Gary Laderman and Elaine Penagos
Teaching a course on Sacred Drugs during a global pandemic was, to say the least, a pedagogical adventure. It is a unique adventure in normal times, but offering an online version of the class under these circumstances in the fall of 2020 was quite the challenge. Although the range of what can be considered a drug is massive, this class primarily focused on psychoactive drugs, which we loosely described as substances that can alter the consciousness, thoughts, and feelings of those who take them. With this definition of drugs and even broader definitions of religion, 288 people (284 students, 2 Teaching Assistants, 1 Teaching Associate, and 1 full Professor) embarked on a strange trip and discovered the wild and wonderful ways drugs and religion intersect through time and around the globe. For a lot of the students, this class was their first in religious studies. Many of them took the class hoping for an easy “A” or because it fulfilled a requirement towards their undergraduate degree. For others, this class satisfied a pre-existing curiosity about the relationship between two seemingly disparate themes.
Drugs are dangerous too, that is for sure, and we did not shy away from the dangers. For some in the academy, on the other hand, the pedagogical approach we took for this class might also seem dangerous. Because of COVID-19 and the nature of online learning environments, we took a radically flexible approach to due dates for assignments (which included quizzes, participation forms, and prompt responses). Most students turned in their work when it was due, but those few who needed an extension, for whatever reason, got it without worrying about grade deductions or partial credit. The short writing assignments students turned in were overwhelmingly engaging and thoughtful. Even though many had their cameras off during our synchronous sessions, their responses showed that they were doing the readings, listening to lectures, watching the documentaries, and most of all, thinking deeply about the class materials.
In reading their responses to the final prompt question about their main takeaways from the class, a sample of which appear below, what became apparent to us was that, using our broad working definition of drugs, this class was in and of itself a sacred drug, and the intake of knowledge a sacred substance, for students and the teaching team during a strange and disturbing semester.
Many of us looked forward to each class session and thought about it when we weren’t together synchronously, and there were, we think, even moments of collective effervescence that broke down the artificiality of virtual teaching, and that would have surely aroused Durkheim’s curiosity.
When presented with the option of Neo’s blue pill or red pill, it seems that all of the students picked the red, choosing to, in the words of Morpheus, “stay in Wonderland, and [see] how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Together, we listened to music, explored the prevalence of religion in the profane, and found the sacred in the mundane. We also curated an Instagram account (“rel_drugs“) that provides a public-facing glimpse of the vast range of topics we covered and connections that students were making. This too showed students’ deep engagement, and deeper reflections, on the content of the course.
We are thankful that students opened themselves up to the range of possibilities that occur when we allow ourselves to play, explore, and learn from one another. The point for us was not to provide the students with just another one of their 4 or 5 or 6 other online courses. Instead, we worked to make sure the students could let down their guard, giving them a chance to think without worrying about assessment or rubrics or due dates or performance expectations. It was a very cool, laidback vibe. Perfect for learning all the way around–we have learned from our students perhaps more than they have learned from us in this class, and for that, we hope we have earned an A, too.
The most important takeaway from this course for me relates to ways of thinking and the benefits that can be drawn from being confused by something. I am a senior business school student and admittedly have not taken a course in Emory College since my sophomore year. While I learned so much about drugs and religion, these are less important in my opinion when compared to the habits and ways of thinking that I re-established while taking this class. On the first day of class, Gary made it clear that it was his full intention to confuse us in every way possible. I found that through the readings and class discussions I was constantly confused, not by the material necessarily, but because the class poked holes in my Midwestern Christian background and made me question a lot of principles that I never questioned growing up. This process that took place throughout the course can be considered my main takeaway because it is a microcosm for how I want to continue to be curious and be a learner throughout the duration of my life. This class and Gary taught me to avoid confirmation bias, seek uncomfortable information, and learn about topics you maybe never thought you would be interested in. This class also taught me to look deeper into my everyday consumption of media such as art and music. That being said, I really enjoyed this class because I think that my main takeaway might last me the rest of my life. Even if I don’t key in heavily on drugs or religion in the future, this class taught me curiosity and comfort within ambiguity and confusion (usually really hard for business students). This class reaffirmed that learning is a lifelong process, not a means to an end.
