Court Decisions Over Psychedelic Tea For Native Americans Should Sensitize Us To The Question of What Is Meant By “Religion” (Roger Green)
In 2006 the United States Supreme court made an important ruling affecting religious groups using the psychedelic-based tea, ayahuasca, as sacrament. In Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, a New Mexican branch of the Brazilian UDV church, the court found that the U.S. government could not prove that disallowing access to the controlled plant substances, Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis, which together under certain circumstances allows humans to ingest and release DMT (dimethyltryptamine) into their brains, would demonstrate a compelling interest in applying the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances Act of 1971 to “Hoasca” (ayahuasca) use by the New Mexican group.
The suit was filed with the help of Jeffrey Bronfman, heir to the Seagrum corporation, claiming that the government’s seizure in 1999 of 30 gallons of hoasca being shipped to New Mexico was a violation of the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993). Although in other cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed the RFFRA unconstitutional, it continues to be applied in cases such as the UDV decision and the more broadly discussed Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores in 2014.
More complexity arises from the rhetoric in support of ayahuasca in relation to indigenous “religion” in the U.S. Significant affective impulses compact the issue with First Amendment appeals and the regime of laws officially meant to protect Native Americans, most famously with respect to peyote, laws which have at times hurt more than helped Native Americans.
While appealing to the value of religious freedom established by Euro Americans, significant affective weight imbricates the decision about ayahuasca within the political theological frame of American exceptionalism. In his book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery Steven Newcomb, who heads the Indigenous Law Institute in California, argues that American exceptionalism is built into the deep framing of Americans by a “chosen” status going back to the Old Testament but particularly implemented under European Christendom and the concept of “discovery” in papal bulls such as Inter Caetera (1493).
Even more complex is the hybrid status of Brazilian Ayahuasca religions, which contrary to many initial reflections often has more to do with urban and middle class groups than indigenous Amazonian groups. The two most famous groups, União do Vegetal and Santo Daime, are framed within a Christian perspective.
For example, Alex Polari, padrinho (“godfather”) in the spiritual community of Mapiá and former political prisoner, speaks a for one group of Santo Daime claiming, “these people are the Essenes of the New era, preparing themselves to receive the Owner of all eras, whose new coming is represented by the second arm of the Caravaca cross, a cross traditionally from northern Spain that symbolically acknowledges the second coming of Christ.” (25) Moreover, support for the UDV church in its case against the U.S. government came from both Protestant and Catholic Christians.
As Charles Hayes writes: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals defended the UDV’s case for religious freedom, prompting psychedelic researcher and UCLA professor Charles Grob, an expert witness at the hearing, to notice that “religious rights can apparently trump the Drug War.” Supporters of the UDV church are also quick to point out the support of Christian Fundamentalists.
On the flipside of the Christian framing is the difficult concept of “shamanism” with respect to ayahuasca use. Even when we speak of “indigenous rights” with respect to “shamanism,” ayahuasca, “religion,” etc., we are within the liberal, rights-based frame. This very frame conceptually carries with it all of the colonial history that precedes and feeds into the Doctrine of Discovery in the 15th century and the agentive disseminating of Discovery occupied by the power-knowledge of anthropologists, which Michael Taussig eloquently described with his explication of the “wild man” and wildness as “the death space of signification” in Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man.
The frame is present even as Peter Frederick Laird writes in The Encyclopedia of Modern Asia: “The relation between shamanism and other religions is highly variable, but in almost all cases, shamanism is under the hegemonic pressure of polities that subscribe to universal religions or globalizing economic ideologies.” No other practice related to shamanism characterizes this globalized impulse as much as the explosion of interest in ayahuasca, ayahuasca “religion,” and ayahuasca “tourism,” and in this case we must consider even the “secular” tourism from a political theological point of critique.
Repeatedly, in both academic literature and popular media, interest in shamanism manifests a rhetorical figure of “the West.” The people who identify as being from “the West” are interested in “alternative healing,” indigenous “spiritual” practices, and shamanism. Such interest arises as an affective critique of “the West.” This is a complicated construct.
In his book In The World Interior of Capitalism German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk criticizes the common tendency among American academics to use the term “Euro-centric” to reduce a set of values to a region of the world that had not been unified until the late twentieth century, and even then only tenuously. While Sloterdijk is to a certain extent capable of critiquing the horrors of colonialism, his ultimate point is that the phenomenon we call globalization is, in fact, ancient.
Taking his critique of the facile tendencies to conceptually reduce “the West” to Euro-centrism” without emphasizing the internalization inherent to the Christian tradition, especially post Reformation, I want to particularly qualify a philosophical idea from Europe that is ethically important to any discussion of shamanism today. The concept is ‘liberalism,” which is clearly the product of Western European philosophers from a variety of emerging nation states.
