Wednesday, July 24, 2013

entheogenic esotericism


academia | That entheogens might have a legitimate place in religion at all is controversial among scholars, but for reasons that have less to do with factual evidence than with certain ingrained prejudices rooted in Western intellectual culture. Firstly, on the crypto-Protestant assumption that “religion” implies an attitude in which human beings are dependent on the divine initiative to receive grace or salvation, the use of entheogens is bound to suggest a “magical” and therefore not “truly religious” attitude in which human beings themselves dare to take the initiative and claim to have the key of access to divinity. Such a distinction (in which the former option is coded positively and the latter negatively) makes intuitive sense to us because modern intellectual culture since the Enlightenment has internalized specific Protestant assumptions to an extent where they appear wholly natural and obvious: in Cliford Geertz’s famous formulation, the dominant symbolic system clothes them with such an “aura of factuality” that the “moods and motivations” connected to them seem “uniquely realistic”.6

These assumptions are, however, culture-specific and highly problematic. The underlying opposition of “religion” versus “magic”(along with “science”) as reified universals has been thoroughly deconstructed,in recent decades, as artificial and ethnocentric to the core: it depends on normative modernist ideologies and implicit hegemonic claims of Western superiority that are rooted in heresiological, missionary and colonialist mentalities but cannot claim universal or even scholarly validity. Ultimately based upon the theological battle against “paganism”, the “magic versus religion” assumption, including its “manfipulative” versus “receptive” connotations, is a distorting mirror that fails to account for the complexity of beliefs and practices on both sides of the conceptual divide.7

A second cause of controversy has to do with certain idealist frameworks or assumptions that seem so natural to Western scholars that they are seldom reflected upon. Religion is generally supposed to be about spiritual realities,not material ones, and therefore the claim that modifying brain activity by chemical means might be a religious pursuit seems counterintuitive. It comes across as a purely technical and quasi-materialist trick that cheats practitioners into believing they are having a “genuine” religious experience. However, such objections are extremely problematic. First, they wrongly assume that there are scholarly procedures for distinguishing genuine from fake religion. Second, they ignore the fact that any activity associated with mind or spiritis inseparable from neurological activity and brain chemistry. In our experience as human beings we know of no such thing as “pure” spiritual activity (or, for that matter, any other mental activity) unconnected with the body and the brain: if it did exist, we would be incapable of experiencing its effects. 8

Since all forms of experience, including “experiences deemed religious”, are bodily phenomena by defnition, it is arbitrary to exclude entheogenic religion merely because of the particular method it uses to influence the brain. A final cause of controversy is, of course, the well-known rhetoric employed in the “war on drugs” since the end of the 1960s. Here the polemical use of reified universal categories is once again decisive: rather than carefully differentiating between the enormous variety of psychoactive substances and their effects, the monolithic category of “drugs” suggests that all of them are dangerous and addictive. Although the medical and pharmacological evidence does not support this assumption, politics and the media have been singularly successful in promoting the reified category; and as a result, the notion that entheogens might have a normal and legitimate function in some religious contexts is bound to sound bizarre to the general public. Scholars who insist on differentiating between different kinds of “drugs”, pointing out that some of them are harmless and might even be beneficial 10 therefore fnd themselves ina defensive position by default: it is always easy for critics to suggest that their scholarly arguments are just a front for some personal agenda of pro-psyche-delic apologetics.

The bottom line is that, for all these reasons, the very notion of entheogenic religion as a category in scholarly research finds itself at a strategic disadvantage from the outset. It is simply very difficult for us to look at the relevant religious beliefs and practices from a neutral and non-judgemental point of view, for in the very act of being observed – that is, even prior to any conscious attempt on our part to apply any theoretical perspective – they already appear to us pre-categorized in the terms of our own cultural conditioning.

Almost inevitably, they are perceived as pertaining to a negative “waste-basket category” of otherness associated with a strange assortment of “magical”, “pagan”,“superstitious” or “irrational” beliefs; and as such, they are automatically seen as diferent from “genuine” or “serious” forms of religion. The “drugs” category further causes them to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further. In this chapter an attempt will nevertheless be made to treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention. A first reason for doing so is strictly empirical: if it is true that entheogenic esotericism happens to exist as a signifcant development in post-World War II religion and in contemporary society, then it is simply our business as scholars to investigate it. A second reason is more theoretical in nature: both the “esoteric” and the “entheogenic” dimension of this topic challenges some of our most deeply ingrained assumptions about religion and rationality, and studying their combination may therefore be particularly helpful in making us aware of our blind spots as intellectuals and scholars.