The following is the first of a three-part series. The second part can be found here.
In this essay I am going to explore New Religious Movements (NRMs) emergent in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that use entheogens or psychedelic substances as sacrament. This means that the use of mind-altering substances performs an important part in theological views and ritual performances for these groups. While a wide spectrum of theologies exists among these groups, I argue that the best way of conceptualizing them as NRMs is through transnational impulses, inspired by global economic trade.
This does not mean that features of these groups do not derive from various ancient traditions; it only means that insofar as we recognize them as new, colonizing and emergent globalizing factors allow us to see the motivation to form these communities in response to diasporic and economic conditions. It does mean I will have to at times in a point-blank way confront existing generalizations about some groups. This economic analysis requires a combination of theories to provide more than just a materialist critique.
I will further argue that the historical contexts in which such religions arise is often masked by primitivist and perennial rhetorics that ultimately derive from European categories of ‘Religion,’ causing ethical and scholarly problems in studying NRMs. I begin by discussing psychedelic religions more generally and then develop a more focused critique of ayahuasca religions, ending with some remarks about the transnational spread of them.
The first problem with studying psychedelic religions is the concept of newness itself. Many scholars have claimed that the use of psychedelics is historically and biologically linked to roots of human religious experience. This idea develops into an argument between cultural and physical anthropologists. Scholars such as Paul Devereux, in The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia, make compelling arguments for entheogen use in ancient European and English anthropological sites.
David Lewis-Williams controversially interprets spirals in pre-historic rock art as pointing to “shamanic” trance rituals, leading him to suggest through his ethnographies of San people of South Africa that neuropsychological frames paralleling groups may run deeper than shared mythologies. Michael Winkelman sees the early use of psychedelics by “shamans” as catalyzing the higher-order integrative brain processing that distinguishes modern and archaic Homo sapiens.
Neil Price’s Archaeology of Shamanism, for has loads of examples of cave inscriptions and stresses that academic studies of shamanisms cannot ignore the interests of (re)emergent pagan religions. However, the physical evidence is frequently tied to existing practices among indigenous peoples, which risks perpetuating the stereotype that indigenous groups exist in a kind of timeless alternate space unaffected by Western conceptions of modernity. It is ultimately the positions of Indigenous peoples that need to be given priority with respect to legislation around emergent psychedelic religions.
Drug historian David T. Courtwright explains the long connection between consciousness altering substances and world commerce, arguing that drug restrictions are largely a modern phenomenon. In Ceremonial Chemistry: The Ritual Persecution of Drugs, Addicts, and Pushers, originally published in 1974, Thomas Szaz argued: “[o]ur present attitudes toward the whole subject of drugs use, drug abuse, and drug control are nothing but reflections, in the mirror of ‘social reality,’ of our own expectations toward drugs and toward those who use them.”(180) While we can recognize the post-1960s vilification of drugs in Szaz’s words, even in the waning years of War on Drugs these words ring true.
As Michelle Alexander has noted in her recent study of mass incarceration, Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs and the post-civil rights discourse of colorblindness ushered in a politics of respectability where “law and order” rhetoric gave the state an enormously increased ability to jail any petty drug offender. Modern vilification of drugs complicates issues of cultural competence with spiritual uses of plants by associating drug use with racialized and ethnocentric views of users.
Since R. Gordon Wasson’s famous Life Magazine article in the 1950s introduced psychedelic mushrooms to broader U.S. public culture, explorations into entheogens have often constructed trans-cultural and “universalist” conceptions of mind-altering substances and invented words like ‘entheogen’ to avoid the stigma of drug use by associating ingestion of such substances with spiritual seeking. In religious studies, the famous Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, John M. Allegro, disagreed with Wasson about specific aspects of mushrooms influencing Christianity, creating an intellectual feud resulting in active attempts to discredit Allegro’s scholarly status, as J. R. Irvin has explored.
Writers such as James Arthur and John A. Rush continue to situate Mushrooms as central to human civilization itself. Much of this line of thinking derives from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience without accounting for postcolonial perspectives from the late twentieth-century. The result in studying psychedelics of any kind is a large number of intellectuals proposing trans-cultural and “color blind” conceptions of the effects of psychedelic substances with little or naively stereotypical attention to the cultural frames present in set and setting.
Further complicating the issue is the category of ‘religion’ itself. As David Chidester has argued, the category of “religion” and its academic study is conceptually engrained within the process by which Europeans colonized the globe in recent centuries. Emergent Ayahuasca religions in South America prove to be particularly complex in light of the economic and political history at work in their formation.
