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In the modern American context, religious communities are often viewed as natural enemies of drug policy reform. However, not only is there a growing movement of faith communities united to end the War on Drugs, but throughout human history, cultures around the world have relied upon entheogens to derive greater spiritual & religious meaning from life.
In this issue of the Monthly Mosaic, we will be focusing on the close historical relationship between religion and drug use, as well as some of the modern interfaith movements to reform failed drug war policies, and how your chapter can apply these lessons to your activism.
What Do Drugs Have to Do With Religion?
Gaining ground since the middle of the twentieth century, entheogen theory posits that hallucinogenic drugs played a significant part in the development of religion worldwide. Many anthropologists define cultures as either monophasic and polyphasic, depending in part on their relationship to drug use and spirituality.
How is the War on Drugs a War on Religious Diversity?
The use of powerful psychoactive plants and various associated rituals have been at the heart of shamanic practices all over the globe.
Psychoactive plants and substances were prominent in the urban cultures of pre-Colombian America—the Aztec, the Mayan, and the Incaic.
Several 18th-and-19th-century reports described the use of Amanita muscaria, a hallucinogenic mushroom, by different Siberian tribes. In particular, witch doctors or shamans used it to achieve “an exalted state to be able to talk to the gods.” The use of Amanita muscaria for its hallucinogenic actions continues in Siberia to this day.
Although there is significant debate about the extent to which entheogens have impacted religious history, many major world religions may have their roots in entheogen use.
Dating to 1500 BC, The Rigveda, a collection of Sanskrit hymns that represent the oldest Hindu scriptures, frequently mention soma —a plant that could be used to communicate more effectively with the deities.
Believed to have been originally authored just a short while later in ancient Persia, to the religious text of Zoroastrianism, called The Avesta, also makes frequent mention of a similar substance to soma, called haoma.
Some scholars believe that early Christianity involved the use of psychoactive mushrooms. The Bible also mentions the Acacia tree, which is a source of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a molecule found in nearly every living organism and considered the most potent mind altering plant substance on Earth.
Arab and Bedouin folklore has pointed to the possibility that Islam and pre-Islamic Arab religion are grounded in the use of entheogens. The ancient tradition of Arabia suggests that the goddess or deity Al- Uzza (Hebrew ‘Asherah) resides in the Acacia tree.
The Acacia tree and the bush Peganum harma—two plants that grow in the arid areas of the Sinai peninsula and Southern Israel and contain the same psychoactive molecules found in Ayahuasca—have also formed the basis of theories regarding the use of entheogens by early Jews.
In America, the right of certain groups to use certain entheogens has been historically protected, while the rights of others have been ignored.
In relation to entheogen use, the freedom to practice religion has not been equally protected for all groups. For example, though DMT is illegal for other groups to ingest, Christian members of the Santo Daime or Uniao de Vegetal churches are able to publicly and legally ingest ayahuasca, a DMT-containing brew derived from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine.
In the Supreme Court case, Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, the Court ruled that the use of peyote in the Native American Church was not protected under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause, finding that the First Amendment does not allow a person to use religious motivation as a reason not to obey general drug laws. Although states have the power to accommodate otherwise illegal acts conducted in pursuit of religious beliefs—such as entheogen use—they are not required to do so.
Why is this important?
America prides itself on being one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world. Ending the drug war is crucial to promoting and accepting diversity in belief, practice, and tradition.
The War on Drugs prevents us from understanding, and accepting different cultures. In privileging one religion over another, or ignoring certain religions altogether, we fail to acknowledge the impact that other beliefs and practices have had on American culture and our national identity.
As continuing waves of immigration add millions of adherents of non-Abrahamic faiths to the American population, the persecution of certain faith beliefs will increasingly become a problem.
Given that psychoactive substances have been used across a variety of religions, embracing religious diversity may help us better understand altered states of human consciousness.
Individuals in the healing professions, among them therapists and psychologists, are finding culture to be more and more relevant to the complex thoughts that are related to psychological states.
Ninety percent of the roughly 4,000 societies we know of have one or more institutionalized methods for the induction of altered states of consciousness. In some cultures, the insight gained from entheogens “has an equal, and sometimes privileged, status with empirical knowledge.”
Many of the world’s cultures are polyphasic, meaning that they recognize, utilize and embrace multiple states of consciousness, including dreams and meditative contemplative states, as well as those induced by entheogens.Polyphasic societies derive much of their understanding about the mind, humankind, and the cosmos from entheogens. By contrast, monophasic cultures derive their view of reality almost exclusively from waking life. These societies give little credence to alternate states and deny the legitimacy and value of those who explore them, especially if they involve drug use.
How can my chapter identify interfaith allies working to end the War on Drugs?
Many religious leaders have recognized that the War on Drugs is a failure, and a growing coalition of interfaith groups are fighting to end drug war policies.
Earlier this year, The New England Conference of United Methodist Churches, a group of 600 churches spanning six states, voted in favor of a resolution calling for an end to the war on drugs.
Several groups representing a wide array of major American faiths—including The Presbyterian Church (USA), the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, and the Progressive Jewish Alliance— have lent their support to a call by the National Coalition for Effective Drug Policies to redirect efforts to curtail drug use.
Groups such as Clergy for a New Drug Policy are working to mobilize clergy across faiths in opposition to the War on Drugs, and in support of treating drug use as a health issue, rather than a criminal issue.
Want to learn more about the enduring tradition of religious drug use and how it is impacted by policy today? These resources are a good start:
Defending Perceptual Diversity in America: Entheogens as Legitimate Contributors to Learning, Health and Empathy takes a holistic view of how the drug war prevents perceptual diversity and cognitive liberty specifically in America, and argues that perceptual diversity exists in the same context as ethnicity and gender.
Food of the Gods provides an overview about the history of psychedelics all over the world, and sets the argument for why responsible regulation of these substances will be necessary for the future.
Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs analyzes the cultural history of various psychotropic drugs, and explains how religious history was influenced by mind-altering substances.
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