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High on Something Greater

Drugs and Religious Freedom

The role of drugs in certain religious traditions cannot be overstated as a necessary part of ritual practice, yet certain American laws prevent the legality of specific psychedelic drugs in such religious traditions. Drugs such as caffeine and alcohol are largely present in American religious traditions, whereas drugs such as LSD, marijuana, and peyote are strictly forbidden from legal use in religious rites or recreation. Drugs in America, specifically marijuana and LSD, played a significant role in the 1960s counterculture and spiritualist movement. The case of Employment Division v Smith was also a starting point for a series of debates on the legality of peyote in Native American religious practice. The implications from this case brought upon a series of discussions about the nature of religious experience, the distinction between divine law and governmental law, and the justification for governmental restrictions on religious practices.

It is important in the discussion of the role of drugs in religious experience to first discuss the role of religion in societal context. In Robert Fuller’s Stairways to Heaven, Fuller explains that religions in America have two primary tasks. “To survive in America’s free-market religious system, each and every one of these religious groups must be successful at performing two essential tasks: providing both potential and current members with some form of religious experience and fostering a sense of communal belonging. It is also important for each group to execute these tasks in a distinctive way.” (Fuller, p.91) In this quote from the book, Fuller believes that it is the duty of religious organizations to provide experiences with some form of divinity and create community in a way that is different from other religions. One could argue Fuller by saying that not all religious groups attempt to create a sense of community or create divine experience, but these criteria for religions are directly applicable to the nature of drugs in religious tradition. William James, an amateur philosopher of the late 19th century who was known for his spiritual encounters with nitrous oxide, believed that experience with the divine is the core for all religion. James explained that the only authentic religious experiences are those that provide convictions "that the Visible World is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance and that union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end” (Fuller, p.55).  This is to say, in addition to Fuller’s tasks for religion, that religious experience is fundamental to the category of religion. Such religious experiences, however are not easily reached without a great deal of discipline and devotion. The solution for a number of religious traditions is to speed up the process of experience with the divine through use of drugs.

Mircea Eliade, best known for his 1956 classic, The Sacred and the Profane, indirectly brings an interesting viewpoint to the discussion of drugs in religious tradition. The sacred, typically regarded as all things religious in nature, and the profane, all things secular or impure, are somewhat difficult categories to distinguish when it comes to drugs, particularly in terms of American legality. Use of illegal drugs such as peyote or marijuana for recreational purposes would typically be classified as profane due to the secular laws put in place to prevent their use. Thus, would it not also be immoral to use these drugs for religious purposes? If drugs are used for religious enlightenment, they would be sacred in nature, yet the common opinion of the general public for such drugs reflects a question of morality. Other drugs, such as caffeine in coffee and tea, as well as alcohol, are also used commonly in certain religious traditions, and yet the public opinion of the sacred and profane for these drugs are much more widely debated. For a person to drink a cup of coffee in order to get more work accomplished, one would not likely deem that person to be performing a profane act, though caffeine is a mind-altering drug. On the other hand, for a person to come home from a long day at work and drink a beer, one would not call that person immoral either. Despite the fact that neither of these acts are likely seen as profane by the common person, the alcohol would likely receive greater resistance in a religious community, if for no other reason than that it is associated to be a mind-altering substance. All of the substances above (caffeine, alcohol, peyote, marijuana) are used in religious ritual in some American tradition or another, and yet there is a stigma for some of these substances to be unethical.

