Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experience by William A Richards

Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experience (2016) is by the clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and scholar of theology and comparative religion, William A Richards. Richards was involved in psychedelic research at the Spring Grove Hospital Centre and Maryland Psychiatric Research Centre in the 1960s and 70s, and recently at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Centre. Sacred Knowledge is thus an absorbing account of the religious and mystical implications of psychedelic substances based on a career of research.

Richards takes a perennialist (as opposed constructivist) approach to the mystical state of consciousness. This approach argues that a common ground of experience exists between individuals, ages and cultures. Although this state might be expressed and represented through particular cultural forms, they share a number of core characteristics, such as ‘unity’ and ‘intuitive knowledge’. He writes:

‘The core of this book is about the nature and relevance of mystical consciousness and the visionary experiences that sometimes precede, follow, or accompany this unspeakably vast, dynamic, magnificent, and profoundly meaningful states of awareness’ (Richards 2016: 10).

The perennialist view was a dominant reading in the mid-twentieth century. Author Aldous Huxley, theologian Paul Tillich, psychoanalyst Carl Jung and religious scholar Huston Smith all espoused varieties of it. Perennialism provided a conceptual background for psychedelic researchers interested in studying mystical consciousness—or as they became known (thanks to Abraham Maslow) peak experiences. While these experiences were often explored in regard to their therapeutic potential, psychedelics were also understood as a type of experimental spiritual experience: a vehicle of study for religious scholars.

Sacred Knowledge is a broad introduction to this religious and therapeutic reading based on the perennial theory. It is split into five parts. The first, ‘Setting the Stage’, is an orientation around the language and definitions of these exploratory models. Secondly, ‘Mystical and Visionary Forms of Consciousness’ is an account of mysticism in its universal components such as intuitive knowledge, unitive consciousness and archetypes. Part III, ‘Personal and Interpersonal Dynamics’, centres around therapeutic applications in regard to psychodynamic practices. Part IV examines the potential applications of the psychedelic model for medicine, education and religion, and the final part postulates a future paradigm.

‘If the intuitive insights that are reliably reported in mystical states of consciousness are indeed valid, space, time, and substance may eventually be understood in the context of yet another paradigm of reality, one quantum physicists already seem to begin to comprehend’ (Richards 2016: 205)

A particularly interesting chapter (especially for us writers at the Psychedelic Press) investigates the role psychedelics might play in education more broadly. In philosophy, Richards suggests, ‘with the assistance of psychedelic substances, it has become possible for scholars not only to study Plato’s writing […] but also to visit the states of consciousness that inspired’ his writings (Richards 2016: 154). Adding, philosophers might also use them to help understand the perspectives of others by entering their worldview. He also suggests that the art of writing bears a great similarity to the psychedelic experience as multi-layered narratives of emotion, with surprise imagery, ideas and words juxtaposed.

Overall, Sacred Knowledge serves as a useful introduction to the concepts and ideas around mysticism, religious experience generally, and psychedelic substances. Richards is very good at backing up his positions with a wealth of experience reports, both his own and those of people who have been involved as research subjects. The passages dealing with death and grief are especially touchingly written. There is also a very personal thread running throughout the book as he recounts friendships, and this is particularly true in regard to Walter Pahnke, whose pioneering work on the Marsh Chapel experiment remains an important benchmark. In conclusion, the book is an excellent primer for this area of study.

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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