate Reality. Religion has long been centered on the transformative potential resulting from these type of mystical experiences.“
In order to have a Sustainability Revolution we must develop a true ecological consciousness in which we awaken to our spiritual connections to other living beings and to our planet, re-think the moral and ethical foundations of modern industrial civilization and eliminate the materialist mindset and radical individualism which so often guide our lives. Entheogenic sacraments can radically democratize religion, allowing all practitioners to be mystics with enriched senses of the sacred.
To say that Nature is sacred is to insist that it must be treated with reverence and respect and never violated. It is of utmost importance. It is holy and ultimate. Employing a conception of Nature as sacred can radically alter our relationship to the planet. This conceptualization can be a purposeful act which promotes the ecological consciousness so central to the new worldview we must cultivate to achieve the Sustainability Revolution.
ENTHEOGENS IN DIONYSIAN NATURALISM
Dionysian Naturalism is an emerging religion of nature that is ground in a scientific worldview (thus naturalist) that acknowledges the primal role of shamanic or mystical states of consciousness in religion (thus Dionysian). As a form of Religious Naturalism, it rejects the supernatural, insisting that everything that exists exists in Nature. Nature is regarded as sacred, and the scientific story of the evolution of universe and of life, often called “the Epic of Evolution”, is the central organizing myth, cosmology and worldview (Hogue 2010).
Because human nature, like Nature herself, is complexly ambiguous, containing beauty and ugliness, creative and destructive potentials, both orderly and chaotic possibilities, with both demonic depths and self-transcendence, we need a theology that is Dionysian as well as Apollonian. In contrast to many other forms of Religious Naturalism, which overemphasize the role of logic and reason in human affairs, Dionysian Naturalism attempts to temper those Apollonian concerns with concerns for the sensual, spontaneous, and emotional aspects of human nature. Through mystical experiences, such as those derived through the sacramental use of entheogens, humans make contact with their wildest natures and with wild Nature itself. Entheogenic sacraments can help to “re-wild” religion. This direct experience of Ultimate Reality, the numinous dimension of our world, allows people to “wake up” to their “true nature”, gaining liberation and freedom from the limits of ordinary life.
Religious Naturalism is an emergent religious worldview ground in a scientific understanding of reality and regarding Nature as sacred. While in the past it has been a critical movement in many mainstream religions, including Christianity and Judaism, today it is becoming a freestanding religion of Nature, united in its opposition to “supernatural” approaches to religion and based on empirical approaches to reality. For me Religious Naturalism is a Nature Religion which is grounded in a scientific conception of Nature. In insisting that Nature is sacred I acknowledge that it is too complex to be approached by science alone. Because we can only ever experience fragments of our natural world, we need metaphors, models and theories. To understand Nature we need an approach that draws upon all areas of human investigation–art, poetry and philosophy, as well as science.
Religious Naturalists are people who want a religion that is informed by the best of modern science. They are the skeptics and critical thinkers who couldn’t swallow the hocus pocus, the woo woo and fantastical excesses of many religions. The dialogue between religion and science has altered and they are increasingly viewed as potentially logically compatible, complementary, and mutually supportive.
Religious Naturalism, in all it emerging versions, rejects the supernatural, insisting that everything that exists exists in Nature. It maintains that science is a good way to understand Nature and that the scientific story of the evolution of the universe and of life (often referred to as “the Epic of Evolution”) is worthy of using as a base for our central organizing myth, cosmology and worldview. Religious Naturalists assert that sacredness is to be found in Nature, not in some other supernatural realm.
Even mystical experiences can be rationally explained using the tools of science. To naturalize the entheogenic experience some scholars are exploring the neuropharmacological foundations of the phenomenological features of psychedelic trips. Using this line of thought, Letheby (2017) argues that the “transformative efficacy” of entheogenic spirituality comes from:
“breaking the spell of narrowly self-focused rumination, temporarily disrupting the mechanisms of self-representation and liberating attention from bondage to personal concerns” (Letheby 2017).
Thus, in no way is entheogenic spirituality dependent on supernaturalist assumptions and frameworks. While many people experience their “trips” as encounters with their god or gods, other more rational and science-based interpretive frameworks work without forcing the participant to make leaps into unfounded superstitions and other supernatural belief systems not ground in empirical science.
Naturalist movements exist in all religions, reacting to the superstitions and irrationality found in our human spiritual yearnings with theological foundations solidly ground in reason and science. These religious naturalists (no caps) tend to be the skeptics within mainstream religions, who want to probe and critique the implausible excesses of their own tradition’s theological thinking, which often veer into the fantastic, the improbable and even the insanely delusional. While these forms of religious naturalism are ancient and ubiquitous, today we are witnessing the birth of Religious Naturalism (with caps) as a separate freestanding religion of nature ground in a scientific worldview, inspired by environmentalism and having a somewhat Pagan ethos (Mellinger in progress).
As a body of spiritual writings, existing Religious Naturalist texts are highly philosophical, creating a sophisticated intellectual system filled with abstract theological thinking, often technical in construction. It is not only Apollonian in style it is Apollonian in content, stressing beliefs over practices. An Apollonian Religion emphasizes reason to an excess and downplays the irrational, the sensual, the emotional and instinctive. Focused on constructing a systemic architecture on solid foundations, it can be philosophically elaborate, inaccessibly intellectual and filled with jargon.
