There is an inconvenient truth which countless politicians and religious leaders have tried time and time again to either ignore or deny; all human societies throughout history have had an appetite for intoxicants. Our attraction towards mind-altering substances is not a rare act of weakness, but rather an integral part of our nature.
In his book, Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances, psycho-pharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel calls this strong urge the “fourth drive”.
It seems that once basic survival is assured, humans start to seek out answers to an eclectic array of questions. The unknown becomes prey which must be pursued, stalked, and conquered. Humans, therefore, become the hunters and gatherers of knowledge. But instead of the African savanna, this new pursuit begins within the arena of the human mind. The ultimate goal is to transcend everyday existence and grow beyond an instinctual understanding of reality. It is this hunger for transcendence which might be the strongest catalyst for the fourth drive.
But could early humans begin this cerebral exploration on their own? Or did they need the help of intoxicants?
BEER BEFORE BREAD
Many experts are beginning to suspect that the first crops were cultivated for the purpose of making beer, not bread. Professor Patrick McGovern (Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archeology Laboratory at the Penn Museum) has lent credence to this theory by identifying ancient jugs (dating back to 9,000 BCE) that contain traces of beer residue, also known as “beer stone”. (1)
Additionally, some scholars have discovered evidence that the Natufian culture possessed beer-brewing tools and that its consumption was a regular part of life for that society. What’s noteworthy about this example is that the Natufians are thought to have existed before the introduction of agriculture (13,000 to 9,800 BCE). (2)
Professor and author Jeffrey Kahn asserts that evolution has instilled in us a herd mentality which can be difficult to break. Ironically, it is only when we begin to repel these instincts that our most creative and artistic moments are realized.
However, the bonds between our psyche and these ancient herd impulses are quite strong. Kahn has argued that when we attempt to break these bonds there are unfortunate side effects which manifest themselves in the form of anxieties and depression. (3)
This would be extremely difficult to overcome if we were the only ones in our tribe experiencing these ailments. This is where alcohol and other intoxicating substances came into the picture and helped to ease the exchange of new ideas between individuals.(4)
Whether it was intentional or not, the Neolithic Revolution introduced a culture of unprecedented personal awareness which loosened the noose of herd-oriented goals and sparked a transition towards individual ambitions. Unfortunately, this shift also allowed for more stratified societies to develop which enabled narcissistic and sociopathic personalities to gain power over larger groups of people than ever before. This distressing dichotomy seems to encapsulate the odd nature of the human race in a nutshell.
THE UPSIDE: Intoxicating substances helped us to collectively discard mindless obedience to the herd by producing new insights and socially novel conversations regarding creativity, art, and science.
THE DOWNSIDE: Because of the new societal structure built around agriculture, small groups of unscrupulous individuals rose to positions of authority and reinforced those unquestioning qualities of the herd. This societal juxtaposition has been with us ever since.
THE ULTIMATE TRANSCENDENCE
The history of more potent drugs have a fascinating if somewhat murkier story to tell. It’s hard to definitively trace back the first human use of psychoactive plants and fungi because their consumption does not require the agricultural process. Many believe drugs such as cannabis, opium, and psilocybin mushrooms were first used between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago (Others theorize that it was much farther back than that). But instead of triggering a thought provoking conversation amongst peers, these early drug-induced experiences may have completely reshaped our perceptions of reality, and therefore, transformed our spirituality.
Some have even suggested that our ancestors’ ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms was a primary factor in our quantum leap forward in cognitive prowess. Perhaps the most famous version of this idea came from American author Terence Mckenna’s ‘stoned ape theory’.
Mckenna outlined how the various effects of psychedelic mushrooms would actually have been advantageous to a nomadic hunter-gathering species:
“…the presence of psychedelic substances in the diet of early human beings created a number of changes in our evolutionary situation. When a person takes small amounts of psilocybin visual acuity improves. They can actually see slightly better, and this means that animals allowing psilocybin into their food chain would have increased hunting success, which means increased food supply, which means increased reproductive success, which is the name of the game in evolution” He continues, “At slightly higher doses of psilocybin there is sexual arousal, erection, and everything that goes under the term arousal of the central nervous system. Again, a factor which would increase reproductive success is reinforced.” Mckenna concludes that, “…at still higher doses psilocybin triggers this activity in the language-forming capacity of the brain that manifests as song and vision. It is as though it is an enzyme which stimulates eyesight, sexual insight, and imagination.” (5)
In a recent John Hopkins study on the effects of psilocybin mushrooms, 67% of the participants considered the ’trip’ to be either the most meaningful experience or in the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives.
