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  • Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences by William Richards
  • Horace Fairlamb
William Richards. Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences. New York: Columbia UP, 2015. 280pp.

Where assassinations and protests gave the 60s its tragic and somber tone, its praise of dope-smoking and “free love” invited more ridicule than panic. The psychedelic movement cut across these and other themes, lending to those often anarchic times an exotic flavor that was at once anti-establishment (Tune in, turn on, drop out), counter-cultural (Magical Mystery Tour, The Grateful Dead), surreal (“Purple Haze,” Yellow Submarine, Easy Rider, The Doors, etc.), cosmic (“Across the Universe,” Jungian archetypes), mystical (All is One), and much more. But such legendary bits of esoterica came with the warning that you had to be there: either you rode the bus or you watched the bus from the side of the road, and looking on raised more questions than it answered.

That was the mainstream perception. But there was a third view of the psychedelic experience, the view of those who were doing experiments with psychedelic drugs for possible therapeutic purposes. The best known of the early experimenters were Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, although their eventual abandonment of academic research for counter-cultural advocacy overshadowed their earlier work. Controversy was fueled from the other side of the culture war by the disastrous CIA experiments on unsuspecting victims. Such extravagances aside, responsible investigation was conducted by William A. Richards (as well as by Humphrey Osmond, Bernard Aaronson, and others). Richards’ familiarity with psychedelics began with a clinical experience of psilocybin in Germany before he became a researcher at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center and the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Though research in the U.S. was discontinued in the late 70s due to cultural and political taboos, research has recently regained medical legitimacy. The primary therapeutic focus of current research has been twofold: the cure of addiction and late-stage cancer treatment. These medical uses of psychedelics have earned their clinical bona fides, including remarkable cure rates for addiction. Dig a little deeper into these curative properties, however, and one finds evidence for the more controversial claims of first wave psychedelia: transformative spiritual experiences. Even the patients testify that the spiritual effect of the drugs explains their power to cure addiction—by reframing the patient’s desires, thereby inspiring a deep identification with healthier priorities—and to ease the experience of the end of life—by providing a wider perspective on one’s past as well as a powerful sense of one’s continuity with life itself.

Early insights of psychedelic therapy were overshadowed by reports of spiritual experiences. Nor was advocacy of the spiritual dimension of psychedelic experience a monopoly of hippies and counter-cultural warriors. Huston Smith, the author of the best-selling The Religions of Man/The World’s Religions, wrote a book-length defense of the psychedelic experience—Cleansing the [End Page 574] Doors of Perception. Smith argued that the psychedelic consciousness expansion allows one to perceive metaphysical truths not available to the normal consciousness and that, contrary to stereotype, the experience is not so much fun as awesome, i.e., literally overwhelming. Not surprisingly, the validity of such experiences has been challenged by more traditional religious thinkers who distrust shortcuts to revelation.

It was Richards’ own taste of these insights that led him to pursue not only advanced degrees in psychology, but advanced work in theology and comparative religion as well. Naturally, then, the religious/spiritual side of the psychedelic experience is central to Richards’ view of the past and future of these mind-expanding drugs. No small challenge, psychedelic studies necessarily court the ineffable discourse of mysticism. Opposite to Thomas Wolfe’s trippy stream-of-consciousness musings in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Richards takes an approach that is clear, empirically informed, comprehensive, and concise.

The book has five parts. “Setting the Stage” introduces the subject’s history, definitions, and central religious question. “Mystical and Visionary Forms of Consciousness” tackles the notorious obstacles of intuitive knowing, the unitive nature of religious experience, extraordinary perspectives on time and space, and the significance of visionary and archetypal content. “Personal and Interpersonal...


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pp. 574-575
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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