I define spiritual experiences to be those involving particular sets of mental states: including the experience of transcendence, peace, bliss, trance, sublimity, and profundity.
These mental states are available outside of a religious context. Some folks who haven’t experienced them via religion don’t even group them together meaningfully. I tend to, because they are all states that I accessed through religious activities, that were pleasurable, and that were different (in scale or kind) to my every-day experience.
Profundity I think is especially significant. Grant Morrison in his essay “Pop Magic!” encourages intentional profundity as a way to access the magical realm in every-day objects. Jean Harrell’s “Profundity” draws direct lines from James’s Varieties of Religious Experience to her criteria of what makes profundity (chapter 6). I have previously written about the role that investment has in the experience of profundity. I think many rituals generate their religious impact through engendering a sense of profundity.
We can make a prediction based on this idea. If we look at repeatable contexts in which people experience heightened profundity outside religion, we should find that those contexts are also used or evoked in a religious context to heighten the sense of profundity, and thus the religious experience.
One such context, I’ve been researching recently, is drug use. In particular there are a couple of groups of narcotics that are often reported as engendering sensations of profundity: cannabinoids, and hallucinogens. It is a strong cultural cliche that stoners find everything profound, and countless hippes and musicians attest to finding profound insights during a good LSD trip.
I suspect, then, it isn’t a coincidence that just about all the entheogens (drugs used ritually by a religious group) I could find documented were in these groups.
A few examples:
Cannabis is most famously used by Rastafari, but as Bhang is also associated with Shiva in Hinduism, and some Santo Daime use it as a healing herb (their more common drug is below).
Hallucinogens are even more frequently used. Santo Daime’s primary drug ayahuasca is an example, consumption of which during extended rituals is known as “The Work” by adherents. Kastomists use a hallucinogenic tree plant root in their rituals. Peyote (mescalin) has been traditionally used by the Huichol Indians as an entheogen.
The only exception to these drugs, that I could find, is the ritual use of alcohol in some religions (in the Christian Eucharist, for example, or Cake and Ale in Gardnerian wicca, or Toasting in Asatru), and Khat (an amphetamine) used by some East-african groups. I could not find any claims that either were entheogens, however: that their narcotic effects actually produce or enable religious experience. If you know better, please correct me.
Even if this were not exclusively true, I think the pattern is distinct. Religious experience and the experience of profundity are linked: religious experience can engender profundity, and a narcotic cause of profundity can heighten religious experience.