Morality, as it pertains to drugs in religious context, is also very difficult to distinguish. Ethics of Dope, as Timothy Miller describes morality for drugs, is that “the sharing of ecstasy-producing substances facilitated bonding to a community organized around distinct notions of spiritual authenticity and moral integrity” (Fuller, p.162).  Miller believes that the use of ecstasy-producing substances is ethical in religious settings if they enhance community. Many Christian groups meet after services or Bible study for what is known as a “coffee hour.” This is their way of bonding as a community with similar ideals, while simultaneously basing that community on the use of an ecstasy-producing substance: coffee. Similarly, wine is made present at a great number of Jewish holidays and special occasions as a means of celebration. In this way, the substance is used not only to create a sense of solidarity in the religious community, as is described as one of Fuller’s primary tasks for religions, but also to reinforce the moral identity of the group. Coffee and wine, as examples for ethical use of drugs in religion, are only half of the conversation of ethics, as these drugs are legal for recreational use. The use of peyote, marijuana, and LSD in religious traditions poses another ethical issue entirely. The religious groups that use them often claim that they are a sacramental tool to achieve a wider visualization of the divine experience. How can this possibly be unethical?

This question is largely posed due to political influence. The laws made by the United States Government to prevent uses of these drugs are justified as a way of protecting the people, though, at least in the case of marijuana and peyote, there is little evidence to suggest serious physical or mental risks to using such drugs for recreational purposes. As an example, the Marijuana Tax of 1937 was a federal tax put into place to hinder the use of marijuana in recreational and religious settings. Due to the illegal nature of these substances, they become somewhat of a taboo and thus are deemed profane and unethical for use, even if that use is to create an established community of spiritually enlightened individuals.

Nature religion is a religious ideology that is described as proposing a means of worship through interaction with nature. Nature religion suggests that the human consciousness is part of a greater whole of consciousness, and that all things are in cohesion with God at all times. This also means that God is immanent, or closely tied to the natural world. (Fuller, p.13) Thus, the clearest way to achieve closeness with God is to be in nature and have a oneness with God’s natural presence. This ideology is an interesting side of religious use of ecstasy-producing substances. The ritual use of these substances comes from a need to be “higher” in order to reach God’s level of divinity. However, if God is immanent, then there is no need to get “high” because God can be accessed through nature. Conversely, one could argue that the followers of natural religion have justification for religious use of natural substances, such as peyote, marijuana or mushrooms. Since they are a part of nature, it is possible that the closeness to God that natural religion claims as a core principle is experienced through the use of these natural substances.

Accounts from individuals with experiences in drug use, regardless of the intensity of the substance, reveal that there are a series of similarities in most drug experiences. Most of these experiences include feelings of subjective richness, enhanced sense of interiority, and the sensation that “the ‘inner life’ of immediate experience seems intensified and more vibrant” (Fuller, p.159). Subjective richness, in this case, means that certain things stand out differently than one would normally perceive, creating a fantasy-like state of innocence. The enhanced sense of interiority that is felt is a process in which the duality between self/non-self and self/world begins to fade, leaving the user with a series of philosophical thoughts that one often believes to be entirely original and thought-provoking. The sensation that immediate experience is intensified is to say that the ordinary world becomes extraordinary. An example of this sensation could be something as simple as seeing colors more vibrantly or finding pleasure in something that one would normally find displeasing. These accounts of drug experiences provide insight into the manner in which they relate to religion. These accounts did not specifically mention religious experiences because the experience largely depends on the mindset of the individual, the setting of the experience, and the type and amount of drugs taken.

Drugs such as marijuana and mushrooms were popular in the 1960’s for religious use, but none was more prevalent in the countercultural movement than lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD. In 1938, a scientist named Albert Hofmann synthesized the twenty-fifth substance in a series of lysergic acid derivatives in an attempt to create a drug that would be valuable to childbirthing. Upon animal testing the product known as LSD-25, he found the animal subjects to behave abnormally. The drug was scrapped and forgotten for five years, until Hofmann decided to synthesize a new batch of LSD-25 in 1943. Thinking he was becoming ill, he left the labs early to get rest, later to find that the drug had accidentally gotten into his system through skin contact. He later reported having strange imaginings of kaleidoscopic colors and disorientation. Once the drug became publicly recognized in scientific journals and the like, people became very intrigued by the metaphysical experiences that were claimed to have occurred. In 1961, Jane Dunlap, a popular author of nutrition and health books, wrote Exploring Inner Space: Personal Experiences Under LSD-25 as her own attempt at a professional review of the drug. After taking 110 micrograms of LSD, she stated that “for a few short but unforgettable hours LSD gives one the love of God, the forgiveness of Christ, the humility of St. Francis, the intellect of Einstein, and the compassion of Allah” (Fuller, p.65).  Aldous Huxley, known for his classic Brave New World, was also a major contributor to the LSD movement. Claims such as this of metaphysical experience with the divine was a major contributor to the popular use of LSD in the 1960’s counterculture.

