A minister, a rabbi and the man who gave them psilocybin

Bill Richards has been exploring the worlds of religion and psychedelics for more than half a century

Marc Gunther
Aug 26 · 6 min read
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Pastor James Lindberg was unmoored by his first trip on psilocybin. “I’m a pretty normal middle aged white guy who found myself involved in things that were a bit larger than I intended them to be,” says Lindberg, who leads a Lutheran church in an Omaha suburb. He questioned his place in the church but, after some soul-searching, recommitted “to the tradition that has been entrusted to me.”

Rabbi Zac Kamenetz’s first journey on psilocybin led him to “light, connection, warmth, gratitude and the sense that all is well,” he says. “I left that experience inspired, energized and grounded, in the sense that the path that I was on was a noble one.” His next trip brought “darkness, emptiness and a void.” Nevertheless, Kamenetz, who lives and works in San Francisco, has become an evangelist for psychedelics.

Pastor Lindberg and Rabbi Kamenetz are participants in an FDA-approved study to examine the effects of psilocybin-facilitated experience on the psychology and effectives of religious professionals. The research aims to deepen understanding of what are called mystical, transcendental or awe-inspiring experiences because, some argue, such encounters can have profound benefits for those who experience them, their family and friends and, ultimately, for the world as a whole.

The man helping to guide this mashup of science and the sacred — William A. “Bill” Richards, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research — is uniquely qualified to do so. A clinical psychologist who has investigated psychedelics since the 1960s, Richards is an ordained minister (though he never pastored a church) with advanced degrees from Yale Divinity School and Andover-Newton Theological School. He has for many years been guiding volunteers on drug trips on weekdays at Johns Hopkins and singing bass in the choir on Sundays at the Episcopal church where he worships in Baltimore.

Richards’ 2015 book, Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, argues that psychedelics, if used responsibly, can not only alleviate the suffering of people with depression, anxiety, or other mental-health disorders, but also improve the depth and quality of life for a broader spectrum of so-called normal people.

“You don’t have to be sick to benefit from psychedelics, if they are used wisely,” Richards says. “They can nurture our awakening, the expansion and development of our human awareness… They are powerful tools for growing, creative, alive people.”

Lately, psychedelics have attracted attention because of their therapeutic potential, and properly so. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, have been found in early-stage clinical trials to ease suffering from an array of mental health problems. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Compass Pathways and the Usona Institute are all conducting research aimed at securing FDA approval for psychedelic medicines.

This story is about psychedelics for the rest of us, particularly those of a spiritual bent. In a Zoom interview, Richards, an affable midwesterner who recently turned 80, described how these chemicals can reliably bring about deeply meaningful experiences that are hard to describe in words but long-lasting in their impact.

“There really are resources within us beyond the everyday”

“Some people use the word God. Some people don’t like the word God,” Richards says. “I call them transcendental. The glimpse of something deep within us or high above us that is beyond the everyday routine life that we live.”

“There really are resources within us beyond the everyday, and they’re beautiful and they’re wise and they are creative and they are loving.”

Psychedelics, of course, are not the only way to access such feelings. Mystical or awe-inspiring encounters can be sought with prayer, meditation, chanting, breath work, natural childbirth, communion with nature, athletic or artistic performance or, some say, by divine grace. What the drugs do, among other things, is enable study of these alternative states in the laboratories of prestigious universities and medical schools.

Richards, as it happens, first tried psilocybin in 1963, as a research subject. He was then a 23-year-old grad student in Gottingen, Germany. “I went there to study theology, not knowing that psychedelics existed,” he says. “I wanted to immerse myself in another culture.” Little did he know.

His first trip unfolded in a basement in the medical school. “My awareness was flooded with love, beauty and peace beyond anything I had ever known or imagined to be possible,” he writes in Sacred Knowledge. He subsequently felt more liberated from social pressures and able to be himself:

With this shift there came a sense of inner peace, increased self-confidence, and a notable decrease in anxiety. I think I also became less inhibited, more spontaneous, perhaps more playful, and more capable of allowing relationships characterized by genuineness and intimacy to develop.