On the one hand, ayahuasca (hoasca or yage) use is grounded in ancient indigenous Amazonian practices; on the other hand, the religions using ayahuasca that get recognized and protected are largely informed by Christian theology and ideas of sacrament. Beatriz Caiuby Labate, perhaps the foremost writer and anthropologist of emergent ayahuasca religion has written extensively on the difficulties of trying to ascribe any kind of cultural authenticity to ayhuasca religions. As Lisa Maria Madera has traced with respect to Andean Aguarico myth, ayahuasca religion is intimately bound not so much in indigenous “religion” but in the drama of colonization:
through the ayahuasca visions, the Christian story itself is healed and Christ himself redeemed and released from the grip of the brujo diablos, who for a time controlled his house. The narrative power fully rephrases a shattered Christianity. In this gospel according to ayahuasca, the colonial expansion of Christianity is reframed as the aggressive and greedy action of brujo diablos during the time that Nuestra Señor lay dead.
As with early recorded myths in The Huarochiri Manuscript, there is no way to truly parse out autochthonous American indigenous cultures from colonizers. Further, both Peter Gow in his “River People: Shamanism and History in Western Amazonia” (90-114) and Michael Taussig in his Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man have argued that the use and spread of the psychedelic ayahuasca brew, especially in its ritualized uses, is more precisely linked to the drama of colonialism. This difficulty only highlights the ambiguous nature of the rhetoric in which emergent ayahuasca religions claim indigeneity in order to be recognized officially by governing – and for indigenous people ongoing colonizing – powers.
As South American ayahuasca religions continue to expand transnationally, they necessarily interact with regional and international laws and romanticized views of indigenous peoples. Since the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances psychedelics have been restricted in international trade and transport. Efforts to transport substances appeal to liberal valuation of the right to religious worship free from persecution. In the United States since the late 1960s, when psychedelics were being made illegal – first in the state and then federal courts – famous cases such as Timothy Leary’s became examples, creating obscured frames for dealing with the subject.
For example, Leary, whose name came to be synonymous with psychedelics, had been arrested for marijuana possession and rather ridiculously contested that his use of marijuana was an expression of his Hinduism. Beside the fact that the charges were largely trumped up, making Leary’s defense a cartoonish response to a legal system that had no idea what it was dealing with, Leary also appealed to the Native American Church’s use of peyote. The court countered:
Appellant argues that the religious use of peyote, a psychedelic hallucinogen, by Indians who are members of the Native American Church has been constitutionally protected by the Supreme Court of California in People v. Woody, 61 Cal.2d 716, 40 Cal.Rptr. 69, 394 P.2d 813 (1964). He refers also to the California Supreme Court’s decision in In [sic] re Grady, 61 Cal.2d 887, 39 Cal.Rptr. 912, 394 P.2d 728 (1964), decided the same day as Woody, in which conviction of a “self-styled peyote preacher” for unlawful possession of narcotics, namely, peyote, was annulled and a new trial granted in order that the defendant might have an opportunity to prove that his use of peyote was in connection with an honest and bona fide practice of a religious belief. By parity of reasoning he contends that marihuana, another psychedelic drug, is entitled to the same constitutional protection as peyote. With due deference to the California Supreme Court, we are of course not bound by its decisions. However, we note an essential difference between Woody and the instant matter in that peyote in the Woody case played “a central role in the ceremony and practice of the Native American Church, a religious organization of Indians,” and that the “ceremony marked by the sacramental use of peyote, composes the cornerstone of the peyote religion.” Grady was apparently the spiritual leader of a group of individuals and provided peyote for the group which he said was for religious purposes. We are not impressed that the California cases are directly in point, and we will not apply them insofar as the circumstances of this case are concerned.]
There are a number of flaws in this statement (as well as Leary’s defense), perhaps most notably the fact that marijuana is not a psychedelic, especially in comparison with peyote. “Honest and bona fide practice of a religious belief” is also a vague statement. The court’s ruling against Leary based on the argument he made does not follow the Woody case ultimately, but it does clearly privilege ritual use as an authenticating factor.
The Court’s position is that a religion must be a group effort. Leary’s case led other psychedelic enthusiasts to seek religious protection. Art Kleps, who had been an associate of Leary’s, provided Senate testimony for the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1966, as Leary’s case was in the air. Kleps states:
The Food and Drug Administration has seen fit to attempt to establish one psychedelic church as legal, the Native American Church of the Indians, on the grounds of historical longevity, leaving the rest of us open to the kind of punishment visited on Dr. Leary. This is a constitutional outrage, of course, and I would like to submit my full reply to the FDA letter announcing this attempt at the unique establishment of a religion in the United States for the committee’s study.
