Give me that old time “reefer religion”: The storied history of spiritual drug use

Artist Bryan Lewis Saunders made headlines a couple years ago by deciding to not only paint, or draw, a self-portrait every day, but to do so while under the influence of diffent drugs for each session. The results were vivid. As WIRED reported:

For the series based on his experiments with recreational and prescription drugs, he took everything from cocaine and Abilify to cough syrup and computer duster, then drew while under the influence. The resulting self-portraits range from intricately beautiful (psychedelic mushrooms) to insanely brutal (bath salts).

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Lewis himself reported that the experience brought “drastic changes…[that] profoundly affect[ed] perception of self.”

If drugs can alter “perception of self” what of the perception of the sacred?

“Drugs” and religion may seem an odd combination, but the two share an intersecting, sometimes conflicting, and fascinating history. Religion’s relationship with mind altering substances has, at times, been constructive and other times combative and sometimes both. What follows is an overview of the taut interrelation between various spiritualities, religions, and “drugs,” focusing in on three areas.

Psychoactive Sacraments — and Religious Experience

The use of drugs in religious ritual and as a portal into the mysterious reaches of the numinous has a long history, with little doubt the practice is prehistoric. Scythians ceremonially smoked the “Sticky Icky” cannabis and Greeks used wine in rites for Dionysius and (God bless them) the Sumerians had Ninkasi, their tutelary goddess of beer to whom they sang, “It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the cask; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and Euphrates, Ninkasi!”

Today, there are a range of religious, and spiritual, uses of alcohol, stimulants, and entheogens — “generating the divine within” — from the seemingly suspect to the sacrosanct. And before you turn up your nose to a bit of old pappy’s “reefer religion,” there are governmentally approved and divinely sanctioned uses of entheogens across the spiritual spectrum. Acceptable forms for drug use in religious ritual range from the common practice of drinking wine during the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion to the use of peyote by some Native American tribes.

The Christian sacrament of Holy Communion (a.k.a. The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist) is a rite said to be founded by Jesus himself. The use of wine in the ceremony is not ubiquitous (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints use water and various denominations opt for grape juice, a non-alcoholic “fruit of the vine” as it were) and views on the relation of wine to the “blood of Christ” range from physical transformations to memorial representations (read about Five Views of Holy Communion here). Despite the wide range of views on the meaning, and form, of Holy Communion, millions of Christians across the world ingest a bit of alcohol every week as a core act of faith, in a sense connecting them to Christ.

Peyote is an historic, pre-Columbian, entheogen used as a conduit for contact with the spirit world and also as a medicinal drug. From Mexico, the use of peyote wound up to the Great Plains of the U.S. and through the influence of Apache, Comanche, and other Plains Nations came to be practiced by more than 60 different tribes, with nearly 300,000 Peyotism adherents today. This spiritual use of Peyote has been linked to the famous Quanah Parker and the Native American Church and is federally protected under an extension of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Lucy in the Sky with Divinity — Entheogens and the Search for the Seraphic

However, North American tribes are not alone in their practice, nor is peyote the sole entheogen used in spiritual pursuits.

Every year, many Huichol Indians of Central Mexico make an annual pilgrimage to the land of peyote — Wirikuta — in what Barbara Meyerhoff calls the “universal human quest” for “Paradise, or the original center of the world where god, human, animal, and plant were at one with each other during a primordial era.” The peyote hunt not only re-enacts, but becomes, the “original” and “primordial” ”peyote hunt” of antiquity, subsequently regenerating the individual’s, and their community’s identity and life force in communing with the powers of Wirikuta. For more on this pilgrimage and ritual, watch Peter Hurst’s film To Find Our Life.

Entheogenic searches for life can also involve rubber. No, there is no sacred sniff of smoking rubber. Instead, among the early 20th-century “Rubber Soldiers” of the Amazon basin — rubber tappers working in Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia — a certain Raimundo Irineu Serra founded what would later become Santo Daime, a hybrid spirituality drinking ayahuasca as a key part of their ceremonies. Mastre Ireneu founded this spiritual pursuit after experiencing a series of visions during an eight day solitary quest in the forest. While focused on physical healing, the ayahuasca rituals came to provide meaning, place, and community for the marginalized rubber tappers. In the words of scholar Robin Wright the ayahuasca was “a way to save community and not go bananas in the forest.”

However, do not be tempted to think that entheogenic experiences are the exclusive property of American tribes.

Today, the use of ayahuasca for otherworldly breakthrough appeals to a wide range of North Americans. Ayahuasca tourism features New Age seekers, and young travelers, who visit Amazonian villages, mainly in Peru, pursuing “spiritual enlightenment” under the direction of a shaman (similar to the experience of Carlos Castañeda of Don Juan and Tales of Power fame, but to a lesser degree). The practice is now distributed across the globe with Dutch churches holding ayahuasca ceremonies and dabblers in Detroit looking for enlightenment through entheogen experiences. Despite warnings about adverse consequences of use and “sham shamans,” in addition to “primitivizing” effect of Western tourists co-opting a tribal ritual, ayahuasca tourism remains strong.

