Why Take "Sacred Drugs"?

Inevitably, questions are asked: why are you teaching a course called “Sacred Drugs,” and why on earth should students take it? Important questions, for sure, but not entirely unexpected, especially in this time when the point and purposes of the humanities in general are highly suspect in the minds of most Americans. Surely a religion professor teaching a course on drugs is an example of wasted resources for the institution, wasted time for the career-seeking students, and a glorification of being wasted by a bunch of liberal slackers, right?

The course is on for this coming spring, and the enrollment has maxed out at 200, with students adding their names to a growing waitlist (historic numbers for a humanities course at this medium-sized R1 research institution). I’ve never taught the course, but long dreamed of offering it and adding it to my regular rotation. In addition to the real conversations I have had with others who hear about the course, are the internal dialogues I have had with myself wondering the same things: what is the point of a course like this and how can I justify it as a relevant, substantive, and legitimate element in the larger curricular ecology of the Department of Religion, an entity I am privileged to chair.

Teaching religion is not something I take lightly, even though I’m a fool for religion. As far out as a class like this might seem to many readers, it has a number of appealing, and illuminating, qualities for someone who takes religion seriously as a consistently powerful, though ultimately indefinable, reality throughout human history. Sometimes what appears to be “far out” by many in the mainstream is actually where all the action is, at least for cultural studies and humanistic analysis.

I’ve reflected quite a bit on this class and am prepared to make a case for it as a valuable topic of study for older kids and young adults (18-22 year olds). The very fact that the course makes some people uncomfortable, and that drugs are ubiquitous in our society, gives me absolute confidence that intellectual exploration in the area is timely and essential. Plus, the course should be a blast—we’ll listen to music, watch some films, check out some of the many documentaries available, see what’s on the web, engage with various other media, and read (we still do that in college classes).

So, in my new favorite genre of writing, let me give the top five reasons students should take “Sacred Drugs” (moving in order from the more complex reasons to the more simplistic, direct, and compelling ones):

5. The course is similar to my other courses, which also get high enrollments: “Religion and Sexuality,” “Death and Dying,” and “Religion and Music.” All these courses share a peculiar theme: they all bear on a universally common element of the human experience, and all are tied to bodily processes and social formations that are crucial in human evolution. The notion here is that the consumption of drugs, like sexuality, death, and music, is a common feature of human societies, and can tie bodily experiences to critical religious insights that shape identities and bind communities. “Drugs” is of course a loaded term but one that I chose intentionally to confuse and awaken students as a catchall category that includes medical prescriptions, alcohol, tobacco, mushrooms, cannabis, soma, peyote, LSD, and so on. Legal and illegal, manufactured and organic, medicinal and recreational—the desire for transformational substances and their often sacred status throughout time and across cultures but even in the “just say no” USA will occupy our time and our minds over the course of the semester. Rest assured though, the serious dangers and weighty ethical concerns surrounding drug use, even for so-called “spiritual” purposes, will also be addressed.

4. All of my courses have one basic, fundamental goal: convert students to religious studies. In my mind, the study of religion is of crucial value to a college education, so the course like others opens a window into a field of inquiry that most students are completely unaware of, but which touches on so many aspects of their lives. To study religion is to study power, difference, identity, transcendence, ritual, order, chaos, suffering, hope, and so on. Through a study of religion and drugs, students will get a taste of the history and politics of the study of religion, key theories and methods that have shaped the field and will come in handy later in life (“religion is the opium of the people” may be the class motto), and current trends in research by scholars of religion.

3. The study of religion and drugs requires an interdisciplinary approach that can have direct practical value in the career trajectory of pre-professional students. The course will explore legal questions around drugs in America, so can be of service to all those with law school aspirations; we also will delve into recent, as well as historical, medical and therapeutic uses for drugs that clearly have spiritual implications, so can satisfy the hunger of all those pre-med students; our more theological and seminary leaning students will have much to chew on as we dig into a feast of belief systems and liturgical forms centered on drugs; believe it or not the students will also examine advertisements for pharmaceutical companies and prescriptions drugs that promise salvation and transcendence, so ever growing numbers of pre-business students, and especially those with marketing appetites, should be satisfied as well. I could go on and on, but the course will have a little something for every young budding pre-professional student, as well as those more intellectually open-minded humanists who still can’t figure out their major.

2. Of course I don’t have to say it, but a course called “Sacred Drugs” sells itself. It’s a fascinating topic in and of itself, so why not offer it instead of the more conventional religion courses like “Religion and Politics,” or “Philosophy of Religion,” or “Religion and Literature”? Students are going to love learning about the history of peyotism in the Americas; and enriching their knowledge about the religious possibilities associated with wine consumption; and exploring the spiritual therapeutics of LSD for PTSD and end of life care; and reading about William James’ mystical musings after inhaling nitrous oxide. The material is endless, and where else are students going to be able to talk intellectually about religion and drugs, since most of them....or at least many, are on drugs or have tried them? They will love it, which leads to the final reason to take the course.

1. I believe the course will do something I strive to do in all my courses: Blow. Their. Minds. If college is supposed to do anything, it is supposed to help students realize how much they don’t know and rethink everything they think they know, not necessarily to change their minds, but to at least expand their consciousness. And that is what this class is all about.

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