#41 Sacred placeholders for that which we don’t understand nor control

Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals by Huston Smith, pages 135-147

In Appendix A, titled Secularization and the Sacred: The Contemporary Scene, Smith reworks one of his texts originally written in the 1960s for the present book. His research question is: “…Are sacred and secular related in ways that are sufficiently multivalent to allow both to be correct?” He begins his paper with some statistics showing that religiosity is shrinking in the United States. Later on, he shows that while institutionalized religion wanes in contemporary times, other forms of spiritual and sacred practices, particularly the so-called New Age but including Eastern traditions, gain popularity. And so, it seems that while people consider themselves secular because of their move away from institutionalized religions, at the same time these people lean toward practices that embrace the sacred.

I’ve been researching and streaming a lot about neurophenomenology as of late on this blog, so you might be wondering why I turn to Huston’s work regarding religious, spiritual, and sacred matters. Know that whatever I read at the time is a sneak peek into what I’m working on regarding research articles and books. So, while it might not make much sense now, it is important for the arguments I intend to publish in journal, book, or podcast formats. Also, I just find these topics really interesting, so I’d read about them anyway, but it’s great that I get to cite them in my writings. Anyway, moving on, now that the caveat is out of the way…

Cleansing the Doors of Perception book cover with picture of an eye in the middle of beaming sun rays.
I’m interested in Huston’s views about the relation between secularism and control, and the uncontrollable sacred. Our ancestors relegated acts of nature and natural events to God or a pantheon of gods, events out of human control and thus they must be the work of an angry or pleased divine being. As society becomes more secular, we can explain nature through the new religions of science and technology. Instead of our priest class (the scientists) using sacramental prayers and symbolic gestures, they use formulas, algorithms, and digital computing equipment. Everyone agrees to the foundations and building blocks of such magic like the meter, the kilo, the liter, and the byte. After everyone is in agreement, we can test nature and force its secrets, we can demystify the creator’s creation, we inch closer into divine territory, and more than likely some of our priests would like to be gods themselves (e.g. transhumanists?).

I agree with Huston’s point that as more of nature comes under humans’ control, or rather we’re able to better explain why things happen, new problems and mysteries arise. Reality is like a Russian doll; once we get diseases under our control, for example, the population grows exponentially, or once we split the atom we now have to figure out what to do with nuclear waste (Huston, 2000, 137). It seems that with each new aspect of reality that comes under our control, a new set of either unpredictable or unfathomable consequences arise, and then we need to figure out solutions for those quandaries. We will never stop trying to control. We try to control our minds, other people, other nations, nature, etc. Yet, I pose this question to you: if we did not try to control our environment, would we get anywhere as a species, as a civilization? Think of the Stoics. I like Stoicism and I apply it to my daily life. The central tenet of Stoicism in a nutshell is that you should accept you will never be able to control other people or your environment, but the one thing under your control is how you react to that which is outside of you. Ok, so the one thing we can definitely control is how we react. But is this satisfying for a human being? Overall, for most human beings, no, I think not. I don’t think we should aspire to control other people for ethical reasons, but trying to control our environment, possibly, why not. Is it unethical to want to control our environment? It can be, for example, if we act like a God in trying to manipulate it; think of geoengineering, human genetic editing, edible genetically modified organisms, landscaping at the biome level, etc.

Take the example of building a house. A house is a technology. We use other technologies to cut down trees, to make bricks, to manufacture paints and insulation for the walls. The essential feature of a house is for a human being to live in it. The house becomes a home where we sleep, relax, make and raise our children, cook our meals and nourish ourselves, to entertain ourselves. Think about it, however: by making the house we control the environment within its four walls. We reject the outside world, that is to say, its temperature, its unpredictable climate, noises, other people. Some forms of controlling our environment is acceptable. Perhaps we can differentiate between passive control (e.g. the house) and active control (e.g. genetic manipulation).

Getting off track here, back to Huston’s text regarding secularism’s love of control and the uncontrollable sacred. Huston says, “Incomprehensible, indomitable, and important – these are authentic marks of the sacred, and the unconscious possesses them all” (2000, 138). For Huston, we recognize something as being sacred if it satisfies these three marks: beyond comprehension, uncontrollable, and seemingly has some sort of import to the experiencer.

I reject Huston’s claim that that which is incomprehensible, uncontrollable, and important are signs of the sacred. Roughly one hundred and fifty years ago, electricity lived in sacred domains. Not anymore. Thanks to Maxwell’s equations among other pioneering scientists and mathematicians, electricity is no longer beyond comprehension nor uncontrollable. Surely, there are facets of electricity that we have not yet discovered or put to use yet, I concede that point, but for the most part, we understand and thus are able to use electricity. The same goes for the weather, biology, social sciences, physics, you name it. Just because something is deemed “sacred” now does not mean that it is; further, it does not mean that it will be. If there is one thing we learn from our ancestors it is this: that which we thought was caused by God or some sacred unknowable force eventually is demystified. Yes, I am holding science and technology up on a pedestal and for good reason: because it works.

I won’t say too much about this here because you’ll read about it in my published works, but I believe we can say the same about psychedelic experiences. For me, there is nothing religious, spiritual, or sacred about psychedelic experiences. These experiences merely are other dimensions of reality that we know little or nothing about, and so, the shamans among us and novice modern users, historically speaking, who likely turn to traditional users for insight into these realms, deem these psychedelic realms sacred. That which we don’t understand we put a placeholder on, and guess what: when we understand it, we put that placeholder in the history books and slap our knees saying how ignorant or unadvanced we were. One of my favorite quotes is from Galileo: “All truths [are easy to understand] once they are discovered; the point is in being able to discover them” (Galilei, 1967, 225). So true. Until discovered, aspects of reality will remain mysterious and be associated with the supernatural. We mustn’t forget our history. We mustn’t forget that once upon a time, members of our species thought natural phenomena were caused by the gods. And they were wrong. At present, physicists don’t know exactly what is dark energy and dark matter. They put labels on these phenomena, we give them placeholders, but only until we figure out what it is that they are. Placeholders are temporary. Many people deem the psychedelic experience to be religious, holy, or sacred. Are not these placeholders similar to how our ancestors put placeholders upon natural events they did not understand? I ask you to simply consider what I have said, to imagine what the world will look like hundreds of years from now and what we will know about psychedelics, the mind, consciousness. Just because we don’t understand it now doesn’t mean that we should associate religious labels to it. Again, I think they are merely other dimensions of experienceable reality that we don’t know much about.

Galilei, G. (1967/1632). Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic & Copernican (2nd ed.). (S. Drake, Trans.). University of California Press.

Smith, H. (2000). Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam.

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