In a written questionnaire filled out shortly after the experiment, some participants even compared the experience to the birth of a first child or the death of a parent. The study concludes, “…when administered to volunteers under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences and which were evaluated by volunteers as having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” (6)
Even the participants’ friends and families reported that they were seemingly less stressed and ultimately happier in the weeks and months following the experiment. (7)
Once those factors are considered, you might then wonder how perplexing this experience would be for our ancient ancestors.
WHAT CAME FIRST, THE RELIGION OR THE DRUG?
Most historians and archeologists consider the practice of Shamanism to be the earliest form of spiritual expression made by humans. Generally, Shamanism consisted of ceremonies involving small groups (typical of the Paleolithic Period) which were lead by a priest-like figure known as the Shaman who conducted healing rituals and communication with the spirit world. Some of these Shamans would go under the influence of a psychoactive substance (such as psilocybin) during the ceremony which facilitated their ‘other-worldly’ journey. Due to their spiritual usage, these drugs are also referred to as Entheogens.
As populations increased and coalesced under Chiefdoms and then eventually Nation-States, the psychedelic aspects of spirituality were slowly swept under the carpet in favor of a much more structured and dogmatic entity; State Religion.
Religious systems are designed to accomplish one important objective of a political organism; Maintaining order amongst its citizens by maximizing the homogeneity of spiritual life. The main agenda is to grow its own market share by selling empty calories to the masses.
The fast food of enlightenment.
While many believe that psychedelic drugs expose you to a boundless world of self reflection and creative exploration, the agenda of a political state is to live within both geographic and social boundaries. But what if the same religions that act as the gatekeepers to those boundaries could trace their lineage back to psychedelic experiences?
Known as entheogen theory, this view posits that many of the ‘visions’ depicted in holy books are, in fact, a consequence of hallucinogenic drug use. (8)
When you stop and think about it, does it really seem so far fetched? Remember, many people living in the 21st century have a difficult time articulating their experiences with these type of drugs. Now imagine the average commoner from 2,000 years ago trying to rationalize and explain their mind-bending escapades to both themselves and to others.
The term ‘revelation’ might have been an appropriate euphemism for ‘psychedelic trip’.
In the 20th century, this theory was brought into controversial focus by archeologist and Dead Sea Scroll scholar John M. Allegro. In his 1970 book, The Sacred Mushroom and The Cross, he hypothesized that Christianity could find its roots in ancient fertility cults which centered around the use of ‘Amanita Muscaria’ mushrooms. He even went so far as to say that Jesus never actually existed and was simply a mythical and symbolic concoction of early Christians who were under the influence of psychoactive drugs.
Not surprisingly, the book was condemned as nothing more than the ravings of a madman. Even the book’s publisher apologized for the contentious work. John M. Allegro’s professional reputation was effectively ruined.
But in 2014, author and historian Dr. Richard Carrier published his peer reviewed work On The Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. In the book, he theorizes that the Jesus character originated as a celestial entity who was only accessible through ‘dreams’, ‘visions’, and personal ‘revelations’.
AN EXISTENTIAL HUNGER
For many species on this planet, the daily struggle to simply survive preoccupies the totality of their time and energy. Humans have largely, though not completely, moved beyond this basic battle and have begun to dissect the inner workings of the universe.
Our tenacious expedition has turned up some answers, but even more questions. Yet we keep pushing. Along the way, we’ve enlisted the help of a few traveling companions; intoxicants and spirituality. Some substances have proven to be counter-productive for our purposes, becoming an addictive crutch for those in mental or physical anguish. However, others seem to sharpen our mental blades, not dull them.
Keep in mind that even caffeine is a drug which is used on a daily basis by millions of people worldwide and is encouraged by the cultural norms of most societies. Some even consider sugar to be a drug.
