Psychonauts, Plinths, & Re-Paganizing Pop Culture

In our post-Christian chaos, seekers are exploring new spiritual avenues. But some doors should not be opened The post Psychonauts, Plinths, & Re-Paganizing Pop Culture appeared first on The American Conservative.

Ross Douthat warns those looking for enchantment:

However, an attitude of spiritual experimentation can be acceptable. It’s important to highlight something almost all horror movies teach but that is often overlooked in American spirituality: the importance of being open to the possibility of receiving the benefits of the metaphysical realm.

The material universe, as we know it, is beautiful and dangerous. It is also filled with sin and evil wherever human agency exists. There is no reason for us to believe that the spiritual dimension is less dangerous than being astronauts.

There are plenty of data points to show the dangers: Not all near-death experiences are heavenly. Some DMT users return traumatized. The American Catholic Church is reported to be receiving an increasing number exorcism inquiries, despite its declining cultural influence. There should be some uncertainty about even positive experiences. Experience today.

My religion forbids magic, divination, summoning spirits, and the like. I am writing this as a Christian. (Atheist polemicists claim that religious people are atheists regarding every god but their own. However, this is false; Christianity takes it for granted that there are powers beyond its triune God. It makes sense that people might react to the Christian past by ignoring such prohibitions and seeing them as another form patriarchal chauvinism or white-male control.

The presumption about danger in the supernatural realm is not confined to Christian tradition. History does not support the assumption that pantheism, polytheism, or any other alternative Western monotheism automatically creates humane and kind societies.


This is something I can’t express enough. It was something I believed before I began work on my book about re-enchantment. But, now that I have been studying the occult and the use psychedelics in the spiritual realm by “psychonauts”, I feel more conviction about it. Particularly about the psychedelic stuff. I used to be more skeptical of this.

Andrew Sullivan interviewed me recently about how my experience with LSD as a depressed and irreligious college student led to my faith in Christ. It’s not something I talk about publicly because I don’t want to encourage anyone to try psychedelics. However, my experience in 1986 has made me think that controlled, small doses of psychedelics might be able to help chronically depressed people and could be attempted under medical supervision.

My experience was not shocking. I fell into depression in 1985/86 over a girl. The usual: Unrequited love. I couldn’t stop thinking of her. I began to drink more than usual at LSU and would lay in my dorm that spring semester alone, listening to sad music and wanting to die. (Please note that I never attempted suicide). I was invited to be the roommate of a freshman that I had met through a mutual friend. The guy was a New Orleans-based Jewish hippie who was happy-go-lucky. He was a happy man, and he is in love with his life. We were stuck on campus during Mardi Gras Weekend, when everyone else was in New Orleans. My roommate claimed he had taken two tabs of acid. It was something he had never tried. Would you be interested?

My mental state was such that I would do anything to get out of the emotional pain. Yes, I agreed.

LSD is not a narcotic, even if you have never tried it. LSD does not cause you to lose control, at least at the doses I have tried. It does, however, dramatically increase your senses. This is a way to see the world more like an impressionist painting, according to my experience. It had a dramatic effect on me. I can still remember sitting down on the quad and watching the sun filter through the tiny green leaves of the tree. I thought how foolish I was to think that way. God was everywhere and filled all things. My mind was a dark, dank, concrete cell. I was thinking about the girl who did not love me. I had completely missed the real beauty and joy around me. After the drug was over, that feeling remained with me. It motivated me to seek God more seriously.


I wish I could say that I never used the drug again. But that’s not true. It was a habit I used throughout college. It was a regrettable mistake. I consider myself extremely, very lucky to not have suffered any mental or spiritual damage. It would be a lie if I said that the drug had no beneficial effects on my mental and spiritual health. It is understandable why some people might be attracted to this or other psychedelics in search of mystical experiences.

They are real, but I won’t pretend so. For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I believe they are often real. I believe the danger is the same as the danger of becoming multimillionaire through winning the lottery. However, it’s better to have worked hard for it. It is often difficult for the instantly wealthy to manage their money and it can ruin them.

These things are not allowed, except for the Christian prohibition. They open up one’s vous (“noose”), the Orthodox term for one’s spiritually perceptive faculties. This might seem like a chemical reaction on the brain. The mind, soul and body are one entity. It shouldn’t surprise us that chemical changes within the brain can affect our spiritual perceptions and vulnerability.

