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Author Mike Jay Talks Religious and Scientific Perspectives on Psychedelics at Div School Webinar

The Harvard Divinity School's Center for the Study of World Religions hosted a webinar with author Mike Jay on Monday.
The Harvard Divinity School's Center for the Study of World Religions hosted a webinar with author Mike Jay on Monday. By Julian J. Giordano
By Matan H. Josephy, Michael A. Maines, and Helina Tamiru, Contributing Writers

Author and cultural historian Mike Jay discussed the role of psychedelics as a bridge between science and spirituality at a Monday webinar hosted by the Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions.

The event, which was moderated by HDS students Jeffrey A. Breau and Paul S. Gillis-Smith, centered around Jay’s latest books, “Psychonauts: Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind” and “Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic.”

Breau opened the conversation by asking Jay about the differences in how the scientific community and indigenous groups view mescaline — the active hallucinogen in the peyote cactus, a plant used in certain indigenous religious rites.

Jay said the scientific approach to understanding mescaline in much of the West is characterized by a focus on its effects on individuals’ senses, while the Indigenous perspective often emphasizes mescaline use as a group experience.

“It’s the history of a culture and it's the history of a people,” Jay said. “Whereas the Western history is essentially the history of a concatenation of individuals.”

According to Jay, when the term “psychedelics” was coined in 1956, only two such drugs existed: mescaline and LSD, of which mescaline was older. While LSD gained public attention due to its potency, mescaline’s longer history gave it a unique significance to Jay.

“The legacy of mescaline is it’s the origin story, and it always will be,” he said.

Later in the webinar, Breau asked about the subject of “psychedelic exceptionalism” — the way that the use of the term “psychedelic” has been used to set apart such substances from the broader category of drugs.

“Because psychedelic drugs and drugs are illegal, it’s important to escape from this sort of prohibitionist discourse,” Jay said. “One way of doing that is through medicine and another way of doing that is through religion.”

While psychedelic drugs can be used legally through medical licenses, Jay pointed out that legal access to psychedelics should be expanded beyond medicine.

“I personally would advocate for legal regulation that reaches beyond just simply medical uses with licensed pharmaceuticals,” Jay said. “We’re starting to see that with decriminalization, it’s more of a bottom up model.”

“At some point, I think we’re going to have to turn our minds to the other 99 percent of psychedelic use,” he added.

Jay said he believes researchers have largely abandoned self-experimentation with psychedelics.

“The idea of getting people to take drugs and pontificate about their experience just seemed less scientific than doing EEG work,” he said.

In response to an audience question, Jay confirmed that his writing has been informed by past personal usage of mushrooms and LSD.

Gillis-Smith asked how Jay handled the lack of representation in 19th-century medicine, citing specifically a lack of gender and racial diversity.

Jay said that while his work has drawn mainly on white and male voices, he included other viewpoints whenever he could find them.

“You do want to share with the reader that yeah, this is a limitation that we’re very aware of,” Jay said.

Gillis-Smith said psychedelics pose an interesting intersection between science and religion.

Still, Jay said he believes religion and science do not look for meaning in the same places.

“They both hit their limits in different ways, and in ways in which the other one can then be induced to kind of fill in a bigger picture,” he said.

At a time when religion and science can sometimes be at odds, Jay presented an optimistic outlook.

“I don’t see a grand synthesis of religion and science emerging from this,” Jay said. “But I do see psychedelics maybe bringing them together in ways that they haven't been brought together before.”

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ReligionHarvard Divinity SchoolDrugs