Despite convincing ourselves they’re opposites, science and religion both draw from the same proverbial fires of sacrificial madness
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Thea Pham // Illustrator
“Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.” – Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace.
My eyes rested against the orange light of the campfire in an otherwise oppressive darkness, watching it seep like water into my heart, creating soft lines on my face, warming my body with gentle heat. We sipped beer and gazed at the immensity of a moon too huge to be real, reflected in the glittering lake and our own dinner-plate-sized pupils. It’s as overwhelming as falling in love, all the lightness and warmth in the cosmos pouring into me like the center of the world. Eventually, we laid down in our sleeping bags under the velvet blue bowl of the sky, but I’m still gazing at the impossible diamond glitter of the Milky Way—inside the four walls of a tent.
I leaned outside the door and vomited a slurry of magic mushrooms and beer—afterall, I’d just glimpsed the very origin of human religion.
“Impossibility is the door of the supernatural. We can but knock at it. It is someone else who opens.” That’s nineteenth century French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, who preferred to have her moments of impossibility inside of a church rather than a tent while high on magic mushrooms. Those experiences aren’t as far from each other as we’re led to believe.
There’s mounting research from those such as anthropologist Wade Davis that mind-altering drug experiences are, in fact, the origins of human religion itself. In The Psychedelic Gospels, authors Jerry and Julie Brown claim that a not insignificant amount of medieval Christian art and manuscripts feature imagery of psychoactive mushrooms. Inside the Neolithic Mind by archaeologist David Lewis-Williams argues that hallucinogenic drugs formed the entire basis of Neolithic religion. Terrance McKenna’s ‘stoned ape’ theory in Food of the Gods was the first proposition that psilocybin brought even earlier hominids “out of the animal mind and into the world of articulated speech and imagination.”
Although McKenna was roughly two decades early from having the resources to prove it, it’s now a scientific fact that psilocybin —the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms—alters consciousness and triggers physical changes in the brain. Casting off the modern moralistic codes surrounding drugs reveals his greatest insight: the story of humankind is inseparably intertwined with our fascination for the psychoactive.
Science has—despite many of its pronouncements— tended to be implicitly agnostic, even theist, rather than strictly atheistic. There’s unreliable evidence for the effectiveness of religious-based treatments for substance use disorders, yet the opposite is true for (the limited studies of) psilocybin.
Simone Weil’s entire body of work is connective tissue latticed between the interstices of supposed opposites like science, art, God and humans. Often described as ‘the patron saint of outsiders,” she, and other kindred spirits such as Nietzsche and McKenna, understood that dialects like ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are two languages used to converse with the same invisible being.
Nietzsche unabashedly attacked Enlightenment ideals placing science as the champion of truth and belief. The passion and absolute conviction that depict the approach to science is, to Nietzsche, just evidence of the fact we’ve created a religion from science itself: “It’s always a metaphysical belief on which our belief in science rests. [We] still take our fire from the conflagration kindled by a belief a millennium old, the Christian belief, which was also the belief of Plato, that God is truth and that the truth is divine.”
From the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate, to a 2003 Shroomery forum post about ‘the LSD thumbprint,’ this principle plays out today in almost precisely the way Nietzsche described. The origins of divine human truth are just various ways to converse with the unknowable, whether inside a church, a microscope, or a cap of amanita muscaria. “You’re never the same again. A thumbprint doesn’t open the door of perception, it blows it off the hinges. LSD is a direct message from God. Period.”