Though the counterculture of the 1960s was largely a political outcry of America’s youth, there was also a large spiritual factor. The Hippie Movement was a spiritual growth among youth that occurred within the counterculture as a driving force. Religion in the Hippie Movement was known to take non-traditional forms. Timothy Miller once quoted that “the hippies tended to take unusual (by traditional American standards) approaches to religion, often emphasizing Eastern spiritual teachings, and they were often syncretistic, pursuing a sort of religiosity that combined elements ranging from Hindu mysticism to Neo-paganism to Ouija boards. It’s a fair guess that most hippies would not have been very welcome in most churches; for their part, the hippies were not interested in getting active in any conventional religious body” (Fuller, p.82).  The manner in which the hippies explored religion showed a pursuit of spiritual knowledge based on popular fascination for orientalism and mysticism. The pursuit of this religious knowledge was not particularly well-received among Christian communities, leaving the hippies to be self-legitimating. Thus, it is understandable that the majority of hippies found an interest in psychedelic drugs due to the claims of mystically divine experiences in combination with the social taboo that comes with the use of illegal substances.

Robert Ellwood, a renowned historian and philosopher, described the four themes of the spiritualist reorientation within the Hippie Movement. The first theme was a shift from mainline to nonconformist religion, particularly those mentioned above that pertain to Oriental or metaphysical thought. One could easily argue that a large number of the hippie population became interested in these nonconformist religious traditions out of spite for their Christian upbringing. The second theme was a rediscovery of natural rather than revealed religion, such as the nature religion that was previously mentioned. This suggests a certain spiritual closeness to nature, thus the reason that the Hippie Movement is often strongly associated with environmentalism. There is also an interesting point to be made in this theme about the place of LSD in the spiritual reorientation. Since LSD is a manmade substance, and therefore cannot be found in nature, one could argue that the use of this drug is not justified as a means for connecting to God, and yet a large portion of the hippie community was actively consuming LSD in search of spiritual enlightenment. The third theme was a new appreciation for Eastern religious thought, that is to say Buddhism and Hinduism, because of their deeply philosophical conceptions of the self and universal balance. The fourth theme was “a new Romanticism that accords spiritual importance to certain non-rational modes of thought and perception” (Fuller, p.85).  This theme suggests a highly optimistic and romanticized view of the world that can be perceived through mind-altering substances. The spiritual reorientation within the Hippie Movement was a foundational point of the counterculture in that it was rooted in rhetoric of peace and love during a time of war and conflict in Vietnam.

In Robert Fuller’s assessment of the Hippie Movement in relation to drug-based philosophical ideas, he firmly stood by the notion that drugs were not solely responsible for the spiritual reorientation. Rather, Fuller states that the vast majority of new philosophical constructs of the sixties and early seventies were produced without the use of such substances, and those that did use them were not necessarily compelled to change their respective ideologies. “But the use of psychedelics, in conjunction with exposure to the philosophical themes of the era’s youth culture, provided tens--maybe hundreds--of thousands of Americans with an experiential template for arriving at a new spiritual outlook that might be characterized by such words as pluralism, postmodernism, and religious eclecticism” (Fuller, p.78).  This is to say that the experiences that occurred under the influence of psychedelics were largely based on the mindset of the individual and that person’s exposure to philosophical themes of the time, and not necessarily due to the drugs themselves. This is an important distinction to make. If the use of psychedelics substances always resulted in religious experiences, despite the individual’s mindset, it would be very hard to argue the supernatural qualities of the drug as a connection to some divine entity. However, since the experience varies based on the individual, there is no way for a person to empirically prove the religious nature of the substance.

