Psychedelics: A Tragic History of Cults, Drugs, and Promises to the Future
The 1978 mass murder-suicide at Jonestown leaves a haunting impression. The ground is vibrant with color, carpeted with hundreds of interlaced dead bodies. Bottles of pills and poisons lie amongst the corpses, and later investigation finds the commune stocked with mind-controlling drugs. In 1995, five members of Japanese doomsday science cult Aum Shinrikyo released bags of deadly sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system, killing a dozen riders and injuring over a thousand more. Days after the attack, police raided their laboratories, which pumped out LSD, meth, and a crude form of truth serum — Aum Shinrikyo’s prime tool of indoctrination. Each morbid tale is the story of cults, drugs, and the vulnerabilities of our humanity.
The history of cults has in many ways been a history of psychoactive substances — especially psychedelics. The two are irrevocably tied: the entheogenic theory of religion argues that the roots of religion lie in plants, supported through the grim examples of cults and churches built on a bedrock of psychedelic and psychoactive drug use in the mid-1900s.
Decoupling Cults and Drugs
To better understand each, we can decouple cults and drugs before looking at their interaction. The definition of a cult has been regarded as highly subjective (Richardson, 1993), but for the purpose of our article, we will use Robert Ellwood’s definition. A cult is a group that “presents a distinct alternative to dominant patterns within the society in fundamental areas of religious life.” Characterized by strong, authoritarian leaders, they induce powerful subjective experiences and instill far-from mainstream ideologies to their followers, whom they require an extreme degree of “conformity and commitment” from and systematically exploit (Ellwood, 1986). They are aggressive in their indoctrination — using tactics like alienation, induced dependency, mind control and a systematic breakdown of sense of self– to create a base that blindly follows the will of cult leadership. Categories of cults include religious, terrorist, doomsday, New Age, and psychotherapy, and a cult can often fit into one or more of these descriptions.
Psychoactive drugs are chemical substances that influence the nervous system to alter perception, mood, cognition, and state of consciousness. Their use can be used as a tool to depress the mind — or excite it; expand the mind — or constrict it; and fundamentally alter how the mind interacts with the senses, memories, or new information. From stimulants like caffeine to hallucinogens like LSD to depressants like barbiturates, these drugs can have effects so profound on the psyche that historians have hypothesized that the genesis of religion and spirituality can be traced to their use. The pharmacology and neuroscience of such stimulants is fascinating — to illustrate this, we can look at LSD. First synthesized using compounds derived from the Ergot fungus, LSD has been shown to activate neurotransmitter receptors specific to dopamine and serotonin. The exact effects on brain activity have yet to be fleshed out, but many different regions of the brain get activated, including the visual system, which lends itself to the fact that many LSD users experience visual hallucinations. Similar features hold for other psychedelics, many of which bind to serotonin receptors and activate different brain regions.
Psychoactive substances have been used as entheogens — compounds ingested in the hopes of having a religious or spiritual event — for thousands of years. Psilocybin mushrooms and peyote have been traced to ancient cultures in the Americas. In one of the earliest Veda texts was the phrase, “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.” Soma, ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson discovered, was in fact Amanita muscaria, a psychedelic mushroom used as far as Siberia until the 19th century to induce “an exalted state to be able to talk to the gods.”
Many of the psychoactive drugs used in ritualized religion lie under this category of psychedelics: they are some of the strongest psychotropics and lead to hallucinations as well as distortions in sensory experiences, concept of time and space, and emotion. Commonly used psychedelics include ayahuasca, LSD, and psilocybin.
A huge bank of research links LSD to newfound spirituality and religious experiences. In 1962, the Harvard Psilocybin Project ran the Marsh Chapel experiment: two groups of students were given either psilocybin or a ‘control’ substance after a church service. The students were blind to which substance they were administered. While nearly all of the experimental group reported experiencing a “profound religious experience,” almost none in the control reported the same. This study was repeated, with similar results (Miller, 2013). In one survey of people who experienced a ‘God encounter experience,’ two-thirds of the participants who identified as atheists before the experience no longer did so after the encounter if they were on psychedelics. Individuals on psilocybin and LSD tended to have the most enduring consequences of the experience compared to individuals who weren’t on drugs and individuals on other drugs during the encounter, indicating that psychedelic use may influence spirituality in the long-term (Griffiths, 2019).
There is also a dark side to these experiences: the CIA began a severely illegal ‘mind control’ study where they studied how to use psychedelics to crush the psyche, extinguish dissent, and extract information (Mugianis, 2020). Documents detail these so-called CIA MKULTRA experiments. Over the course of 35 years, doctors, psychiatrists, and government and military officials administered drugs like LSD to unsuspecting civilians in order to plant messages in their brain (often behind a mental block), carry out extreme behaviors, and in some cases, kill on specific cues (Bowart, 1979).
