By Devin van Dyke
Science and religion are two sides of the same coin. They both exist to help us make sense of a confusing and complicated world. As the balance of power has shifted in the last hundreds of years, vicious culture wars have been waged over the correct and moral way to perceive and interpret the environment we live in.
It is not, however, a fact that science and religion must be at odds with one another. Human rational thought is not antithetical to belief in a higher power, and faith does not necessarily infringe upon science. Whatever the cause of the conflict, be it scriptural literalism, radical rationality, or simple sectarian questions of power and influence, a conflict between science and religion seems to be a fact of life for the time being. A serious syncretic movement would be a great thing; the two have a great deal to learn from one another.
Religious thought can be scientifically explained. Organized religion is the domain of anthropologists and sociologists, but individual religion has roots in psychology and biology. As a powerful force through history, religion must offer some reward to the individual, or else it would never have gained its important position. That reward is not merely the establishment of the stable hierarchies in which humans flourish or a calmative for the restive proletariat—there exists some individual sanction for religious sentiment. Trends noticeable in the worldwide study of religion are some of our best sources for the observational data necessary to create solid and useful experiments.
There are a number of common denominators in the way that people all over the world practice religion—fasting, chanting/other repetitive verbalizations, prayer, breathing exercises— these practices confer real benefit. Whatever it is must cut beyond the shallow factional borders that we create to categorize ourselves and indicates the existence of a sort of innate source of nearly-identical religious or spiritual sentiment in each of us. That benefit is a feeling of understanding and absolute dependence, often interpreted as closeness to god.
The practices used for coming closer to god, such as fasting and chanting, produce an altered mental state. This is due to a lack of necessary nutrition, or of oxygen, or of the intoxication produced by participation in crowds. These biologically-altered states enable a shedding of day-to-day cares and a state of clear focus and insight. Religious experience is rooted in and hardwired into the workings of the mind—as a scientific fact, religion is here to stay. Furthermore, these religious states can be remarkably close to the variety of states reachable through use of modern scientific accoutrements such as isolation tanks, binaural beats, cranial electrotherapy and, most importantly, psychedelic drugs.
The most famous experiments investigating the psycho-religious effects of psychedelics were carried out from 1960 to 1962 at Harvard, run by Drs. Richard Alpert and the now-infamous Timothy Leary. The board included Aldous Huxley and later-president of the American Psychiatric Association, John Spiegel. The Harvard Psilocybin Project was very good science: high-powered and completely legitimate. One of the experiments carried out was the Marsh Chapel Experiment (also known as the Good Friday Experiment) in which Boston-area graduate students were given psilocybin in an effort to see whether that substance, the active chemical in ‘magic mushrooms,’ would induce or facilitate profound religious states. In 90% of the test subjects it did. A similar experiment was carried out at Johns Hopkins in 2006 with similar results.
Studies like these are slowed (and even halted—for almost 50 years all psychedelic research was blocked entirely) by the stigma against tampering in any way with our consciousness by any means but those officially sanctioned by religious institutions. Religious experience holds the key to such pressing issues as depression and anxiety (10% and 18% of American adults have experienced a ‘major depressive episode’ or ‘anxiety disorder,’ respectively, in the last 12 months).
These issues cannot be swept under the table simply due to ideological fervor or unreasoning fear. Religion can and should be studied in the lab, and an understanding of it will carry great benefits where they are much needed. Until our psychology can be explored with all the tools in our arsenal, we will continue to see a decline in our mental health even as our physical health improves, and that is unconscionable.
For more information on the scientific side of human religious practice see Aldous Huxley–Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell and William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.