Psilocybin Study: No Change in View of God. Some Change in View of Bugs.

    A new study by Johns Hopkins University researchers on the effects of psychedelics suggests that—contrary to some earlier evidence—a single psilocybin experience isn’t likely to make an atheist believe in God, or dispel someone’s sense of free will. It may, however, inspire the belief that animals, plants or even objects like rocks and robots have some sort of consciousness.

    The study, published May 7 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, surveyed hundreds of people who planned to use psilocybin in a non-laboratory setting, asking them about their beliefs both before and at two separate times after their experiences.

    While participants reported small differences in certain perceptions of consciousness after the psychedelic experiences—being more likely to attribute consciousness to primates or insects, for example—their religious and metaphysical beliefs didn’t significantly change.

    “These findings suggest that concerns that psychedelics could change metaphysical beliefs or result in ‘conversions’ across religious affiliations may be overestimated,” the authors wrote, adding that “concerns related to changes in non-naturalistic beliefs or religious affiliation may be exaggerated.”

    They stated that the findings are relevant in addressing certain ethical concerns around the clinical applications of psychedelics, noting that changes in beliefs “in the context of psychedelic clinical trials raise bioethical questions for many reasons.”



    “For some patients, such changes could be construed as a kind of personal harm,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, these transformations have the capacity to significantly influence an individual’s social ties and relationships. Finally, such changes may be of societal concern, for example with the possibility of fostering beliefs that are nonscientific beliefs.”

    They underscored the “magnitude and persistence of these belief changes matter,” weighty issues that some have worried could be influenced by broader use.

    “As psychedelic therapies move closer to possible approval for widespread use, the ramifications of mental health interventions with the potential to substantially change a person’s belief system raises serious considerations about how and by whom they can be used appropriately,” they continued.

    “For instance, the possibility that psychedelic therapies could be used by individuals or organizations seeking to convert or otherwise coerce people into adopting particular worldviews (e.g., political or religious ideologies) clearly highlights the need for extraordinary caution in their implementation.”

    Atheist-Believer status showed “no change.”

    To study the effects of psychedelics on beliefs, the researchers asked 657 participants questions from three main categories: “Atheist–Believer status,” metaphysical beliefs and mind perception. Respondents were surveyed when they consented to the study, two weeks before their planned psilocybin use, two to four weeks after the experience and again a few months later.

    Atheist–Believer status was the most straightforward, consisting of a single item: “How would you characterize your overall religious or spiritual belief system?” People could identify as “Non-believer (e.g., atheist); Agnostic; or Believer (e.g., in Ultimate Reality, Higher Power, and/or God, etc.),” with only one selection allowed.

    Overall, Atheist-Believer status showed “no change.”

    Metaphysical beliefs, meanwhile, centered on ideas including materialism, dualism, idealism and determinism—fundamental philosophical topics involving things like free will and the nature of consciousness itself. Participants were asked, for example, to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Everything that has ever happened had to happen precisely as it did, given what happened before.”

    In that category, authors observed “little to no changes.” These findings “provide evidence that concerns around changes to such beliefs may have been inflated given the general lack of changes observed in the present study.”

    “Psychedelics may cause such belief changes, but the present data suggest they do not occur on average.”

    Some differences, however, were seen in responses around mind perception, which attempted to measure users’ beliefs about “the ability of various targets to have conscious experience.” Those targets included “four species of mammals, five non-mammal objects/entities and one item about the universe as a whole.”

    People taking the survey were asked about concepts like “I am capable of having conscious experience,” “Plants (e.g., trees, flowers) are capable of having conscious experience” and “The universe is conscious.”

    In those areas, researchers observed “significant increases of small effect size” as pertained to non-human primates, quadrupeds, insects, fungi, plants and inanimate man-made objects. “Of these, the largest increases were apparent for attribution of consciousness to insects.”

    A few items, “including mind perception of inanimate natural objects (e.g., a rock), inanimate manmade (e.g., a robot), and the universe as a whole showed small, statistically significant effects at one time point but not the other.”

    The authors acknowledged that the findings don’t necessarily mean psilocybin doesn’t ever influence users’ metaphysicial or religious beliefs, only that such changes aren’t typical after a single experience.



    “Psychedelics may cause such belief changes, but the present data suggest they do not occur on average in naturalistic use,” they wrote. “To the extent that such belief changes do occur, they may 1) be more likely in a particular subset of individuals, 2) rely on particular contextual, and/or 3) require multiple psychedelic experiences over time.”

    While the findings challenge some earlier research about religious changes around psychedelics use, the mind perception findings echo those from earlier research, such as a 2022 report suggesting that people who use psychedelics like psilocybin are generally more connected to nature and knowledgable about climate change—traits that tend to translate into pro-environmental behavior.

    A 2020 study, meanwhile, reported what authors described as “a strong relationship between the amount of lifetime use of psychedelics” and participants’ reported connection with nature.


    Image (cropped) via United States Department of Health and Human Services

    This story was originally published by Marijuana Moment, which tracks the politics and policy of cannabis and drugs. Follow Marijuana Moment on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for its newsletter.

    • Ben is a writer and editor covering cannabis since 2011, including as a senior news editor for Leafly. He is currently senior editor at Marijuana Moment. He lives in Seattle.

    • Show Comments

    You May Also Like

    Five Harmful Anti-Alcohol Myths and the Evidence Against Them

    In Temperance America and beyond, it seems no amount of evidence will be accepted ...

    Drug Reporters Know This Is a War―So Why Don’t We Cover It Like One?

    [This article contains graphic images of injecting drug use.] A picture may be worth ...

    With the Focus on Opioids, Don’t Forget About Meth and Cocaine

    The “opioid crisis” has dominated drug conversations for at least the past decade, while ...