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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Wilson, Edward O. (1998)
New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

ISBN: 0-679-45077-7

Description: Hardcover, x + 337 pages.

Contents: 12 chapters, notes, acknowledgments, index, additional acknowledgments, a note about the author, a note on the type.

Excerpt(s): Snakes are abundant and diverse in the rain forests of western Amazonia. Serpents, their dream equivalents, figure prominently in the cultures of the Amerindian and mestizo inhabitants. Shamans preside over the taking of hallucinogenic drugs and interpret the meaning of the serpents and other apparitions that subsequently emerge. The Jívaro of Ecuador use maikua, the juice from the green bark member of the nightshade family, Datura arborea. ...

Five hundred miles southeast in Amazonia Peru lives Pablo Amaringo, mestizo shaman and artist. Drawing on the traditions of his Amerindian forebears, the Cocama and Quechua speakers of Amazonas and Cajamarca, Amaringo conjures visions and depicts them in paintings. His drug of choice, widely used in communities of the Río Ucayali region, is ayahuasca, extracted from the jungle vine Banisteriopsis. His dreams are populated with serpents in most of their Amazonian cultural roles: mounts of gods, forest spirits, ambush predators of animals and people, impregnators of women, landlords of lakes and forests, and sometimes the sinuous ayahuasca vine itself transmuted into animal form. ...

The sacred plants, which have been analyzed by chemists, are no longer mysterious. Their juices are laced with neuromodulators that in large oral doses produce a state of excitation, delirium, and vision. The primary effects are often followed by narcosis and dreaming of similar kind. In the Jívaros' Datura they are the structurally similar alkaloids atropine and scopolamine. In Banisteriopsis of the mestizos they include beta-carbolines, to which the shamans usually add dimethyltryptamine from another plant species. The substances are psychotropic, stimulating a flurry of images intense enough to break through the controlled processes of ordinary conscious thought. They alter the brain in the same manner as the natural neuromodulator molecules that regulate normal dreaming. The difference is that under their influence people enter a semicomatose trance in which dreaming, uncontrolled and often vivid and urgent, is no longer confined to sleep.

It is tempting to patronize the spiritual searches of the Amazonian vegetalistas, just as it is easy to dismiss the counterculture's innocent faith in drug-soaked gurus and sorcerers during the 1960s and 1970s. Outside of a few cults, few people today believe in the late drug guru Timothy Leary, or even remember Carlos Castańeda and his once-famous The Teachings of Don Juan. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of such visions. They tell us something important about biology and human nature. For millennia the use of hallucinogens to enhance inner awareness has been widespread through the cultures of the world. Natural sleep and drug-induced dreams have long been viewed in Western civilization as a portal to the divine. They appear at pivotal moments in both the Old and New Testaments. ...

Consider then the dreams of a magician, a sorcerer, a shaman. They are more than just unique productions of a single mind; they exhibit qualities general to the human species. The art of Pablo Amaringo is worthy of analysis in the manner of the natural sciences. His paintings are a test case of consilience, an arresting fragment of culture that might be explained and thereby given added meaning at the next, biological level down in complexity from artistic inspiration. (pages 72-74)

The symbol-forming human mind, however, never stays satisfied with raw apish feeling in any emotional realm. It strives to build cultures that are maximally rewarding in every dimension. In religion there is ritual and prayer to contact the supreme being directly, consolation from coreligionists to soften otherwise unbearable grief, explanations of the unexplainable, and the oceanic sense of communion with the larger whole that otherwise surpasses understanding.

Communion is the key, and hope rising from it eternal; out of the dark night of the soul there is the prospect of a spiritual journey to the light. For a special few the journey can be taken in this life. The mind reflects in certain ways in order to reach ever higher levels of enlightenment until finally, when no further progress is possible, it enters a mystical union with the whole. Within the great religions, such enlightenment is expressed by the Hindu samadhi, Buddhist Zen satori, Sufi fana, Taoist wu-wei, and Pentecostal Christian rebirth. Something like it is also experienced by hallucinating preliterate shamans. What all these celebrants evidently feel (as I once felt to some degree as a reborn evangelical) is hard to put in words, but Willa Cather came as close as possible in a single sentence. "That is happiness," her fictional narrator says in My Ántonia, "to be dissolved into something complete and great."

Of course that is happiness, to find the godhead, or to enter the wholeness of Nature, or otherwise to grasp and hold on to something ineffable, beautiful, and eternal. Millions seek it. They feel otherwise lost, adrift in a life without ultimate meaning. Their predicament is summarized in an insurance advertisement of 1997: The year is 1999. You are dead. What do you do now? They enter established religions, succumb to cults, dabble in New Age nostrums. They push The Celestine Prophecy and other junk attempts at enlightenment onto the bestseller lists.

Perhaps, as I believe, it can all eventually be explained as brain circuitry and deep, genetic history. But this is not a subject that even the most hardened empiricist should presume to trivialize. The idea of the mystical union is an authentic part of the human spirit. It has occupied humanity for millennia, and it raises questions of utmost seriousness for transcendentalists and scientists alike. (pages 260-261)

Still, if history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure. (page 261)

Which world view prevails, religious transcendentalism or scientific empiricism, will make a great difference in the way humanity claims the future. During the time the matter is under advisement, an accommodation can be reached if the following overriding facts are realized. On the one side, ethics and religion are still too complex for present-day science to explain in depth. On the other, they are far more a product of autonomous evolution than hitherto conceded by most theologians. Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly humbling challenge, while religion must somehow find the way to incorporate the discoveries of science in order to retain credibility. Religion will possess strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge. That is the only way to provide compelling moral leadership. Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science for its part will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of the moral and religious sentiments.

The eventual result of the competition between the two world views, I believe, will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect. (page 265)

I know that such reductionism is not popular outside the natural sciences. To many scholars in the social sciences and humanities it is a vampire in the sacristy. So let me hasten to dispel the profane image that causes this reaction. As the century closes, the focus of the natural sciences has begun to shift away from the search for new fundamental laws and towards new kinds of synthesis-"holism," if you prefer-in order to understand complex systems. That is the goal, variously, in studies of the origin of the universe, the history of climate, the functioning of cells, the assembly of ecosystems, and the physical basis of mind. The strategy that works best in these enterprises is the construction of coherent cause-and-effect explanations across levels of organization. Thus the cell biologist looks inward and downward to ensembles of molecules, and the cognitive psychologist to patterns of aggregate nerve cell activity. Accidents, when they happen, are rendered understandable.

No compelling reason has ever been offered why the same strategy should not work to unite the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities. The difference between the two domains is in the magnitude of the problem, not the principles needed for its solution. The human condition is the most important frontier of the natural sciences. Conversely, the material world exposed by the natural sciences is the most important frontier of the social sciences and humanities. The consilience argument can be distilled as follows: The two frontiers are the same.

The map of the material world, including human mental activity, can be thought a sprinkling of charted terrain separated by blank expanses that are of unknown extent yet accessible to coherent interdisciplinary research. Much of what I have offered in earlier chapters has been "gap analysis," a sketch of the position of the blank spaces, and an account of the efforts of scholars to explore them. The gaps of greatest potential include the final unification of physics, the reconstruction of living cells, the assembly of ecosystems, the coevolution of genes and culture, the physical basis of mind, and the deep origins of ethics and religion. (pages 267-268)

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