By ‘liberalism’ I do not mean “liberal” or “progressive” in relation to U.S. politics. What I mean is a rights-based conception of the intrinsic value of individual humans that I think informs most seekers interested in shamanism who come from a European pedigree. While Europe has produced many critics of liberalism over recent centuries, the basic idea that an individual subject is capable of bearing rights has remained consistent, even if there has been a shift in the notion of rights as (negative) “freedom from…” to (positive) “freedom to have access to…”
Put shortly, people who grow up in liberal democratic society believe that they have a “right” to access what they perceive as a-temporal, a-historical access to not just the divine but all aspects of all incarnations of all human history.
Let me stress that many scholars of shamanism (like the Tungus word itself) have long emphasized that the ingestion of consciousness altering substances is culturally specific and not reducible to universalizing tendencies. In spite of such observations, it seems evident that there is a particular relationship between the global spread of ayahuasca use and what we commercially call “globalization.”
Oscar Calavia Saéz writes in his foreword to Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond: “One might argue that ayahuasca has put Amazonian subjects into direct contact not with global society as a whole but rather with a very specific segment of it: namely, orphaned citizens of transcendence nostalgic for the enchantment of the world.” Moreover, Saéz writes, “The authenticity of ayahuasca asserts itself . . . by its very modernity. Indigenous people must suffer from a hopelessly exotic view of themselves if they limit their use of ayahuasca to relations with animal spirits and masters of game animals.” (xxv)
Yet especially within the liberal imaginary of ayahuasca tourists there is not only enthusiasm for a globalizing shift in consciousness with ayahuasca, but even the idea that an animistic spirit of ayahuasca wants to spread.
Evidence for the globalizing of ayahuasca is not simply the increasingly widespread interest in ayahuasca both within and outside the Amazon worldwide, but in the increasingly tense relationships between legally recognized ayahuasca religions in the United States (UDV & Santo Daime) and “fringe” organizations such as Ayahuasca Healings in the state of Washington.
The leaders of Ayahuasca Healings claim to be of the Okleveuha Native American Church, yet the older Native American Church denies such status. Earlier this year, a particular drama arose between the Washington-based Ayahuasca Healings center, which in late 2015 proclaimed itself as the first legal and “public” Ayahuasca retreat in the U.S., and the established community of ayahuasca researchers and activists who have regularly published and worked to construct ethics-based practices related to therapeutic use of ayahuasca.
The retreat used large-scale internet marketing to promote their center and invited “donations” between $1,500 and $2,000 per session. This produced both skepticism and concern from well-known ayahuasca activists and researchers such as Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Gayle Highpine, and Rick Doblin from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Substances (MAPS).
Particular attention has been focused on co-founder of Ayahuasca Healings, Trinity de Guzman, in both online media and forums concerned with cults and New Age frauds. As Ocean Malandra writes in his article, “for de Guzman, money making marketing strategies and spirituality seem to be one and the same.
Guzman and his associates were banking on a widespread deregulation of ayahuasca in the United States based on the success of the UDV church in New Mexico. Like Alex Polari, they see themselves as part of a global movement, and while they use some of the same language of many ayahuasca enthusiasts and Burning Man attendees of a “global tribe,” the extreme views of Ayahuasca Healings members have created concerns even among psychedelic enthusiasts concerned with safety and integrity of spiritual practices.
This globalizing perspective is clearly evident in Trinity de Guzman’s interview with Lorna Liana, host of the Entheonation website and podcast. The ethical concerns about mixing business practices and spirituality appear to partly align with concerns about neoliberal free global markets.
Traditional liberals in the 21st century advance positivistic, “right to” rhetoric, which includes the right to protection via regulation, while neoliberals advance negative concepts of freedom, especially when it comes to the economy (unless they fail and seek government bail-outs). With respect to shamanism more generally, the liberal tradition opens up a host of historical problems because those who seek ethical regulatory practices often fall back on scientific authority and biopolitical rationales which then reinforce a traditional colonial frame.
Just as the American legal system since its reification of the Doctrine of Discovery in the 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh decision perpetuates the discovery frame in the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act attempting to “protect” indigenous people, the appeal to biopolitical and scientific rhetoric risks the same perpetuation of “protection” within a frame designed to extinguish certain peoples’ existence.
By the term biopolitics here, I am referring to Michel Foucault’s use of the term to designate the ways government can politically use its power over all aspects of human life. Foucault was partly concerned about the ways biopolitics historically shape subjectivities. As shamanistic practitioners vocalize their concerns over groups, they point to legal restrictions and fall back on both the State and science’s long history of involvement with the State, which historically has been wrapped up in the drama of colonization.
To put this briefly, the expression of concern over Ayahuasca Healings ends up also calling for more colonization, just as the mission of Ayahuasca Healings perpetuates decontextualization and potentially contributes to genocide. These contradictions, I believe, arise from a historical deep frame within the liberal global imaginary that arrogantly asserts itself as break or “escape” from “Western thinking.”
