Are Psychotropic Drugs at the Root of Religion?

Nepenthe, which may have been the “drug of forgetfulness” in The Odyssey.

In an excerpt from his book Drugs: The Science and Culture of Psychotropic Drugs at The Atlantic, Richard J. Miller examines the claim that intense religious experience, and religion itself, can be traced back to the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs, or, “entheogenic” drugs.

It’s hard to deny that there is a strong connection between religion and these substances, with, as Miller notes, countless references to particular drugs in various religious texts (from “soma” in Hindu scripture to “the drug of forgetfulness” in The Odyssey), and considering the “spiritual” impact psychotropics have been shown to have. Take this bit of research by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert cited by Miller:

On Good Friday 1962, two groups of students received either psilocybin or niacin (a nonhallucinogenic “control” substance) on a double-blind basis prior to the service in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. Following the service nearly the entire group receiving psilocybin reported having had a profound religious experience, compared to just a few in the control group. This result was therefore judged to have supported the entheogenic potential of hallucinogenic drug use. Interestingly, the experiment has subsequently been repeated under somewhat different and arguably better controlled circumstances and the results were substantially the same.

So is that it? Religion is all based on a big drug trip? A think that’s probably a little too easy. Miller writes:

It may be easy for some to accept the idea that entheogenic substances played a role in the genesis of religion. However, when we move from generalities to specifics we are on less firm ground.

Certainly, particular substances induce brain states that seem “mystical” or “spiritual,” as well as being very intense. But similar states can also be achieved through non-medicinal means, as through meditation. And it seems to me that these are generally amplifiers of beliefs and feelings that already exist. Religion is far more than a state consciousness; it’s a social and cultural phenomenon, and even a set of claims about morality and ethics, and about nature and the universe. Drugs simply can’t take credit for all of that.

But it’s still enlightening to consider how certain substances may have exacerbated and have seemed to confirm existing beliefs and biases throughout the history of religion.

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.