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Religious Leaders are Tripping on Psilocybin in the Name of Science

A Rabbi, an Episcopalian, and a Calvinist walk into a research lab...

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Tribal cultures have used psychedelic drugs like peyote and ayahuasca as part of religious ceremonies for millennia, but larger, more modern religions like Christianity and Buddhism have never truly embraced the psychedelically induced experience. Researchers at Johns Hopkins and New York University, seeking to understand the connection between religious and psychedelic experiences, are now investigating how religious leaders respond to a dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms.

The researchers have enrolled an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Zen Buddhist roshi, an Episcopalian, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Calvinist, and eight other religious leaders in the study, and are on the lookout out for any Imams, and Catholic or Hindu priests willing to embark on the adventure. The research team hopes that these religious leaders will be able to compare and contrast natural mystical experiences with psychedelic experiences in a way that scientists cannot.

Several recent psilocybin trials at Johns Hopkins have found that psilocybin can decrease anxiety and depression in cancer patients, and can also help people quit smoking tobacco. Researchers also examined the effects of psilocybin on healthy volunteers, and found that mystical experiences brought on by the drug led to positive changes in mood, forgiveness, altruism, and other positive qualities. The volunteers were asked to fill out a survey popular among religious scholars, and researchers discovered a consistent overlap between naturally occurring mystical experiences and those induced by psilocybin. “All we’re doing is finding conditions that increase the likelihood of these mystical experiences, and we still don’t know their ultimate cause,” said Johns Hopkins researcher Roland Griffiths.

NYU researcher Anthony Bossis hopes to make psilocybin available as a treatment for end-of-life distress. Stephen Ross, chief of addiction psychiatry at NYU, has said that the university also wants to research psilocybin's effectiveness on eating disorders, conflict resolution, criminal recidivism, and other issues. Psychedelic drugs have long been demonized by governments, but researchers are hopeful that the positive results of studies like these will spearhead a “psychedelic renaissance” of legal psychedelic treatments.