Why Are A Growing Number Of Ex-Mormons Using Psychedelics?
Late last summer, Steve Urquhart, a lawyer and former Utah state legislator, announced that he was forming his own church. Urquhart was once a highly conservative lawmaker, which was in line with his background as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from Washington County.
But personal challenges, and, surprisingly, psychedelics, changed Urquhart’s mind. He left the church and became a vocal advocate for progressive causes, including medical marijuana.
His new church, The Divine Assembly, bears little in common with Mormonism, particularly because its sacrament is psychedelics rather than bread and water,.
After reading about Urquhart’s church in a column by Robert Gehrke at The Salt Lake Tribune, I attended a virtual conference held by The Divine Assembly.
“Load up the handcart and join Utahns and Mormons who are trekking into psychedelic spaces,” read an advertisement for the conference on Facebook. Many of the attendees, I learned, were former members of the LDS church who were interested in trying psychedelics or already doing so.
Who were these people, I wondered, and why, after leaving a demanding, orthodox faith, had they turned to psychedelics? Was there something about the Mormon experience that primed people for seeking out these drugs?
Over the past several months, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen individuals, all of them once devout, faithful and committed members of the LDS church. For various reasons, they fell away from the faith, and in time, they found psychedelics.
"Load up the handcart and join Utahns and Mormons who are trekking into psychedelic spaces," read an advertisement for the conference on Facebook.
They make up a loosely-knit but growing sub-culture of thousands of seekers who find in psychedelics access to healing, personal discovery and even mystical, spiritual states of consciousness that harken back to their Mormon tradition.
David was 58 years old when he took his first psychedelic trip.
He’s from northern Utah and was raised in the LDS church. He married and raised five children in the faith. For most of his life, Mormonism worked. It gave him community. It filled him up spiritually. For him, the church held all of life’s truths.
“I felt like I had the golden ring,” he told me.
As he grew older, David – who, like the other people I interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity – began to chafe at the sense that his choices, including what he put in his body, weren’t his own. They were made for him by his faith.
In adherence with Mormon teaching, David abstained from coffee, alcohol, tobacco and all drugs.
“I was 55 years old when I had my first cup of coffee,” David said during a Zoom conversation. “And I had to sneak to do it. You’ve got a 55-year-old man sneaking to take a cup of coffee like a kid sneaking to [steal a cookie].”
Many people I spoke with shared David’s opinion that the teachings, cultural pressures and expectations within Mormonism were difficult to live up to and left little room for personal expression. Failing to meet those standards left them feeling inadequate, even traumatized.
At 58, with his children fully grown, David got a divorce and left the church. He was striking out on his own path, learning for the first time who he was without the structures of a marriage or a faith to define him. And he was eager to continue experimenting.
Psychedelic sea change
A couple years ago, David heard an interview on RadioWest with the journalist Michael Pollan. Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, about the history and science of psychedelics, reintroduced the drugs to a new generation. It also legitimized the drugs for people like David who previously considered them not just useless, but useless and dangerous.
In the 1960s, researchers were just beginning to understand the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. But then, people and institutions freaked out. Psychedelics were blamed for Hippies, pushback against the Vietnam War and tectonic cultural shifts. The U.S. government criminalized psychedelics, which led to their banning around the world. Funding for psychedelic research dried up.
In the past couple decades, however, researchers have picked up where they left off. This renewed scientific interest in the drugs has been called by some in the community the third wave of psychedelics, and it continues to flow to this day.
Researchers at trusted institutions, Pollan reported, are conducting rigorous studies examining the potential medical benefits of psychedelic substances such as LSD, DMT, ayahuasca, peyote and psilocybin, the active ingredient in the so-called magic mushrooms. All the drugs are extremely powerful, and are classified federally as Schedule 1 substances, meaning they have no medical use, and it is illegal to possess or use them outside of an FDA-authorized clinical study.
Despite the government's official opinion, recent medical studies indicate that psychedelics hold great promise for treating conditions like depression, addiction, psychological trauma, even the existential fear of terminal cancer patients.
Bill Richards, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has been studying psychedelics for the better part of five decades, and has overseen hundreds of psychedelic trips. He holds advanced degrees in comparative religion and the psychology of religion, and while he’s excited about the potential medical uses of psychedelics, he has also witnessed their potential to elicit spiritual experiences.
“These drugs do help heal some sicknesses,” he told me. “But they also have potential for spiritual growth. Sometimes people [who have taken psychedelics] have an experience of new life, of new beginning and forgiveness, and resolution of psychological difficulties that some people would call religious. It’s quite a frontier for religious study.”
Death and rebirth
After reading Pollan’s book, David did more of his own research and decided that he wanted to know what it would feel like to be in a completely different state of consciousness.
Under the watchful eye of a psychedelic guide and in the safety of his own home, David took a large dose of magic mushrooms.
“The biggest part of that whole journey was with my head in a garbage can,” he said. His mind, however, was entirely elsewhere.
“I went off the earth,” David said. “Though space. To the end of the universe. To where it all began.”
David told me that during his psychedelic trip, he experienced the death of his parents; he felt himself grow old and die; and, he said, he was reborn.
"I went off the earth. Though space. To the end of the universe. To where it all began."
“I actually was coming through a birth canal, being born again,” he recalled. “I remember looking up at my guide and saying, ‘Are you my mother?’ And she laughed and said, ‘No.’”
Again and again during my reporting, I heard bitter complaints from those I spoke with about their former faith’s expectations and prescribed behaviors. Whether those expectations came through official church teaching and doctrine, or were exerted through social pressure within the community, this group said that they struggled to express themselves fully as faithful Latter-day Saints.
