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Medicalizing Mysticism: Religion in Contemporary Psychedelic Trials [ONLINE]

October 21 @ 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Please register here.

Amid the so-called psychedelic “renaissance” in science, researchers at Johns Hopkins University, New York University, and elsewhere report that they can occasion “mystical-type experiences” among trial volunteers being treated for depression, addiction, end-of-life anxiety, and other conditions. Many studies correlate the strength of this experience with the therapeutic outcome. Other recent studies administer psychedelics to religious professionals without a clear therapeutic aim. In this case, an experience that might be assumed to be accessible to religious clergy through non-chemical means is administered within a “secular” biomedical framework.

This panel brings together two psilocybin clinical trial participants, Rachael Petersen (Visiting Fellow, CSWR) and Rita Powell (Harvard Episcopalian Chaplain) in dialogue with the historian of religions Jeffrey J. Kripal (Rice University) to explore issue raised by these contemporary psychedelic trials: namely, what happens when the clinical becomes religious and the religious becomes clinical? How are religion, mysticism, and spirituality invoked, studied, and understood within psychedelic clinical contexts? What unspoken ontological and theological claims are at work?

J. Kripal is the Associate Dean of the Faculty and Graduate Programs in the School of the Humanities and the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University. He is also the Associate Director of the Center for Theory and Research and the Chair of the Board at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Jeff is the author of eight books, including, most recently, The Flip: Who You Really Are and Why It Matters (Penguin, 2020), where he envisions the future centrality and urgency of the humanities in conversation with the history of science, the philosophy of mind, and our shared ethical, political, and ecological challenges. He is presently working on a three-volume study of paranormal currents in the sciences, modern esoteric literature, and the hidden history of science fiction for the University of Chicago Press collectively entitled The Super Story: Science (Fiction) and Some Emergent Mythologies. There he intuits and writes out a new emerging spectrum of superhumanities (in both senses of that expression). His full body of work can be seen at http://jeffreyjkripal.com.

Rachael Petersen is a writer, consultant, Psychedelics and Religion Program Director for the Riverstyx Foundation, and Visiting Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions. Rachael volunteered in the Johns Hopkins University clinical trial using high doses of psilocybin to treat major depression—a treatment she describes as “ontological insurgency.” Since the experience, her writing has explored the potential risks, rewards, and unspoken implications of medicalizing mysticism, and has been published in The Outline, Psymposia, The Rumpus and elsewhere. With a professional background in international climate change science and policy, Rachael also explores the phenomenology of climate despair and considers new ontological frameworks in which to regard our unfolding ecological crises.

The Reverend Rita Powell is an Episcopal priest working to imagine the next chapter of the church. She has lived and served in the prairies and badlands of South Dakota, the French countryside of Taizé, and most recently as the priest in charge of music and liturgy at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston. She currently serves as the Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard and is working on her MFA in poetry.




Harvard Divinity School