Popular culture is, for the first time since Aldous Huxley published his (in)famous book The Doors of Perception in 1954, without a narcomancer. With the recent passing of Terrence McKenna, a void has been left in our culture. No one dominant individual is out there positing far out theories about the purported benefits of various mind altering substances and, as such, this would probably be a good time to sit down and take an objective look at the validity of the claims that individuals such as Huxley, Leary, McKenna, and Saunders have made over the years.
Unfortunately, its nearly impossible to discuss drugs objectively because we live in a culture that loves to get itself worked into a frenzy of self righteous hysteria over all drugs other than those that have become the Western world’s holy trinity; alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, and because, when it comes to what Huxley et al were peddling, essentially a religious experience, it is impossible to be objective. Who am I to say what happened to Leary when he ate those mushrooms down in Mexico, or, for that matter, to say whether any religious experience, drug induced or not, is valid? The problem with discussing religion is that, like drugs, people almost always approach the subject with an agenda, looking either to build up or tear down and, as such, very little of significance really gets said.
Enter Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals, a slim yet dense collection of essays by renowned religious scholar Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, often considered the premiere text on this planet’s various spiritual doctrines. Smith was also former assistant to Huxley when he was at M.I.T., and a participant in the Good Friday Experiment, in which theology students and professors were given psilocybin before the Good Friday service at Boston University. On top of that, Huston was an associate of Timothy Leary back before he fell out of favour in academia for believing too fervently in the substances he was studying.
Smith was present at the birth of the psychedelic movement, and he sampled the goods, but, unlike many others, he managed to contain his enthusiasm and approach the subject of drugs and religion with something resembling scholarly rigor. That rigor was brought to numerous essays which appeared in various academic journals over the years but, remained uncollected until Smith was asked to bring them together by the Council on Spiritual Practices, an entheogen promoting think tank.
Smith writes from the perspective of someone who has had what he considers to be mystical experiences engendered by entheogenic drugs, but is still skeptical, not about the drugs, but about the ability of people to gain real, lasting insight from their entheogenic experiences. The book’s most interesting essay, "Psychedelic Theophanies and the Religious Life", was written in the late sixties and contains an insightful critique of the psychedelic movement which, well over thirty years later, is still entirely relevant. Huston asserts that psychedelic religious experiences often don’t have any lasting effects because people are more interested in having a religious experience (i.e. getting high) than living a religious life.
With this assertion Smith gets right to the heart of why the Western world has no tradition of the use of entheogenic substances for religious purposes. Drug taking in Western society is largely a recreational, some may say hedonistic, pastime and, as such, is probably not going to attract large numbers of people who have, or wish to cultivate the discipline that serious spirituality requires. The only large scale success of entheogen as sacrament has come from the Native American Church, which uses peyote in its ceremonies, but the people in that church, all indigenous peoples, have a long established history of using peyote for religious reasons.
Overall the essays in Cleansing the Doors of Perception are well written, although somewhat dry, which is to be expected given that they were, for the most part, written with a primarily academic audience in mind. Its main flaw is the weak connection between the various essays. While Smith does try, with prefaces to almost every piece, to unify the book into a coherent whole, he is only partially successful. Some of the essays included, like Smith’s review of Gordon R. Wasson’s SOMA, and his account of his participation the Good Friday experiment are interesting only from a historical perspective. One, on Cardinal John Henry Newman, makes one wonder what it is doing there at all. This reviewer couldn’t help but think after reading this collection of largely unconnected pieces that, if Smith had put his mind to going back over his writings and putting together a more coherent book with an overall thesis that he could have produced a fascinating book instead of merely an interesting one.