The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Drugs, Hugh Asher,

The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Drugs

Hugh Asher


The concept that beneficial religious or spiritual development can result from the consumption of mind-altering substances is not readily accepted in contemporary ‘Western Society’ either on a secular or a religious level. Unlike many ‘Eastern’ religions such as Buddhism, traditional Judaeo-Christian theologies lack both the concept of, and the terminology to describe, identity with or oneness with God or the universe. Emphasis is placed on religious and spiritual development through the study of religious texts and adherence to what they contain. Zaehner (1961) suggests that since the Reformation, religion has become more identified with an ethical code and something to believe in rather than something to be experienced. Epiphanies and revelations such as those reported by users of ‘entheogenic’ substances such as Psilocybin, Mescaline, Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), are viewed with suspicion and rarely given value. Aldous Huxley suggested that there was no place in the current (Western) world view for valid transcendental experience and that “to be a mystic or visionary is no longer credible” (Huxley 1994 p.108). Watts (1968) suggested that Western culture has a particular fascination with the value and virtue of humankind as a self determining species, controlling the world
through the conscious effort and will, and that :

Nothing then could be more repugnant to this cultural tradition than the notion of spiritual or psychological growth through the use of drugs.” (Watts 1968, p. 132)

The word “entheogen” was first coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists and academics including Carl A. P. Ruck, Richard Evans Schultes, Jonathan Ott and R. Gordon Wasson. They proposed it as a new term that would be appropriate for describing states of shamanic and ecstatic possession induced by the ingestion of mind-altering drugs. In Greek, the word entheos means literally “god (theos) within,” and was used to describe the condition that followed when a person was inspired and possessed by the feeling that god had entered their body. It was applied to prophetic seizures, erotic passion and artistic creation, as well as to those religious rites in which mystical states were experienced through the ingestion of substances that were transubstantial with the deity, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries described in this paper (Ruck et al, 1979). In combination with the Greek root gen-, which denotes the action of “becoming,” this word resulted in them devising the term ‘entheogen’.

Although the literal meaning of the word is “that which causes God to be within an individual”, it should be noted that the word ‘entheogen’ is not meant to imply that something is created; they aid the user in perceiving something that is already there. As Leary, Metzner and Alpert note “the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as the chemical key – it opens the mind and frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures … its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions and of the ego or identity.”
(Leary, Metzner and Alpert 1992 p. 11)

Or as Baudelaire observed : “drugs can add nothing new to a man, but can only raise to a higher
power what is already within him” (Baudelaire (1954) cited Zaehner 1961 p. 3).

The term was devised to describe a variety of substances that had previously been referred to as “hallucinogens” (a term popularised by Aldous Huxley), “psychedelics” (a term first used by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond) or ‘psychotomimetics’ that were being used as religious sacraments.
Although in the last fifty years, substances such as LSD and psilocybin have been used recreationally, particularly in the Western world, in both historical and contemporary times, many such naturally occuring substances have also been used as adjuncts to spiritual discovery and development. Ruck et al (1979) felt that the term ‘hallucinogen’ was inappropriate in describing their effects due to its etymological relationship to words relating to delirium and insanity. The term “psychedelic” was also seen as problematic, due to the similarity in sound to words pertaining to psychosis and also due to the fact that it had become so invested with connotations of the pop-culture of the 1960s that it was incongruous to speak of a shaman as taking a “psychedelic” drug (Ruck et al, 1979). Thus the term “entheogen” was developed and was formally defined by Ruck et al., who suggested that “in a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.” (Ruck et al, 1979 p. 145)