If you’ve read enough of my writings, you’ll already know I’m rather interested in entheogens (although I only use a few myself), as a subset of my wider interest in methods of altering consciousness, which is in turn a part of my devotion to spirit-work, a practice that (at least as I see it) requires a certain amount of trance, and therefore a decent tool-kit for trance-induction. Entheogens happen to be part of that tool-kit, for me and for many spirit-workers, traditional shamans, and other spiritual specialists, all over the world and throughout history. They are not safe (not even the supposedly mild ones, not if you’re working with the spirits), or easy – although they can sometimes get you somewhere faster than other methods, there is always a price for that shortcut, not least of which being a lack of initiative to find other paths there as well and develop one’s skills and relationships in doing so. But for some purposes, they are incredibly useful. And building a relationship with plant allies (entheogens or not) is just as often a necessary part of the Work as relationships with animal allies, landwights, and other spirits.
In pretty much all traditional forms of polytheism and animism, altering one’s consciousness has an important and respected role as a way to interface with the divine. Sometimes only the shaman does it. Sometimes it is part of individual or communal rites of passage. Sometimes the whole tribe participates. Generally, when psychoactive plants are involved, there is a long tradition of knowledge that dictates how they are to be approached, prepared, engaged with, and thanked. Their dangerous properties are acknowledged, but not necessarily avoided, if the benefits are significant enough to be worth the risk.
But in American culture, guided largely by a generic Christianity (not the kind, for instance, that takes up poisonous snakes or encourages possession by the holy spirit and speaking in tongues), we only have one black & white, disconnected official response to a complex situation: drugs are bad. Altering consciousness is dangerous. It might let you in on the fact that this whole way of life they’re pushing on you is empty and meaningless. You might stop shopping. Drugs like nicotine and caffeine are okay because they make you a productive worker (even if they’re more addictive than some supposedly “evil” drugs); alcohol is okay because it numbs you enough to go back to work on Monday, plus it’s a social lubricant; but anything that opens your mind to other ways of being is verboten.
Suggest that not all drugs are bad (or at least, not completely bad), and you are treading on dangerous ground. Especially if they are the most demonized plants: coca, opium, and in some cases (inexplicably) marijuana. Just like some people (also due to a direct influence of Christianity) believe the only response to the dangers of teen pregnancy and STDs is complete abstinence, no matter how unrealistic or pleasure-denying that is, the official stance regarding the dangers of drugs also refuses to acknowledge any potential benefits or even biological imperatives at work, and you might face more dangers for suggesting otherwise than you would from the drugs themselves.
The fear of legal retribution may have been behind the recent decision of the Patheos religious website to reject a blog post by Galina Krasskova in which she interviewed Kenaz Filan, and in which Filan suggested there might be a way to utilize certain drugs that didn’t result in addiction and total destruction. I don’t know if that fear would be justified – after all, there are plenty of websites that go much further in describing potential benefits of drug use and detailing exactly how much to take. But I know that the fear comes from living in a society that is incapable of thinking rationally about drug use.
However, I also feel that such a decision reveals a certain lack of understanding of the pagan traditions the site claims to embrace as part of its interfaith dialogue. Polytheism isn’t just different from monotheism in the number of gods that are worshipped. Traditional pre-Christian attitudes are significantly different in a number of fundamental ways that affect views on everything from sex to death to family to nature to, yes, altering consciousness. We (although sadly, I cannot necessarily include all neo-pagans in this ‘we’) acknowledge the power and sacredness of plants that can open up lines of communication to the divine. Understanding the dangers involved is part and parcel of the respect we show to those plants – it is why there are often elaborate taboos to observe when consuming them, or why only certain trained people can do it, or why they are only taken in a religious context – but it does not cause us to shut our minds in fear.
Advocating for responsible and rational approaches to mind-altering substances isn’t just a radical political view, it is an important religious statement. Drugs aren’t inherently “bad” and using them isn’t “sinful” – like most things, it is all about context. Animists know that these plants are spirits, and not all spirits are nice or easygoing – which is why not everyone is cut out for engaging with them on an intimate level. But to reject a discussion of their sacred potential is to restrict just how “pagan” we can really be over on that “Pagan Portal.” Veer too far from acceptable norms (set by the dominant religion, of course, which is not ours), and you become too controversial.
Now, Patheos can do what it pleases, it owns the website and can set the rules. But let us at least recognize the true significance of a decision like this. It’s not just about politics; this is a religious matter. This is about our right to our ancient traditions, our right to alter our minds in ways which let us access the holy powers. Even if you don’t personally use entheogens to do this (and most people probably shouldn’t), it’s still your issue if you value ANY method of doing so. We can’t force any particular group or site to accept these things, but we can refuse to water down our paganism when we speak about it in our own communities. Mainstream acceptance is not worth it, especially not when the mainstream simply wants to feed you culturally-approved addictions instead like television, credit cards and energy drinks.
I applaud Galina for not only publishing the interview on her own blog (it is an interesting and insightful piece, which will at least get a thoughtful conversation going about opiate use, even if you don’t agree with Kenaz), but withdrawing her column from Patheos altogether due to censorship. I think that sends a strong message, and I am really only writing about any of this here in order to do my part in making sure that message is heard as widely as possible. Hopefully, this will cause more pagans to re-evaluate their own ideas about drug use and other topics on which we are (often unwittingly) influenced by monotheism, to make a deeper effort to access a pre-Christian mindset, and to consider the questionable value of mainstream acceptance and what we must sacrifice to get it.