The religious use and meaning of mind-altering drugs. There are drugs both natural and synthetic that can produce experiences similar to religious experiences: VISIONS, ecstasy, cosmic journeys, what the poet Baudelaire called “artifi cial paradises.” They can also produce inner HELLS as terrible as any that can be imagined. Nonetheless drugs have had a spiritual or sacramental use the world over. Shamans of PRIMAL RELIGION in Siberia and the Americas have taken hallucinogenic mushrooms, peyote, datura, and other plant substances to help induce visions of the divine realms and messages from gods. Some scholars believe that soma, the famous sacred drink spoken of in the VEDAS of ancient India, may have been made from the fl y-agaric mushroom, and a few have speculated that the mysteries of Eleusis in ancient Greece may have employed the same hallucinogenic plant. Today the Native American Church in the United States uses peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, as a sacramental substance to be taken in a reverential setting as a means of communion with GOD.

However, religions such as JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM, and the major eastern FAITHS have generally rejected the use of drugs in religion, believing that the visions and raptures they induce are spurious and not authentically from God. (Certain nonmainstream Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist sources, chiefl y related to TANTRISM, have seen some positive spiritual value in the materials, but for the most part as an initiation into realities that ought later to be realized by nondrug means.) They have recognized and condemned the dangers that can lie in drug use: lethargy, escapism, indifference to other issues of life, and fi nally addiction to the point that one will neglect responsibilities and commit crimes for the sake of the drug.

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In the mid-20th century, a new interest in the spiritual meaning of drug experience arose. One important impetus for it was a book, The Doors of Perception (1954), by the famous mystic and novelist Aldous Huxley (1894–1963). Huxley vividly described the way the ordinary world became transfi gured and splendid as though it were all divine, like the way it was seen by great artists and Zen masters, after he had taken mescaline, a substance made from peyote.

However, Huxley also believed such stimulants should be restricted to those truly mature and ready for them. Another impetus was the invention of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a highly visionary synthetic substance. The use of drugs, allegedly for spiritual purposes, was an important aspect of the counterculture of the 1960s. But the “drug culture” quickly fi lled with drug-induced crime, sickness, mental breakdown, and exploitation, and hallucinogenic drugs were outlawed everywhere in the United States by 1966, with exceptions allowed for the Native American Church, where drug use has continued to be a legal issue. Whatever role drugs may have had in the religious life of the remote past, they are generally not welcome in that of the modern world, and most faiths see combating drug use as an important part of their mission to help people live disciplined and productive lives.