Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.


  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.
7 replies
  1. Avatar
    Richard Saville-Smith says:

    Hi Kevin, Would only comment that your article highlights the reason for the term enthogen as a distinguishing category from drugs. Yes Ayahuasca, yes peyote, yes psilocybin, yes LSD, yes Soma (ho ho ho Wasson), yes cannabis (but not all forms) and no doubt others. But the literature on cocaine, heroin, alcohol as conducive to religious experience seems….er…absent. Perhaps developing the category of entheogen more effectively and distinguishing it more precisely from ‘drugs’ might be a way of both clarifying and de-sensationalising the issue.

  2. Avatar
    Michael says:

    I’ve also seen this tendency to discount drug experience and found it surprising. I really like your analysis – I hadn’t thought about a good way to frame this behavior by scholars until I came across the idea of an “ethnometaphysics” – a metaphysical positioning that takes psychedelic use as either hallucinatory or revelatory. The ‘entheophobic’ bias of researchers is part of reflexivity we need to engage when looking at practices involving ‘drugs.’ The idea comes from Marc Blainey, which I’ve briefly summed up here.

  3. Avatar
    Kevin Whitesides says:


    The reason that I brought up the origins of the word ‘entheogen’ as an attempt to distinguish a particular set of substances (or experiences elicited by substances) from other terms was simply to indicate that people are indeed framing their experiences with drugs in ways that are of interest to scholars of religion–that is, they are claiming that certain drug experiences can have religious import. In that sense, I take entheogen to be an emic term. I am not interested, per se, in delimiting the boundaries of what qualifies as an entheogen and what does not.

    In that regard, I also think it is worth questioning the use of the concept ‘entheogenic esotericism’ which Hanegraaff puts forth. I refrained from doing so, mainly for purposes of space, in the response essay. But, I think it is important to analyze the value of adopting this emic term as an etic framework. My main reasons for using Hanegraaff as a touching stone for my essay was simply that he was also interested in taking drug experiences seriously as a scholar of religion and not demoting them as trivial and inconsequential. My intent was not necessarily to endorse his categories, though admittedly I was not explicit about that. For the moment, in lieu of a more forceful argument for the fruitfulness of adopting ‘entheogen’ (or other forms of the word) as an etic category, I prefer to understand it as an emic formation whose use we can analyze discursively.

    So, in response to your query, perhaps once alcohol, cocaine, and heroin users adopt the term ‘entheogen’ to describe their experiences with those substances, then the category would expand to encompass those instances by sheer virtue of their use in that way. However, even if they don’t use that term, if they do indicate that their experiences are religiously significant to them, then they, too, are certainly of interest to scholars of religion. I am intentionally NOT endorsing that a particular set of drugs IS religiously important. I am simply interested in the fact that people do consider them to be so.

    And, finally, I’m not interested in distinguishing entheogens from drugs. Again, I take that to be an emic distinction (if it is made). What is more important is to address the weighted normative evaluations that are often applied (inconsistently) to the word ‘drug’.

  4. Avatar
    James says:

    Hey Kevin,

    In your opening paragraph you say

    While much of the interview does focus on the drug aspects of Santo Daime, the podcast was conceived as part of a series on religions in modernity and diaspora, which applies to Santo Daime regardless of it’s ritualized drug use. Why then, if it was just a syncretic Brazilian religion would there not be a pod cast. Could it not still shed light on the over arching issues? This is not to nit-pick over something as trivial as a single sentence, but I am just curious to know why without the drug issue you suspect there couldn’t be greater interest in the subject.

  5. Avatar
    James says:

    Excuse my previous comment. I tried to use an HTML blockquote that did not work. I wanted to quote this line from the essay; “I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention. “

  6. Avatar
    Kevin Whitesides says:

    Hi James,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. My intention in saying that was not at all to suggest that Santo Daime isn’t interesting and worth discussion in its own right. It definitely is interesting in its own right and for many of the reasons you suggest, among others, though I AM suggesting that FEWER people would find their interest quite as piqued without the ayahuasca. In that respect, I was simply making an educated guess, a supposition (which I still think is undoubtedly the case), that the topic of Santo Daime wouldn’t be nearly as sexy or controversial if it did not involve the ayahuasca component. Why choose Santo Daime over other possible examples? Why, for the most part, does anybody already know what Santo Daime is without even having heard the podcast? Why, indeed, is Santo Daime in diaspora in the first place? I would suggest that it is undoubtedly because of the ayahuasca and not simply because people generally are inherently interested in this particular Brazilian church for its own sake. Again, this is certainly not to suggest that Santo Daime doesn’t have a lot to interest scholars of religion. It is simply to bring to the fore, since it was the topic of my response, the, undoubtedly true, claim that, generally speaking, interest in Santo Daime is disproportionate to interest in other similar formations which do not have a drug (or other sensational) component.

    I’m not suggesting that there inherently “couldn’t” be greater interest in Santo Daime without ayahuasca. In fact, I’m specifically arguing that we should treat these cases like any other case; that their drug component shouldn’t need to be such a sticking point for scholars of religion. In my mind, in the sentence that you’re flagging, I’m not making a normative claim but am simply making a phenomenological statement about what draws most people’s attention to Santo Daime and why it has become such a topic of interest and intrigue. It would take a much longer essay to explore the psychological reasons for our attention and reactions to psychoactive drugs.


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