This ties in specifically to one aspect of the definition of cults: inducing powerful subjective experiences in order to open the mind to extreme beliefs. It’s no surprise, coincidently, that the rise of cults and new religious movements in the 1960s accompanied the rise of psychedelics. In the midst of the counterculture and the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, Charles Manson — who would later become the murderous cult leader of the “Manson Family” — would move drugs and distribute LSD at gatherings, which gained him a number of followers. While people tripped on drugs, he would introduce a series of more and more outlandish and violent scenarios, implying he was Christ and describing a hypothetical ‘race war.’ These drugs made a growing number of people receptive to his psychotic vision. He believed he could make an album that would spark an apocalyptic war in which black Americans would kill everyone else. He and his followers would bunker down in a secret city in Death Valley until the war ended, when they would emerge and rule the remaining population. The Manson Family is estimated to have carried out around 35 killings, most famously that of Hollywood actress Sharon Tate, in order to spark this ‘race war.’
In Australia at around the same time, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a yoga instructor and wealthy suburbanite, operated a New Age cult in secrecy for over two decades. She claimed she was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ and preached a “hodgepodge of world religions and miscellaneous esoterica (including UFOs)” (Douglas 2017). A disciple, psychiatrist Howard Whitaker, helped take over a private psychiatric hospital in Kew, where he and other disciples recruited patients to join the cult and administered LSD to cult members. LSD played a pivotal role in the cult — in both recruitment and maintenance. Hamilton-Byrne, under suspicious circumstances, adopted almost 30 children, who she would dose with psychiatric drugs to ensure compliance and perform initiation rituals involving LSD on. For adult followers, Hamilton-Byrne would personally provide LSD blotters and guide them through their trips, thereby “ensuring their acceptance of her divinity” (Douglas 2017).
A Promise to the Future
This is fascinating: it seems as if, on a highly simplified level, those who provide the drugs– drugs that create spiritual, religious, intense encounters — have the power to be regarded as gods. When these larger-than-life leaders of cults are armed with psychedelics, they can create an environment of not only psychoactive dependency but control the minds of their followers. Using psychedelics, they can control the sheer way their followers see the word- from how their senses work to exactly how they conceptualize God. That is a power so vast it seems unfathomable, and though there is plenty of active research being done to get at the scientific underpinnings of psychedelic activity, the possibilities seem limitless.
The recent legalization of psychedelics in states across America and countries across the world can seem like a good thing. It’s fair to fight back against its often unfair politicization and recognize the health benefits of such psychoactive drugs. It is fair to acknowledge psychedelics’ long and rich history in civilizations across the word — as a tool of culture, religion, and recreation. However, it is also important to recognize that its vibrant history is shadowed– too often have psychedelics been used as a tool of control, best exemplified by state governments and cult leaders of the 1900s.
- Bowart, W. H. (1979, September). How the CIA Planned the Drugging of America. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp88-01350r000200160001-6
- Douglas, J. (2017, February 13). Inside the bizarre 1960s cult, The Family: LSD, yoga and UFOs. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/13/the-family-great-white-brotherhood-australia-melbourne-cult-anne-hamilton-byrne
- Ellwood, R. 1986 “The several meanings of cult.” Thought LXI (241):212–224 Galanter, M. (1999). Cults faith, healing, and coercion. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Griffiths RR, Hurwitz ES, Davis AK, Johnson MW, Jesse R. Survey of subjective “God encounter experiences”: Comparisons among naturally occurring experiences and those occasioned by the classic psychedelics psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT. PLoS One. 2019;14(4):e0214377. Published 2019 Apr 23. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0214377
- Miller, R. (2018, January 08). Religion as a Product of Psychotropic Drug Use. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/religion-as-a-product-of-psychotropic-drug-use/282484/
- Mugianis, D. (2020, July 29). How psychedelic drugs are used as a tool of state violence. Retrieved September 04, 2020, from https://www.salon.com/2020/08/01/how-psychedelic-drugs-became-a-tool-of-state-violence/
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This article was written by Sameer Rajesh, who is a senior undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying Molecular and Cell Biology, and Oce Bohra, who is a sophomore undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying Molecular and Cell Biology and Data Science.
This article was edited by Jacob Marks, a junior undergraduate pre-medical student at UC Berkeley studying Cognitive Science, and Annabel Davis, a senior undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying Cognitive Science.