Growing up Christian means being told that alcohol is the path to damnation, then going to Church every Sunday and seeing all the adults drink wine in honor of our Lord and Savior. I was told that marijuana was the Devil’s Lettuce and the gateway to all other drugs, and I have always wondered why the Devil would create a plant that could be used for medicinal purposes. I enrolled in this course not only because I was curious about these incongruities, but because I wanted to know how other religions interacted with drugs. I ended up learning that the relationship between drugs and religion is diverse, and entirely personal. There are those who believe the only two states are abstinence and addiction, while others see drugs as a tool to bring them to greater spiritual heights. There are those who view drugs as representations of holiness, and there are others who see them as tools of corruption. Even within religions where the status of a drug is agreed upon, there are differences in values. For example, Native Americans who worship peyote are split on whether this holy item should be allowed to be experienced by people outside their religion or if the limited resources should be kept to themselves. Rather than depending on the words of a religious leader or the laws of my church, I believe that it is important for me to develop my own views on how drugs fit within my religion, especially the use of psychedelics for mental and emotional healing (Disclaimer: I am not saying this class encouraged me to do drugs). [GL: Thank God.]
My takeaway from this course is to question the things you have never really questioned. Because I never even thought to question whether there were any similarities between drugs and religions before this course. This course has changed my perspective on drugs and religions in many ways. Before taking this class, I had always thought of drugs and religions as two separate entities. I had this idea that people who use drugs are very different types of people than the ones that practice religions. And I certainly never thought that religion could be viewed as a drug or vice versa.
After taking this course, my views on drugs and religions have been challenged. I have realized that drugs and religions are very similar actually. I have learned that the way some people use drugs can be seen in quite a religious manner. And vice versa, the way some people practice religion is pretty similar to the way drug addicts look at drugs. There are so many similarities that I had never even really thought about.
Some of these similarities really intrigued me, such as how some cultures use tobacco in their ceremonies and praise it quite highly. This has made me wonder what other drugs are used in religious ceremonies around the world that I do not know about. I will probably look into this more and see how drugs fit into other cultures in the near future, because it is pretty interesting to me how they can tie together in these crazy ways.
Thinking back to some of the discussions that we’ve had in this course, I think largely, my perspective on the usability of drugs in current society and stigmatization around them has largely changed. My personal background comes from a very conservative, very strict, Asian household. My parents strongly believe consuming a drop of alcohol will make me go down the wrong path, and I was very much raised with this mindset that drug use was always bad. Exploring multiple viewpoints on different drugs this semester has been really eye opening, the most prominent of so has been the use of psychedelics within religion.
Another important takeaway from this course to me was that there are multiple forms of religion that are not always how I’ve commonly perceived them as: organized, church every Sunday, religion. I think some of my favorite discussions in this class came from the talk about the stages of Alcoholics Anonymous and whether or not it was considered a religion based off of its ‘bible’ and the community that it fostered. AA fosters community in people in need and helps them heal from their addiction—it does a lot better than some religions have done in this world. I think this theme of learning that some things exist to heal, even if they are not common conceptions of what we use to heal is really important. Religion does not have to be what we are told it is in order for communities or people to heal and grow as people from it, and drugs are not always the terrible, bad things that we are told. Function becomes more important than definition, and I think that concept is really important to understand before we ascribe any stigmatization or stereotype in society to drugs.
