Two recent surveys [Griffiths et al 2019, Davis et al 2020]. of people who took psychedelic drugs and reported “God experience encounters”, along with successful clinical trials using psychedelic therapy for depression, have given rise to public misconceptions about psychedelics and atheism. Specifically, 3 inferences have been drawn:
- that the psychedelic experience tends to dissolve atheist convictions;
- that atheist convictions, once dissolved, are replaced with traditional monotheist beliefs; and
- that atheism and depression somehow correlate as afflictions for which psychedelic drugs offer relief.
This paper argues, based on analysis of the studies and trials along with relevant supplemental evidence, that each of these popular inferences is substantially misleading. Survey data do not indicate that most psychedelic atheists have cleanly cut ties with their former convictions, and there is strong evidence that they have not traded atheism for traditional monotheism. Both personal testimony and the effectiveness of microdose clinical trials serve to complicate any notion that a psychedelic drug alleviates symptoms of depression by “curing” atheism.
The paper then extends its focus to argue that the broader field of neurotheology includes elements that contribute to these popular misconceptions.
[Keywords: psychedelic drugs, atheism, monotheism, pantheism, depression, neurotheology]
…The first and most obvious weakness in popular inferences about psychedelics and theistic belief has to do with the selective criterion for participation in the studies. The first study surveyed only individuals who self-reported something that felt like a God experience encounter. The DMT study asked for those who had experienced an entity encounter, which might seem a more neutral term—but the authors elicited descriptions of the entity with categories very similar to those used in the first study. Given that the people surveyed constituted a special subset of psychedelic users—those who experienced something that felt like an encounter with a godlike entity—it is notable and somewhat surprising that as many as 534 of them continued to identify as atheist afterwards.
One of the co-authors of the 2019 study made this very point about the specially selected survey group, in order to fend off a bioethicist’s complaint. The bioethicist had cited the 2019 data about atheists and worried that the medical profession, ideally “neutral and agnostic” on religious matters, might violate that neutrality if psychedelic therapy should become a mainstream option (Jacobs 2020). Co-author Matthew Johnson countered that “belief change of a religious type”, such as the reduction in the percentage of atheists reported in his study, “would be massively inflated in this sample” (Johnson 2020).
However, there are other weaknesses besides the obvious problem of a selective survey population. Even with analysis of just this special subset of psychedelic users, popular inferences do not stand up to scrutiny. Survey data clearly do not support the second of the inferences, the supposed conversion of atheists to traditional monotheism. Among the total psychedelic participants in the multi-drug study, “Identification as monotheist statistically-significantly decreased and identification as Other statistically-significantly increased from before to after the experience” (Griffiths et al 2019). “Other” for the survey signified neither monotheist nor atheist. In this survey, in fact, the vast majority—85%—chose “Other” as their religious affiliation after a psychedelic drug occasioned a God experience encounter. If the psychedelic experience was tempting people away from the atheist label, it certainly did not move them into the camp of traditional monotheism.
It is reasonable to assume, then, that all or nearly all of those who identified as atheist before their psychedelic encounters either continued to identify as atheist or chose to identify neither as atheist nor monotheist. Contrary to the popular misconception, their psychedelic experience did not convert them from atheism to belief in a traditional God. There remains the question of what the shift from atheist to Other signifies. Does it mean that the psychedelic experience, at least within this selective group, dissolved atheist convictions?
Careful analysis of the 2 surveys suggests a more complex result. In the first study, a key question asked participants to choose the “best descriptor of that which was encountered”: “God (the God of your understanding)”, “Ultimate Reality”, “Higher Power”, or “An Aspect or emissary of God (eg, an angel)” (Griffiths et al 2019). Data for the psychedelic group—the full group, not just those who had identified as atheist—indicated that a majority, 55%, chose “Ultimate Reality” as the best descriptor. Despite the fact that the survey was framed with the term “God experience encounter”, the descriptor “God” finished in third place, the choice of only 18%. Given that only 18% of the entire psychedelic group chose God, it is likely that the atheist subset, only one-fifth of the group, chose God in very small numbers, if at all.
In the DMT survey, where the before and after numbers for atheism were similar, the study was framed with the more neutral term “entity encounter experience”. This study also offered a question about God and Ultimate Reality, but in a form that made it unhelpful for comparison with the first study. The DMT group was asked whether they “identified as believing in Ultimate Reality, Higher Power, God, or Universal Divinity” (Davis et al 2020). The authors made note of a large increase in these numbers: 36% answered yes before the experience, 58% afterwards. Because the 4 entity descriptors were merged into a single category, there can be no differentiating analysis of their separate implications. Interestingly, however, the authors—all of whom worked on the 2019 study—borrowed the first 3 descriptors from the earlier survey, but changed the order of listing. This time, they arranged them in order of popularity from those earlier results, with Ultimate Reality listed first, and God now third.
The descriptor Ultimate Reality took clear priority over God in the first study, and although ambiguous survey construction clouded results in the second, Ultimate Reality led the cluster of available descriptors. The number of atheists dropped from 21% to 8% in the first study and from 28% to 10% in the second. If we posit that nearly all of those who swerved away from atheism chose to identify as Other, and most of them encountered an entity best described as Ultimate Reality, is a religious position so defined fundamentally incompatible with atheism? This is the crucial question for evaluating the first popular inference, about psychedelic experience dissolving atheist conviction.