A few years ago, I had a conversation by phone with someone back in the US. He gave me permission to tell his story so long as I didn’t identify him. He is an Orthodox Christian, married with children, and holds a high-ranking professional job. He was visiting friends in a state that legalized cannabis a few years ago and was convinced to try a brownie. He was told that the high would be mild as it is often. He didn’t get the high he wanted. He said that the drug had opened his mind and made him see beyond his body into a frightening realm. He recalls being standing near a large metal wall and becoming aware of the presence of an indescribable evil behind it. It wanted to attack him. An angel appeared to him and told him that he was not supposed to be there. There are many ways to get to that realm, but they are prohibited to humans. The angel assured him that this was an accident and that you would be safe from the demons. However, if you return here, you will be all on your own.

Although I didn’t record all details, the man said that he was later shown around a serene, beautiful place he believed to be Paradise. As he lay down on the bed, he was aware of his family and friends, and could communicate with them even though he wasn’t there. He said that the angel had told him that he could ask any question that he wanted but that he would forget how to answer it. He vaguely asked about the Orthodox theological claims. His wife and others recall him lying on the couch, his beatific expression on his face indicating that he believed it was all true. It’s all true!”

The man nevertheless took the warnings of the angel very seriously. These substances can open doors that are strictly forbidden. He says that most people who use marijuana don’t experience this kind of reaction. However, people should avoid using pot.

For the book, I also interviewed an ex-occultist, who was heavily into psychedelics as a part of his demon worshipping. Both through his religious practice, and via drugs, he opened up to the occult. He is now an Orthodox Christian. He is not yet “out”, so I will use a fake name. He’ll be called Will. He tried almost every psychedelic drug that you could imagine and many others that are unknown to most people. He entered this world to seek mystical experiences and deeper knowledge than the bland suburban Evangelicalism he was brought up in. I would be terrified by the stories he shared with me. He claims he was both willingly and unwillingly possessed on several occasions. I won’t tell his stories here because I haven’t yet talked to him about them. They will be in my book. These are excerpts from an email follow-up interview that I did with him.

Even though you can have an amazing experience with a psychedelic, it may still contain demonic delusion. It is possible to cast a spell that works to amazing degrees. However, this does not mean that it is spiritually safe or healthy. Over-reliance on your personal experience of God (ecstatic emotions moments, spiritual phenomena) can prove fatal even within Christianity. Because our experience is clouded with sin and untrustworthy without the appropriate constraints, we are all capable of inexplicable levels of delusion. Christ is the only thing that is trustworthy — not our subjective understanding of Christ, but Christ as revealed through His Church. This gives us the ecclesial guardrails to protect against delusion and deception.

Will and I talked about the natural desire we both had as young men for spiritual experiences and how Christianity was too shallow and dull.

Although I don’t regret my Evangelical upbringing, I find it deeply tragic because of how inept the authorities were to protect me from the increasingly demonic intellectual and spiritual paths to which my soul was enslaved. Many of these authority figures were aware of the demon, but brought a knife to a gunfight to keep me from falling prey to such forces. Many had no answers or were completely unsatisfying to my many youthful theological questions. Some seemed to be completely comfortable with some forms of liberalization, but were then very closed off about other situations. All of the Evangelical world’s theology seemed so arbitrary. Most often, the foundation of faith was built on emotional experiences of worship. My conservative faith became untenable when these experiences stopped for me.

It was too late when he realized the true nature of the situation he was in — beneath the shiny surfaces, it was Satanic.

It was true that my open devotion to the demonic is the culmination of a journey I began as a teenager by accepting that God and Christian tradition know better when it comes moral issues. But I should have known better. I chose to ignore it because I was intoxicated with the aesthetic beauty of occult experiences, the unfathomable power that I felt when I was possessed, and the fact that I could see deeper into the infinite black void than any human before. The experiences were too much for me to bear. I accepted unimaginable evil. Since then, I have been paying the consequences. I ask for God’s forgiveness.

He continues to talk about how his occult brethren were the ones who benefited from the support of the whole culture.

Numerous films, TV shows, songs, books, and other media have provided implicit versions of our worldviews or planted seeds that could be used to manipulate them. Someone likes Star Wars? Talk to them about Joseph Campbell. To lead them to Jung, use Campbell. Jung can be used to guide them to Western esotericism. They’re now in deep occult territory. All they needed was a popular fictional property and a manipulator who knew the right demonic directions. Our demonic religion was already the secret religion for the modern world. Things were becoming more explicit. Normies could watch the most recent adult animation series on Netflix to hear famous people praising ritual magic and Aleister Crowley. We felt like we were clearly winning.

