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Where is God in the Entheogenic Movement?
by James Oroc
Originally Published in The Entheogen Review
Citation:   Oroc J. "Where is God in the Entheogenic Movement?". The Entheogen Review. 2008;16(3):73-78.
Ironically, I have discovered that the greatest problem that this investigation presents is what to do with my conclusions, now that this book is nearing its natural end. For I have come to realize that I am writing about the most difficult and controversial subject in the history of humankind: the existence of God, and our ability as humans to be able to know or directly experience God.

As I have enthusiastically expounded my ideas over the last few years to those close to me, I have come to realize that the whole concept makes a lot of people very uncomfortable, even hostile. The word "God" creates such immediate emotions, often negative, in this modern age. I can remember back to my pre-5-MeO-DMT days how skeptical and derisive I would have been, if I had been blindly presented with the bulk of these ideas. "Direct experience is the highest of all ways of gaining knowledge." So said Swami Rama, and I have to agree with him. Experience is the only path to understanding. Explanations just won't do.

-- James Oroc
Tryptamine Palace: 5-MeO-DMT and the Bufo alvarius Toad (2009, Park Street Press)
In recent years I have slowly but steadily reimmersed myself in what some might call "the entheogenic movement." Now, I'm not exactly sure that this is what it should be called; it's a movement that doesn't have an official name. Nevertheless, I have noticed one curious thing common to all of the different facets--scientific, social, and even spiritual--of this enigmatic movement. You hear a lot of interesting facts and speculations about chemistry, cluster headaches, ayahuasca shamans, neurobiology, aliens, elves, and the impending End of Time. But you hardly ever hear any mention of the word "God."

This seems rather strange to me when considering that the word entheogen means "God generated within." So we have the word God used within the definition of the movement, but near silence about God from within the movement itself. The reason for this seems obvious; as I noted in the quote that starts this essay, the word God can make people uncomfortable. It is one of the few words left that still has any power. But thanks to medieval Christianity and modern science, it mostly has a negative connotation amongst society's intellectual community. I believe this presents a problem for the entheogenic movement, because it makes it harder to discuss (or even know) what it is that the movement is trying to achieve.

"Even mysticism itself, comes off as some kind of dirty word, despite the fact that our current use of entheogens is clearly a continuation of this historically ancient philosophy."

But I should back up a bit. I have spent a good part of the last four years writing Tryptamine Palace. Writing this book has largely been my reaction to an overwhelming spiritual epiphany that I had the first time I smoked 5-MeO-DMT. Despite being a confirmed atheist at the time, during this voyage I came to believe that I connected with a force that I can only describe as the transcendental experience of God. This was not the Christian God, of course, but rather the God perennial to mysticism: the void that is a plenum of conscious, omniscient love. I can assure you I most definitely was not expecting such an encounter at the time.

Tryptamine Palace is the story of my quest for a firmer understanding of what it was that I experienced, and how I was able to experience it. During my search, I read a vast number of books on psychedelics, Eastern religion, philosophy, and anything else that might help provide some clues. It was within the literature on quantum physics that I discovered the concept of an underlying energetic scaffolding for the universe called the zero-point field. I traveled to Burning Man, to India, and even went to the Sonoran desert in search of Bufo alvarius. By the time I finished my book, I had managed to find a lot of answers that satisfied me, allowing me to believe that there is both a spiritual and a scientific explanation for God.

My spiritual epiphany on 5-MeO-DMT directed me back into the entheogenic movement. What I have found is that this movement paradoxically consists of a large number of people embracing assorted New Age philosophies in an attempt to explain their psychoactive drug experiences, and a much smaller backbone of scientists, chemists, and pharmacologists engaged in research that is often counter-productive to their mainstream careers. While there are a smattering of ayahuasca and peyote churches, as well as the Council on Spiritual Practices1 (which is dedicated to promoting the idea that direct experience of the sacred can be accessed through the use of entheogens), such organizations are rarities; they appear to me to be regarded almost as "throw-backs" within an otherwise "modern movement." Even mysticism itself, comes off as some kind of dirty word, despite the fact that our current use of entheogens is clearly a continuation of this historically ancient philosophy.

These days, God is often dismissed as an antiquated idea. Our inherited intellectual resistance to the word "God" is so great, that the closest some people will come to addressing it is by calling themselves agnostic. I am no more immune to these inherited prejudices than anyone else. For example, at the World Psychedelic Forum in Basel, there were a small number of priests and nuns in attendance. During the course of the week, I had the opportunity to speak to many of the people there, but I didn't bring myself to approach this singular group--a fact that I now greatly regret, for I am sure that I would have been interested in their points of view. But the intellectual and moral aversion I have for the Christian Church is so overpowering, that it kept me at arm's length from these individuals, despite the fact that we were presumably there as a result of the same phenomena: our direct experiences of God.

Thus, I have come to realize that the face of our entheogenic community is not so different from that of mainstream society; the choice appears to lie between conventional science (the cult of reductionist materialism) and a steep dive into unproven New Age philosophies. We seem to have become more interested in how many psychoactive drugs can be invented or experienced, than we are in defining which ones can truly be characterized as entheogens. I hear a lot of compounds being called "entheogens" that I personally feel don't warrant such a classification. By my definition, an entheogen should be able to produce the mystical result of a transcendental union-with-God. (This is not merely feeling "close to God," or having a heightened appreciation of one's humanity or of the natural environment.) If a compound can't do that, then it's not a true entheogen. And the more often it is able to allow this transcendence, the more powerful an entheogen it is. The problem with this point of view is the simple fact that not many compounds can consistently produce such a result, and none are guaranteed to do so.

"Nevertheless, a number of people are beginning to have faith-based transformations of their lives due to their experiences with entheogens like 5-MeO-DMT, DMT, and ayahuasca."

But a lot of people are still interested in "psychedelic" drugs, so perhaps we should admit that the "entheogenic movement" is actually only a splinter group of the "psychedelic movement." One likely reason that "entheogen" has been so widely adopted by proponents of such drugs is the fact that it throws a cloak of obscurity over the taboo topic of psychedelics: enthusiasts may not be as interested in finding God as they are in staying out of jail. Furthermore, once the term is understood by mainstreamers, it can add an air of respectability to the dialog. Images of freaked-out 1960s youth are less likely to spring to mind, when the discussion appears to focus on community-based spiritual groups making positive changes in the world. Mainstream respectability is clearly a goal for some people in the movement, who put a great deal of effort into obtaining government approval for their activities. Yet within such a matrix, science still trumps spirituality. For example, in 2008 I was told that the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies would only allow lecturers to speak on topics related to scientific studies about psychoactive compounds in its dome at Burning Man. No mystics allowed. Apparently mystics can know only about God, but nothing about science. Maybe Entheon Village, where the MAPS camp is based, should consider changing its name! Burning Man as a whole isn't much better. We build a temple in the middle of the playa each year, but if you search the hundreds of thousands of words on the Burning Man web site, you'll find scant appearance of the word "God." (Although there are various religious groups represented at Burning Man, they largely keep to themselves.) So it seems that even at Burning Man, which many participants would argue is one of the most open-minded places in the world, you can't talk about God without freaking people out. What is going on here?

I don't believe this has always been the case in the entheogenic movement, but I think one has to go back to a time when they were all called "psychedelics" for this to be true. Aldous Huxley had no fear of discussing the transcendental experience of God even before he discovered mescaline and LSD, because that's what he was looking for; his last book, Island, wholeheartedly embraces the spiritual use of entheogens. Albert Hofmann mentions his relationship with God in his book LSD: My Problem Child, and he presents his scientific argument for God's existence more directly in his book Insight Outlook. R. Gordon Wasson, Huston Smith, Alan Watts, and other old-school authors in the field had no aversion to eloquently expounding on the meat of the matter: the transcendent union-with-God. Perhaps it's a generational thing. The psychedelic authors that followed these elder statesmen have largely avoided any direct mention of God. Self-transforming machine elves, alien abductions, plant teachers, the Mayan calendar, even the absurd idea that smoking DMT is somehow going to bring about a fundamental change in the nature of reality--such concepts are fair game; but avoid talking about God, because you end up sounding odd, old fashioned, and will generally weird people out. This situation results in the paradox of one of the foremost champions of the word "entheogen," Jonathan Ott, stating in an interview for The Entheogen Review that he has no belief nor disbelief in God. Or Sasha Shulgin describing himself in an interview as "agnostic," despite the following statement that kicks off the book PIHKAL:
I deem myself blessed, in that I have experienced, however briefly, the existence of God. I have felt a sacred oneness with creation and its Creator, and--most precious of all--I have touched the core of my own soul.
Even the Peyote Way Church, a devout state-sanctioned religious group in Arizona since 1978, recently removed the "of God" that appended their church's name, in order to make agnostics and atheists also feel welcome (Hanna 2008). If nothing else, such situations illustrate the strange contradictions that can pop up, when one chooses whether or not to use the word "God."

Contemporary conventional scientists have the same issues. Albert Einstein, Sir Arthur Eddington, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg all had their mystical sides, but discussion about the nature of God among scientists virtually stopped after World War II. Maybe it was due to the unholy slaughter of the two "great" wars only about twenty years apart, and the sustained genocides by Stalin and Hitler. Or maybe it was due to the fact that the United States unleashed the forces of hell into the world at Hiroshima and Nagasaki--acts of terrifying aggression (made possible through scientific "advances") that our society has never really processed. I think there can be no doubt that those tragedies severely affected our confidence in God--for if there was a God, why would it allow such things? As the next generation grew up knowing that they were just one itchy trigger finger away from annihilation, science became the more powerful concept. In a post-WWII society, the twin towers of Science and Industry were whole-heartedly accepted as substitutes for Religion.

But ironically, that same science was responsible for reintroducing experiential spirituality back into the Western world, since with the invention of LSD, millions of people could now have direct knowledge of transcendent states. When just a few years later humanity saw the first photographs of the earth floating in space, the realization began to solidify that we are all indeed one. Issues like human rights, sexual equality, ecology, and world peace dominated a generation. But our own spirituality was too damaged--fraught with propaganda and contradiction--to be of much use to us. After John Lennon pointed out that the Beatles were more popular than God, they went off to India and sat at the Maharishi's feet. Our new society invested itself in a thousand different philosophies, turning its back not only on mainstream religion, but also, to a degree, on mainstream science. A New Age dawned: one where the channeled missives from Pleiades became as credible to some people (and were received with more interest) as the results from the Hubble telescope.

Mainstream science and the entheogenic movement both ended up suffering the same predicament: they no longer have much room left in their ranks for a discussion of God. Existentialism has come to reign so supreme, that some in our own entheogenic movement will explain away transcendent union-with-God experiences as a "by-product of consciousness." And science tells us that consciousness is just "a by-product of matter." So it goes. We break the sacred compounds down, looking at molecules and receptor sites in search of an answer based on the "scientific" belief that the physical nature of the compounds causes their entheogenic effects. Most scientists give little attention to the possibility that entheogens, rather than producing particular states of consciousness, may instead operate by allowing us to access a broader band of consciousness. (And virtually no scientists are willing to discuss the possibility that they can allow us to access God.)2 It's no wonder that people today are more interested in MDMA than 5-MeO-DMT--they just want to get high so they can escape their random, pointless lives. There seem to be very few people willing to go out on a limb within the entheogenic movement to tell anyone that they can find God.3
I belong to a group of scientists who do not subscribe to a conventional religion but nevertheless deny that the universe is a purposeless accident. Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact. There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation. Furthermore, I have come to the point of view that mind--i.e., conscious awareness of the world--is not a meaningless and incidental quirk of nature, but an absolutely fundamental facet of reality. -- Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (1992)
Yet this position is beginning to change in the mainstream sciences. It is changing because we are undergoing a massive paradigm shift in our knowledge of the universe. And the cause of this paradigm shift is exactly where mainstream science and the entheogenic community meet. It is changing, because the new scientific paradigm that will come to dominate the direction of knowledge in the twenty-first century is one that no longer recognizes the primacy of matter as the stuff of our reality. Rather, it recognizes that consciousness and information are the precursors of existence. Or as the astrophysicist Sir James Jeans wrote in The Mysterious Universe "the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine."

This revelation is not news to the mystics, for this has been a perennial intuition in mysticism since the beginning of language. And the primacy of consciousness clearly lies at the heart of the entheogenic movement. But there is no doubt that this is a revolutionary transformation of scientific belief, as it opens up some obvious spiritual possibilities: for if consciousness is primary, then human consciousness is not its only form. Some form of consciousness must have been around since the beginning of time, long before we arrived on the scene. So perhaps our consciousness is simply a limited form of that consciousness, after all.

There are a host of other factors in this scientific reappraisal of the possibility of God (or some form of higher consciousness): the zero-point field, the speculation that we occupy a flat universe, the increasing awareness of universal constants, the understanding of how finely tuned for the creation of life our universe really is--discoveries like these are challenging reductionist materialism,4 and there are too many to detail here. Science is increasingly at war with itself, as the old guard of the old paradigm dig in their heels and try to shield themselves from an avalanche of data that is proving them wrong, just as those who believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth came up with increasingly complicated attempts to explain away the data that confirmed Copernicus's hypothesis.

This fact is neatly demonstrated by the recent publication of a couple of books by two scientists who offer radically different points of view. In 2006, noted biologist Richard Dawkins released his book The God Delusion. The same year, respected astrophysicist Bernard Haisch took the polar opposite approach in his book The God Theory: Universes, Zero-Point Fields, and What's Behind It All. Dawkins' book has been by far the more popular, with worldwide reviews and over a million copies sold. Haisch's book received much less fanfare. But if you compare the two, you quickly realize that Dawkins' book is full of tepid ideas, surprisingly little hard science (other than extrapolated Darwinism), and a tone that is brimming with righteous anger. In contrast, Haisch's book quietly and soberly takes the mind on a journey through some amazing new scientific discoveries and important transcendental concepts.

I find it interesting that this shift in the mainstream sciences seems to be coming at about the same time as I have been witnessing a shift within the entheogenic community. People I have met clearly welcome the return of experiential spirituality to their lives, but they want to be able to believe in the validity of it, and science currently forms the foundation for much of our belief system. Nevertheless, a number of people are beginning to have faith-based transformations of their lives due to their experiences with entheogens like 5-MeO-DMT, DMT, and ayahuasca. These experiences are so powerful, that the people who have them no longer fear the social stigma of talking about their personal relationship with a transcendental God. These experiences are so real, that those who have them are willing to take the promotion of divinity back into their own hands. I know, because I am one such person, and I have been meeting more and more of us as I travel the globe.

The driving force behind this transformation is described within the concept of "liberation theology," which explains that a true faith-based spiritual epiphany creates a social and political transformation in an individual that cannot be ignored. This transformation creates a contemplative activist; Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama are all examples of contemplative activists. These contemplative activists have been "some of the most effective agents for encouraging the liberation of individuals and systems in all of human history," (Cairns 2001) since in liberation theology, "[t]here is not first the mystical and then the political.... The political is of the substance of the mystical." (Lee and Cowan 1986, in Cairns 2001). By experiencing the full reality of God, these individuals have found the inner strength to set about changing the world.

So perhaps there is still hope for our society to rediscover God. As science turns toward an understanding of the primacy of consciousness, I think there is one area where both society and science can agree: the use of entheogens is a very effective tool for both exploring consciousness and for reappraising mystical states. The realization of God based on a scientific understanding of "how-this-could-be-possible" would be a radical transformation of our own understanding, and it could produce enough contemplative activists to bring about the massive societal shift in awareness that humanity may need to survive the twenty-first century. But to do this we must confront our own prejudices about the word "God," and we must rescue it from the tyrannies of its recent history. If there is one group in our modern society that should be able to embrace a new concept of God, it is those within the entheogenic movement. It is high time for us to open up both our hearts and our minds, to let God back in.

References #
  1. Hanna J. Personal communication. Oct 17 2008.
  2. Cairns GF. "A Theology of Human Liberation and Entheogens: Reflections of a Contemplative Activist". In: Psychoactive Sacramentals: Essays on Entheogens and Religion. 2001. Edited by T. Roberts. CSP..
  3. Lee BJ, Cowan MA. "Dangerous Memories: House Churches and our American Story". 1986. Cited in Psychoactive Sacramentals: Essays on Entheogens and Religion. 2001. Edited by T. Roberts. CSP.
Notes #
  1. The Council on Spiritual Practices published two of my favorite books on this topic: Entheogens and the Future of Religion and Psychoactive Sacramentals. The CSP was also one of the sponsors of the John Hopkins psilocybin study, which provided scientific evidence that psilocybin can produce complete mystical experiences that can have profoundly positive life-changing effects.
  2. Rick Strassman is somewhat of an exception on this count, in that he has suggested that it may be the process of DMT being released by the pineal gland that allows the human soul to enter and leave the body (Strassman 2001); however, this does not relate directly to God--it only relates to the idea of a soul.
  3. Stanislav Grof's work is the main exception to this, though his revelations are often cloaked in heavy psychiatric jargon. Alex Grey also champions this idea, but because he is an artist, scientists may be inclined to explain away his views as artistic metaphor.
  4. Reductionist materialism is the belief that things can be broken down into smaller and smaller parts to explain how they operate, and that matter forms the basis of reality.