The notion that hallucinogenic drugs played a significant part in the development of religion has been extensively discussed, particularly since the middle of the twentieth century.
As reported in today’s The Atlantic, “Various ideas of this type have been collected into what has become known as the entheogen theory. The word entheogen is a neologism coined
in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists (those that study the relationship between people and plants). The literal meaning of entheogen is “that which causes God to be within an individual” and might be considered as a more accurate and academic term for popular terms such as hallucinogen or psychedelic drug. By the term entheogen we understand the use of psychoactive substances for religious or spiritual reasons rather than for purely recreational purposes.
“Perhaps one of the first things to consider is whether there is any direct evidence for the entheogenic theory of religion which derives from contemporary science. One famous example that has been widely discussed is the Marsh Chapel experiment. This experiment was run by the Harvard Psilocybin Project in the early 1960s, a research project spearheaded by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Leary had traveled to Mexico in 1960, where he had been introduced to the effects of hallucinogenic psilocybin-containing mushrooms and was anxious to explore the implications of the drug for psychological research.
“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.
“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. There has been a great deal of speculation concerning the actual identity of drugs used for religious purposes in the ancient world. For example, what is the true identity of the drug soma used by the gods in the ancient Hindu Vedas? Or the identity of nepenthe, the “drug of forgetfulness” mentioned in The Odyssey? Although it is impossible to answer such questions in a definitive scientific sense, one can speculate about the various possibilities.
“For example, consider the work of R. Gordon Wasson and the story of Amanita muscaria, the “fly agaric”—certainly the world’s most famous mushroom. Wasson made several journeys to Mexico to research the Mazatec people and write about the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in their ancient rituals, but his experiences there led him to tackle a different subject—the identity of the drug soma.
“To understand the significance of soma one must consider some of the oldest religious texts known to man. These are the ancient Vedas, Sanskrit texts that represent the oldest Hindu scriptures. The most ancient of these texts—the Rigveda, a collection of over a thousand hymns—was compiled in northern India around 1500 BC. A parallel but slightly later development in ancient Persia was the composition of the religious texts of Zoroastrianism, the Avesta.
“In both the Rigveda and the Avesta there is frequent mention of soma (or haoma in the Avesta). In these episodes soma is described as a plant from which a drink or potion could be produced that was consumed by the gods, giving them fantastic powers which aided them in their supernatural feats. People who understood the identity of the plant soma could use it to empower themselves and to communicate more effectively with the deities.”