Kleps was arguing specifically for the recognition of a group of five hundred members to be recognized as a religion, but again the Court did not go for it. He appears correct, however, in calling out the “bona fide” religions were recognized when associated with longstanding traditions. This became essential for the recognition of later groups using psychedelics as sacrament, and again it plays into a larger impulse in discussions around the legitimate use of psychedelics to appeal to prehistorical uses by humans, and even claims like Winkelman’s that psychedelics may be at the archaic root of human religious experience.
During the mid-twentieth century in Brazil, Ayahuasca churches such as UDV and Santo Daime developed hybrid versions of Christianity and indigenous practices in the Amazon. Marcelo Mercante cites P. Naranjo’s 1986 article, “El Ayahuasca en la Arqueologia Ecuatoriana” in America Indigena, claiming physical evidence for indigenous use of ayahuasca dates back “4000 years.”(2) Claims about longevity of use vary, but since their emergence in 1930s, hybrid (Christian, West African, and Indigenous American) ayahuasca religions have spread rapidly all over the world. In North America, for example, the UDV church won an important Supreme court case in 2006, allowing them to use their psychedelic ayahuasca sacrament ceremonially. This time, the rationale was indeed based on the allowance for North American Natives to use Peyote.
In writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts affirmed:
For the past 35 years, there has been a regulatory exemption for use of peyote a Schedule I substance by the Native American Church …In 1994, Congress extended that exemption to all members of every recognized Indian Tribe… Everything the Government says about the DMT in hoasca that, as a Schedule I substance, Congress has determined that it ‘has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use, and has a lack of accepted safety for use … under medical supervision,’ … applies in equal measure to the mescaline in peyote, yet both the Executive and Congress itself have decreed an exception from the Controlled Substances Act for Native American religious use of peyote.
When psychedelic enthusiasts in the United States of the late 1960s attempted to claim the sacramental use of LSD, the Court denied them, saying that natives had special status because they had practiced the use of peyote, essentially claiming that indigenous peoples had used it since time immemorial. Even though the Native American Church was not an autochthonous institution, but rather set up as a “syncretic” religious movement in the wake of colonial devastation, the United States Supreme Court saw the authenticity of the UDV church within a legacy of indigenous practices that was really only present in the post-Columbian Euro-American imaginary.
The UDV’s continued use of ayahuasca was legally exceptional partly because of the controversial 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but also because Native Americans have long been legally defined as existing in a “state of nature.” This political and legal fiction, as Steven T. Newcomb has argued in Pagans in the Promised Land, also operates in the European “Doctrine of Discovery” and its inclusion in United States law through Justice Marshall’s 1823 Supreme Court decision, Johnson v. M’Intosh, in which Native Americans were only given the right of occupancy, not title, to lands they inhabited. The same Doctrine of Discovery was used to rationalize the colonization of what is now South America.
In terms of New Religious Movements, two flawed yet prevailing themes of perennialism and primitivism are at work in both legal and popular conceptions surrounding psychedelic and ayahuasca religions. They are also rooted in conceptions of ritual practice. To take another example of a 1960s court case, Art Kleps’s “Original Kleptonian Neo-American Church” illustrates these tendencies in legal decisions. Curiously, in 1966 when Senator Burdick asked Art Kleps if members of his church indulged in psychedelic substances “every time there is a Church meeting,” Kleps responded:
No. The Church actually is more in the tradition of the mystery religions of ancient Greece. The key experience is not the weekly meeting as it is in the Christian tradition. The key experience is the big transcendental experience that comes to you maybe once or twice in a lifetime. But we center around this. The meetings are secondary. Now at the meetings perhaps a very tiny amount of LSD, 5 or 10 micrograms, will be distributed, just to increase the feeling of communion, to produce some of the effects. Or marijuana may be smoked for that matter. None of this is laid down in our regulations. It is up to the individuals.
Even though Kleps cites ancient religious practices, the Senate Committee ultimately did not recognize the psychedelic religion as authentic or bona fide. Something more “timeless” and “other” is at work in the construction. While the Court decisions that recognize indigeneity in ayahuasca religions but not ancient traditions among psychedelic religious groups overtly emphasize the timeless otherness of such practices, they have little to say about their theologically Christian dispositions.
It is telling that Kleps dissociates from Christianity and from notions of an established ritual sacrament, while churches like UDV hold the sacramental ceremony and entheogen within it as central to the religion itself. This, however, speaks to a regulatory issue when importing ayahuasca in the United States. Although the U.S. recognizes the UDV church, the FDA demands uniformity in brewing recipes and does not allow church members to take any of the sacrament home, which is acceptable in Brazil.
Here indeed, the UDV church sacrifices practices in order to comply to state regulations, and that obviously transforms the religion. All the while, both the official and naïve public perception is that they are practicing something perennially indigenous, authentic and ancient. This perpetuates essentialist ideas of indigenous people as existing outside of history.