Another significant factor in the use of drugs in 1960s counterculture was the direct challenge to authority. The movement was known for their opposition to the constricting hand of the United States Government, particularly when it came to freedoms based on race, religion, or sexual preference. The need to escape religious norms, specifically through avenues like Buddhism, metaphysics or mysticism, stems from a deeper fear that one is a meaningless cog in a grander system. Anti-government rhetoric, including words like “conditioning” or “brainwashing,” was often used to describe the hippies’ fears of somehow becoming part of the system. Ecstasy-producing substances were believed by some to be a “deconditioning agent” that allow one to see a wider scope of reality and escape the American system entirely (Fuller, p.78).  Marlene Dobkin de Rios, a religious historian who is known for her fascination with psychedelics, has discerned that “one of the most common themes of drug use across world cultures is their implicit and explicit challenge to authority. By prompting individuals to feel that a true, experientially based authority can be found within, drugs make institutional authorities--secular and religious--appear irrelevant” (Fuller, p.79).  In this assessment, Dobkin de Rios has brought up a crucial elements of the use of drugs in counterculture. Since they have the ability to prompt religious experience, the individual has an internal source of authority that would otherwise leave the institutional religion as a spiritual authority and the government as a legal authority. In this way, the individual has no internal reason to follow the law or adhere to strict religious ritual standards. To a certain degree, one could argue that this belief is a justification for the use of illegal substances or illicit actions against the government.

As an ecstasy-producing substance, wine has made its way into a number of religious traditions. In Jewish communities, wine is an integral part of celebrations throughout a person’s religious journey. Wine is made present at weddings, social gatherings, and rites of passage. In Catholic traditions, as well as several Protestant Christian traditions, wine is used for sacramental purposes. In this ritual, the wine is consumed, albeit a very minimal amount, in order to associate deep thoughts about the death of Christ, and therefore create a deepened sense of religious experience. Despite the morbid attributes of this practice, it is thought to be a joyful act. It is also important to mention that the Catholic church does not recognize this practice to be partaking of alcohol. Rather, they believe that the priest blesses the cup beforehand and it becomes the actual blood of Christ through a process known as transubstantiation. Other religious organizations, such as certain Protestant groups or the Church of Latter-Day Saints, firmly believe that alcohol is the work of Satan, and therefore should not be consumed. The Mormon community finds that the consumption of any drug, alcohol or caffeine, is an offense to God, and thus the LDS Church is strictly abstinent. Ideas such as these are often contested by justifications from the Bible. An example might be that Jesus turned the water into wine for the enjoyment of the people. In Genesis 9:20, after Noah had disembarked from the ark, God asked him to make a vineyard and be drunk (Fuller, p.93). Thus, it is not uncommon for religious organizations that use wine to claim that God encourages the drinking of wine for the purpose of social jollification of his people.

The use of caffeine is also commonly used for religious purposes. Since the effects of caffeine brighten the user’s perception of their surroundings, one could say that it is an ecstasy-producing substance. Coffee and tea are very commonly used in religious practice and for community building outside of the ritual practices. It is not uncommon for certain temples of Buddhist monastics to drink a highly caffeinated tea in order to stay awake for long hours of meditation, thus achieving a higher state of spiritual attainment. Italian priests were said to have requested Pope Clement VIII to condemn coffee as the beverage of heretics due to its thick, black appearance. He asked first to taste the beverage for himself and in doing so stated that “this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall cheat Satan by baptizing it” (Fuller, p.131).  And thus, coffee became prevalent in spiritual organizations across Europe. Coffeehouses are also extremely relevant to the religious use of caffeine. Coffeehouses were known to be common meeting places for youth in the 1960’s counterculture and are regularly used today for building religious communities after ritual practices. In this way, the individuals partaking in the substance, though not as drastically affected by the substance as those taking LSD, they achieve a state of happiness that builds their sense of community.