Perhaps the reason why we have this voracious hunger for altered states of mind is because deep down inside we know that we’re working with outdated hardware. Our ever-expanding consciousness is contained within a biological vehicle that hasn’t received any notable upgrades in almost 200,000 years.
Not even our brains operate at optimal levels on a constant basis. As a result, our creative well dries up on occasion. For some people, meditation, rigorous exercise, and strict sobriety can help in replenishing their resolve. Others seek to augment their pedestrian perceptions with the aid of a foreign chemical. Who’s to say which approach is right?
In a similar way, spirituality is our species’ best coping mechanism for the harsh realities of a potentially finite existence. Consciousness might be timeless, but our physical bodies are not. The ambiguity of our ultimate fate is both terrifying and exhilarating. It could be the primary motivator behind all of our intellectual achievements, as well as our most crushing failures and darkest atrocities.
Spirituality also represents the deep yearning to feel apart of the vast cosmic ocean in which we sometimes feel like an isolated and insignificant drop. Realizing a deep connection with the outside world gives humans a renewed sense of purpose and reinvigorates our relationship with nature. These are the positive by-products that can result from the pursuit and practice of spirituality.
OUR MODERN SHORTCOMINGS
Over the millennia, however, humans have picked up a nasty habit of trying to manipulate and control other humans. The inquisitive essence of our species has become just another cog in the political wheel which requires delicate management by those in power.
Thus, uncertainty masquerades as certainty and profound questions are cloaked in simple answers.
The ‘control freaks’ among us have successfully weaponized spirituality for their own gain. The most extreme outgrowth of this arms race takes the form of religious fanaticism.
Far from satisfying our longing for universal oneness, these ideologies reinforce our primitive inclination towards tribalism. The immense ocean becomes splintered into a thousand disconnected lakes. The backlash against this fanaticism sometimes manifests itself in the opposite but equally extreme philosophy of nihilism. Sadly, what results is an ‘us against them’ paradigm which leaves little to no room for common ground.
Mind altering substances have endured the same downward spiral from that of transcendental lubricant to culturally polarizing taboo. Like religion, a dividing line has been drawn between proponents of drug legalization and its most ardent detractors.
But there is a gray area in this debate which is uncomfortable to discuss for the typical bureaucrat or average citizen; The probability that occasional drug experimentation does NOT lead to the corrosion of society. In fact, an argument can be made that the ‘war on drugs’ is at least partly responsible for the increase in substance abuse as well as drug-related crime and gang violence.
Mental health might be the defining indicator of how likely a person is to becoming addicted to various substances, not the drug’s legal status.
When a government decides it will prosecute the use of these substances as a violent crime it is not addressing the real problem, and doing very little to correct it. Perhaps the main reason why there is large-scale drug addiction is because of how little autonomy we have over our own lives.
For some, drugs have become a one-way escape door instead of a window which one can peer through and gain insight.
Unfortunately, a huge majority of social, political, and philosophical issues have already been litigated, decided upon, and deemed unalterable facts of life before we’re even old enough to realize it. Our drive as humans to explore our own questions have been watered down and in some cases neutered. It’s as if we’ve been given a placebo consisting of governmental laws and religious tenets with the expectation that we will take our daily dose without hesitation.
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
As a society, we seem to be coming full circle with a renewed sense of maturity towards spirituality and drug use, as well as a growing indifference to organized religion.
Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C. have fully legalized cannabis and many feel that it’s just a matter of time until national decriminalization or even legalization will be achieved.
Most Americans also now believe that drug abuse should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal act. At the same time, a growing demographic of young people are now less likely than ever before to affiliate with any particular religious group according to a 2010 Pew Research Report. (9)
This all points to our changing attitudes towards legislating the personal habits and lifestyles of others.
The decision of whether to become spiritual, religious, or to experiment with mind-altering substances all have one important aspect in common with each other; the choice should be personal, occasionally communal, but never institutionally decided for us.
However, be skeptical of any ‘complete package’ that offers to heal all your wounds and answer all of your questions.
The road to self fulfillment is much longer, at times bumpier, yet more rewarding than the quick fix of a magic mushroom or a religious ceremony. Both can aid you in your journey, but neither represent the final destination.