I realize that is a doozy of a proposition to consider which might be shocking to some, offensive to others, and right on the money to a few, hopefully. But bear with me, as this is not a peer-reviewed academic journal article, but a brief, boisterous, and brainstorming blog post that is half fun and half serious and utterly devoid of academic pretense.
First, let’s start with some history and anthropology. The overlap between certain drugs and religious life is indisputable. On the one hand, the discovery and use of psychoactive drugs are key ingredients in human evolution, the “fourth drive” after hunger, thirst, and sex, according to psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegal in his book, Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances. Deep rooted connections between these earliest trippy experiences and the emergence of religious rituals and imaginings are likely, though obviously not absolutely certain. But likely.
On the other hand, the pervasive use of certain drugs, or sacred psychoactive plants, across cultures around the globe associated with religious purposes is certainly obvious and constant (and I do tend to stay away from the neologism entheogen
). Peyote in the southwestern US and Mexico; ayahuasca in South America; soma in India; iboga in Africa; mushrooms in Siberia. The list goes on and on. In these examples, drugs can induce religious visions, bond communities together, shore up identities, reveal the real workings of the cosmos, heal individuals and societies, and so on. Their consumption and effects are integrally and intimately tied to religious life.
So that’s the easy part. What’s not so easy to see, at first, is the same kind of interconnections today, here and now in our drug-loving modern cultures, beyond the obvious sites of sacred consumption, like peyote in the Native American Church, or wine in the Catholic Church, or cannabis in Rastafarian communities. Drugs are one thing, I can hear you thinking, but religion is something else entirely. Apples and oranges. Oil and water. Marxist metaphorical nonsense! Religion is not opium, for God’s sake.
Ok, it’s a stretch, I admit. But what is “religion” anyway? The long answer is too long for this blog post. For brevity’s sake, let me state right off the bat what is increasingly clear—being religious is more, or less, than going to church and believing in God. Also, I want to play with my highly influential graduate school teacher, Catherine Albanese’s distinction between ordinary religion and extraordinary religion. The punchline? I think drugs are key to both in contemporary societies.
For Albanese, ordinary religion seamlessly exists with the larger culture, and establishes certain taken-for-granted norms, values, and ways of living that promise order, stability, and sustainability in everyday life. This form of religion is not loud, visible, or recognizable, but subtle, unconscious, and determinative. One example might relate to farming in premodern cultures, where growing foodstuff is both part of ordinary, necessary existence, and sacred as it shapes notions of time, self, community, etc., without any formal institutional structure. That is religious work, in my book.
Now, let’s look at ordinary religion and some ordinary, legal, ubiquitous psychoactive substances in our world: tobacco and chocolate. Let’s also start with history, and a quick reference to a brilliant book by historian Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World, which expertly and subtly explores how consumption of these two substances shifted from an utterly religious context before contact in Amerindian societies in the New World, to a seemingly secular context of commodification and consumption (“profane pleasures”) in Old World Europe soon after contact.