The main takeaway from this course I’ve had over time is that many of my ideas are wrong. And I think it’s a more important and fundamental statement than I can fully describe, but I hope to convey an understanding that REL 270 has given me new insight into how I perceive information and take it in. When we learned about meth and Dr. Carl Hart, I had always passively understood meth users to have what’s often called “meth mouth.” So it was to my surprise when Dr. Hart wrote that meth has no known associations with tooth decay or mouth hygiene. I also hadn’t fully understood what a “religion” really is, and encountered new ideas like America itself possibly being a religion. Which is interesting to me, when I consider the many similarities it has to Christianity: a Constitution instead of a Bible, soldiers instead of missionaries, and many others. I had always taken these ideas in passively, like a religion was just… a thing people worshipped and believed in. I believed meth users were deranged and unhygienic. But religions can be more than church attendance and meth users can be high-powered lawyers or members of high society. The thing I will take from this class is to challenge my passively learned notions. I’ve always thought drugs and psychedelic use to be slightly fringe science or really on the eccentric aspect of medicine. But attending the Johns Hopkins psilocybin presentation showed me that this new and exciting field of research can actually be highly scientific. Some part of me still finds it amazing that we can link mystical experiences to scientific understandings. In short, this class has taught me to think more deeply and critically about all the things around me, especially in regards to religion and drugs.
Going into this course, I was not very knowledgeable on the overall scope of drug use in the world. As a student, you learn that drugs are bad and that you need to stay away from them. And while that’s the case with a lot of drugs, there are many drugs out there that serve a more deeper purpose than just recreational use. When I saw the title of the course, it boggled my mind how religion could be tied to drugs, and it intrigued me. Going in, I didn’t realize how much drugs played a role in religion and the history of it. I think that now, I realize that religion is heavily influenced by drugs and that drugs are a way for people to seek healing and relief in a way, just as one would with religion. There are many similarities between religion and drugs, and in some cases, the two play off of each other. I especially enjoyed learning about the peyote church. I can’t say that after this class I would be more prone to taking psychedelics, but listening to some of the guest speakers talk about them and how they completely changed their view of the world just fascinated me. It was as if they unlocked some type of mental state or awareness that other people will never experience. After hearing that, it makes sense to me how complex some religions are and the kinds of images provoked by them. Drugs are probably the start to a lot of religions that have developed into what we know today, and that is incredible to me. I think after having taken this class, I have a new understand of the way people can find relief and community in drugs in the same way that people do with religion.
My main takeaway from this course is that phenomena intended to make or alter perception in peoples’ lives are ambiguous, flexible, and constantly evolving in definition. Religion and drugs cannot be defined by bounded terminology as they exist to make meaning for people. Dictionary definitions of drugs fall in the lines of “mind-altering substances”, but we have seen throughout the course that they can stretch far beyond that depending on their use. For example, Terence McKenna discussed how throughout history people used drugs with various methods to achieve states of ecstasy. He argues that ecstasy is not just a state of euphoria, but it is, “tied up with the very nature of ourselves and our reality, our languages, and our imaginings of ourselves.” Our TA Elaine Penagos showed us how tobacco, used in western cultures to produce a feeling of light-headedness, is used as an offering to God in Afro-Cuban religions. Religion is an even more complex phenomenon that is more difficult to define. Greene and Sismondo suggest that society’s trust in pharmaceuticals and the marketed science behind it provide a belief system complete with the necessary 4 c’s Albanese discussed: creeds, codes, cultuses, and communities. Professor Laderman, in his book Sacred Matters, demonstrated how a variety of phenomenon previously thought of as unrelated to religion or belief systems, become “sacred” to people, producing feelings of ecstasy as described by McKenna. Sexuality, for example, and the popularity of pornography, is one such phenomenon. He says, “Some find sacred meanings in the strange pathways to spiritual liberation and mystical encounters emanating from the orgasmic ecstasies of wild, unbridled, and often unromantic sex between consenting adults…” (146). Surely, I have found that religion and drugs are much more prolific and deeply entrenched in mine as well as others lives in “secular” America.