One of the most valuable insights David gained during his first magic mushroom trip was that he had everything he needed within himself – he could captain his own ship.
“I am the authority in my life…I was taking back my personal authority," he said. "If I want to drink a cup of coffee, I don’t need to hide from anybody or sneak. I started giving myself to permission to be an adult. If you want to do it, do it! It’s my choice."
Others I interviewed experienced similar revelations of personal strength during their psychedelic journeys – the “resolution of personal difficulties” that Bill Richards spoke of.
Sarah, another former Mormon I interviewed, grew up in southeastern Idaho and attended BYU-Idaho. She says her LDS faith influenced every decision in her life, and by the time she was 22-years-old, she was married with two young daughters. As a Mormon woman, she said she felt compelled by her church to sacrifice her happiness for her husband and children.
Some years later, after a divorce and leaving the church, Sarah took LSD in the southern Utah desert. She, too, reclaimed her personal authority on that journey.
“That trip [told me] that it’s okay to claim happiness for yourself,” she said. “It’s okay to put yourself first, and not feel guilty for it if you are still meeting the needs of your kids and the other important relationships in your life. They need a full person as their parent, not just a shadow of yourself.”
In his first address as president of the LDS church in 2018, Russell M. Nelson told church members that “If we will truly receive the Holy Ghost and learn to discern and understand His promptings, we will be guided in matters large and small.” This message of seeking and receiving divine communication has been part of Mormon beliefs and rhetoric since Joseph Smith Jr. prayed to know what church to join in 1820.
Mormon history is packed with accounts of dramatic spiritual experiences – experiences that it’s current members lay claim to for themselves.
David, like many other people I spoke with, said that he had numerous spiritual experiences during his time in the church. He told me that, years ago, he attended a church meeting where his grandchildren performed a musical number. In the middle of their song, he was overcome with divine bliss.
“I felt a lot of joy,” he said. “More so than I’d ever felt in my life. I just sat there and wept.”
He wept again when, during his journey on magic mushrooms, he said he “came to know God.”
Rachel grew up a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the Wasatch Front. When I interviewed her, she said that she frequently had mystical moments throughout her life, particularly during her LDS mission.
“So often," she remembered, "when we would teach people about Joseph Smith, about the restoration of the priesthood, about the Book of Mormon, the spirit would come into the room – [a] warm, intense feeling of divine love and presence."
Rachel believed she had a strong connection with the divine, and took her LDS faith’s call to seek and receive personal revelation seriously. But, after leaving the church, her divine experiences disappeared. She’d understood them as proof of her faith. If the faith was false, she thought, then did that mean that her spiritual experiences – the most precious and intimate experiences of her life – were false, too?
Years later, Rachel had a chance to take magic mushrooms in the mountains with a friend. During her trip, that familiar, warm, intense, divine feeling returned. She said it filled her skin, bones and muscles. She felt like she had recovered a part of who she was.
“I had left the safe harbor of Mormonism,” Rachel said. “And not just Mormonism, but also my spiritual identity. And then feeling that spiritual experience outside of the narrative that I had left behind…was just a really profound experience for me.”
When I started this research, I wondered if there is something about the LDS faith that prepared those who leave it for mystical psychedelic experiences. All of those I spoke with believe there is.
Rachel recalled conversations in her church and in her home about seeking and receiving guidance from God and the Holy Spirit. She heard this a lot. It is not only an accepted way of living as a Latter-day Saint – communication with the divine is expected.
“In a practiced type of way,” she said, “Mormonism – at least this is my observation – tends to have a more mystical emphasis than a lot of other American Christian religions.”
An underground psychedelic guide I spoke with, who also grew up LDS, said that one of the main reasons he and others seek out psychedelics is for spiritual fodder. In his view, “It’s no surprise that a lot of ex-Mormons have highly spiritual experiences [on psychedelics,] because, guess what: Their entire life was spirituality. So, I think that that highly influences these ex-Mormons’s trips.”
Wisdom of the tradition
Towards the end of my reporting, I spoke with Peter. A member of a prominent Mormon family here in Utah, Peter rebelled against his LDS upbringing when he was a teenager. He began drinking heavily and smoking cannabis as a means, he said, to dull his pain and anger. But he told me that when he did magic mushrooms, everything changed.
“It actually felt medicinal,” he said. “It opened windows of insight, and possibilities of healing that I had no idea were a part of taking psychedelics.”
Over the next decade, Peter strayed far from Mormonism, but continued to use psychedelics on a periodic basis. Eventually, he found his way back to the church. His psychedelic experiences, he says, helped him feel more empathy for his faith tradition, and have deepened his beliefs.
“When I took psilocybin, all of reality was imbued with a sense of the sacred,” Peter said. “I’d learned the language of the sacred in a beautiful, powerful way in my tradition growing up, so there was no dissonance for me.”
Peter’s Mormon ancestors were early pioneers, people who settled Utah as part of colonial expansion to the West and a quest for religious freedom.
"I earned the language of the sacred in a beautiful, powerful way in my tradition growing up, so there was no dissonance for me.”
It’s not hard to see a connection between that pioneering spirit and these psychedelic practitioners – just think of Steve Urquhart starting his own church. And although most of those I spoke with no longer belong to the LDS church, that tradition of the Mormon pioneer spirit, the enthusiasm to explore unseen territory, seems to survive in them. As Peter said, psychedelics “gave me a new way to appreciate the wisdom of the ancestors and their tradition.”
With the aid of psychedelics, the people I spoke with are exploring the unseen territory within.