Council on Spiritual Practices About CSP | Site Map | ©
Search CSP:   

Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Why Religion Matters:
The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief

Smith, Huston (2001)
Harper: SanFrancisco..

ISBN:0-06-067099-1 hardback
0-06-067102-5 paperback

Description: First edition, hardcover, xiv + 290 pages.

Contents: acknowledgments, preface, introduction, 16 chapters in 2 parts: Part 1: Modernity's Tunnel, Part 2: The Light at the Tunnel's End, epilogue, index.



The crisis that the world finds itself in as it swings on the hinge of a new millennium is located in something deeper than particular ways of organizing political systems and economies. In different ways, the East and West are going through a single common crisis whose cause is the spiritual condition of the modern world. That condition is characterized by loss - the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence with its larger horizons. The nature of that loss is strange but ultimately quite logical. When, with the inauguration of the scientific worldview, human beings started to consider themselves the bearers of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, meaning began to ebb and the stature of humanity to diminish. The world lost its human dimension, and we began to lose control of it. (page 1)

... The latest journalist to interview me remarked in the course of our conversation that I seem to be angry at science. I corrected him. I am angry at us - modern Westerners who, forsaking clear thinking, have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life's material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check. I am not talking about money here; I am talking about a blank check for science's claims concerning what constitutes knowledge and justified belief. The impressiveness of pure science enters the picture, but for the public at large the miracles of technology have generally been more important.

This is the cause of our spiritual crisis. It joins other crises as we enter the new millennium - the environmental crisis, the population explosion, the widening gulf between the rich and the poor - but those are not for this book. ... (page 4)

Who's Right About Reality: Traditionalist, Modernists, or Postmodernists?

... We should enter our new millennium by running a strainer through our past to lift from each of its three periods the gold it contains and let its dross sink back into the sands of history. Modernity's gold - i. e., science - is certain to figure importantly in the third millennium, and postmodernity's focus on justice likewise stands a good chance of continuing. It is the traditional worldview that is in jeopardy and must be rehabilitated if it is to survive. (page 22)

The Great Outdoors and the Tunnel Within It

First the contrast. A decade ago a book review in the Chronicle of Higher Education opened with this categorical assertion: "If anything characterizes 'modernity,' it is the loss of faith in transcendence, in a reality that encompasses and surpasses our quotidian affairs" (italics added). If we set along side that the testament of a leading English poet of our time, David Gascoyne, we have the point of this chapter in a nutshell: "The underlying theme that has remained constant in almost everything I have written is the intolerable nature of human reality when devoid of all spiritual, metaphysical dimension." (page 41)

The Tunnel as Such

... We generally assume that the findings of science have retired the traditional outlook, but that has been our big mistake, for those findings pertain to the physical universe only - cosmology, in my vocabulary - whereas the metaphysical question is whether that universe is all that exists. To think that science can speak to that question is like thinking that people floating through space in a huge balloon could use the same flashlight that illumines its interior to see where the balloon is situated in space. (page 42)

If science cannot tell us what (if anything) is outside our universe, what can? Nothing definitively, but it would be foolish not to draw on every resource available. Inclusively, things are neither as science says they are nor as religion says they are. They are as science, and religion, and philosophy, and art, and common sense, and our deepest intuitions, and our practiced imaginations say they are. What all of these complementing resources - with the exception of modern science, which works with a limited viewfinder ... - have said about the Big Picture throughout human history has shaken down to a single, wondrously clear and inspiring worldview. This worldview, which I consider the winnowed wisdom of the human race, is found distilled in the world's great, enduring religions. (page 43)

... When the consequences of belief are worldly goods, such as health, fixing on them turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of authentic religion's role, which is to de-center the ego, not pander to its worldly desires. (page 45)

The Tunnel's Right Wall: The Law

A second problem is that opinions differ as to what the constitutional doctrine of the separation of church and state primarily intends. Is the intent to protect churches from governmental interference or to protect politics from religious pressure groups? Underlying both of these problems is the fact that there is no way to keep church and state separate. They have always jostled each other, and always will. (page 121)

... This morning (just before sitting down to start this chapter on the law) I found myself reading the Gospel According to Luke, "Woe to you, lawyers. For you load people with burdens hard to bear and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them .... You have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering." (page 122)


For whatever reasons (perhaps because the issue was too hot to handle), the framers of the U. S. Constitution left religious matters to the states. This was the clear intent of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof." Two centuries later, Employment Division v. Smith flew squarely in the face of this stipulation and stood it on its head. The Oregon State Supreme Court had ruled that one of its citizens, Alfred Leo Smith, was entitled to belong to his Native American Church, and the U. S. Supreme Court overruled that decision. Since the story that produced that ruling is not widely known outside legal circles, I will summarize it.

Born on the Klamath reservation, Alfred Smith was (at the age of eight) taken from his parents and placed in a Catholic parochial school. His entire formal education took place in boarding schools. He talks of the consequences:

Those were difficult times for me. I was separated from my family and stripped of my language, my culture, and my identity, and eventually I became an alcoholic. At the age of thirty-six I stopped drinking and began a life of recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous. Fifteen years later, I was introduced to my first sweat lodge ceremony. That was the beginning of my introduction to the way my ancestors had lived, and to this day I receive spiritual guidance through the Native American Church.
After his recovery Smith developed Native American programs for alcohol and drug abuse. His final job in that field was in Roseberg, Oregon, where he was hired to help develop services for Native American clientele. Things proceeded smoothly until one Friday afternoon his superior called him into his office and asked him if he was a member of the Native American Church. When Smith said that he was, his superior asked if he took "that drug" (i. e., peyote). "No," Smith replied, "but I do partake of my church's sacrament." His boss told him that peyote was illegal and that he was unwilling to have a lawbreaker on his payroll. The following Monday his boss summoned him back to his office and asked if Smith had gone to church over the weekend. When Smith said that he had, the boss again asked if he had taken "that drug." When Smith answered as before - "No, but I did take my church's sacrament" - he was terminated (along with another member of the church who worked in the same agency).

