ScienceRocketist—who agreed only to be interviewed anonymously—has been a member of Reddit’s Psychonaut subreddit since it began nearly 12 years ago. Now a moderator, he began experimenting with LSD in his late teens in the 1990s. He recalls, during this time, an older guy in his peer group who began to think, after heavy use of various psychedelics over a short period of time, that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ—and that Jesus was Pink Floyd and that, as such, he was also Pink Floyd. At one point, the young man began screaming this claim in public, and was subsequently put in a jail cell for a night. He left his small town in the southern United States some time after that.
This phenomenon—a person feeling like a religious or spiritual figure under the influence or in the wake of using psychedelic drugs—isn’t well studied or documented. DoubleBlind reached out to various researchers and experts in the field of psychedelics, and neighbouring areas of study, to glean some insight into why this happens. Largely, they say, it’s uncommon, and the reason behind it unknown. However, the truth of it could be hiding somewhere in the well-studied connection between spirituality and psychedelic substances.
At the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, researchers from across many fields study the therapeutic applications of substances like magic mushrooms. In these safe, clinical studies, the participants are supported by the experts and, as such, it’s rare to see subjects make claims about personal divinity, says Matthew Johnson, a professor in Johns Hopkins department of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, and a researcher with the group.
That’s not to say it has never happened, though. “Out there in the wild, so to speak, that’s absolutely true. I’ve certainly known of cases where folks believe they are religious figures,” Johnson says.
Though it’s rare for ScienceRocketist to see posts about this phenomenon on the subreddit, he says he’s seen it a few times in real life. “I’ve seen Jesus, the Antichrist, I don’t think I ever met a Buddha though,” the moderator said in a message through Reddit.
There is a well-documented connection between spirituality, psychedelic, and psychotic states. Psychedelics and mysticism have gone hand-in-hand for a long time. Some researchers believe shamans in Europe and Asia ingested amanitas muscaria, a form of psychoactive mushroom, to create a divine experience, for instance. In South and Central America, spiritual leaders have been using ayahuasca for centuries; a new form of tourism has sprouted up offering ayahuasca ceremonies as well. There is also a link between disorders like schizophrenia and mysticism which have been recorded throughout history and around half of reported cases of psychotic breaks include some kind of religious delusion.
Under the influence of LSD, magic mushrooms and the huge array of other psychedelic compounds known to humanity, a person’s grasp on reality may weaken a bit. Considering the prevalence of other perhaps less self-flattering spiritual experiences—such as simply feeling connected to a higher power, rather than being one—on these drugs, it’s perhaps not a huge surprise that this weakened grip could lead to people believing they are some divine figure, Johnson says.
But according to Roland Griffiths, director of Hopkins’ Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research and a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, it may not be a big deal, in terms of mental health, for a person to temporarily feel like they are a spiritual figure. Among people who are already spiritually oriented and those who aren’t, mystical experiences had while under the influence of a psychedelic usually play a positive role in making people more open and connected with the world.
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These mystical experiences can take many forms depending on the person, but tend to be accompanied by a deep positivity, a feeling of oneness and a connection with some kind of sacred force. Some people, including Paul McCartney, who take psychedelics even report seeing a god or other higher power.
“That descriptor that something is spiritual—it’s almost like a Rorschach test. It can mean a whole variety of things to different types of people depending on their histories,” Griffiths says.
However, researchers can usually see pretty quickly if this religious delusion has become problematic for someone.
If the sensation passes and that person feels more empathetic and connected to things spiritually, there’s nothing to worry about, Johnson says. However, hypothetically speaking, if a person comes out of the experience truly believing what they felt to such a degree that they paint a cardboard sign proclaiming they are Jesus and wave it in the middle of a highway, that’s a different story. “Then your clinical radar goes off,” Johnson says.
He adds that psychedelics are, increasingly, being considered in therapeutic settings. Spiritual experiences, the treatment of depression among cancer patients and smoking cessation are just a few of the fields that Johnson has, personally, looked into. Indeed, the phenomenon of religious delusion could also just happen as a matter of statistical inevitability. “You name it, and you’re going to find somebody on psychedelics who has had that experience,” Johnson says. “People have become—you name the random color of elephant. Someone’s had that psychedelic experience.”
A psychedelic experience leading to a spiritual one also carries with it a lot of emotional weight. This can, in turn, lead to an inflated sense of self-importance, Griffiths says, though he notes this is hardly limited to the realm of psychedelics: Religious leaders and even popular sports players can also start to think that they’re God’s gift to humanity. “People can get carried away with their own sense of self-importance,” he says.
This is close to what ScienceRocketist has seen during his tenure. Certainly the guy he knew who thought himself Jesus and/or Pink Floyd had a large ego, he recalls, but overall the personalities he’s seen exhibit this kind of ideation have been fairly full of themselves, he says. “I always blame it on the ego. When it gets that big, where else can it go but the very top?”
For David Lukoff, though, temporarily feeling like he was a figure of divinity gave him new insight. Lukoff, a now retired professor of psychology at Sofia University in Palo Alto, never gave much thought to the world of spirituality before his first acid trip. In the early 1970s, at age 23, he was hitchhiking around the United States when, as luck would have it, someone offered him some LSD in San Francisco.
In a video interview online, the former professor recalls that, four days after dosing, he woke up in the middle of the night. He was convinced of three things: He had found enlightenment, he was a reincarnation of Buddha and, also, he was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. He wrote and began distributing what he thought was going to be a new holy text for the world, but two months later the illusion faded, though the experience made a lasting impact on his work.
Lukoff had found enlightenment, he was a reincarnation of Buddha and, also, he was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. He wrote and began distributing what he thought was going to be a new holy text for the world.
After his brush with divinity, Lukoff—who before the experience believed spirituality to be a “crock of bullshit”—grew curious about meditation, buddhism, yoga and spirituality at large. He’s since written nearly 100 articles, attempting to bridge the gap between mental health and spirituality (psychedelic drugs end up in a few of those papers, too).
“It has become kind of a focus in my psychological career, to be this kind of person who is an intermediary between the world of religion and spirituality with the world of mental health,” Lukoff says.
Throughout his career as a psychologist and researcher, he has heard people go through stories that are similar to his. For Lukoff’s part, his delusion of divinity simply faded over time, but for chronic, lingering effects, psychiatric help may be required, though there’s no hard and fast cure for it.
At the end of the video, however, Lukoff says that dropping acid and becoming a messiah for two months helped him to better connect with some of his patients.
“I feel very connected to that experience and know that it can be valuable.”