My main takeaway from this course is to not dismiss any claim because it does not initially seem to be feasible. At the start of the semester, I was so interested in taking scared drugs because so many of the topics seemed to me as if they did not fit together. Religion as an addiction seemed almost comical to me, just the idea of it. After attending many class discussions and reading a number of articles, I have come to realize that all of these topics are not what I initially had thought. Religion is a very complex topic that I have come to understand has many other layers that allow it to connect to things such as addiction that you might not initially assume it is able to. This has been another one of my biggest takeaways, the complexity of religion because it helped open my eyes to a world of connections and relationships that I did not realize were there. I did have some previous knowledge and understanding of the direct use of drugs in certain religions, but the direct comparison of religion to addiction was one of the more eye-opening concepts for me that I feel changed my perspective. Overall, I am so happy I took this course because I feel like I have learned even more than what the course directly taught. I now feel that I am able to be a better thinker and that my approach to learning, in general, will be one of even more open-mindedness than I thought that I previously had. Thank you so much for a great semester! [GL: Thank you.]
Like many other students I initially signed up for this course because of the name: Sacred Drugs. Being completely honest, I did not know what to expect going into this course but I am very glad to have taken it. One thing a student hopes for is to be engaged and learn new things from a course; two things which this course surely did. Ever since the second module, I have been seeing the interconnection between Drugs and Religion from varying perspectives. Prior to this course, I had never realized how toxic the Pharmaceutical industry is. From their manipulative marketing tactics to their unjust distribution, pharmaceuticals have taken over our societies. The third module focused on drugs in religious communities–a topic I had no prior knowledge of. Each of the readings contributed to fostering a new, deeper understanding of drugs and religion. This module specifically allowed us to explore topics such as (some of my favorites) the Native American Church and “the great coffee controversy.” Overall, this course has opened my third eye and allowed me to see different every-day, mundane tasks as “drug-like” rituals. For example, the unit on coffee was extremely insightful, and the guest speaker allowed us to stay engaged while also educating us on the background and basics. Ultimately, my largest takeaway from this course is to understand that drugs (as well as religion) is not as black and white as we take it, and there are multiple ongoing research studies that are allowing us to advance as a society; we should recognize and appreciate this.
I entered this class with the intention of filling a general education requirement and getting an easy A. Nothing more and nothing less. I wasn’t interested in the subject, and had very little expectations or hopes. I had signed up only because my friend was taking it, and because it filled a HSC credit requirement. When I showed up to class on the first day I was shocked at how exciting and interesting I had found the course subject. I’m a big science person, and I take pride in lab work and research, and the practice of science as a whole. But, this class kept floating around in the back of my mind, and I found myself every week going, “Well I’ve never thought about like that before…” Suddenly I found elements of religious practices everywhere, and I found myself thinking about addictions in a way I’ve never done before. The class that started out as a credit requirement became the only class I talked about with my family and friends. When Oregon decriminalized drugs in early November I had a huge discussion with my mom about it, and I kept mentioning the ideas discussed in class over and over again. I realized how important it was to be open to new ideas that challenged my past beliefs.
My biggest takeaway from this class doesn’t directly relate to the course content at all. Instead, what I’ve learned is that it’s okay to challenge past ideas. I now have different opinions on the pharmaceutical industry and the action of taking drugs than when I first started the class. Changing and challenging your beliefs doesn’t make you indecisive, it makes you smarter. It makes you a better student and a better person. I came to Emory because I wanted to be challenged, and this class certainly did that.
I think my main takeaway from this course is more of a broad realization of interconnectedness. Many times the readings made connections between two things that I had previously considered to be opposites of the same spectrum, or even, totally unrelated. I think this is an important lesson in that there is always more to the story than you realize. With this in mind, it is easy to see the value of an open mind. As an individual, you will never understand every side to an argument purely because you cannot experience everything – you cannot be perfectly versed in every side of history. With this, you cannot disregard someone’s opinion or experience as wrong simply because it does not make sense within the scope of your limited experience. I had understood this concept prior to taking REL 270, but this course emphasized this phenomenon. I wish this lesson was something that all Americans had the opportunity to revisit as this country remains extraordinarily divided. No one seems to want to listen to the other side to such an extent that simply referring to yourself as a democrat or republican is enough to start a fight. This is not the way to make change. It is impossible to compromise or amend ideology if no one is willing to listen and take in consideration that everyone lives a different life and has a different experience with prejudice, privilege, and countless other factors that influence how we see certain candidates and their policies. With that, I am grateful that this course reminded me of the importance of an open mind.
