Friday, January 3, 2014

Is it a question of mushrooms?




I need to make something clear.

I certainly do not mean to argue against the existence of God nor to berate anyone's religious beliefs.  This article originally appeared in The Atlantic and as such I believe it to be firmly within the free marketplace of ideas.  It warrants discussion. That is all.

There is a theory known as "the entheogen theory."  "Entheogen" means "that which causes God to be within an individual."  Ethnobotanists first came up with this theory, proposing that early documented cases of religious experiences might have been due to the consumption of psychoactive or hallucinogenic plants.  After all, we see drug use of many kinds in spiritual and mythological texts, such as in the Hindu Vedas and the "drug of forgetfulness" in The Odyssey.

The article goes on to detail research in Mexico with Amanita muscaria, a rare mushroom that is legendary for its hallucinogenic properties.  Shamans of the indigenous peoples there would consume Amanita muscaria in order to grow closer to their gods.  This mushroom plays a pivotal role in the rather controversial book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross by John Marco Allegro.  As the article states:

"He [Allegro] further suggested that the existence of the mushroom was secretly encoded in the use of particular Sumerian word roots.
This secret encoding of the mushroom fertility cult down through the ages eventually led to the development of the concept of Jesus to encapsulate the identity of Amanita muscaria around the time of the sacking of the second temple by the Romans. Thus, according to Allegro, Jesus never actually existed. He purported to demonstrate, using philological analysis of the structure of the ancient Sumerian language, that the name Jesus actually meant something along the lines of "semen" and that Christ meant something like "giant erect mushroom penis." According to Allegro, the Bible (and the New Testament in particular) is really just a series of myths that describe the secrets of the Amanita muscaria fertility cult rather than real people."

Let's step back for a moment, shall we?

First, let us put aside the question of whether or not God exists.  If indeed hallucinations are the cause of prominent moments in religion, that does not preclude the existence of God.  These are almost two separate issues.

Second, I am not interested...at least for the purposes of discussion in this realm...in the question of whether or not religion is "bad" or its delitescent negative effects.  The Crusades, 9/11 attacks, Westboro Baptist Church...those deal more with issues of dogma and not spirituality nor altered states of consciousness.

At first blush, I'd have to say that Allegro's claim is shaky at best.  It seems a long way to stretch and from what I can tell it has little documented evidence.  Sure, I know that's a fine allegation coming from somebody who often writes about UFOs, but I'd like to think that I apply the same standards of argument and evidence for every matter I examine. As such, I'd be more ready to accept religion as a form of political and economic control than I would be for "it's all a big 'whoops' based on a mushroom."

More to the point, I find it to be a gross oversimplification of human spirituality.  Hallucinogenic plants or no, I still believe that people would be seeking a sort of value in their lives or at least a code of conduct.  This need, to my way of thinking, was present long before we ingested said plants.  It is inherent in all of us.  We choose to exercise it through Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, or whatever form we see as best even if it is no particular form at all (I've heard people say that their "god is music" for example and I think that's just as admirable.)

Were critical moments in religious history due to mind-altering drugs?  Perhaps a few were.  St. Paul might indeed have "been on something" on that road to Damascus and St. John might have been "under the influence" when he had his Revelations.  Maybe.  But even if so, that in no way can negate the whole of human spirituality no matter what faith is in question.  That, again, I would find to be an ignorant oversimplification.

I wonder how many religious visions will be coming out of Colorado this year?


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