One way to resist the essentializing tendency toward perennialism is to focus on the economic and historical situations that give rise to New Religious Movements. It is necessary, however, to qualify this perspective in relation to that of sociologist, Rodney Stark. In Stark’s view, which is based on Rational Choice Theory, religions are seen as products marketed toward consumers by religious entrepreneurs. A strong religion, for him, offers a good product: eternal life.
In an updating of Pascal’s Wager, Stark casts religion as a great super-natural compensator. Along with William Bainbridge, Stark defines religions “as social enterprises whose primary purpose is to create, maintain, and exchange supernaturally based general compensators.”(60)] Adherents follow the rules of a particular religion in exchange for rewards in heaven. While a strong critique of Stark might claim that people rarely make such calculated rational decisions about faith (or anything else!), Stark takes his economic model further. In One True God, for example,
Stark begins with the cost-benefit approach to religion but ends with an interesting take on the formation of American “Civic Religion” while illuminating aspects of Adam Smith’s liberal economic take on the Reformation. He concludes:
Nowhere does religious apathy and alienation prevail so widely, and nowhere is there a greater potential for religious conflict, than in societies where one religious body attempts to maintain a monopoly. The key to high levels of religious commitment and religious civility, is not fewer religions, but more.
We might characterize Stark as the neoliberal view of religions: expansion in plurality serves to maintain healthy competition, no one gets too powerful and everyone is happy. For Stark, not only more religions but more Gods will help destroy the negative effects of monotheism, yet behind this is also a quasi-Protestant invisible hand. I read this as wishful thinking, and when it comes to ayahuasca religions, I view it as culturally incompetent. This is because in their definition of religion, Stark and Bainbridge “exclude magic, which deals only in quite specific compensators on the grand scale of Heaven or of religion.”(60)
Instead of religions, Stark and Bainbridge might qualify ayahuasca religions non-pejoratively as ‘cults,’ which they define as
social enterprises primarily engaged in the production and exchange novel and exotic compensators. Thus not all cults are religions. Some cults offer only magic, for example psychic healing of specific diseases, and do not offer such general compensators as eternal life. Magical cults frequently evolve toward more general compensators and become full-fledged religions.
Privileging Emile Durkheim in their citations for these definitions, Stark and Bainbridge remain unaware in their analysis of the influences of Protestant Christianity on the concept of religion as it is taken up in emergent religious studies discourse. This is exacerbated even more so in Stark and Bainbridge’s undeveloped conception of “shamanism.” They draw on a 1967 article by Julian Silverman titled “Shamans and Acute Schizophrenia,” lumping use of “hallucinogenic drugs” in with psychopathological models of religious visions.
They cite Silverman’s developmental model which codes an “evolutionary” process from shaman-to-religion that is brought about by “social crisis,” referencing Weston La Barre’s claim that “every religion without exception originated as a ‘crisis cult’” and his even more unsavory claim that “the shaman is an immature man who desperately needs compensation for his inadequacies, including sexual incapacity, and in finding magical compensations for himself, he generates compensators for use by more normal persons as well.”
The presentation of such statements after a generation scholarship critiquing essentialist views of ‘shamans’ and the widespread inaccurate application of ‘shamanism’ as a culturally specific, Siberian Tungus concept that has more to do with the cultural imaginaries of Euro-Christians and wildness than any indigenous American practices is preposterous. While scholars such as Alice B. Kehoe have been strong critics of contemporary “neo-shamanism,” with its uncritical assumption that somehow by looking at contemporary indigenous groups modern liberals have instant access to the paleolithic period, which presents an important lens for understanding emergent ayahuasca religions,
Stark and Bainbridge’s very outdated use of the term ‘shaman’ and its foundational element in their entrepreneurial model is terribly fraught with cultural delusion. As they claim, “In shamanism, the neurotic producer of compensators and the suffering normal consumer come together in an exchange beneficial to both, participating in the exchange of compensators for tangible rewards that is the basis of all cults.”(63) In this “neutral” social view where it is apparently obvious what constitutes normal and abnormal, people somehow come together in beneficially mutual exchange and apparently no one ever gets screwed.
Roger K. Green is a lecturer in the English department at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he teaches literature, rhetoric, and songwriting. He has studied at the School of Criticism & Theory, and his dissertation on political theology and psychedelic aesthetics explored transatlantic influence of Aldous Huxley, Antonin Artaud, and Herbert Marcuse in literature. He is a former guitarist of the rock band, The Czars (John Grant, Bella Union, UK) and continues to perform and produce music. He is currently completing coursework for a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver.