Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

The Coming Psychedelic Moment

December 1st, 2023 | 17 min read

By Phil Cotnoir

Former Navy SEAL and popular podcaster Shawn Ryan has been open with his audience of millions about the benefits of psychedelics. Like so many veterans, he was a mess of inner turmoil after returning from combat. He described his DMT and Ibogaine therapy in 2022 as “profound,” “life-changing,” and “healing,” claiming it set him on a spiritual quest. Then in 2023 he announced he had come to Christ, and when he was subsequently asked if he would ever do psychedelics again, he demurred: “I don’t know.”

This example captures nicely many  themes of our current cultural moment: the rise of mental health problems, the parallel rise of psychedelics, the coming collision of those two trends, and the Christian response to all this.

The Rise of Mental Health Problems

So much has been written by so many good and qualified observers regarding the crisis of declining mental health—especially among the young—that I will not belabor this point overmuch. Suffice it to say that by all measures people are sadder, lonelier, and more anxious than at any other time for which we have such data. A couple of charts here will make this clear enough for our purposes:

A graph with different colored lines
Description automatically generated

Figure 1. Percent of U.S. adolescents and adults with major depressive episode in the last year, by age group, 2005-2021.[1]

A graph of a number of people with different colored lines

Description automatically generated

Figure 2. Number of days per month of poor mental health, U.S. adults, by age group, 1993-2021.[2]

The charts make clear the trend: for all kinds of reasons, the inner life of Americans—and especially those under 35—is a mess. Desperate for solutions to this mental anguish, young people are casting about for answers. And many, it turns out, are increasingly turning to hallucinogenic drugs.

The Rise of Psychedelics

To condense the complex story of the modern rise of psychedelics, the 1960s counterculture catapulted hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms to prominence, which then catapulted many open-minded young people into alternative realities. Timothy Leary became the face of this renaissance, but his increasingly erratic behavior and bizarre theories, coupled with extensive legal troubles, relegated him to the fringes. His fall from prominence was coupled with the government banning the use of psychedelics in the late 1960s, and classifying them as Schedule 1 drugs by an act of Congress in 1970.

But the drugs themselves never fully went away, they just went underground. The last few years have seen them emerging from that underground existence amidst a renaissance of public interest and medical research. This new wave has been propelled by many different voices, including bestselling author Michael Pollan, whose 2019 book How To Change Your Mind became hugely popular, leading to a 2022 Netflix docu-series. Among podcasters there are no bigger names than Joe Rogan, who has regularly discussed and encouraged the use of psychedelics. In the business and lifestyle guru world, Tim Ferriss, of The 4-Hour Workweek fame, has likewise hyped the benefits of psychedelics. And perhaps we might mention the glowing recommendations of Hollywood celebrities such as Will Smith, Miley Cyrus, and Megan Fox, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and of course Prince Harry.

This chart, tracking the use of the word “psychedelics” from 1939 to 2019, clearly shows the two waves I’m describing:

A graph with a line

Description automatically generated

By all indications we are in the early phases of this current wave. Surveys indicate a rise in general psychedelic use, with one study out of the University of Michigan indicating that almost three times as many 19-30 year olds have used hallucinogens in 2022 (8%) compared to the same group in 2012 (3%). For 35 to 50 year olds, 2022 saw highest-ever levels of use at 4%, double that of 2021, and many times greater than the usage from both 2017 and 2012.[3] While the numbers may not be huge, the trend is clearly moving only one way and, more importantly, is accelerating. Given the unprecedented institutional support for these new therapies, a new cultural consensus emerging: psychedelics deserve a place in the range of treatment options for both end-of-life care and mental health, if not wider acceptance and decriminalization.

My contention in this article is that these two trends—the rise in mental health issues and the rise in psychedelic use—are even now starting to collide. In fact, one study claims that 65% of Americans with mental health conditions “want access to psychedelics.”[4] The question is: what happens when they get that access?

A Chaotic Collision

A raging foment of metaphysical and spiritual questions are set to burst forth as these two clear cultural trends collide. Why? Because of the inescapable questions that psychedelic experiences raise. One set of such questions concerns the very nature of reality itself. In this regard, the rising wave of psychedelic use is perfectly timed to take advantage of the receding tide of atheism. The link between psychedelic use and major worldview shifts is very strong, with one study associated with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine finding that “more than two-thirds of those who identified as atheist before the experience no longer identified as atheist afterwards.”[5] The findings were pithily summed up by this VICE headline: “It’s Official: DMT Makes You Believe in God.” As much as I enjoy a catchy headline, this one isn’t quite true. DMT seems rather to disrupt materialism and to awaken users to the spiritual realm.

 Therefore we might say that the proliferation of psychedelics is a symptom and an accelerant of the metaphysical shift taking place in the West. As the hard-edged materialism fades along with the boomer generation that enshrined it, a porous openness is taking its place. To borrow from the insights of Charles Taylor, if modernity produced isolated, buffered selves that were in some way insulated from the supernatural, then the re-paganizing and re-enchanting era we are entering now is producing newly porous ones. For every materialist atheist content with a cosmos of just stuff there seem to be a half dozen others intuiting that there is more than matter.

And if more, then what? And if what, then who? While Christians at least have categories for answering those questions, the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd has only a spiritual openness and an allergy to organized religion. This leaves them primed for a host of New Age beliefs that dovetail nicely with the use of psychedelics. Many of them are happy to believe the psychedelic evangelists who preach the goodness and wisdom of whatever forces may inhabit the space beyond the veil: they are our teachers, our guides, the same sources of ancient wisdom which enlightened past civilizations.

On a parallel track we find the institutions of science and medicine moving in the same direction. The medical researchers and professors of neurology don't speak in the same New Age bromides, but still they personalize the substances to a strange degree, exhorting users to "trust the medicine." Nevertheless these authorities do their best to abstract psychedelics and use the cold academic jargon which subtly communicates to regular folks that the experts know exactly what they're doing and what they're dealing with. But just beneath the surface, a few moments after the IV drip of dimethyltryptamine hits, their calm assurances are a universe away, and the user is quite alone in a bewildering sea of geometric kaleidoscopes which feels "realer-than-real," and at the mercy of whoever and whatever it is which dwells there.

Advocates for psychedelic therapy always tout the importance of a “controlled” environment, but this is a fiction. Granted, it’s better to take them in a clinic, under supervision, than to take them while walking in public, driving, or in the cockpit of an airplane, but to take psychedelics is by definition to relinquish control. It is to open oneself up to the unknown, to enter into realms where we seem to be visitors, or perhaps trespassers. There are other problems with the medicalizing of psychedelics, such as the impossibility of placebos during studies, which make it notoriously difficult to study these substances in the kind of detached, academic way that proponents would like to present to the public.

As I studied this topic in relation to the Christian worldview, one of the critical questions that arose was whether a medical setting and seal of approval did anything to change the default Christian opposition to mind-altering substances which is rooted in the New Testament's exhortations to sober-mindedness and the injunction against pharmakia, which certainly includes any desire for spiritual illumination or contact through use of drugs. We do well to remember that the Bible forbids it not because it doesn't work but because it does.

Can the authorization of psychedelic therapy by the medical establishment somehow cleanse it from the pagan spiritual connections that these practices have always had? Without closing the door to this possibility, and acknowledging that not all substances are the same, I count myself skeptical.[6] After all, Christians are all too aware that some things considered perfectly legitimate by medical authorities are evil—abortion and "gender affirmation" surgeries come to mind—or simply unwise, like that seventh rhinoplasty and shot of lip filler. For every lab coat-wearing researcher writing dryly about the mental health benefits of the chemically-enabled neuroplasticity associated with psychedelics, assuring everyone that there is nothing "spiritual" about any of this, there are a dozen shamans and New Agers incensed at this denial of their unbroken ancient tradition of communing with their gods.

Bad Trips

For all the positive stories of those helped by psychedelics, and I grant that many have been helped in various ways by them, there is also a strong signal that these substances are not without dangers—even from a secular point of view. We might arrange these dangers into three categories: Cons and Cheats; Bad Trips; and Spiritual Deception. Let us take each briefly in turn.

The first danger is all too human, without a whiff of the supernatural about it. Wherever there is a hype, conmen and cheats will be there. With the proliferation of affluent North Americans heading south to the Amazon basin to experience an authentic Ayahuasca journey as mediated by tribal medicine men, it doesn't take a financial genius to see that there is easy money to be made. But naive Westerners have no way of discerning who is legitimate and who is not, and many find themselves getting far less, or more, than they bargained for. More disturbing still are reports of sexual assaults taking place during the vulnerable hours when these young urban women are half-conscious in a jungle hut, or even undergoing clinical trials.

As if that wasn’t enough, now big pharma and big business are sniffing around and smelling profits—they've found the next big thing. Psychedelics are already a billion-dollar industry, and growing exponentially. Expect to see major branding efforts touting these therapies, with a slick new treatment center opening near you. The very first psychedelics ETF was released in 2021, though so far it has not performed well. Promoters cast utopian visions of psychedelic-induced peace and selflessness, of emotionally intelligent and self-aware adults ushering in a golden age. Or, on the individual level, these therapies are touted as being equivalent to thousands of hours of counseling or psychotherapy. This kind of inflated hype driven by the profit motive is sure to part more than a few suffering souls from their money and leave them disillusioned.

The second danger is the prototypical bad trip, though the colloquial term seems rather tame for what many describe as an experience of hell. The experiences themselves are more common than the brochures and conferences would have you believe. A brief visit to online forums where users discuss their experiences reveals that for many, the realm beyond has sometimes been a real house of horrors. Even some of the most vocal advocates reveal upon questioning that parts of their trips have been truly harrowing. It is instructive to see how such experiences are sometimes rationalized and accepted in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome trauma response, which goes something like this. The user is put through disturbing torments while in this strange realm, like having a horde of spiders burst out of their abdomen, to take one example I heard, but are then comforted by some entity or presence, and this creates a bond between the user and that entity associated with the drug. In any other context we would recognize this as a classic dynamic of abuse: subjecting a victim to violence and then, in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde transformation, offering comfort. But here it is shrugged off as the wisdom of the drug, the entities, and the process.

Still others are afflicted by a little-known side-effect called Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), which is listed in the DSM-5 and can involve permanent visual hallucinations and distortions, audio hallucinations, and more. There is no known cure.

The last danger is spiritual deception. To give the devil his due, as they say, there is no doubt that much useful earthly wisdom seems to come to people who take these substances. They get perspective on their lives and past hurts, they get momentarily lifted out of their usual mental ruts and see things in new ways. The gods are teachers; they come with gifts.

“Some element of danger is unavoidable,” wrote Ross Douthat in an excellent piece on the subject. “The future of humanity depends on people opening doors to the transcendent, rather than sealing themselves into materialism and despair. But when the door is open, be very, very careful about what you invite in.”[7] My contention is that such warnings are falling on deaf ears for the most part. The Millennials and Gen Zs who represent those with the most mental turmoil are also the ones most cut off from the traditional wisdom that Douthat eloquently summarizes in his article. They seem to have no intuition that they are susceptible to manipulation and deception, despite the sober warnings of veteran users of psychedelia.

How Now Shall We Trip?

As our culture recedes from the high-water mark of atheism and naturalistic materialism that occurred around 2010, the pent-up waters of the supernatural will continue rushing in. There are debts to pay for our blindered insistence on a metaphysics of mere material. We see this already in the rise of open paganism, the New Age movement, and the swell of interest in psychedelics and other phenomena such as UFOs. North American Christianity cannot afford to avoid these issues or dismiss them out of hand as bunk—an instinct rooted more in modernism than in the Scriptures.

Thankfully there seems to be a strong flow of people coming out of psychedelics and the New Age and into Christ. Testimonies of psychedelics-to-Jesus journeys abound online and accrue tens of thousands of views and sometimes far more. One of the common elements in all of them is the firm conviction that, for these Christians, psychedelics and the entities associated with them were part of a larger web of spiritual deception that was broken only by Christ. Many of the people looking to psychedelics are on what we might call a sincere search for truth. This sincerity, this openness, leaves an opening for God's truth to come breaking in. For every hundred people who get ushered into misty dreams of New Age mysticism, one or two are hauled out of hyperspace by their collars by the merciful hand of the Lord. The number of such testimonies is a testament not to the wisdom of ingesting what the New Testament forbids but to the mercy, grace, and power of the risen Christ, for whom no realm is outside his Lordship.

On his deathbed, psychedelics enthusiast Aldous Huxley asked for an injection of LSD and said, “It is never enough. Never enough. Never enough of beauty. Never enough of love. Never enough of life.”[8] On that same day, November 22, 1963, died another giant of 20th century thought, C.S. Lewis, who himself had spent time exploring the underworld of British occultism before his conversion to Christ. As we in the West enter a new phase of widespread psychedelic and spiritual experimentation, we might borrow Lewis’ words and say that it is sure to be just one more chapter in “the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”[9]

Footnotes

[1] Source: National Survey on Drug Use and Health (a yearly nationally representative survey of 70,000 U.S. adolescents and adults directed by the Department of Health and Human Services). NOTE: For each age group, the asterisks appear at the year immediately before depression begins to steadily increase. 2020 data is not shown as data collection differences make it difficult to compare with other years.

[2] Source: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (a yearly survey of 100,000+ U.S. adults administered by the CDC).

[3] https://news.umich.edu/marijuana-and-hallucinogen-use-binge-drinking-reach-historic-highs-among-adults-35-50/

[5] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0214377

[6] The practice of microdosing, ingesting tiny amounts of psilocybin mushrooms, is one area where we might leave it to an individual’s conscience. The effects are limited to slight mood alterations, akin to medicines that millions take every day. It may or may not be wise or effective, but it is a different category of thing than a psychedelic trip. As I have written before, it is on these thorny questions that the church needs its best ethical and moral thinkers to speak.

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/01/opinion/american-religion-spirituality.html

[8] https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/a-requiem-for-attention/

[9] See the chapter called “The Shocking Alternative” in Mere Christianity.

Phil Cotnoir

Phil Cotnoir is a freelance writer and editor from Montreal with an eclectic range of interests and work experience. He writes regularly at TGC Canada and at his blog, and serves as a lay leader in his local church and denomination.