While the Christian churches did not feel threatened, they didn’t know of the many ways the world was ready to destroy their defenses or melt them into the demonic religion based on the twin principles anti-humanism/superhumanism. While I was serving in the active service demons, I kept close friendships with conservative Christian friends. None of them said anything to me that they felt something was wrong with me spiritually. I also read articles by conservatives Ross Douthat and you, who sometimes wrote with interest but often seemed to be cautiously positive about the topics that shaped my journey: psychedelics and the various religious experiences, paganism and the paranormal. I was able to convince even conservative Christians to accept my view of the world.

I used to send articles by Douthat and yours to conservative Christian friends just to (falsely?) reassure them that their interests were completely compatible with my beliefs. I felt a patronizing affection for Evangelicals who still believed in the devil. I was able to take their spirituality seriously. If given enough time, I believed that they could be forced to embrace the spiritual chaos of the future if they were willing to give up their old spiritual paradigm.

Will answered my questions about the role of psychedelics within this delusion. He continued:

Because they put us in a hyper-vulnerable mental state that is ripe for demonic manipulation, drugs are not worth the risk.

The notion that psychedelic drugs can only cause hallucinations is a weak secularist-skeptical position. It was designed to be defeated by more sophisticated and more dangerous spiritual positions, which recognize the spiritual power of these substances but downplay (or completely ignore) their dangers. These drugs can help you connect with spiritual reality. However, they are often misinterpreted, ego-inflation disguised by humility, confirmation bias or more openly demonic forms deception.

There are many differences. Some, such as psilocybin mushrooms represent a particular demonic personality. LSD can cause damage to the foundations and psyche of stable humans, opening up doors for demons. DMT can bring people into contact with certain demonic entities or into specific realms. It is not recommended to use marijuana, which can cause lower-grade effects than psychedelics.

Many people I know who don’t recommend psychedelics to others feel they were able to hear God through a psychedelic. This is, in my opinion, less an advertisement for psychoedelics than it is a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit to work through any situation.

“Respectable experts,” have been pushing for the normalization of psychedelics. This facade must be exposed. Many of these scientific studies are flawed. Personal stories of people who have used psychedelics to solve a particular mental or physical problem are not evidence that they should be used. (Remember the pragmatic fallacy). Advocates of psychedelia pretend to be worldview-neutral spiritual/scientific seekers. This is absurd. It’s also not uncommon for them to express their metaphysical commitments in a New Age slapstick.

Never ever take psychedelic drug. People who are currently using psychedelic drugs or have used them in the past should be cautious. They may be vulnerable to demonic influence. My personal recommendation, although less strong than the other principles I have advocated for, is to limit recreational use of mind-altering substances to alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. If you feel it’s spiritually important, you should abstain completely from these substances.

Will is an academic with a deep understanding of the theologies and philosophies behind occultism. He is not an amateur.

Looking back at our interview notes, I realized that nearly 40 years after my psychedelic experience, the motivation to try them is completely understandable. I have been a spiritual seeker all my life. Although I was a Catholic for almost 40 years, the mystical aspects of Catholicism allowed me to explore these areas safely. As readers will know, I have been Orthodox for 17 years. Orthodox Christianity has provided me with a safe place to explore the mystical traditions of Christianity. Will recommends Father Seraphim’s 1970s classic . This book stunned him by its insights into occultism. It is based on what he has learned over the years from his time in occultism. I highly recommend KyriacosMarkides’s excellent The Mountain Of Silence. This book is a great introduction to Orthodox mystical traditions, as it was explained by a monk from Mount Athos. Markides, a retired sociologist of religion, wrote in the book that he spent a lot of his career studying and writing about pagan rituals. However, he came to realize that Orthodoxy also has its own tradition. Markides suggests that Westerners should look into Orthodox Christianity’s living traditions, particularly on Mount Athos, if they are tired of the dryness of secular materialism and shallowness of contemporary Western Christianity. In my forthcoming book, I will also address this issue.

