Chemical Ecstasy: Psychedelic Drugs and Religion by Walter Houston Clark

Chemical Ecstasy: Psychedelic Drugs and Religion (1969) by Walter Houston Clark is a discursive analysis of the role that psychedelics play in religious experience and practice. Clark (1902-1994) was a professor of the psychology of religion who was involved with researches on the topic throughout the 1960s at the Harvard Psilocybin Project and the Maryland Psychiatric Research Centre. His other works include: The Oxford Group (1951), The Psychology of Religion (1958) and Religious Experience (1973).


Writing in Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James famously argued that mystical experience is the root of all religion. This perennial tradition dominated research approaches to psychedelics and religiosity during the mid-twentieth century. Clark recognised, however, that ‘Religion is a complex function, and though I believe the religious experience is the human core of religion, it certainly does not constitute all of it’ (Clark 1969: 8). Psychedelics, he believed, could potentiate both internal and external religiosity.

‘The church that neglects the springs of religion in the nonrational functions of the human unconscious reaps the fruits of this neglect in progressive ossification. Church structures and missions become bland and harmless, or demonic in their thirst for power. A respectable religion concerns itself with some form of ecstatic renewal’ (Clark 1969: 126)

Clark first became interested in psychedelic substances in 1961 after attending several seminars organized by Dr Timothy Leary at Harvard. As a result, he dedicated himself to investigating their significance for religion throughout the following decade. This involved observing or guiding 175 administrations of psilocybin and LSD, along with conducting informal discussions, questionnaires and interviews. Chemical Ecstasy is the fruit of that research, and is one of the clearest statements written on the topic.

Chemical Ecstasy begins by introducing psychological models concerning religion and drugs, before providing two comparative chapters on drug-induced and non-drug induced cases of mystical experience. It then examines various historical examples of religious drugs and details the ‘Harvard Incident’ in which Timothy Leary was sacked. Clark was involved with that research group and believed ‘Harvard has been afflicted by a failure of nerve’ (Clark 1969: 52). The following chapters then deal with ‘Religion and Ecstasy’, ‘Association between Drugs and Religion’, and ‘Drugs and Personality Change’.

By 1969, two important trends had occurred in psychedelic culture that the final two chapters deal with. Firstly, the introduction of more stringent regulations had led to the overall reduction of scientific researches, and their concentration on therapeutic outcomes. While the ‘mystical’ experience still played a transformed role as a ‘peak’ experience in the treatment of alcoholics, the religious implications had been sidelined. Secondly, the vilification of psychedelics through their countercultural associations had become mainstream news.

‘The claim that the psychedelic drugs enhance mysticism provides the chief reason for this book. There has been a sort of unwritten conspiracy on the part of “respectable” society, and even science, to suppress this facet of psychedelic drug phenomena, along with other of their favourable aspects’ (Clark 1969: 13).

The extent to which this specific aspect had been suppressed is questionable and its appears more likely that it had been swept up in the political machinations of the era. Clark, however, does describe the establishment of several ‘psychedelic churches’. Using the Native American Church as a model, he puts across a thorough-going case for the relevance of the new churches, expounding the need for the responsible balancing on inner and outer religion. Though unaware that they would all shortly disappear, his case was well made.

Chemical Ecstasy is a very lucidly written book and Clark’s knowledge of the contemporary scene is without question one of authority. Although many of its subjects have been explored to a greater degree since, it remains a brilliant introduction to the 1960’s preoccupation with psychedelic drugs and religion.

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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