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Psychedelics and Religious Liberty in the United States

The article Psychedelics and Religious Liberty in the United States was originally published on Microdose.

As we all grapple with the ongoing pandemic,…

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The article Psychedelics and Religious Liberty in the United States was originally published on Microdose.

As we all grapple with the ongoing pandemic, wars, economic woes, and other shifts into what is a “new normal,” many people are turning away from organized religion, and seeking new ways to connect and get insight into spirituality — often using yoga, meditation circles, paganism and psychedelics as a religious or spiritual practice, to help make sense of their lives and the world around them.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 29% of U.S. adults now identify as having no religious affiliation, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016. I believe these numbers are much higher, primarily driven by young adults, who lead the charge away from traditional churches and toward more informal forms of spirituality.[1]

Experts say that the exodus from organized religion may be due to several factors, including growing distrust of organized institutions. There is a disillusionment with how certain religions have historically treated marginalized groups, such as women and LGBTQ individuals, and a desire for more personalized and flexible spiritual practices.[2]

In response to this exodus, many faith leaders are stepping up their outreach efforts to attract younger adults into their congregations. Including the use of social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to reach younger audiences, leveraging technology in creative new ways during sermons and services, and exploring alternative forms of worship such as online retreats, mindfulness practices, and other forms of sacred healing, sharing, and circles. For now, it seems clear that many younger people are looking for something different. This shift may ultimately lead to significant changes in how faith is practiced worldwide. This article is about the shift and the use of psychedelics and plant medicines in churches exercising the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

 

Turning to psychedelics as part of spiritual practice

Psychedelics and plant medicines have become increasingly popular for recreational and medical use in recent years. But, people have long turned to these substances for their mind-altering properties, seeking spiritual or mystical experiences that can help them connect with their most profound truths and find peace within themselves.

This trend has been particularly noticeable in the US, where many people are turning to things like ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, and other psychoactive plant-based drugs in search of a deeper connection with themselves and the world around them. As a result, a new form of Psychedelic Tourism has emerged, with retreats in Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil, among other nearshore locations.

While certain risks are associated with using psychedelic substances, such as adverse side effects or the potential for addiction or abuse, people believe the benefits outweigh these risks. For example, some people use psychedelics to treat conditions like depression or anxiety. In contrast, others use them to escape the stresses and pressures of daily life.[3] Still, others are using them to connect with the ineffable — to transcend — perhaps one of the biggest reasons behind this growing trend.

Many individuals, particularly those disenfranchised from the church or a traditional religious system, have looked at alternative spirituality and belief systems, seeing psychedelics as a pathway to enlightenment or a higher state of consciousness. These beliefs have even led some individuals to incorporate these substances into sacred spiritual ceremonies and rituals intended to bring about profound shifts in perception and understanding.[4]

 

 

For centuries, religious groups have relied on psychedelic substances as a powerful tool in their spiritual practices. Whether used in sacred ceremonies or as a means of connecting with the divine, these plant medicines have played an essential role in many religious traditions throughout history. The ancient use of psychedelics in the church can be traced back thousands of years to our prehistoric ancestors. Archaeological evidence uncovered in a gravesite in northern Iraq suggests that our ancestors consumed psychoactive substances they found in nature, such as psilocybin mushrooms and peyote cacti.

Over the centuries, these substances played an important role in spiritual practices and religious ceremonies, particularly within the Hindu tradition. For example, the ancient text called the Rig Veda describes a powerful drink known as soma, which was believed to imbue those who drank it with immortality. Historians believe that this sacred brew may have contained psilocybin, the active compound found in magic mushrooms.

Today, we are seeing a resurgence of interest in psychedelic spirituality and research into their potential therapeutic benefits. Scientists are studying how psychedelics can treat various mental health issues, from depression and anxiety to addiction and PTSD. And many people are turning back to these ancient traditions for guidance on using these powerful substances safely and effectively.

 

A tension between spiritual practice and the growth of medical psychedelics

In today’s world, psychedelics offer us a unique opportunity to reconnect with ourselves and our spiritual roots, helping us to explore new depths of consciousness and experience life in all its beauty and mystery.[5]  In an article for Forbes, Natan Ponieman explored whether applying mystical frameworks in the context of psychedelic medicine is becoming a hindrance to its growth. He specifically discusses how researchers have used the Mystical Experience Questionnaires (MEQs)[6] at Johns Hopkins University, asking questions such as “Did you feel unity with ultimate reality?” suggesting that evidence so far suggests these substances can generate personal meaning and spiritual significance. Still, scientists worry about blending mysticism when researching them further because it could lead people down paths without any real destination. This speaks to the medicalization and psychological implications of psychedelics, not the spiritual opportunities to support and expand their use, given the set, setting, and intentions.

Matthew Johnson highlights, “a little discussed danger at play in psychedelic research and one that will surely become apparent if psychedelics are approved as medicines. This danger is that scientists and clinicians will be imposing their personal religious or spiritual beliefs on the practice of psychedelic medicine.”[7]

The resurgent interest in ancient spiritual practices and a growing recognition that psychedelics can be used safely and effectively as a path to spiritual transcendence informs many of these RFRA churches that are fighting against attempts by the science community to limit religious freedom or secularize the use of these sacred sacraments, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as Fatih Based Organizations (FBO’s), using a 508c1a status[8]

Through legal challenges and public advocacy campaigns, these faiths are working to protect their right to use psychedelics to connect with the divine and deepen their spiritual practice. And with public support on their side, they will likely succeed in preserving this essential part of their religious tradition for generations to come.

