Political Neurotheology

Emergence and Revival of a Psychedelic Alternative to Cosmetic Psychopharmacology

In: Francisco Ortega and Fernando Vidal (eds.), The Neurosciences in Contemporary Society. Glimpses from an Expanding Universe. Peter Lang: Frankfurt/M. (forthcoming)

The public image of contemporary drug culture has been one-sidedly informed by comparisons with Aldous Huxley’s early dystopian novel Brave New World. This chapter aims at complicating the picture of neuropsychopharmacology in society by recounting the story of psychedelic drugs. Their applications have often been inspired by a very different novel of the same author: the late Huxley’s utopia Island. In this 1962 book, Huxley imagines a science called neurotheology studying the relationship between physiology and spirituality. Consciousness-expanding drugs play a central role in this fictive science, which was soon actualized by researchers such as Timothy Leary who advocated hallucinogens to liberate the spiritual brain from American culture and society. This chapter examines the “political neurotheology” underlying the resulting clash between psychedelic counterculture and Establishment, which eventually led to the prohibition of hallucinogens and the breakdown of most hallucinogen research. Since the 1990s, however, a new generation of scientists managed to revive psychedelic research—including its Huxleyan underpinning—but strives to overcome the antagonism between culture and counterculture. By tracing this trajectory the chapter contributes to a genealogy of contemporary neurotheology and illuminates a neglected aspect of the Huxleyan matrix, which, from the sixties until today, has served to frame drug use in both mainstream society and the psychedelic counterculture.