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Full Review
Entheogens and the Future of Religion
by Robert Forte (Ed.)
Council on Spiritual Practices 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Justin Case, 10/23/2006

Entheogens and the Future of Religion was published by The Council of Spiritual Practices, an organization that describes itself as “a collaboration among spiritual guides, experts in the behavioral and biomedical sciences, and scholars of religion, dedicated to making the direct experience of the sacred more available to more people” (see It is an excellent book for those interested in the social, political, ethical, spiritual and historical aspects of the religious use of entheogens. Edited by Robert Forte, this collection includes essays, interviews and transcripts of speaking engagements from various authors with differing areas of expertise approaches the topic of the religious use of entheogens.

“Testimony of the Council of Spiritual Practices” is a version of a talk given by Robert Jesse, founder of CSP, at the Committee of Drugs and the Law of the Association of the Bar in New York City. Jesse speaks in defense of the religious liberty to use entheogens as part of a sincere spiritual practice. He explores the legal issues and ramifications involved in legally treating entheogens and their religious use very differently than the recreational use (and abuse) of hard drugs. Jesse offers reasonable alternatives to total prohibition, and discusses what might entail legal accommodation of safe, sincere employment of entheogens as part of a religious practice.

“Explorations Into God” is a talk by the Benedictine monk and author Brother David Steindl-Rast, who received permission from the Vatican in 1967 to start a formal Christian-Buddhist dialogue with Zen teachers. Speaking at the Esalen Institute in 1984, Steindl-Rast barely mentions entheogens directly. But by refraining from making any distinction between particular spiritual practices, he validates the sincere use of entheogens in a spiritual life. For Steindl-Rast, a continuously vital religious spirit is important, rather than fixed religious dogmas. He points out that, used with honesty and the right intention, entheogens can be used to enrich a religious life, but this is ultimately beside his point. Steindl-Rast’s essay is perhaps the most joyous and sincere chapter in this book.

Dale Pendell is a software engineer, long-time student of ethnobotany and an important poet and author in entheogenic culture. In “Das Mutterkorn: The Making of DeLysid”, Pendell waxes poetic about a variety of key moments in psychoactive history: Hofmann’s discovery of LSD, the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries, and R. Gordon Wasson’s rediscovery of the use of sacred mushrooms in the mountains of Mexico. In addition, Pendell includes what seems to be fragments of a technical process of manufacturing lysergic acid. Pendell swiftly jumps from one topic to another and back again, cross-weaving a thread to make a tapestry, deftly using poetic license to combine chemistry, history, and religion.

In “The Message of the Eleusinian Mysteries for Today’s World,” Dr. Albert Hofmann, the chemist who invented LSD, explores the most famous mystery tradition of the ancient world. For nearly a thousand years, seekers accepted at the temple in Eleusis were led through a sort of dramatic guided tour through the death and rebirth myth of Persephone. History tells us that, although the details of these rites were kept secret, whatever took place profoundly changed those who went through it. Many of the most influential figures of the classical Mediterranean world found themselves transformed by their experiences, which may have turn led to ideas that went on to change Western civilization. History also tells us that a sacred drink called kykeon was served during the rites. This brew raises the central question in this chapter. “Could the visions of Eleusis have been produced solely by unknown rites,” Hofmann asks, “or was the kykeon a psychopharmakon, a plant extract capable of inducing an ecstatic state?”

Broadening his topic, Hofmann voices the central issue of Entheogens and the Future of Religion when he asks “whether it is ethically and religiously defensible to use consciousness-altering drugs under specific circumstances to gain new insights into the spiritual world.” Hofmann goes on to argue that the use of kykeon in the context of the Eleusinian rites, as well as the ritual use of the LSD-like ololiuqui by certain indigenous peoples of Mexico, can serve as models for the beneficial use of entheogens in a religious context today. “Eleusis can be a model for today,” Hofmann writes. “Eleusis-like centers could unite and strengthen the many spiritual currents of our time, all of which have the same goal: the goal of creating, by transforming consciousness in individual people, the conditions for a better world, a world without war and without environmental damage, a world of happy people.”

That is some fine writing for a chemist! One more important passage cannot go unquoted. “In conclusion,” Hofmann says, “I wish once more to raise the fundamental question: why were such drugs probably used in Eleusis, and why are they still used by certain Indian tribes even today in the course of religious ceremonies? And why is such use scarcely conceivable in the Christian liturgy, as though it were not significant? The answer is that Christian liturgy worships a godly power enthroned in heaven, that is a power outside of the individual. At Eleusis, on the contrary, an alteration in the inmost being of the individual was striven for, a visionary experience of the ground of being…”

In another case of chemists producing eloquent writing, Ann Shulgin and Alexander Shulgin, the authors of the classic books PIHKAL and TIHKAL, take on the topic of “A New Vocabulary.” In this abridged version of a chapter in TIHKAL, the couple explore the idea that the various experiences made available by psychoactive substances can be seen as a vocabulary of human experience and human potential—a vocabulary which can bring to light unexamined subconscious drives that affect our lives from the level of the individual to the level of world politics. “What we are doing is looking,” the Shulgins say, “as have countless others before us, for a way to communicate the experiences of the deeper parts of ourselves, a way to share knowledge which has traditionally been called ‘occult,’ or ‘hidden,’ and which has been, until our time, considered the private preserve of those few shamans, teachers, or spiritual guides in each culture who had earned their way to it.” In our world of increasingly destructive weaponry and increasingly invasive technologies of control, the Shulgins argue that it is imperative that our leaders gain the more enlightened perspectives afforded by psychoactives and act accordingly.