According to social theorists, the presence of “the West,” along with linguistic production in European languages, produces the deep framing that grounds people’s perceptions of reality. Simply willing one’s self out of such deep framing does more to reinforce the existing frame than it does to offer a means of escape.
If we return to Saéz’s claim that ayahuasca puts Amazonian subjects into contact with a particular kind of “orphaned citizens of transcendence,” just what does he mean? In my reading, he is referring to a culture grounded in the theological concepts of Christianity, and particularly Protestant versions, whose religious extremism during the 16th century produced and disseminated a deity who was advertised as wholly transcendent and “Other.” That theology, as William Cavanaugh has argued in The Myth of Religious Violence transferred over into notions of the State and secular law.
Unpacking Saéz’s metaphor conceptually, the move toward transcendence accompanies a secularization narrative that claims the disappearance of their deity, who becomes an absent father, thus creating orphans out of citizens who impose a mother image on ayahuasca and nature, unaware that such identification is a perpetuation of deep framing produced by Euro-centric culture where children, women, and indigenous people occupy a “state of nature.”
Obviously, such concepts are also at the root of modern political and legal philosophy, as well as in Rawlsian veil of ignorance, which he likens to an original position like the state of nature. When people long for more regulation and more scientific rigor with respect to shamanism(s), they are operating from within a rational frame that many who seek ayahuasca experiences are attempting to reject at the same time that such rejections merely reinforce the cultural frame.
Of course, many will claim that psychedelic experiences such as ayahuasca give humans access to something that transcends culture itself. Even if there is some truth to such thinking (which I find troublesome), there is always the drama of re-entry from an ecstatic experience, just as there is always the ongoing historical domination of indigenous peoples from a colonizing project that has not ended.
In addition to the “orphaned citizens of transcendence,” Saéz points to the fact that “important politicians and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs – hardly your typical dreamers trapped in the archaic past – are among the ayahuasca clientele in the United States.” He sees the potentialities of ayahuasca as “very much in harmony with the current times.” And as I travel around the country presenting aspects of this research, such as at the Society for the Study of Shamanism, I regularly hear about “healing sessions” happening all over, as well as receive emails from friends alerting me to recent New Yorker Magazine articles like Ariel Levy’s “The Drug of Choice for the New Age of Kale.”
Certainly, according to scholars such as Ruth-Inge Heinze, who founded The Society for the Study of Shamanism, the use of ayahuasca alone would be merely one shamanistic technique. Shamans do not need it, but since the hybrid religions of UDV and Santo-Daime, both rooted in Christianity, there has been a universalizing move to spread it globally. In the terms of religious studies scholar Christopher Partridge the occult, or “occulture”, has become ordinary culture, and those of us invested in maintaining positions of critique will have to do more than seeking healing through ecstatic experiences.
Over a hundred years ago, Arnold Van Gennep complained about the slippery use of ‘ism’ in the term “shamanism,” saying it is as inaccurate as saying “priestism”. In their historical anthology of writings on shamanism, Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley build on Afred Métraux’s 1944 definition of a shaman as “any individual who maintains by profession and in the interest of the community an intermittent commerce with spirits, or who is possessed by them.” Narby adds in his book Shamans Through Time to this statement that shamanism “involves a kind of theater in which the shaman performs and the audience remains an audience.” (78)
While no definition will ever be enough for the term, along with Heinze, for those practicing neoshamanism, there appears to an ethical imperative to perform 24 hours a day, for free, without investment in prosperity gospels; just as for academics like myself (who do not claim to be shamans), there is an ethical impulse to perform an explication of the semiotic death-space Michael Taussig wrote about that continues to accompany the Western fascination with “wildness.”
Those invested in neo-shamanic practices are often unaware of the ways the cultural frames they seek to move beyond by opening into the porousness of the desubjectified psychedelic experiences actually reinforce the dominating aspects of the frames. For those optimistic about such techniques, we need to articulate how practitioners might more critically encounter globalized enthusiasm for ayahuasca and the set and setting that produces the desire to promote while at the same time regulate the economy of spiritual practice. How many seekers who wish to emerge themselves in an archaic revival, for example, are aware of Peter Gow’s studies about dissemination of ayahuasca use among indigenous people and colonialism?
The same goes for religious studies scholars who might associate shamanism with the dated work of Mircea Eliade and the generation of scholars such as Alice B. Kehoe, who after him rejected his essentializing universalizing tendencies.
As we reject the facile claims that being “spiritual but not religious,” as Nancy Tatom Ammerman argues in her study of privileged middle class Americans and religion Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes, we also need to better account for religious attempts to escape the roots of capital “R” religion in notions of empire and the ongoing domination perpetuated even in the discovery of psychedelic landscapes and liberalism’s appeals to “archaic revivals.” As Americans seek to protect religious freedoms and indigenous people’s rights, they need to be more attentive to the political-theological framing of law and rights discourse itself.
Roger Green is a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics. He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian”in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue”in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature. He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.