God on Psychedelics: Tripping across the Rubble of Old-Time Religion

God on Psychedelics: Tripping across the Rubble of Old-Time Religion

Don Lattin, Hannacroix, N.Y.: Apocryphile Press, 2023. 172 pp., paper, $18.                       

Over a century ago, in lectures that prompted his landmark The Varieties of Religious Experience, Williams James said out loud what many of his contemporaries were already thinking: the “Yes function” in human experience—a near, if not fully, mystical mode of consciousness—could be stimulated by psychotropic substances without supernatural aid—for him, substances such as nitrous oxide and ether.

Sixty-something years later, MIT professor and world religion adventurer Huston Smith embarked upon his own version of the transcendental Yes with a psychoactive option unavailable on the Harvard philosopher’s late Victorian menu. Half a day with LSD in Timothy Leary’s Cambridge, Massachusetts living room, Smith said, accomplished what a decade of zazen could only presage. Today, after another sixty-something years, a new phase in America’s chemical quest to trigger James’s Yes is opening—this time with less elitism, greater scientific integrity, and wider institutional support. According to Don Lattin, we are in a psychedelic renaissance.

Lattin, a confessed “skeptical universalist,” is well versed in the full range of responses in the course of Americans’ attempts to settle accounts with ultimate reality. A veteran religion journalist based in the San Francisco area, he has reported on the rise and fall of innumerable movements and messiahs, particularly those gaining and losing traction in the second half of the twentieth century. His mastery of the art of the interview has attuned him especially to the minds of his generation (best and otherwise), a whole class of citizens whose parents grew up in what was quaintly called the Aspirin Age.

Lattin’s previous publications, such as Shopping for Faith, Following Our Bliss, Jesus Freaks, Distilled Spirits, and Changing Our Minds, offer empathetic chronicles of a society of perpetual seekers obsessed with faith, appalled by faith, tempted by gods that fail, and, as Aldous Huxley indelicately put it, too often dying for their drink and their dope. Lattin’s acclaimed book The Harvard Psychedelic Club narrates the now mythic saga of Leary, Smith, Ram Dass, and others in the midcentury intellectual aristocracy who followed in James’s footsteps and inaugurated the first psychedelic age. God on Psychedelics brings the story into the twenty-first century.

An informal literature review reveals a host of recently released self-help manuals, user guides, “bibles,” and adult coloring books—the vast majority with mushroom-themed cover art—designed to familiarize psychedelic novices with the dynamics and dimensions of the new renaissance. Books addressing the spiritually inclined tend to focus on the alternative altars of non-Western, earth-based, perennial, and harmonial traditions far from the American mainstream. What distinguishes Lattin’s work is his interest in psychonauts and their allies active in the mainstream itself, or what is left of it. Concurrent with the psychedelic Second Great Awakening is the dramatic decline of the institutionally rich but now member-poor once highly influential mainline religions.

Lattin’s primary informants include clergy and other religious professionals from the center and left wing of America’s rapidly shrinking religious establishment. A handful participated in the 2017 study of hallucinogenic drugs and mystical experience organized by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and NYU Langone Health—the research initiative that sparked a host of “Religious Leaders Get High on Magic Mushrooms” headlines.

Testimonies from Lutheran pastor James Lindberg, Harvard chaplain Rita Powell, Jewish rabbi Art Green, interfaith chaplain Tony Hoeber, and Episcopal priests Roger Joslin and Hunt Priest, founder of the Christian psychedelic society Ligare, transmit fascinating views from the front lines of the newest new age. Lattin even devotes a chapter to the spiritual journey of his publisher, United Church of Christ minister John Mabry.

Each story communicates a complex blend of yesses and noes regarding the promise of psychedelics for religious belief and practice. Liberative discoveries of mystical rapture mingle with disconcerting doubts about vocational relevance. Chapters on the emergence of entheogenic-plants-based churches and the role of psychedelics in recovery suggest possible shapes for postmainline U.S. religion.

Ultimately what holds this loose collection of vignettes together is Lattin’s respect for other people’s experiences and his generous sharing of insights from his own pursuit of the Jamesian Yes. The prose is light, and so is the willingness to commit to interpretive judgment.

The book’s subtitle warns of clichés ahead. “Tripping” has outlived its usefulness, and “rubble” hardly describes the clout retained in the nation’s premier divinity schools, which have produced some of its most impressive architecture and cultural treasures like Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer.

Sadly, the “God” colorfully advertised on the cover rarely shows up in the text. Lattin’s instincts are sociological and psychological, not theological. Still, the conclusion is clear: what fuels a renaissance is also a sacrament for a requiem.

Peter A. Huff, author or editor of seven books, teaches U.S. religious history at Benedictine University. His article
“The Current State of Unbelief” appeared in Quest, spring 2022.