Relation vs. Possession: Responding to the Divine and Liberal Conceptions of Ayahuasca Religions

October 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

Again, and in some ways “part two” of my last post, this is a conference script for October 7, 2017. I’m posting it for attendees to better follow my sources, so it’s a temporary post. 

In yesterday’s talk, I argued that ‘Ayahuasca’ has in many ways reoccupied and carried on the notion of the fetish, especially as people argue for the recognized religious status of ayahuasca religions.  I argued, following William Pietz, that the fetish ought to be anchored within the European imagination, and that it shifted under the Protestant Reformation as slave traders rationalized the Black body as an economic commodity to be traded freely outside of any recognition of humanity.  This was a calculated rationalization and no mere “mistake” on the Europeans’ part.  As we know from papal bulls such as the 1493 Inter cetera which perpetuated the Doctrine of Discovery, the rationalization carried over into the right to claim any land not already occupied by a “Christian prince.” A drama ensued about the “Book of Nature” and “God as Author” of that book, in which Europeans and later Euro-Christian Americans claimed the ability to decide which humans existed merely in a “state of nature” and thus only had the same right of occupancy to land to other animals that might be found there.  It was in this context that the colonial missionary situation helped to spread the knowledge and use of ayahuasca out of its localized and presumably ancient use in the lower Amazon throughout all of Amazonia.  Today, the global spread of ayahuasca religions and new age ayahuasca “healing” and medical practices allows us to unpack the ways Euro-Christian Protestantism, especially in the U.S. and U.N., possesses and haunts the concept of religion as it is employed in law.  Even in its tainted form, the U.S. has now signed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which affirms “that all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.”

In this paper, I want to discuss some ethical problems with respect to entheogens and liberalism in New Religious Movements (NRMs).  I argue for the recognition of cultural texture as set and setting of efforts to depart and return from liminal spaces and the persistence of cognitive architecture or apparatuses at work in efforts to “reach beyond” or to resist “what is.”  For those familiar with psychedelic theories, I am countering what I see as the naïve claim that psychedelic experiences necessarily push one beyond “culture.”  If I am right, then the diaspora of ayahuasca religions and ayahuasca tourism put indigenous cultures at risk, especially when globalizing enthusiasm riffs on a liberal past where psychedelics were associated with counterculture.  This paper focuses specifically on theories of recognizing NRMs against what I argue is the neoliberal “economic” view of thinkers like William Bainbridge and Rodney Stark.  I argue that we must theorize beyond neoliberalism to account for psychedelic NRMs.  To accomplish this, I draw on discourse of Cognitive Liberty and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s articulation of Perspectivism as it applies to Amerindian thought.

It is ethically important, whether considering institutions claiming to be ayahuasca “religions” or appealing to the legal protection of religious freedoms in order to use ayahuasca, to recognize and track how this sensibility continues to impose genocide on indigenous peoples, even while claiming to “respect them,” “tolerate them,” or, more abstractly minimizing in its construction, to “respect the wisdom of the plant medicine.”  The final clause of my last sentence is likely to either create cognitive dissonance or stir trouble outright with New Age communities.  Let me qualify this argument by contextualizing it within the recent legal gains of ayahuasca religions.  On June 5, 2017 Health Canada granted the Santo Daime church exemption status to import and distribute ayahuasca to their congregations. In their announcement, they include the following disclaimer:

While through our efforts we have made it possible, in principle, to obtain an exemption, this exemption does not mean that the use of Ayahuasca or Daime is legal as such in Canada. Each legitimate organization must apply to Health Canada for their own exemption, and for all information regarding the exemption process. Any importation or activities conducted with Ayahuasca/Daime without a Section 56 exemption from Health Canada will be considered illegal by the Canadian government.[1]

Here we see the recognition of religion qualified under biopolitical governing factors.  The situation is similar with União do Vegetal in the United States, who won a Supreme Court Case in 2006 allowing them to use the ayahuasca sacrament, but they must fix their recipes to provide standard dosages.  Exempt status for many Santo Daime communities followed soon after there as well.  While it is important to recognize these legal successes are indeed progress for these groups in terms of liberal rights, and I applaud them for that, they are not necessarily successes for indigenous groups or for the rich variety of uses of ayahuasca in the Amazon and abroad that do not qualify as “legitimate organizations.”

With an ear toward this diversity, my concerns are with the liberal underwriting that grants a state the right to recognize a ‘religion’ as such.  Moreover, when it comes to regulation or deregulation, those concerned with ayahuasca must also attend to the massive amount of rhetoric appealing to the therapeutic and medical benefits of ayahuasca use, which again look to the state for an authoritative opinion.  I call the therapeutic or medical rhetoric a biopolitical rationale in the sense that it appeals to governmental control of a population in terms of its overall “health.”  In this sense, it is okay to use ayahuasca or similar substances so long as it “heals” us in some way. This language saturates the diaspora of ayahuasca religions and ayahuasca tourism, and indeed can affect and frame the set and setting of one’s ayahuasca experience.  For those seeking ayahuasca experiences, one must ask, “what exactly am I being healed from in my ayahuasca experience?”  If the answer has to do with overcoming one’s alienation, working on the “split self,” etc. there is nothing particularly liberating or progressive about this.  It is rather a reinforcing of global capitalist neocolonization itself, not a transcendent and unifying recognition of brotherhood but an emptying out of the space of sovereignty that appears at first to be transcendent and universal.  In psychedelic aesthetics more broadly, I have termed this the problem of the perennial, a tendency liberals have to seek archaic revivals, manifesting primitivism to support individualistic exploratory experiences.