He set out on a lifelong exploration of psychedelic and religious experiences, beginning during the 1960s when psychedelics were both legal and widely researched. Richards studied with the legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow. He visited Timothy Leary and his merry crew at their mansion in Millbrook, NY. He worked with pioneering researchers Walter Pahnke and Stanislav Grof, administering LSD to hundreds of schizophrenics, alcoholics, heroin addicts and terminally-ill cancer patients at a Maryland treatment center. Meantime, he prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, took communion at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and meditated in Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh temples and in an Islamic mosque.

The Good Friday Experiment

The US government declared LSD, psilocybin and mescaline illegal in 1970 and gradually shut down research on psychedelics. But in 1999, Richards returned to the field and began a long collaboration with Dr. Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry at Hopkins who directs its psychedelic research center. Their first foundational study, published in 2006, found that psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.

Their subsequent work with religious professionals echoes a study known as the Good Friday Experiment conducted in 1962 by Richards’ friend, Walter Pahnke, who was a minister and a physician. (Pahnke’s PhD. advisor at Harvard was Timothy Leary.) Before a Good Friday sermon at Marsh Chapel in Boston, Pahnke administered capsules to 20 divinity students, half of whom received psilocybin and half of whom got a placebo. Nine of the 10 students who took psilocybin reported having a meaningful religious or mystical experience; among them was Huston Smith, the eminent scholar of religion who later described his trip as “the most powerful cosmic homecoming I have ever experienced.”

Twenty-five years later, Rick Doblin, the founder of the MAPS, tracked down most of the participants and reported:

The experimental subjects unanimously described their Good Friday psilocybin experience as having had elements of a genuinely mystical nature and characterized it as one of the high points of their spiritual life.

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No findings have been published for the contemporary work with religious professionals, which is being done at Hopkins and at New York University. But Richards has said that generally, participants gain a deeper appreciation of their own religious heritage as well as connection to other traditions. During a recent webinar, Pastor Lindberg and Rabbi Kamenetz described their trips in glowing terms. On his website, Kamenetz says he will soon begin training so that he can offer therapy assisted by psychedelics, if the drugs become legal:

I am advocating, promoting, and educating Jewish communities around the world about the overwhelmingly positive research coming out of institutions about the benefits of psychedelics in safe, supportive environments.

U.S. courts have permitted limited religious use of mescaline in the form of the Peyote cactus and DMT in the form of ayahuasca by the Native American Church and the Uniao do Vegetal religion. In Sacred Knowledge, Richards suggests that the government could someday permit use of the drugs at religious retreats staffed by professionals with medical and religious training.

In the meantime, Richards has plans to work with his son, Brian Richards, who is also a clinical psychologist, at an oncology center where they would like to get FDA permission to treat cancer patients with a mix of group therapy and psychedelics.

“Some of the most meaningful work I’ve done over the years has been with end-of-life issues,” Richards says. “A psychedelic experience can transform family dynamics and enable a terminally ill person to enjoy the remainder of his or her life.”

Having lived through the 1970s backlash against psychedelics, though, Richards does not want to see another. He believes strongly that advocates for the drugs should talk respectfully to those who doubt their safety and validity. But a voice inside him sometimes wonders: “Why should we need permission from anyone to explore our own minds?”

The Psychedelic Renaissance

Journalism about psychedelic medicines

Marc Gunther

Written by

Reporting on philanthropy, psychedelics, animal welfare, global poverty, Covid-19. Ex-Fortune. Baseball fan. Seen in Gen, Marker, Elemental, OneZero.

The Psychedelic Renaissance

Psychedelics have enormous potential, for those with mental disorders and for the rest of us. These stories will cover the people and issues driving the psychedelic renaissance.

Marc Gunther

Written by

Reporting on philanthropy, psychedelics, animal welfare, global poverty, Covid-19. Ex-Fortune. Baseball fan. Seen in Gen, Marker, Elemental, OneZero.

The Psychedelic Renaissance

Psychedelics have enormous potential, for those with mental disorders and for the rest of us. These stories will cover the people and issues driving the psychedelic renaissance.

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