In October of 2020, CNN host Michael Smerconish hosted a segment on what had to be one of the strangest topics covered by the channel: “Did Hallucinogens Play Role in the Origin of Religion?” His guest was a young lawyer and first-time author named Brian Muraresku who had just appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast, perhaps a more fitting venue for such discussions. Muraresku’s book, The Immortality Key, had just appeared on bookshelves a couple of weeks prior. An amateur sleuth who studied classics at Brown, Muraresku argues that the Christian eucharist was based on the rituals of the popular Greek mystery cults that existed when early Christianity first appeared.
Muraseku points to a drug-filled ceremonial chalice discovered at a pagan temple in Spain and the testimony of a clinical trial participant from Johns Hopkins to argue that the secretive rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries involved psychedelic initiation. (Eleusis was a major pilgrimage site into the spiritual heart of Ancient Greece). If you can establish continuity between these pagan initiation rituals and the rituals of early Christianity, he suggests, you have the basis of a radical reimagining of the roots of one of the world’s major religions.
From there it only gets weirder. Jesus himself, in Muraresku’s telling, might have been a kind of guru-pharmacist dispensing wisdom along with doses of magic mushrooms. The implication is clear: The little shot glass of grape juice that millions consume every Sunday is an imitation of what was once a psychedelic potion providing an encounter with ultimate reality. This all might sound ludicrous, but Muraresku’s book was a New York Times bestseller. It is now being turned into a multi-part television series, and appeared in paperback in October with a new preface by one of America’s most revered journalists: Michael Pollan.
As orthodox religion recedes in America, all manner of alternative histories rush in to fill the God-shaped hole. Among the stranger stories are the ones that seek not only to propose new spiritual modes of living, but try to reformulate existing histories on new and sometimes bizarre bases. Enter the high priests of techno-psychedelia, who are turning our obsession with “creative destruction” toward the sacred mytho-psychological underpinnings of Western civilization.
“Psychedelic drugs are presented as a sacred ‘technology.’”
“If the original Eucharist was a psychedelic,” Smerconish asked Muraresku, “does that mean that Catholics have been getting a placebo for thousands of years?” “I wouldn’t go quite that far,” Muraresku cautiously replied. Readers of The Immortality Key are likely to walk away with a different impression. “It’s time to cut out the middleman in the private search for transcendence,” Muraresku writes. The middleman is organized religion and its “army of spokesmen” who have forgotten their ancient pharmacological roots. As opposed to their hollow rituals, he says, psychedelics introduce you to “a God that makes sense”; “A God that you can actually experience”; “A God that erases depression and anxiety like a cosmic surgeon, obliterates the fear of death, and sends a shock wave of love through your fragile heart.” In other words, God in easy-to-digest pill form.
While the New Testament is described in the introduction as “outdated and impenetrable,” psychedelic drugs are presented as a sacred “technology,” an authentic and scientifically-validated path to salvation, the one used by Marcus Aurelius and Plato and which might just—put back into its rightful place—“rescue a dying faith and save Western civilization.” “At the end of the day,” Muraresku said in a 2020 Reddit Q&A to promote the book, “I see an enormous opportunity for the Church to engage this discussion. And to at least consider how psychedelic technology might be leveraged for the faithful in the most cautious, responsible, safe, effective, and sacred way.”
Muraresku has become an unlikely spokesman for the emerging psychedelic industry, appearing at conferences and creating a cottage industry of psychedelic books, psychedelic talks, and psychedelic documentaries. A recent study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that hallucinogen use is the highest ever recorded for middle-aged adults. Despite this, Muraresku—whose law career was focused on advocating for marijuana legalization—insists he has never taken the drugs himself, a claim some find implausible considering the intensity of his advocacy.
“Of course I am interested in the experience,” Muraresku told Smerconish, “but I am more interested in curating these conversations at the highest levels of academia, with regulatory authorities in the United States and elsewhere, and with religious institutions.”
He went on to do just that, befriending psychedelic scientists, pharmaceutical salesmen, and Silicon Valley futurists who see in psychedelics a potential path to global enlightenment. An art installation at Burning Man recently paid tribute to Muraresku in the form of a giant chalice meant to resemble the Holy Grail. It was presented and paid for by Kimbal Musk—Elon’s brother—and the venture capitalist Stephen Juvertson, who are pouring millions into developing “psychedelic medicine.”
The Nevada gathering was a natural setting for the exhibit, as the roots of psychedelic research are in the futurist and utopian circles around Silicon Valley. The so-called psychedelic renaissance—a catchphrase used to describe the renewed interest in psychedelics over the past decade—was started by a 53-year-old computer scientist from Baltimore named Bob Jesse. Though much attention has been paid to the potential therapeutic efficacy of psychedelics, Jesse, a former executive at Oracle, has made clear that his goal is to “restructure” religion by making the psychedelic experience “more available.” His project, the Council on Spiritual Practices, consists of a dozen handpicked “elders”: engineers, futurists, and psychologists interested in comparative mythology.
The most enthusiastic and visible psychedelic salesman, a billionaire futurist from Germany named Christian Angermayer, cites Muraresku’s work to justify claims like “Jesus did psychedelics, probably DMT”—as he told one interviewer. The Immortality Key, Angermayer says, proves that psychedelics were the original “business model” behind the Catholic Church. He also claims that his products will end war, political gridlock, mental illness, deaths of despair, the opioid crisis, depression, and “diseases we don’t even have a name for yet,” things like “not feeling at home in the world anymore” and “being afraid of the future.”
