This unit was created as a means of understanding, expanding, and evaluating the ways in which scholars approach the interconnections of drugs and religion. The connections between drugs and religion have deep historical roots in human history, and can be found across a wide spectrum of human cultures. The most famous connection is perhaps the Indo-Aryan hymns to “soma” of the Rg Veda (c.1500–700 BCE), which has fascinated and confounded scholars for more than a century. Antiquity is rich in psychedelic ceremonialism, from the ritual use of the San Pedro cactus within the Chavín civilization (900–200 BCE) in the Peruvian highlands, to the theurgical practices of Roman Egypt and the spiked viticulture of Greco-Roman society. This imbrication continues to the present day, as represented by the Native American Church’s sacramental uses of peyote, and the use of cannabis in Rastafarianism, for example. While the religious use of drugs is widespread and complicated, it is definitely not simply a thing of the past, nor are they only found in non-Western cultural settings.
This proposed program unit will unpack the overdetermined category of “drugs” by surveying the global entanglement of substances and religion. Informed by an interdisciplinary approach, our conversation will address the obvious, and not so obvious religious values and purposes invested into caffeine and chocolate, birth-control pills and vitamin supplements, wine and tobacco, among psychedelic drugs. Moreover, looking beyond the use of drugs, this program unit will consider religious prohibitions against drug-use, and religious responses to addiction from a global perspective. The unit aims to expand the study of religion by including theoretical and conceptual perspectives, as well as other disciplines, that open news paths for the value-neutral research into drugs and religion.