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Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences
by William A. Richards
Columbia University Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Thomas B. Roberts, 12/28/2015

Note to readers: Rather than write, “The authors says blah-blah-blah” and “Then he says blah-blah-blah” and so forth, I’ve included my favorite sample quotations at the end of this review. I hope you’ll enjoy them at least as much as I do. – Tom Roberts

While there are many people writing about the psychotherapeutic uses of psychedelics and a plentitude of writings about their entheogenic (spiritual) uses, William “Bill” Richards is an author with a uniquely strong combination of scholarly professional preparation in religion plus a half-century history of legal psychotherapy practice, much of it with psychedelics.

As a graduate of Yale Divinity School and Andover-Newton Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. from Catholic University of America, Richards approaches religion on firm footing. Additionally, he was a close friend of Walter Pahnke, who designed the Good Friday Experiment, and is a student of Tibetan Buddhism.

For a taste of Richards’ ideas and persona, I recommend a talk he gave in 2012 at series of annual conferences now renamed the International Forum on Consciousness, sponsored by the Promega Corporation, near Madison, WI: Understanding Death: Implications of Mystical States of Consciousness Occasioned by Entheogens.

In psychology and psychedelics, Richards studied with German psychiatrist Hanscarl Leuner, was a graduate assistant for Abraham Maslow, lead psychedelic psychotherapy sessions at Spring Grove Hospital and Maryland Psychiatric Research Center with Stan Grof and others, and is now one of the session monitors in the Psilocybin Research Team at the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

In Sacred Knowledge, Richards collates this rich background and distills his years of thinking about psychedelics’ psychotherapeutic and spiritual uses into a book that is readable for educated general readers, intellectually firm enough for scholars, and flavored by his personal experiences.

If you are looking for tripping tales, of the I-dropped-acid-and saw-God type, Sacred Knowledge is not for you. (Thank God, I say. After one reads the first 40 or 50 trip reports, new ones are pretty boring.) The book includes a few, but thankfully for their theological implications and philosophical importance, not their glitzy gee-whizness.

The most important report and most interesting to the history of the Psychedelic Renaissance is Walter Pahnke’s first trip. Pahnke originated the experimental entheological research paradigm when he planned and ran the Good Friday Experiment in April of 1962 as the empirical basis for his Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Religion from Harvard Divinity School. Readers of this review probably will be familiar with the Good Friday Experiment; for those not so informed, I recommend “The Contributions of Walter Pahnke” on pages 31-32. In order not to be biased in his research report, Pahnke had not personally taken a psychedelic until Richards and he worked together with Leuner at the University of Göttingen. (An excerpt from Pahnke’s first trip is among the sample quotations below.)

After decades of obstruction and delays, Pahnke’s experimental paradigm is alive again, and Richards is part of it. As one of the session monitors for the ongoing series of psilocybin research projects at Johns Hopkins, he is co-author of most of the research group’s series of papers (see for links).

Like religions themselves, Sacred Knowledge and its ideas are located in larger cultural contexts, and this book locates its ideas in education, personal psychology, death studies, medical frontiers, the humanities, and the sciences. Yet throughout this book Richards makes his ideas clear to the non-specialist reader.

In summary, the dinner of ideas served up in Sacred Knowledge includes hearty theological bread, nourishing scholarly veggies, solid empirical meat, and a few rich trip reports as sweets.

——- Samples quotations from Sacred Knowledge——-

Dr. Richards is that rare example of a scientifically rigorous, tremendously learned intellectual who, nonetheless, is genuinely lit up from within. He is someone who instead of just talking about sacred knowledge, psychedelics, and religious experiences, has clearly taken his own advice and somehow managed to become, if I may be so bold, a shining example of a living mystic, a walking, talking genuine real-deal sage —all the while remaining extremely down-to-earth, witty, and warm. (“Foreword” by G. William Barnard, Pages xi-xii)

The discoveries made by the hundreds of persons whom I have encountered in the depths of their psychological and spiritual lives have profound relevance for beginning to more fully comprehend who we are, who we may become, and perhaps what the ultimate nature of reality may be. This collection of observations and experiences is of relevance not only for philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, theologians, microbiologist, neurosciences, and quantum physicists, but also for each of us who discovers himself or herself in the process that the Buddhists call “one precious human life.” As will be apparent as the content of this book unfolds, this growing edge of science also is a frontier of religious and spiritual knowledge. (Page xxvi)