When I signed up for this class I first did it because I was interested in the title of the course: Sacred Drugs. When I thought about drugs that could be seen as sacred I thought this course would be about drugs like ayahuasca and peyote, I didn’t really think it would be about drugs that are still very prevalent in society. Being a college student, I have been exposed to many types of drugs and have done research on some but I never understood the importance of them outside of partying. In today’s society, people have such a negative connotation of the use of drugs because it is always associated with partying and addiction. We never learn about how drugs can help people cope with mental trauma or disorders. We never hear in the news about the religious experiences that people have. One of the biggest takeaways from this course for me is the realization that drugs are not necessarily bad if used in moderation. I learned that there’s a difference between something that is natural and something man-made. From everything I learned in this course, the thing that will stick with me is that if you do not abuse drugs then there can be a lot of positive effects from it. Whether it is the expansion of creativity or the self-realizations or the search for healing, drugs (specifically psilocybin) can play a role in these. I really enjoyed all the guest lectures, the readings, the videos, and they genuinely made me think about how drugs are used in our society and how they can be used in the future.
The main takeaway from the class is the internal, external, and overall power of both drugs and religion in influencing daily human behavior. Moreover, there is a compelling overlap between the two, both working together or replicating similar behaviors. One conspicuous example is the idea that religion can, itself, be considered a drug. I was surprised to find out that some studies display that there are spiritual experiences that produce the same euphoric effects as some drugs. The same regions of the brain were triggered by certain drugs and spiritual experiences. This explains the replication of similar behaviors that, prior to class, I would have certainly neglected. The other overlap between drugs and religion involves the use of drugs in religious ceremonies and traditions. I found this fascinating because the modern, mainstream western religions tend to stray away from drug use. However, there are many indigenous American religions that use drugs to induce spiritual experiences. Though not mainstream in America, drugs are thought to have some effect in western religions – a concept that I find fascinating. Discussing the impact of drugs in religion was a unique class experience, mainly because drugs are often stigmatized and religion can be polarizing. However, learning about the impacts of both overlapping topics was enlightening to say the least. Also, it was extremely important to learn these topics with an open mind because they wrestle with material that is not often discussed. As a result, I was able to grasp the connection between the two.
Similar to most Americans, I viewed the category of “drugs” as a very rigid and defined body of substances. However, throughout the past three months in this course I’ve learned an immense amount about everyday “drug use” from coffee to pharmaceutical drugs. I would consider the broadening of my knowledge on what is classified as drugs to be the biggest personal takeaway for me throughout the semester. In general, our society vilifies, yet, also glorifies drug use. On the one end of the spectrum, we condemn and imprison people who use or are addicted to traditional drugs, like cocaine, heroin, etc. We write them off as “losers” or call them any other insulting name, throw them in jail, and then expect them to somehow overcome their addiction. However, on the other end, popular culture idolizes music, movies, and celebrities who promote drugs. Popular culture has created an environment in which drug use is considered to be “cool.” With all of that being said, I reckon that the majority of Americans aren’t even aware of other forms of drugs like coffee and chocolate. For example, millions of Americans awake every morning to the burning need to consume coffee in order to start their day. They are blissfully unaware of the fact that they are a slave to their coffee addiction. Without this class, I wouldn’t have made the connection that although mainstream media doesn’t classify things like coffee as a drug, they still are. The term “drug” is an umbrella term that you can use to classify many substances that the average American is addicted to. In general, I have greatly enjoyed my time in this class and have learned so much about religion and drugs which are two topics that I haven’t thought critically about in my life. This class has definitely opened my mind to many different things that I wasn’t knowledgeable about prior to it.
