How ancient religion got you high

How ancient religion got you high

By Candida Moss

A few years back, a small group of self-designated nuns in California known as the Sisters of the Valley were embroiled in a legal battle over their right to grow, bless, and distribute marijuana. It’s a peculiar case, the roots of which lie in an error in the newly introduced California Medical Marijuana Safety and Regulation Act. The discrepancy was cleared up but the case drew attention to the Sisters of the Valley and their unusual vocation: to turn stoner culture into healing culture.

Many people, including the founder of the order, would question whether or not the Sisters of the Valley are actual nuns (the founder, Sister Kate, decided to assume the status of nun when in 2011 Congress decided that two tablespoons of tomato paste qualified as a vegetable. She felt that if pizza was a vegetable she could be a nun). But irrespective of their official status, the Sisters of the Valley aren’t the first group to blend religion and narcotics.

There are veiled references to drugs in the religious literature of a number of ancient societies. In Homer’s Odyssey the protagonist Helen, the daughter of Zeus, casts the antidepressant drug nepenthe into wine in order to quiet the drinker’s “pain and strife.” According to Homer, the drug originally came from Egypt, and Helen obtained it from the wife of an Egyptian nobleman.

Although the prohibitions are not Biblical, most branches of Judaism and Christianity disapprove of drugs other than alcohol.  But, in 1967, a Polish anthropologist claimed that the plant kaneh bosm, mentioned five times in the Hebrew Bible and used as an ingredient in anointing oil in Exodus, was actually cannabis.


Then there are groups for which drug use is an integral part of religious practice and ritual. Most famous of these are the Rastafarians, who smoke ganja as an aid to meditation and religious observance. They cite Biblical passages like Genesis 1:29, in which God gives humanity every herb bearing seed to humanity, as proof that God intends them to use cannabis. By contrast, Rastafarians see alcohol and other drugs as destructive.

References to mind-altering substances in religious and mythological texts have led some to formulate the theory that religion in general, and certain religions in particular, are the byproduct of a chemically induced hallucinogenic experience. This theory—known as the “entheogenic theory of religion”—postulates that visionary experiences or supernatural encounters are the result of deliberate or accidental exposure to hallucinogens.

In their book Inside the Neolithic Mind, archaeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce argued that Neolithic rock art and religion was shaped by hallucinogens. Others have claimed that the prophesies delivered by the famous Delphic Oracle were the result of vapors that were emitted naturally from the ground.

The most famous of these theories is that of John Allegro, who argued in his 1970 The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross that Christianity was based on a fertility-driven mushroom-taking cult and that Jesus himself was actually the mushroom. Allegro claimed that Jesus himself never existed but was a code for the secret Amanita Muscaria (mushroom), which had been worshipped for thousands of years. The New Testament was a folkloric literary device to spread the coded rites of mushroom worship. Allegro’s book was described by some as the “psychedelic ravings of a hippie cultist.”

What most of these theories hold in common are the assumptions that (1) these religious sources are telling the truth; (2) visionary experiences are intense experiences strikingly different from ordinary dreams or imaginative journeys; and (3) supernatural experiences do not exist. But if any of these assumptions are displaced, then there’s no real reason to assume that religious visionaries are doped up.


What is clear is that there are at least some groups—like Rastafarians—for whom ritual drug use is an important part of religious praxis. This raises important legal issues about religious freedom. The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act was introduced in order to allow Native Americans to use peyote in their religious rituals.

Since the RFRA was passed a number of groups have sued the government to allow them to use drugs. Among them was Jonathan Goldman of Ashland, Oregon, whose syncretic Brazilian Christian church, UDV, uses ayahuasca (a hallucinogenic tea) as a form of communion. His case climbed all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Court decided that the federal government had not demonstrated that it had a compelling interest in banning the “sincere religious practice.”

When it comes to the battle between religious freedom and government objection to drugs, religious interest wins and religious communities continue to incorporate hallucinogens into their rituals. The war on Christianity trumped the war on drugs. Karl Marx famously wrote that religion is the opiate of the masses.


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