Did Psychedelics Contribute to the Origins of Religion?

For individuals of faith this may seem to be a strange, bizarre and sacrilegious question. However, in a previous article entitled The Spiritual Brain, I pointed out that spirituality in humans is genetically hardwired into a specific part of the brain, is pleasurable, is critical to the evolution and survival of man, and will never go away. Spirituality can be defined as a feeling of being connected to something greater than oneself Your Highest Truth. Throughout history, individuals who have especially high levels of spirituality have been the originators of a number of different religions. Where did this superior level of spirituality come from?

A range of psychedelics – LSD, DMT (dimethyl-tryptamine) , psilocybin, mescaline, and muscimol, produce strong feelings of spirituality. The last three of these are present in plants that are common throughout the world. These include various mushrooms, cacti, and other plants. Because of their property of enhancing spirituality the compounds have been referred to as etheogens, meaning, “God generated within.” The study of the role of mushrooms and other plants in religion is called ethnomycology.

The following are several examples of the role of plant-based etheogens in various religions and spiritual ceremonies. Gordon Wasson is the father of ethnomycology. In 1955 he and a photographer went to Oaxaca, Mexico where he interviewed Maria Sabina, a local shaman who used psilocybin from local mushrooms in her veladas or spiritual sessions. The mushrooms used were called teonanacatl meaning “God’s flesh” or “sacred mushroom.” Wasson’s experience was published in Life magazine in 1957. This set off a wave of hippies trekking to Mexico in pursuit of a mushroom high which unintentionally contributed to the psychedelic revolution. The evidence for the sacramental use of these mushrooms dates back to Pre- Columbian times in the Americas. In other parts of the world, cave paintings in Algeria indicate the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms dated even earlier from 9,000 to 6,000 BCE.

In Brazil, local plants contain DMT and other compounds which are made into a brew called ayahuasca (EYE-a-was-ca). Three different church groups are allowed to legally use ayahuasca as their sacraments.

Another plant, Peyote, is a small round cactus found in North America. Its active component is mescaline which when ingested produces sensory alternations and exhilaration. Its use among the Aztecs dates back 400 hundred years. In the last century over 50 different Indian tribes were using peyote in sacramental ceremonies. A religious organization called the North American Church blended Indian rituals, Peyote ceremonies and Christian theology.

While the above psychedelics played a role primarily in religions of the native Indians of North and South America, Amanita muscaria a mushroom with a beautiful red cap, may have played a role in major Eastern and Western religions. One of Gordon Wasson’s most famous books was entitled Soma, the Devine Mushroom of Immortality. The psychedelic in this mushroom is muscimol. Wasson proposed that Amanita muscaria served as a spiritual lubricant from the earliest beginnings of civilization. When Aryans swept into the Indus Valley 3,500 years ago they brought with them the origins of Hinduism, the Vedas, a collection of religious verses, and magical religious ceremonies based on the cult of Soma, a hallucinogenic brew. The plants used to make Soma remained a mystery for centuries. Wasson examined the verses of Veda that dated to 4,000 BCE, during the time that Soma was used. Based on an analysis of 1,000 holy hymns he concluded the plant used was Amanita muscaria. John Allegro, a scholar of ancient Biblical texts and languages, wrote a book entitled The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. He suggested that Amanita muscaria also played a role in the spiritual beginnings of Judaism and Christianity.

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