Let’s sum it up. Douthat is absolutely correct in advising that one be very careful with this stuff. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the spiritual realm can be benign. There are many accounts online from people who have experienced traumatic encounters using DMT. My Orthodox friend, the one who had an accidental cannabis experience, told me that psychedelics are becoming more popular in the West coast. Religious leaders don’t know how to handle it. This in mind, Will was asked by me what information pastors should have about this phenomenon. Here is the transcript of our conversation:

What would you tell priests and pastors to do about the occult?

These subjects are important enough to help you avoid demon snares. The ideal middle ground will be different for everyone depending on their life circumstances and personal tendencies, but it must be found.

While not everyone will be called to exorcists, you should be ready to face the demons in all their forms and protect others from its influence. This fight is not something we should shy away from. The fates of many souls are on the line and the demons are getting more bold.

Be clear with those in your spiritual care that pop culture is not their friend. While this does not mean that all modern entertainment is bad, we must recognize that much of the culture that exists today is created by people who unknowingly or wittingly serve demonic interests.

You will not tolerate any openness to the occult. Your parishioners who are interested in New Age or esoteric spirituality (for instance, astrology), should be warned that they are opening themselves up to the evil forces that will drag them to hell.

Tolerance for ecumenical impulses is not an option. Don’t let liberals emotionally rob you or your parishioners by blathering about religious tolerance. Ecumenism, the religion of Antichrist, is called Ecumenism.

I’m not sure what he means when he says “ecumenism”. I don’t think he means friendly discussion and cooperation among Christian churches in areas of mutual interest. This is something I would like to learn more from him. If he is referring to believing that all religions can be equally valid as paths to God, I am 100% in agreement with him.

Another passage from our interview

What are the main manifestations of the occult in everyday life today, based on your academic research and your personal experience?

Pop-culture includes genres such as science-fiction, horror and pop music.

Spiritual, but not religious/New Age normalization forms of divinization such as astrology and tarot.

Feminist appeals are made to the divine feminine, and glorifies witches/witchcraft.

Modern sexuality and gender ideologies echo long-held occult principles.

Douthat starts his column with a discussion about new public statues, which have occult and pagan effects. The above photo shows a statue by Shahzia Sikander that was recently installed in Madison Square Park. A second version of this statue was installed on top of the NY courthouse as part pro-abortion protest. He wrote:

A statue was recently placed in a New York courthouse. It occupied a spot near prominent lawgivers such as Moses and Confucius. It is a woman of the highest status, or at most a woman of high standing, with braided hair that looks like horns, roots, or tendrils for feet and arms, rising from a lotus plant.

Shahzia Sikander (a Pakistani-American artist) has highlighted the political significance of her work. The golden woman is wearing a version Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s lace collar. She’s intended to symbolise female power in a historically male-dominated legal system and protest Roe V. Wade’s reverse.

The work clearly attempts to create a religious icon, but it is also a result of a blurring spiritual traditions. The same artist created a similar statue that bears the name “Havah”, evoking Eve’s Hebrew and Arabic names. This makes it a feminist claim to monotheistic tradition. The imagery of the courthouse statue also evokes pantheism, with the roots and flowers evoking nature/spirituality, a “magical hybrid plant-animal”, as one critic put it. The braids-ashorns, which look tentacle-like and are a appropriation Christian images of demonic in a sculpture that is against conservative Christianity’s politics, are also hard to miss.

This stuff must be taken as seriously by us as its creator and her followers. It is not just a matter aesthetics. It’s there to symbolize a rival religious or political order. In New Orleans, the same space that once housed a statue by Robert E. Lee now houses, at least temporarily a statue by an African goddess. From ARTnews:

Leigh’s bronze sculpture, which was designed specifically for the Prospect 5 & the Circle, aims to reverse the legacy of power left by the Lee statue. The sculpture depicts a snake wrapped around the body of a thin female body that looks like a spoon.

This design was inspired by the many cultures of African diaspora living in New Orleans. Mami Wata, a water god shared by many African cultures is the spoon shape. This symbol is important in Zulu culture as it is a sign of status.

The sculpture’s placement is intended to challenge the hierarchies created by the Lee monument.

Do you want to speak out against white supremacy Fine. White supremacy is bad. Let’s not pretend this sculpture is about trying to put a defiant finger on white supremacy. It’s about the proclamation a new religious order and political order. This is a pagan goddess. This may seem like a great thing. But let’s not pretend it doesn’t hold powerful spiritual meaning. This is what Will seems to be referring to when he states that the ideology of “religious acceptance” can lead to the demonic.

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