Are Psychotropic Drugs at the Root of Religion? December 29, 2013

Are Psychotropic Drugs at the Root of Religion?

Nepenthe, which may have been the “drug of forgetfulness” in The Odyssey.

In an excerpt from his book Drugs: The Science and Culture of Psychotropic Drugs at The Atlantic, Richard J. Miller examines the claim that intense religious experience, and religion itself, can be traced back to the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs, or, “entheogenic” drugs.

It’s hard to deny that there is a strong connection between religion and these substances, with, as Miller notes, countless references to particular drugs in various religious texts (from “soma” in Hindu scripture to “the drug of forgetfulness” in The Odyssey), and considering the “spiritual” impact psychotropics have been shown to have. Take this bit of research by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert cited by Miller:

On Good Friday 1962, two groups of students received either psilocybin or niacin (a nonhallucinogenic “control” substance) on a double-blind basis prior to the service in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. Following the service nearly the entire group receiving psilocybin reported having had a profound religious experience, compared to just a few in the control group. This result was therefore judged to have supported the entheogenic potential of hallucinogenic drug use. Interestingly, the experiment has subsequently been repeated under somewhat different and arguably better controlled circumstances and the results were substantially the same.

So is that it? Religion is all based on a big drug trip? A think that’s probably a little too easy. Miller writes:

It may be easy for some to accept the idea that entheogenic substances played a role in the genesis of religion. However, when we move from generalities to specifics we are on less firm ground.

Certainly, particular substances induce brain states that seem “mystical” or “spiritual,” as well as being very intense. But similar states can also be achieved through non-medicinal means, as through meditation. And it seems to me that these are generally amplifiers of beliefs and feelings that already exist. Religion is far more than a state consciousness; it’s a social and cultural phenomenon, and even a set of claims about morality and ethics, and about nature and the universe. Drugs simply can’t take credit for all of that.

But it’s still enlightening to consider how certain substances may have exacerbated and have seemed to confirm existing beliefs and biases throughout the history of religion.

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  • Glasofruix

    Of course they are. How else would you see a talking bush in flames in the middle of the desert without some shrooms?

  • Maybe because they used Harmal a lot in the middle east for centuries. It’s claimed to cure everything from urinary tract infections to baldness. But really it’s mostly shown to make you feel kinda good and buzzed.

    Imagine this scenerio:

    Some goat herder doped up on harmal climbs a mountain after some of his flock wanders off. Here he sees one of the oily plants that will burst into flames at the slightest spark (Dictamnus if you’re wondering) and suddenly he has this vision about how people should dress, what kind of foods they should eat, and a whole lot of other things that sounds good at the time because, hey, he’s really high, man!

  • more compost

    I was in some class in college, maybe a philosophy class, and the professor said that during religious experiences the same part of the brain was active as during the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs. I thought, Well Duh!

  • mobathome

    How did the studies control for pre-existing religious background?

    Also, assuming all of the students used as subjects were Christian, did all who reported having had a “profound religious experiences” describe it as a Christian profound religious experience?

    Were there students from both groups (psilocybin and niacin) who attended different kinds of events, such as a science lecture? If not, I would say there was no control group or the question wasn’t whether hallucinogens induce religious experiences. Likely the question really answered was whether ingesting hallucinogens increases susceptibility to religious experiences induced by religious ceremonies.

  • Malcolm McLean

    Some budding rock stars took cannabis, then recorded a jam session. They had the impression that they were musical geniuses, improvising great melodies and profound lyrics. They they played it back after they had come down. Predictably, it wasn’t publishable.
    Drugs give illusions, because they stimulate or shut down areas of the brain. But the brain is designed to respond to real signals from objects in the outside world. You can’t make it better by adding crude chemical agents, unless you really know what you’re doing. Some psychoactive drugs of abuse do have legitimate medical uses, but only if you genuinely know your clinical neuroscience, which normally means holding a medical qualification.Otherwise, you’re just damaging the system, and you can;t draw any conclusions from its behaviour when damaged.
    Some religions are influenced by drugs, however. Not all religions are the same, not all religious claims are of equal value.

  • Willard

    I don’t necessarily disagree that drugs and alcohol could play a part; however, in sociology classes, it was suggested that schizophrenia plays a part. There are different levels of schizophrenia and the people that had milder forms became shaman whereas the less social acceptable behaviors became outcasts or prisoners.

  • Lou Jost

    The plant in the picture, genus Nepenthes, was named after the drug of the Odyssey because of its carnivorous pitcher-shaped leaves filled with liquid. It was not the source of the drug, since it is an Asian and Madagascaran plant unknown to the Greeks, and I don’t think it has hallucinogenic properties.

  • Cris Bessette

    I can only speak for my own experiences as a person that used to be a pentecostal type (who in adulthood became a hippy type)
    Any feelings or “supernatural” experiences I associated with religion as a youngster I completely reproduced or surpassed through experimentation with various psychedelics.

    My experiences lead me to believe the mind is the root of religious experience, no outside help from supernatural beings necessary.

    The human body creates substances that can act as psychedelic or mind-altering drugs. Everything a person needs to experience “otherness” is built in. Drugs and religion just makes it easier to get to.

  • you beat me to it. it seems… rather obvious that people who take drugs before a religious service will have a religion-flavored trip. just like when you take sensation-enhancing drugs at a dance/hookup club and are more likely to have sex or be physically intimate with someone. (for the record i’ve done both, heh)

    still, i can totally see drugs playing a significant role in the development of ritual and religion. early proto-humans have been shown to have had what are likely religious ceremonies. they decorated corpses and drew paintings of mythological creatures on cave walls and all that. but who came up with the idea to do those things in the first place?

    given that early humans probably had to experiment in a fairly high risk situation with plant life (is this edible? is this medicinally useful? etc), it’s not hard to believe that the first human to eat peyote or whatever decided that the visions that resulted had to be of supernatural origin.

  • Dude, the word you want is psychedelic, not psychotropic.

  • Richard Thomas

    Those two descriptors are by no means mutually exclusive.

  • Robster

    It’s that red wine they slurp down on Sundays, with the crackers. It must be strong stuff, like 18% or something.

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