The American Indian population have a rich history of religious experiences through the use of ecstasy-producing substances, though it is important to specify that American Indian tribes often have no affiliation with one another, in religious or ideological manners. The most common substance used over a great many tribes across America is tobacco. Since tobacco grows naturally in America, it is understandable that the American Indian population should find it as a religious substance of nature. In pre-colonial America, tobacco was widely used by American Indian tribes as a seal of oath-making and as a tool for addressing the guardian spirit. Weston La Barre, an American anthropologist with a focus in Native American culture, once quoted that tobacco “alters the psychic state, however feebly, was enough for the American Indians to believe it had supernatural power and to use it in sacred contexts” (Fuller, p.35).  In this quote, La Barre makes clear that the Native American fascination with tobacco for religious use stemmed from an interest in the altered state that it provided, leaving a question of why the Native Americans, or anyone, has such a fascination. Weston La Barre claims that the answer to this question is, as he calls it, the Narcotic Complex.

The American Indian “Narcotic Complex” is a fascination with mind-altering drugs among American Indian populations, as well as the fascination that European anthropologists held for the American Indian’s ritual use of such substances. “The striking discrepancy between the Old and New Worlds in the numbers of known psychotropic plants must rest on ethnographic rather than botanical grounds...It should be noted that ecstatic-visionary shamanism is, so to speak, culturally programmed for an interest in hallucinogens and other psychotropic drugs” (Fuller, p.26).  The rhetoric used in this quote provides an interesting conversation about La Barre’s thoughts of the American Indian religious traditions. In stating that the shaman religion of Native Americans is narcotically charged, La Barre is not only stereotyping the population as a whole, but also assuming that the use of ecstasy-producing substances was essential for the shamanistic practice. While such substances were common for religious ritual, they were only used as sources of spiritual widening, rather than a necessary tool for the religious construct of all Native Americans. This “Narcotic Complex” is, however, an helpful explanation for the common religious use of drugs in certain Native American religious rites. La Barre makes a point to note that the lesser European use of drugs, as compared to American Indian rituals, is not due to the plants that grow nearby (though that is certainly a relevant factor), but rather the cultural reliance on such substances.

Peyote is a substance most known for its use among American Indian religious communities, specifically those tribes in the American Southwest. The reason for peyote use, as Barbara Myerhoff, an American anthropologist, once said, is that the Huichol people believed that peyote “evokes the timeless, private, purposeless, aesthetic dimension of the spiritual life, mediating between former and present realities and providing a sense of being one people, despite dramatic changes in their recent history” (Fuller, p.40).  The spread of peyote across American tribes can be largely attributed to the Ghost Dance Religion. By the year 1890, competing tribes were systematically forced together onto small reservations. In doing so, the formerly competing tribes banded together to create a movement to oppose white oppression. As a result, religious ideals spread from one tribe to another, including the use of peyote in religious ritual. It should be noted that peyotism, as a religious practice, was somewhat opposed to the Ghost Dance religion. While Ghost Dance religion aimed to tear down white culture, peyotism aimed to build up Native American culture into a unified community.

In the time late twentieth century, before the case of Employment Division v. Smith, twenty-eight states had legislation stating that Native American religious use of peyote was exempt from drug enforcement codes. Researchers showed that the ritual use of peyote among American Indian reservations was a tool for the increase of religious observance and discouraging of alcoholism. Therefore, a large number of these states had no issue with allowing the ritual use of peyote since it did not directly affect white culture. Others felt that the use of peyote was an abomination, claiming that the use of peyote is not conducive to American Indian assimilation into white culture. One of the other main arguments against peyotism was that the drugs was not safe for mental or physical health, though there is little to no evidence to support this argument. As a defense against the critics of peyotism, several groups, such as the Union Church and the Firstborn Church of Christ, attempted to make their rituals into an institutionalized church in order to escape persecution, to no such avail. In 1918, the Native American Church, later called the Native American Church of North America, was founded as a successful attempt to protect peyotism in religious ritual. In 1964, almost 200,000 members of the Native American Church were given legal exemption by the Supreme Court to use peyote. This would change during the ruling of Employment Division v. Smith.