I suggest that they [primary religious experiences] constitute but one pillar of what many would consider a balanced and mature religious life …First, there are the sacred scriptures … Second, there are the theological formulations … Third, there are the social expressions of religious belief in compassionate service to others… Primary religious experiences may well provide wisdom and vitality that may illumine and strengthen these other religious pillars; however, in my judgment, they do not render them less important. (Page 27)

I have opted to use the terms “entheogen” and “psychedelic” interchangeably. (Page 20)

Relatively soon after the psilocybin administration, the mystical forms of consciousness recurred in all their splendor, repeatedly drawing my being through several cycles of psychological death and rebirth, the noetic intensity of spiritual knowledge feeling etched into my brain. In the research report I subsequently wrote, there were terms such as “cosmic tenderness,” “infinite love,” “penetrating peace,” eternal blessing,” and “unconditional acceptance” coupled with “unspeakable awe,” “overflowing joy,” “primeval humility,” “inexpressible gratitude,” and “boundless devotion,” all followed by the sentence, “Yet all of these words are hopelessly inadequate and can do little more than meekly point toward the genuine, inexpressible feelings actually experienced.” (Pages 32-33)

Wayne Teasdale, both a Christian and a Buddhist monk, who personally understood mystical consciousness and the promise of entheogens wisely ingested, coined the term “interspirtuality” to depict a mountain of truth with a common summit but many paths leading to it from it base to its ineffable peak. Within this model, each path is worth and contains its own unique historical traditions and symbolic expressions of spiritual truth—it own wisdom and inspiration. (Page 42)

[Pahnke’s first trip] The most impressive and intense part of this experience was the WHITE LIGHT of absolute purity and cleanness. It was like a glowing and sparkling flame of incandescent whiteness and beauty, but not really flame—more like a gleaming white hot ingot, yet much bigger and vaster than a mere ingot. The associated feelings were those of absolute AWE, REVERENCE, AND SACREDNESS. Just before this experience I had the feeling of going deep within myself to the Self-stripped bare of all pretense and falseness. This was the point where a man could stand firm with absolute integrity—something more important than mere physical life. The white light experience was of supreme importance—absolutely self-validating and something worth staking your life on and putting your trust in. (Page 74)

If visionary experiences are the apexes of foothills surrounding the mountainous peak of mystical consciousness that penetrates through, above, and beyond the clouds, they are still very impressive themselves. …
What is so fascinating in psychedelic research is the discovery that volunteers not uncommonly report visions of religious and cultural; content that is unexpected and sometimes is claimed to be totally foreign to what they have learned in life thus far. (Page 79)

[Yale Divinity School] I was wearing a traditional tweed sport coat, dress shirt, and tie, but, alas, had no leather patches on my elbows. Worse than that, I neither smoked a pipe nor had grown a beard. Nonetheless, I summoned the courage to raise my hand and say something like, “Well, I just visited a research center in Baltimore and spoke with an alcoholic who reported a mystical experience with LSD, and he said “Yes, it is possible directly to know spiritual truth,” A stunned, very awkward silence followed, as if I had violated a sacred academic taboo by introducing empirical information into a philosophical discussion. Time momentarily seemed to have stopped. Then, without anyone responding to my words, the drone resumed and debate continued with selected references to the writings of philosophers long dead whether such knowledge could be possible. It seemed incomprehensible that sophisticated Yale graduate students could learn anything from some alcoholic who had taken a drug. (Pages 167-168)

The love intuited in mystical states is not wimpy and naïve; it tends to be reported as intelligent, wise, and incredibly powerful. It can be expressed in reaching out to other cultures with a disciplined determination to master their histories, their social and economic situations, and their religions and their languages, and to enter into intercultural dialogues respectfully, humbly, and patiently. (Page 208)

Personally, I envision continuing research projects of many kinds that are designed to investigate the promise of responsibly integrating psychedelic substances into our culture. In the immediate future, they will require the approval and oversight of governmental agencies and Institutional Review Boards. Such studies could focus not only on potential medical applications, but as outlined in this book, also on educational and religious uses. Social Scientists have the skills to monitor and measure the beneficial or detrimental effects discovered by such studies.
Many of these studies could proceed under the aegises of universities and research institutions. (Page 209)

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