Coming into this course, I was drawn in by nothing more than its name. “Sacred Drugs” seemed intriguing enough and I decided to take it despite having no real experience with religious thought and analysis. But looking back, I realize that this class has been one of the most eye-opening, profound, and unique experiences I have had at Emory so far. I do not think that I have any one main takeaway but what am I taking away with me is the multitude of lessons that I have obtained through my participation in this course. First, I have learned to question many of the ideas that we throw around in colloquial conversation such as religion, drugs, and addiction. But what really are they? This course has taught me to expand their meaning past the most obvious definitions. More broadly, religion is a method through which people define communities, beliefs, and practices. These behaviors give them a sense of safety away from their struggles and allow people to feel connected to a higher, spiritual power. People who actively seek out religion and its benefits do so to attain a sense of belonging and purpose in their lives. By a similar token, psychoactive drugs, or drugs more generally, are substances that can alter the brain chemistry of an individual, impart feelings of euphoria, and create altered states of consciousness. This raises an intriguing question: is religion a drug and can you be addicted to it? And my short answer to that question is yes. With the number of studies that have shown that the parts of the brain that are stimulated in religious and drug experiences are similar, it is reasonable to say that one can develop an addiction for these practices. In fact, historical records corroborate that drugs have been used in conjunction with religion in ritualistic contexts since the beginning of civilization. Many individuals say that drug usage during religious practices heightens their overall experience while also allowing them to let go of their ego. Like religion, drugs are culturally used to induce feelings of purity and transcendence, which gives us reason to believe that drugs’ ingrained influence in human life runs just as deep as religion does. The other takeaway from this course has been facing the stigmas related to religions and drug use. Throughout the last few centuries, there have been numerous stereotypes linked with drug usage. They have been viewed as irresponsible sources of pleasure and have been the target of heavy amounts of scrutiny. These stigmas shape our opinions and worldview, preventing us from evaluating the inherent connection between drugs, religion, and daily life. Overall, I have been taken aback by the analysis and research that is being done in the intersection between religion and drugs. And while there is still much left to do in this field, this course has taught me numerous lessons that I will take with me into my future.
This course was very insightful and I learned a lot! Prior to this course I mainly viewed drugs as being used to escape or transcend reality and my view on what constituted a drug was very limited. Since taking this course I now understand the wide range of drugs and view things such as exercise, religion, and anything done in excess that changes brain chemistry to fall under that category. I also learned a lot about psychedelics and palliative care and the medicinal benefits of drugs. While I knew drugs were used in medicine extensively, it was really interesting to hear people like BJ Miller discuss drugs and their role in his hospice practice. I also never really considered the role and intersection between drugs and religion before this course. It was incredibly interesting and eye opening to learn about the shift in the war on drugs and how churches are starting to implement drugs into their practices such as through the weed churches and other underground churches.
I would say to summarize my main takeaway from this course is that drugs encompass a larger definition than what used to be thought of as drugs (weed, mushrooms, LSD etc.) and that drugs are used in an enormous amount of ways such as for medicinal reasons, alleviating stress, aches, as a means to connect with God, for communal reasons etc. Additionally, there are many parallels between drugs and religion with both being used as a means to transcend reality and experience an out of body feeling that helps people better connect with unmanifested realities.
Throughout this course, we have absorbed and contemplated a wide array of encapsulating thoughts that marry the often distant and contrasting concepts of religion and drugs. We have looked at individuals’ needs for drugs, the cause of serious addictions that drugs can form, historical perspectives of drugs among founding groups, the use of drugs in religious or spiritual ceremonies, and widespread misbelief regarding the use of psychedelics surrounding the American population – among many, many other topics. This class has been a trip.
In terms of a key takeaway however, I find that the all-encompassing belief that one should gather from the teachings of this class is that religion and drugs should no longer be seen as two separate ideas, topics, or even departments. But instead, a lot of information can be gained for all if these concepts are looked at in unison. It is the dichotomy between the perceived “holy” and “evil” that drives these topics to opposing extremes. There is an existing belief that these topics are on opposing ends of the spectrum, but this could not be further from the truth. There is a considerable amount of overlap connecting religion and drugs, and although they each still have their own room to exist on their own, the interconnectedness that twists their histories together can and should not go unnoticed and undiscussed.