In addition, according to Shalom Goldman, the Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — a Jewish Renewal movement founder and interfaith pioneer in the U.S. — came to many of his epiphanies under the influence of “the sacramental” ingestion of LSD, which he claimed “removed the frame” for true transcendental breakthrough.

The use of such seemingly serious drugs may seem strange. However, John J. McGraw challenges us to consider how ‘normal’ these entheogen-induced religious experiences can be. He wrote:

Most of us have the good fortune to possess a few sacred recollections— memories of some passing moments upon a mountain, in a forest, or fishing from a giant lake. Whatever the particular character of our memory, these times loom large in consciousness for in these brief pauses we felt God. Or so we thought. The experience, stripped of theology or doctrine, is ineffable—we know merely that colors shone in unearthly hues and that the vivid contrast around, above, and beneath took on a razor sharp sheen. Most important of all is the feeling—that exceptionally rare sensation—that we are not separated from our surroundings, not caught up in our typical turmoil, but simply immersed into the cosmos at large. Then we wish well to all that is. At last, we feel—we know—we are at home. These intriguing moments are not so different from those induced by the hallucinogens.

St. Mary Jane, Mother of Gong?

Still, for some, religion and “drugs” are like oil and water. One example of contemporary import is the religious allocation and (un)acceptance of marijuana.

Thanks to the infamous Snoop Lion (a.k.a. Snoop Dogg) and Bob Marley, the perception has it that all Rastafarians are in search of the spiritual via sinsemilla (a Spanish term meaning “without seeds” used as slang for marijuana). While not all Rastafarians use cannabis, many view smoking it as a sacramental act, and with the accompaniment of biblical study, as a cleansing ritual and an aid for communion with Jah — an Old Testament terminological derivative of ‘God,’ which Rastafarians use to refer to the Holy Trinity.

Claiming that God has put in place all grass, weed, and herbs “for the service of man” (see Genesis 3:8; Psalm 104:14), Rastafarians hold that smoking weed is permissible according to the Bible. Indeed, arguing that it is an aid to meditation and part of their religious observance, many Rastafarians feel that the illegality of marijuana is tantamount to religious persecution.

On the other side of the debate are people like Mike Hasha. Hasha, the director for a 61-member Baptist missionary church association in Florida, was “very concerned” when he first learned of their member church’s — First Bethel Baptist Church in Lake Wales, FL — plans to lease their 3.2-acre parcel to GrowHealthy, one of America’s largest companies launching medical marijuana nursery farms. The association Hasha leads opposes any legalization of marijuana, including for medical use. They are not alone.

As the legalization of marijuana, for both its medicinal and recreational uses, becomes mainstream, many Christian churches are caught in the middle. The NewsTribune of La Salle, IL recently polled local clergy “to gauge their churches’ positions on medical cannabis.” They reported that their “opinion was decidedly wary, with most pastors polled expressing doubt about the morality of medicinal cannabis….”

Even though a majority of the general population (58%) supports the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use in the U.S., Christians are decidedly less enthusiastic. Barna Group reported that only a third of evangelical Protestants (32%) and only slightly more Catholics (39%) support the legalization of marijuana. Mainline Protestants are a bit more keen on the green, with 45% in favor. Still, juxtaposed to the majority of the U.S. population, most Christians oppose legalization citing impairment of the senses, endangerment to brain function, and habitual abuse as reasons not to allow marijuana to go mainstream.

The above serves as ample evidence that the debate about “drugs” and the divine will continue for years to come with communities ranging in their reception and religious appropriation of alcohol, peyote, marijuana, and/or other entheogens.

Despite the debate, rapturous rituals involving drug use are interwoven throughout religious history and the spiritual practice of many groups. Some religious leaders sanctioned such practices, others warned against them. Still others were more equivocating. One thing is certain, “reefer religion” will not go up in smoke any time soon.

*For more on religion & culture follow @kchitwood.

DISCLAIMER: The author, Ken Chitwood, does not encourage or explicitly condone the use of drugs. While he respects the legal rights of those who use drugs for spiritual purposes this essay is not meant to advocate such practices. Any illegal drug use is just that and this article should not be interpreted as an encouragement for breaking the law. The author also warns that even under legal circumstances, religious rituals involving drugs should be exercised with caution, with proper supervision and instruction, and in moderation. Furthermore, this is a blog and therefore strikes a lighter, and less pedantic, tone. Do not take any of the above to be offensive in principle and be sure to submit your own thoughts, suggestions, and censure in the comment section below.