Anatomically modern humans have lived on this planet for at least 200,000 years. During that time, our ancestors – or people whom our ancestors knew – have eaten, drunk, smoked, snorted, or otherwise ingested (use your rich imagination) absolutely everything on the surface of this planet. You know that’s true – hell, they’re still doing it! Now, some of those things caused the ingestees to die horribly. Those particular people were not our ancestors. Our ancestors no doubt learned from their unfortunate example, however, and the observations they passed along have become the received wisdom of later generations: don’t drink that, don’t stick that up your tookus….
But some of those things caused our ancestors to see the world in ways they might otherwise never have discovered, and to interact with it in ways that could not have been foreseen. Here’s an example: about 23,000 years ago, at the height of the last of the Pleistocene glaciations, there were modern humans living along the Atlantic seacoast in southern Europe – I’m talking about the Solutrean culture. If there’s ice year-round only a few hundred miles north of you, that means you’re living in a climate that’s similar to what present-day denizens of Wasilla, Alaska enjoy. People could live on the coast during the summer – and we have ample evidence that they did, and that one of their main sources of protein was fish. But it’s too cold to live there during the winter, so you go inland and upland and take advantage of the karst features. In nearby regions in what are now France and Spain, people weathered over in the limestone caves, taking with them whatever they could hoard over the course of the summer: dried fish, fruits, nuts, berries, tubers… and of course they supplemented their diet with whatever grows in the perpetual darkness of caves, in that growth medium so generously provided by roosting bats.
We all know what that is, right? Et voilà! – art is born! You know the art I’m talking about: art so extraordinary that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the splendid cave paintings associated with such place names as Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira. Do you imagine for a moment that there’s no connection between magic mushrooms and the birth of art? And can you think of any better event to fix as the watershed between being merely anatomically modern and being behaviorally modern, than the birth of art in a particular culture? The birth of art and the birth of truly modern humanity are two names for the same thing. I suspect that Mother Nature’s natural pharmacy has had much to do with the blossoming of human creativity. Please understand that I’m not fixing the birth of modern humanity at the birth of art in any one particular place: it happened at many different times and in many different places, and is in some sense an ongoing process. There’s a reason that the most fantastic symphonies – and I mean that literally – were written during the Nineteenth Century, when virtually every major European artist was coked to the gills on opium (which was perfectly legal and not overly expensive).
Why would any of us imagine that religion would not have been born from exactly the same thing? Witness the role of peyote in the Native American Church, and of visions-inducing ayuhuasca among the Amazon tribes. From what source came the deep insight of the authors of the Upanishads, that the cosmos is in fact a great unity and that none of us is alien from it or even in any important way distinguishable from the whole? That Atma is one with Brahma? The raw data of everyday life certainly don’t point to that conclusion.
Have you read the first few chapters of Ezekiel lately? What the hell was he trippin’ on when he saw a sky beyond anything van Gogh ever imagined, a sky roiling with wheels within wheels and populated by fantastic four-headed flying beasts? What was “John” munching on out there on the lonely desert Isle of Patmos, when he saw the End™ in Technicolor? Let’s be honest about this.
Institutionalized religion demonstrates its bankruptcy of spirit in this regard as clearly as in any other: True Christians™ wouldn’t be caught dead smoking a joint, nor would they ever entertain a vote in favor of making cannabis legally available to those of us who don’t share their narrow views. Little do they realize that our ancestors’ hallucinated encounters with a completely imaginary world – encounters that have been told and retold over countless centuries, always enriched with the retelling – have left their fingerprints all over their Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible. Just try reading the book of Exodus with that in mind, “reading between the lines,” as they say. Notice the things that jump right off the page at you. Try it also with the aforementioned Ezekiel, and also Daniel and Jonah. Revisit Jacob’s ladder. Try reading the fourth Gospel through that lens of understanding.