... He did not ask to be reinstated, but he did ask to receive the benefits he had earned, and (when they were denied him) he carried his case through the Oregon courts. These swung back and forth on the issue until, six years later, the supreme court of the state vindicated his claim. But then Oregon's attorney general referred the decision to the U. S. Supreme Court, which overturned the Oregon ruling.

The highest court's decision violated both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution - its letter, because the First Amendment forbids the federal government to take actions that would interfere with the free exercise of religion; its spirit because the intent of the amendment was to turn religious issues over to the states - has already been remarked, but the ethics of the case also warrants mention. ... we also need to consider the nature of peyote, the sacrament of the Native American Church on which the case turned. ...

... Peyote is illegal in the United States at present. It is classified as a Schedule One drug - right up there with crack, heroine, and cocaine - and the mistake begins right there, for peyote is a harmless cactus to which addiction is virtually impossible and to which not a single misdemeanor (let alone crime) has even been traced. When we place the record alongside the ravages of alcohol the picture becomes surrealistic. Because alcohol is the sacrament of the dominant religion of the land, it passes muster; but peyote is "their" sacrament, so it does not. One of the ironies of this drama-packed story is that (thanks to the Native Americans' vision and determination), the Native American Church, formerly singled out for disenfranchisement, is now by congressional act the only church in the United States that enjoys explicit legal protection.

Other churches have not fared as well.


Employment Division v. Smith sent shockwaves through the churches of the land, for while the Native American church was its direct target, its ramifications did not impact that church alone Watchdogs for the major churches had been following the Smith case closely, seeing consequences in it for religious freedom in general: "If it's them today, tomorrow it could be us." So it was that, the day after the Supreme Court's decision, the largest coalition of religious bodies ever to unite in a common cause - some seventy-five in all - entered a brief asking the court to reconsider its decision, which it refused to do.

The churches had reason to be concerned, for no one had expected the provisions of Smith to be so far reaching. Through hundreds of federal and state cases relating to American religious freedom in the last two hundred years, the phrase "compelling state interest" had emerged as the test for state intervention. Unless the state could prove that there was a compelling need to intervene, it was not entitled to do so. Smith lowered that threshold to a "rational basis."

To support this retreat from the established threshold, Justice Antonin Scalia (who wrote the decision) argued that America's religious diversity had proliferated to the point where religious freedom was a "luxury" that a pluralistic society could no longer "afford." In withdrawing the "compelling interest" standard, the court also removed from First Amendment protection the entire body of criminal law. This, in effect, rewrote the First mendment to read: "Congress shall make no laws except criminal laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion." (Put more simply, Smith mandated Congress to disregard the First Amendment if the law being considered is classed as a criminal law.) Finally, the court suggested that the First Amendment does not protect the free exercise of religion unless some other First Amendment right, such as speech or association, is involved. This, of course, makes religious freedom irrelevant, for those other rights are independently protected. Milner Ball, professor of constitutional law at the University of Georgia, said at the time that "after Smith, there is a real and troublesome question about whether the free exercise clause has any real practical meaning in the law at all. When you need the First Amendment, it wont be there. Or at least, that is the way the Smith case has left the law."

I have already referred to the consternation that the Smith decision awakened in the religious community, and it sprang into action immediately. With the strong support of President Clinton, the coalition of churches succeeded in getting Congress to pass the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which restored the "compelling interest" phrase as the standard that government agencies needed to meet before they could interfere with religious affairs. The churches breathed easier, but only for three years, for in 1997 the Supreme Court struck down that act on the grounds that Congress had overstepped its constitutional authority in passing it. (pages 124 - 129)

Carter [author of The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion] acknowledges the liberals' point that the American ideal is threatened when religious power mixes too intimately with political power. He argues, however, that the greater threat comes when the church is no longer kept merely separate but is forced into a position of utter subservience, its voice disregarded in the great public discussions (or even disqualified from joining them). American liberalism is showing toward religion an increasing hostility, Carter argues, and the consequent culture of disbelief threatens more than religious misfits - Moonies, Hutterites, and the like. The real danger is that citizens in general will accept the culture's assumption that religious faith has no real bearing on civic responsibility. Should that happen, prevailing cultural mores will have a higher claim on us than do privately held convictions of conscience, however arrived at. (pages 129-130)

Because religion's perspective is rooted not only outside its institutions and outside the national code, but also outside history and time itself, citizens whose religion really matters to them provide an inexhaustible source of energy needed for human renewal. How? By enacting, in Carter's phrase, "the role of external moral critic, and an alternative source of values and meaning." Without the churches' determined support, the civil rights movement of the sixties could not have succeeded, and without their equally determined opposition we could have had American troops in Guatemala and El Salvador a decade later, Robert Bellah reminds us. This, at root, is why Carter deplores the culture of disbelief and law's contributions to it. (page 131)

This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP

[Error Creating Counter File -- Click for more info]