Terence McKenna suggests a similar idea in “Psychedelic Society,” based on a talk McKenna gave at the ARUPA meeting at the Esalen Institute in 1984. “When I think of psychedelic society that notion implies creating a society which lives in light of the Mystery of Being.” Rather than directly address the topic of the use of entheogens in a religious context, McKenna focuses on the direct experience of the great mystery of life, without dogma or premature reductive interpretations. He goes on to present his vision of such a society, including his “archaic revival” scenarios in which high technology is used not to alienate us but to serve the unfolding of human potential in self-directed evolution in the light of the Mystery. McKenna concludes his talk by saying that because our society has long ago abandoned the use of psychedelic plants (McKenna does not prefer the word entheogen), we have gone very far down the road of dysfunction and destruction as a result. He argues that it is imperative that we integrate psychedelics back into society if we are to save ourselves from ourselves.

R. Gordon Wasson played a very important role in the history of the rediscovery of entheogens (a word he much preferred over the word psychedelic). Wasson was a banker and vice president of J.P. Morgan Trust before becoming interested in entheogens and writing some of the finest books ever made on the subject. Although not the first modern westerner to rediscover psilocybian mushrooms and their use by the indigenous people of Mexico, Wasson was responsible for bringing this story to the attention of the public through the 1957 LIFE magazine account of his travels to Mexico in search of the elusive teonanacatl. In the interview included here, conducted by Robert Forte in 1985, Wasson discusses his role in the rediscovery of entheogens for the western world. This chapter may be somewhat tedious to readers not already familiar with Wasson’s work and who do not hunger for the further details.

In his essay “Sacred Mushroom Pentecost,” Thomas J. Riedlinger makes a comparison between the Christian Pentecostal movement and the sacred mushroom ceremonies of the Mazatecs curanderos and curanderas of Mexico – the same people whom Wasson encountered. According to Riedlinger, both of these practices favor an ever-revitalized experience of the divine over dogma and doctrine. In both practices, the intent is to allow the divine to move through the worshipper, stirring their hearts and tongues, even speaking through them. Both traditions also share an element that can be called “divine wind” or the “breath of god,” a force that refreshes the soul. As with David Steindl-Rast’s chapter, Riedlinger implies that, whether or not entheogens are used, the important thing is the vitality and sincerity of a religious practice.

In “Psychedelic Experience and Spiritual Practice: A Buddhist Perspective,” Forte also interviews Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher and author who trained in monasteries in India, Burma and Thailand and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society. As with his interview with Wasson, Forte displays deep knowledge and insight in his questions. Unfortunately, there is scant mention of entheogens in official Buddhist doctrine. So Kornfield elaborates with his own thoughts, and though he seems a bit prudish in his attitude toward entheogens, he does present a very reasonable stance, reminding us of the Buddhist precept that invites us to “refrain from using intoxicants to the point of heedlessness, loss of mindfulness, or loss of awareness.” Most sincere entheogen users would probably agree: the point is to increase awareness, not to escape from reality, but to open up to a much deeper, wider reality. In this sense, there is no conflict between Buddhism and the use of entheogens with the right intent and practice. “It does not say not to use them and it is very explicit.” Kornfield says. Ultimately, “it is left up to the individual, as are all the precepts, to use as a guideline to become more genuinely conscious.”

In “Academic and Religious Freedom in the Study of the Mind,” the educational psychologist Thomas B. Roberts describes some of the “ideas, experiences, groups and values” that are the victims of current drug law policies. These include cognitive sciences, multi-state psychology, religion, mystical experiences, and personal freedom. Because drug law decisions affect constituencies from these areas, these groups should have a right to offer significant input into the reformation of these policies. Instead, most of the commentary on current drug policies comes form a narrow range of selected professional constituencies, including the legal, political, and medical communities. But these issues are also the responsibility of the academic, religious, and cognitive science communities. “We like to think that American liberty guarantees the right of the people to select their own ideas and ways of thinking; if we are to enjoy this freedom, then psychedelic-based ideas and psychedelic-supported cognitive skills need to be included too.” Indeed.

Proving Roberts’ point, Dr. Rick Strassman offers up the chapter “Biomedical Research With Psychedelics: Current Models and Future Prospects.” Dr. Strassman made history in the field of psychedelic research when, in the 1990s, he became the first person to gain federal approval to perform research with illegal hallucinogens in over two decades. In Strassman’s case, DMT was used in a study at the University of New Mexico Department of Psychiatry, later described in his book DMT: the Spirit Molecule. In this chapter, Strassman discusses the history of scientific research with entheogens, the issues and legal difficulties involved, as well as the mystical, ontological and religious implications of such research.

Eric E. Sterling is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, served as council to the U.S. House of Representatives, and played an important role in the passage of the landmark Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. In “Law Enforcement Against Entheogens: Is It Religious Persecution?” Sterling focuses on the effect of drug laws and law enforcement on religious freedom. Important court cases are discussed, as is the lack of discrimination in law enforcement between entheogens and street drugs. “For law enforcement officers engaged in the protection of youth from the harmful effects of ‘drugs,’ it may be very difficult, given their training, to distinguish what appears to be harmful use of street drugs from the responsible use of entheogens in spiritual practices. But it is fundamentally the mission of the law to draw distinctions.”

Following this rich collection of essays and interviews, CSP offers their brief “Statement of Purpose,” a “Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides,” and a section that gives helpful contextual information about each contributor. It should be mentioned that this book is not a “how-to” for the religious use of entheogens, so readers who want ideas about how to incorporate entheogens into spiritual practice will not find much here at all. In addition, this book is not a work of legal instruction. If you want to ascertain whether any given use of an entheogen would be found constitutionally protected in a court of law as a religious practice, Entheogens and the Future of Religions will not help. But for the sorts of readers who appreciated Persephone’s Quest, Cleansing the Doors of Perception and similar books, this CSP volume will satisfy.

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