As I leave this class, I will never look at drugs nor religion the same way. And with this, I believe I will seek out other perceived dichotomies that exist in our society that, upon looking at from a novel point of view, unleash a world of connected possibilities.
The main takeaway I have come to realize, through my findings in your modules, and solidified through your interview with Joe Rogan (congratulations again; I have been telling everyone I know about the interview across multiple universities in the U.S. and they all appreciate your teachings) has been that the nodes of religion are ever-present in our daily lives and activities. This has come to be seen through the re-creation of the hierarchical model of structured religion in communities such as “Big Pharma” and Alcoholics Anonymous, amongst others, to where we can easily evaluate the presence of religious habits/rituals in Jhene Aiko’s creation of her album Trip. In my writings of older prompts, I have also realized that these further connections are almost effortless to find and discuss, once the breakaway into the religious sphere has already been solidified. The course’s parallel analysis of this presence and its combination with the all-encompassing definition of “drugs” serves to (as you state) confuse the understanding of these terms and their boundaries. Drugs are likewise ever-present in our daily “normal” life such as caffeine, more criminalized drugs such as cocaine or marijuana. Outside of the classroom, I look forward to finding even further interpretations of what is considered drugs or religion.
This course opened my eyes in many ways, and it left me with three main takeaways. The first was that drugs and religion are both so incredibly prevalent in our everyday lives and that they have such key roles. Prior to this course, I did not view religion as being something that was so central to most people’s lives since we live in a very “secular” society. However, this course altered the way I view religion and made me realize that there is so much more that encompasses religion than just its traditional definition. It broadened my view to show me that religion is found in so many things all around us, and whether we realize it or not, it really does play a fundamental role in our lives. Similarly, prior to this course, I also did not view drugs as being important to most people’s lives. However, this course again really opened my eyes to the massive role and presence that drugs have in our society, whether it be through music or in such forms as coffee or pharmaceuticals. Moreover, the second takeaway for me was that drugs are not “bad.” Society really tends to hammer down on the idea that drugs are terrible and something we need to get rid of, but this course helped counter that idea. It revealed that the first use of drugs was for positive, often spiritual, reasons, and that there truly are so many benefits to drugs that are unfortunately overlooked and masked by our society. My final takeaway from this course was that there is a strong and astounding connection between drugs and religion. I would have never seen these two topics as being related or intertwined in any way, but after finishing this course, the connection seems so obvious and clear. There is often a common belief that drugs and religion are contradictory to each other, but through delving into different religions in their current and past states, it is clear that drugs go hand in hand with religion. Overall, this course really enlightened me through taking such common, everyday topics and looking at them with a new and unique lens.
The main takeaway from this course for me is that drugs are so pervasive throughout our daily lives, yet they are still so stigmatized by society’s standards. I found it interesting how Gary introduced the course by saying that “we’re all on drugs” because it is true that even substances that we use often with little detrimental effects such as coffee and alcohol are still technically drugs, and our ritual use of them mimics religious practices. Not only are drugs so inherently tied to daily life, but religion is as well, and these two entities that seem so diametrically opposed to one another are actually intertwined in so many fascinating ways. While some very religious people consider drugs sinful, others depend on drugs for the enhancement of their religious practice. In fact, even those who denounce drugs but consider themselves religious may be surprised to know that their religious practice could be considered a drug, or at least an addiction that mimics dependence on a physical substance. Despite some drugs being so useful for certain religious practices or for treating medical ailments, they are still widely stigmatized because of a lack of information and an instilled fear of anything labeled as a “drug.” I think that if people took the time to understand the context in which some of these drugs are used, it could potentially alter their view of these substances and help them to realize that drugs are not inherently “evil” or even bad. Considering we’re all on drugs, how bad could they really be?