The case of Oregon Employment Division v. Smith was based on two Native American men, employed as drug rehabilitation counselors at a private rehabilitation center, were found to have used peyote in religious rituals. Both men signed contracts that specifically prohibited the use of illegal substances, and were thereafter fired for breaking the contract. Since, in Oregon, the possession of peyote is a felony, the employees were denied unemployment compensation on the grounds of work-related misconduct. The employees appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court on the basis of a previous Supreme Court case, Sherbert v. Verner. This case held major influence in the United States Supreme Court’s rulings on religious freedom and free exercise. The case established that there must be a compelling government interest to justify placing an excessive burden on religious practice, as well as the concept of “strict scrutiny.” This concept states that the law in question must be necessary for ensuring government interest but in the least restrictive way possible. Both of the points made by this case, while substantial in the protection of free-exercise of religion, pose problems for those religious freedoms as well. The most obvious problem with the ruling of Sherbert is that it is the court’s place to decide what is an excessive burden and what is necessary to protect government interests. In an entirely hypothetical and unethical court system, they could easily justify any denied free-exercise ruling on the grounds that they were protecting government interests. While this is unlikely, the system is nonetheless biased against religious organizations.

The courts ruled in favor of Smith, stating that no government interest was sufficient to deny the religious use of peyote in Native American practice. In 1990, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the unemployment agency on the grounds that the state prohibition of the religious use of peyote was permissible under the free exercise clause. The chief Justice wrote that the law applied to the entire state and was therefore not directly preventing religious practice of a particular group. After much opposition from the general public, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993. This act “specifically prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government can demonstrate that the burden (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” (Hamilton) This act sought to reestablish the ruling of Sherbert v. Verner on a national scale in order to protect religious freedoms, such as those involving the use of peyote among Native American religions.

Though the RFRA reestablished religious freedoms for the ritual use of peyote, in 1997, the Supreme Court overturned significant portions of the RFRA, preventing illegitimate religious organizations from legal drug exemptions. Though a large population of Native American groups were still protected under the RFRA, the ruling stated that the exemptions do not apply to groups deemed illegitimate religious organizations, such as The Peyote Way Church of God. Debates over the ethics and legality for such religious practices are common to date. One of the key arguments against substance uses in religion is that they cannot be justified as legitimate religious purposes for the use of illegal substances. In a number of failed marijuana court cases, the “courts have, in fact, ruled that the desire to heighten awareness or to enable oneself to ‘have new dimensions opened’ does not constitute a legitimate religious purpose sufficient to invoke the free exercise clause.” (Fuller, 181) In other words, the government did not deem the religious use of marijuana, or other illegal substances, as substantial enough to be protected in the free exercise clause. However, legal substances, such as sacramental wine, are used regularly for religious purposes without question of their legitimacy in religious purpose.

Works Cited

Barsh, Russel Lawrence. “The Supreme Court, Peyote, and Minority Religions: Zero Tolerance.”

Wicazo Sa Review 7.2 (1991): 49–52. Web. http://www.jstor.org.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/stable/ pdf/1409062.pdf

Fuller, Robert C. Stairways to Heaven: Drugs in American Religious History. Boulder, CO:

Westview, 2000. Print.

Hamilton, Marci A. "Employment Division V. Smith At The Supreme Court: The Justices, The

Litigants, And The Doctrinal Discourse." Cardozo Law Review 32.5 (2011): 1671-1699.

Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.http://web.a.ebscohost.com.prox.lib. ncsu.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=782b70fd-411d-43ba-b3a3-596621a33e4b%40sessionmgr4004&vid=1&hid=4001 

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