Yet, the use of psychedelics and plant medicines by churches or spiritual communities is controversial. Some praise the transformative power of these substances, while others argue that they pose serious health risks. Regardless, it is clear that churches are becoming increasingly bold in their use of these “sacred plants” as tools for connecting with the divine.

 

 

One such church is the Sacred Tribe in Denver, founded by Rabbi Benjamin Gorelick, who has become known as the “mushroom rabbi.” Gorelick uses psilocybin mushrooms in religious ceremonies to help his followers tap into their spiritual potential and explore different aspects of themselves. Despite police raids and aggressive prosecution by authorities, he remains committed to his mission of promoting healing through plant medicine.

Others, like the Hummingbird Church in Joshua Tree, have taken a more cooperative approach to work with law enforcement authorities. By entering into formal partnerships and working transparently with local officials, these churches have been able to provide ayahuasca ceremonies without fear of interference or legal repercussions.

And then others, like the Church of Universal Consciousness, led by Gv Freeman, a transformational guide, run an all-denominational church in the St. Louis area, where they follow the strict protocols outlined by the RFRA and the DEA to secure sacrament and facilitate an experience for church members to connect to divine consciousness..

RFRA churches, ministries, and chaplains will continue to grow as people seek traumatic or spiritual healing away from established religious institutions. Not all RFRA churches offer psychedelics as a sacrament, and It is difficult to estimate the current number of RFRA’s that do. The MAPS website referenced a list of several RFRA churches[9] and the Chachuna has recently released a guide to setting up an RFRA church[10] for those that want to. In the USA, the path is not always clear, but the RFRA model holds an appeal for some looking to go beyond the underground, recreational, or medicalized model and not travel to another country. Each person needs to follow their path. The  “Sacred Medicine Hierarchy” outlined below provides a visual framework to see how individuals do that through the various layers of trial and use. Based on Maslow’s model[11], recreational use can become the groundwork for more profound work to address physical or psychological needs; shadow work to connect with self, others, and relationships with people, places, things, and the environment to actualize and transcend.

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Challenges and Opportunities

As we look at the challenges facing RFRA churches, they will continue to be accountable to the DEA and the parameters required as Faith Based Organizations (FBO’s). These include issues related to drug regulation, religious freedom, and a clear and safe path for members. These FBOs must comply with existing drug regulations, which may conflict with their religious beliefs or practices. For example, certain entheogens used in these rituals may be classified as Schedule I or II substances under the Controlled Substances Act, which limits their use, access, and availability.[12]

On the other hand, RFRA churches must also contend with religious freedom and discrimination issues. To ensure that the DEA or other regulatory bodies are not unfairly targeting them, these churches may need to demonstrate that their use of entheogens is central to their practice, given that such rituals have been dormant for thousands of years. They may also need to show that these drugs are necessary for achieving specific spiritual goals or experiences, which can be difficult to prove due to the subjective nature of such claims.

The challenges RFRA churches face highlight modern society’s complex relationship between drug regulation and religious freedom, the basic needs of human beings, to the most ineffable. These issues will likely continue to pose challenges for advocates and adversaries of psychedelics and other substances used for escapism to more lofty spiritual purposes in the coming years.

As the medicalization of sacred plants becomes more widespread, Psychedelic churches and ministries will continue to be formed. Privatization will creep further into the mainstream as a future alternative to the medical field. This model offers private membership associations and group meeting options not tethered to conventional models.  All options have pros and cons; weigh them carefully before deciding where you want to be on the pyramid. If you’re interested in setting up an RFRA private ministry, consult with an attorney to learn more about your options. Do your research first, as there are many things to consider, and getting it wrong can be costly and risky. But with the proper planning and advice, setting up a private ministry can be an enriching experience.

In my view, a spiritual renaissance is also happening that will change the nature of organized religion by empowering people to have a direct relationship with the ineffable. Once psychedelic legalization has been approved, I expect to see an increase in the number of RFRA churches and chaplains.

 

 

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/
[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/
[3] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/psychedelic-therapy
[4] Dorsen, C., Palamar, J., & Shedlin, M. G. (2018). Ceremonial “plant medicine” use and its relationship to recreational drug use: an exploratory study. Addiction research & theory, 27(2), 68. https://doi.org/10.1080/16066359.2018.1455187
[5] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-08-21/religion-psychedelic-renaissance-peyote-magic-mushrooms-lsd/101346594
[6] https://psychedelicreview.com/what-is-the-mystical-experience-questionnaire/
[7] https://cswr.hds.harvard.edu/news/2021/03/08/video-what-psychedelic-chaplaincy
[8] https://harrisbricken.com/psychlawblog/religious-use-of-psychedelic-drugs-under-federal-law-a-history/
[9] https://maps.org/news-letters/v12n1/12117stu.html
[10] https://chacruna.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Chacruna-RFRA-and-Best-Practices-Guide.pdf
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs
[12] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2006/02/21/supreme-court-rules-that-religious-group-can-use-illegal-drug-in-their-worship-services/

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