In 2021, Angermayer was interviewed by the actress Uma Thurman in front of a live audience at the Milken Institute. The global economy, he told Thurman, loses trillions a year due to “depressed people”; less than 10 percent of all human beings, he said, are truly happy. Angermayer also promises to “cure aging” and extend human life by a century. Psychedelics, he says, might eliminate the need for retirement as older Americans “have so much left to give.” More recently he suggested that when AI replaces humans in the workplace—the very near future, according to him—governments could use the neuroplasticity-enhancing effects of psychedelics to “retrain 60 and 70 year olds into new skills.”
Many problems in “politics and society,” Angermayer says, “are actually rooted in deep mental health problems.” Once seen as “deconditioning agents” (Timothy Leary’s pet phrase) or a route to hidden knowledge, psychedelics are now viewed as critical to the future of industrial capitalism.
“The truth is that the effects of psychedelics are far from predictable.”
The psychedelic renaissance was built on the claim that a promising area of research was prematurely ended by the Nixon administration. The historian Matthew Oram has shown this to be little more than another myth. Excessive exuberance on the part of researchers, poor study design, and consistently inconclusive results were the major factors in the termination of earlier research in this realm. An NIH report published in 1970 concluded that “Therapeutic claims for this drug have been more of the nature of religious testimonials or statements of clinical conviction than serious scientific observations and interpretations.”
Little has changed since then, other than the selling points cited by promoters of psychedelics. Yet these drugs are coasting through FDA approval straight into public funding—including opioid settlement money in Kentucky—without much skepticism. The truth is that the effects of psychedelics are far from predictable. We have been here before: The opioid crisis began with uncritical enthusiasm for drugs whose real effects were only later recognized.
In his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James created the blueprint for Muraresku’s brand of psychedelic research. This classic work juxtaposed accounts of drug intoxication and religious conversion and argued that mystical experience was the “root and center” of all religion. James’s theories influenced not just D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley but the occultist Aleister Crowley, who sought to leverage science to achieve the aims of magic and ancient religion: immortality and union with God. Crowley formulated his program in a short and oft-repeated maxim that anticipates the methodology of psychedelic research: “We place no reliance on virgin or pigeon, our method is science, our aim is religion.”
Another precursor of The Immortality Key is the work of the writer and esotericist named Eliphas Levi, who also tried to usher in “the final religion of the future.” Like The Immortality Key, Levi’s books—with titles such as The Key to the Great Mysteries, The Science of Spirits, and The Great Secret—claimed to contain the secret science of true religion. Arguing that the churches were all corrupted and decaying, Levi—who wrote approvingly of hashish and opium use—claimed to possess “the key to a tradition of superior, secret knowledge” which had been passed down from the earliest Christians. The resurrection of the “true” Catholicism was centered on an occult force that was “much more powerful than steam” and once known to the ancients. Levi described this final universal religion as “faith based on science and science elevated by faith.” Levi was heavily influenced by the mystical ideas of Emannuel Swedenborg. So were William James and Carl Jung. What these men shared, besides a penchant for mystical experimentation, was the belief that they were in possession of secret knowledge, a well-known side effect of consciousness alteration.
“Psychedelic research has long been the hobby horse of a self-styled spiritual elite.”
Psychedelic research has long been the hobby horse of a self-styled spiritual elite. Believing that catastrophic destruction of the environment was imminent, Albert Hofmann—the first psychedelic chemist—believed that his “problem child” LSD was an organic technological intervention that could magically transform human consciousness to a pre-Christian mode. Science and technology had become the tools of plunder and exploitation, Hofmann argued. He condemned technological civilization and castigated the endless waste and comforting excesses of industrial society. This destructive mentality, he said, was derived from the “Judeo-Christian belief that Mother Earth is our servant.” He went on: “All of today’s attempts to make amends for the damage by adopting environmentally protective measures will remain futile or superficial patchwork until the dualistic worldview is replaced by an existential experience of a deep reality.”
Aldous Huxley likewise believed that scientific rationalism had stripped life of meaning and transcendence. The same process that made manufacturing cars and mining coal more efficient had transformed human consciousness and civilization into an anxiety factory, the inevitable result of a violent internal struggle between uniformity and individuality. The only solution, Huxley came to believe, was a psychedelic religion that would introduce enough psychic disorder to disrupt our behavior patterns and reset Western culture. In 1954’s The Doors of Perception, he praises psychedelics for making it possible “to be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world.”
The only hope for human survival, Hofmann concurred, was to transform the exploitative conquest mentality at its psychological root where the “outer material world and the inner spiritual worlds are experienced as one.” “The Greek genius tried to cure this disease by supplementing the objective Apollonian worldview with a Dionysian world of experience in which the split was abolished in ecstatic integration.”
But Hofmann also sensed the danger not just of gurus like Leary but of the scarily powerful and unpredictable nature of these substances. “I must admit,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Ernst Jünger, “that the fundamental question very much occupies me, whether the use of these types of drugs, namely of substances that so deeply affect our minds, could not indeed represent a forbidden transgression of limits.”
These reservations are nowhere to be found in The Immortality Key, which seems to assume that simply giving everyone psychedelics will fix everything. Nor is there any critique of technology and capitalism. And that is fitting. An experience of transcendence instantly occasioned by a drug but leading to no systemic change isn’t revolutionary. It is instead a powerful tool for the captains of industry who need a never-ending supply of laborers just happy enough to show up and clock in.