Coming from a conservative background, taboo subjects such as death, sex and drugs were never really discussed in school, let alone the dinner table. Indian society is generally extremely orthodox and hardly encourages the discussion of drugs despite the rich history of drug usage in Hinduism. I think the discussions in class really helped me understand the deep relationship between drugs and religion which doesn’t manifest upon a surface-level inspection. Currently, India’s film industry is being subjected to a witch hunt following the suicide of a prominent actor. Political identities hoping to garner support have tried to blame marijuana usage as the primary cause for the actor’s depression. This was followed by months of public outrage and calls to enforce stricter punishment. I think this course gave me a clearer perspective on the role and impact of marijuana as well as other drugs. The guest lecturers were especially helpful in opening up a healthy discussion about the role of drugs in medical, recreational and religious contexts. I believe that this is the type of distinction that I wouldn’t be able to make without this course. Being a college student, I feel that the concept of drugs is fairly new but the exposure to it is unexpectedly great. I think that drugs are generally categorized as marijuana and “the rest” by students and I think this misinformation greatly leads to the propagation of narrow mindsets which drastically impact the attempts made by doctors and academicians to create a distinction between drugs such as cocaine and other psychedelics/psilocybin. I think the introduction of these topics widened my perspective but will also help me making safer, more responsible choices in the future.
The main takeaway that I’ve gotten from this course has to do with the meaning of the word “religion.” Prior to taking this class, the first thing that would come to mind, when thinking about this term, was the “Big Five” – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This is likely because the majority of people that I have met follow one of these religions, and they’re the main doctrines that I learned about in depth throughout middle school and high school. However, Sacred Drugs has revealed to me that “religion” encompasses much more than organized doctrine.
One article that really stuck out to me in this class was Albanese’s “Introduction,” where she explains that there are two types of religion: extraordinary religion, experiences that help people transcend culture, and ordinary religion, essentially a synonym for culture. Thus, before taking this class, I only considered transcendence of culture to be “religion,” but now, I realize that cultural practices are a form of religion as well. Ordinary religion is just as, if not more prevalent than extraordinary, and it expresses itself in multiple ways, including foods, greetings, and clothing. Nevertheless, most people don’t consider these things to be religious even though they can reflect many things about the society/culture that practices them, such as their values. For example, people use phrases like “I drink coffee religiously,” to emphasize the amount that they consume the beverage, but in reality, drinking coffee is their daily ritual and even transforms into a form of religion for them, regardless of whether or not they consider it “religious.” Other individuals abandon traditional, organized religion and resort to taking psychedelics in order to transcend culture and find a greater meaning to life. Therefore, Professor Laderman’s statement that everybody is religious is true due to the fact that this word has such a broad definition which can be applied to numerous practices, like drinking coffee, taking psychedelics, and even celebrity worship. Thus, Sacred Drugs has changed my perspective on the word religion and the various ways that people can be religious aside from following traditional, organized doctrine.
I took this class to learn and answer lingering questions I had about drug addiction, drug scheduling, drug policy. Instead of leaving with answers, I feel like I am leaving the course with even more questions, which I am thankful for. The main takeaway I have from this course is that drugs and religion are surprisingly intertwined with each other. I honestly would have never made the connection without this class, and am happy to have learned that. I was most intrigued by our discussion surrounding psychedelic use and Buddhism. Our class reading and discussions on Osto’s “Altered States” was fascinating to learn about psychedelic use on a deeper level and in regards to meditation practices in Buddhism, which is one of many examples I take away from this course on how religion and drugs are closely intertwined with one other.
Another big takeaway I got from this course is religion’s and drug’s role in the care of patients. As a current pre-med student, I found the physician guest speakers especially interesting. Specifically, the palliative care physician who shared his thoughts on the dying process and using drugs and religion to aid in that process was absolutely fascinating and has made thinking about the topic of my own personal death (simply the fear of one day not existing) less uncomfortable.
Overall, I’m extremely grateful for taking this class this semester. Unfortunately, next semester’s Death and Dying course occurs at a time that clashes with a required course I need to graduate in the spring. I wish you well, Gary – thank you for taking the time to teach this course, I really appreciate it.
Elaine Penagos is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. Her work examines African heritage and Latinx religious practices, narratives, popular culture, and aesthetics. Her current research explores the power, potential, and theo-sociological implications of reimagining religious worlds in Santería/Lucumí Orisha stories.