Unlike most forms of Religious Naturalism, Dionysian Naturalism emphasizes the emotions, the passions, the instincts, the wild, the sensual, and the body. Frenzied, ecstatic and pleasurable experiences are highly valued. Importantly, there is a return to the traditional use of altered states of consciousness as a spiritual practice, including those derived from entheogenic (or drug-induced) experiences. Dionysian Naturalism is thus centered on the mystical, the esoteric and the shamanic.
Following Friedrich Nietzsche I accept the impulses and instincts of human beings and celebrate our passions. Moreover, these base instincts are related to sacredness. We must affirm the deepest parts of our animal natures by finally realizing the wholeness of our minds and not be content with a caricature of Enlightenment thinkers’ ideal of what humans should be. Dionysian Naturalism has a religious anthropology stressing what we are, rather than what we should be, one dissolving the gap found in the social sciences between systematic models of utilitarian, calculating, goal-oriented and rule-governed behavior, and our more nuanced, more integral, caring selves.
“RITUAL FOR ENTHEOGENIC SACRAMENTS”
By Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.
Oh Spirit of the East,
Just as the golden rays of the rising sun
Greet us at dawn so too
Must we welcome new beginnings.
Oh Spirit of the South,
The red-hot heat of the noon-day sun
Reminds us of the intense
Passions of life.
Oh Spirit of the West,
We enter your blackness
For introspection, hibernation
And spiritual renewal.
Oh Spirit of the North,
The white-bearded elders remind us
To release emotional baggage
To attain true freedom.
Spirit of Life,
Nameless Presence that Animates All Being,
Mysteries of Mysteries,
Be present with us now
As we seek to break with
Normal routines and ordinary awareness,
And change our state of consciousness
To explore unknown sacred territories.
We lift up our sacred traditions
That teach us to honor these sacraments
For their power to manifest divinity,
For their ability to challenge accepted truths,
And bring forth epiphanies that transform our lives.
As we get high, detaching from
The strictures of common sense and normal perception,
Allow our egos to diminish
And our awareness of our environment to increase
So that the interconnectedness of the cosmos can be revealed.
Allow us to maintain a depth of purpose,
Whether sacred or mundane,
Throughout the experience.
May we ever be reminded of our highest aspirations,
And inspired to gifts of love and service to the altar of humanity.
May our eyes open to the possibilities of true freedom.
May we come to celebrate our whole self,
Including our flaws, frailties and our shadow.
Ever remind us of our power to consume in ways that
And inspire actions to change our world.
May it be so, blessed be and Amen.
In March 2020, as the Coronavirus was declared a pandemic, and we in California were ordered to stay “sheltered in place”, I saw an opportunity to complete several unfinished manuscripts that had sat on my desk incomplete for far too long, including this one. I want to acknowledge all the entheogenic pioneers and enthusiasts, those brave women and men who boldly defend our freedom of religion, our cognitive liberties and our right to pursue happiness through entheogenic sacraments. These religious rebels are independent-minded freethinkers, who as heretics, are often symbolically burned at the stake and literally imprisoned by the fanatic Drug Warriors who have commandeered our State. Upon arriving at UC-Santa Barbara in March 1983, in the middle of Reagan’s term in office, I took a graduate level class in Religious Studies entitled “Altered States of Consciousness”. This paper began as a term paper for this class some 37 years ago. As part of the class we were required to attend the Psychedelics and Spirituality Conference (aka Psychedelic Conference II) held on the campus on May 13-14, 1983. The speakers were a “who’s who” of drug researchers: Albert Hofmann, Humphry Osmond, Ralph Metzner, Sasha Shulgin, Walter Houston Clark, Terence McKenna, Andrew Weil, Carl Ruck and Jonathan Ott. Others in attendance included Timothy Leary, Joan Halifax, Peter Stafford, Rick Doblin, and Robert Forte. Over the years I have interviewed dozens of people who have consumed entheogenic sacraments about their spiritual experiences, including people who have used ayahuasca, DMT, peyote, LSD, salvia divinorum, magical mushrooms and psilocybin. I have also interviewed chemists and other entheogenic researchers. For a related project I have done extensive interviews with people who use recreational drugs successfully, moderating their use and keeping dysfunctional abuse at bay. Our continued War on Drugs prevents me from naming any of these people. I am thankful to the editors of Humanistic Paganism, John Halstead and Jon Cleland Host, for their encouragement. I have benefitted from conversations, encouragement and feedback from Robert Corrington, Demian Wheeler, Martin Ball, Michael Leder, David Powell, Raul Anacleto-Gonzalez, and Jeff Kingham. As a graduate student and faculty member at UC-Santa Barbara in the 1980s and 1990s, several colleagues encouraged these explorations including Bill Shay, Simon Gottschalk, Valerie Yoshimura, John Ely, Tarik Peterson, Rodney Beaulieu and Helen Meloy. Rev. Julia Hamilton and Rev. Nic Filzen at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara provided spiritual support.
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 Scholars must be respectful of the phenomenon of spiritual entities and mythological beings as experienced in psychedelic encounters, and especially respectful of the interpretations of such by cultural participants. But critical inquiry does not end with that respect. Researchers should seriously explore the potential meanings of such entities as well as their ultimate origins. As naturalists we use critical thinking, skepticism and empirical methodologies to explore these phenomena. We begin with the assumptions that if such entities exist they exist in nature, or if they are but apparitions they are the outcome of neuropharmacological processes or other natural processes that can be explicated and understood.
About the Author
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.