The globalization of ayahuasca experiences might seem at first to be a progressively cosmopolitan move beyond the confines of the weakened nation-state.  I think this is very much part of the current vogue for it.  Olivier Roy has characterized this with respect to radical Islam and evangelical Protestantism as a declaration of “holy ignorance,” in which deterritorialized religiosities divorce themselves from culture in order to affirm something more religiously pure or essential.

Liberal attempts to use existing legal apparatuses so as to deregulate controls over psychedelic or entheogenic substances appear at first to be very useful in progressively challenging oppressive forms of governance masked in the so called “War on Drugs” and mass incarcerations that have followed from it.  Indeed, psychedelic use can appear as an ethical and even civic duty to break the law so that one might transcend the authority of the nation-state.  In the tradition of the counterculture this has certainly been seen as a mode of resistance.  But of course, we have witnessed in recent years a rhetoric of healthy-living accompanying the deregulation of controlled substances like marijuana, or what some psychedelic religious enthusiasts call, “the lesser sacrament.”  Organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies are seeing success in attempts to deregulate MDMA for therapeutic models.  All of this amounts to a biopolitical domestication of these substances, not a resistance to such regimes.

In contrast to obsequiousness to the state’s authority to “recognize” and regulate official religious status or determine public health policy, legal scholar Charlotte Walsh has argued instead for a cognitive liberationist approach to drug policy.  In doing so, she has returned to a more classical sense of liberalism where “the state should only deploy the criminal law where an individual’s actions demonstrably run a high risk of causing harm to others.”[2]  Reviewing ten years of the European Convention on Human Rights  (ECHR) and the U.K.’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, she argues that “that privileging the ‘sacred’ over the ‘profane’ is philosophically an untenable distinction: accordingly, the possibility exists for crafting a range of constitutional exemptions.”[3] She further argues:

Whilst judicial recognition of the impingement of the prohibition of (certain) drugs upon cognitive liberty – and, indeed, upon liberty itself – may be a distant reverie, successfully drawing upon the ECHR to win incremental gains in the spheres of drug-taking as a form of self-medication or as a religious sacrament seems more conceivable.[4]

As other scholars have done with respect to drug policies, Walsh invokes international Human Rights acts as a plea for a reassessment of legal interpretation based on ‘soft’ law.  Still, from my perspective (and from later talks by Walsh[5]), it appears that, while a cognitive liberationist approach to ayahuasca may be more ethical than the legal channels of what I call the “dogmatic” liberalism of appealing to existing legal apparatuses, especially where indigenous rights are concerned, this alone does not go far enough to protect indigenous peoples.

While I do not have the space to trace the genealogy of human rights concepts to liberalism here, I want to situate cognitive liberty within a broader history of classic liberalism.  Walsh draws on psychedelic enthusiast, Andrew Weil, to define ‘cognitive liberty’ as “the right to choose one’s own cognitive processes, to select how one will think, to recognise that the right to control thinking processes is the right of each individual person.”[6]  In a more recent article, Walsh traces the unsuccessful defense of Peter Aziz in England, who sought exemption for ayahuasca use both on the grounds that English Law was ambiguous with regard to it as a controlled substance and that it fell under his religious freedom according to ECHR, Articles 7 and 9.  As she notes, “The primary question that arises is whether or not shamanism – especially a transplanted Westernized version of such, a New Age variation – would be deemed to constitute a religion in English courts.”[7]  Importantly, she cites a Rastafarian case – Taylor (2001) – where religious use was trumped by the “public health threat” of the potential to distribute cannabis. She contrasts this with cases in the U.S. and Holland where religious status trumped health concerns. Eventually, Santo Daime had an ambiguous win in England when charges against leaders were suddenly dropped.  Suffice it to say that when it comes to legislation, one cannot easily separate either the regulative impulses of both religiosity or therapeutic use of entheogens.

Following John Stuart Mill, Walsh notes the ironic imbrication of “legal moralism” in “religious puritanism,”[8] and she adds that, though unlikely to be taken seriously in legal arguments, ayahuasca use ought to be defended by appeals to cognitive liberty.[9]  In fact, she adds that, with respect to English Law and the interpretations Misuse of Drugs Act, “the prospect of exceptions being extended to those wishing to imbibe ayahuasca in the name of cognitive liberty, or simply because they want to, seems little more than a pipe dream.”[10]  Thus, any such appeals to cognitive liberty  for entheogen use must continue to appeal to broader human rights apparatuses such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

While I find Walsh’s arguments helpful, we must also go beyond the liberal roots of cognitive liberation by attending to Amerindian philosophical thought, treating it as seriously as we place Hegel in philosophical history.  Perspectivism flips the script with respect to liberally accepted notions of multiculturalism.  According to Viveiros de Castro, “perspectivism supposes a constant epistemology and variable ontologies, the same representations and other objects, a single meaning and multiple referents.”[11]  The accepted language of multiculturalism, on the other hand, assumes a static ontology with varying epistemologies, which downplays embodied notions of difference.  As Viveiros de Castro explains:

This cosmology imagines a universe peopled by different types of subjective agencies, human as well as nonhuman, each endowed with the same generic type of soul, that is, the same set of cognitive and volitional capacities.  The possession of a similar soul implies the possession of similar concepts, which determine that all subjects see things in the same way.[12]

This produces a perspective that is mono-cultural but “multinatural”:

Such a difference of perspective – not a plurality of views of a single world, but a single view of different worlds – cannot derive from the soul, since the latter is the ground of being. Rather, such difference is located in the bodily difference between species, for the body and its affections [. . .] is the site and instrument of ontological differentiation and referential disjunction.[13]

We must push the idea of cognitive liberty beyond the limited and ethnocentric notions Mill ascribed to it, if we are to take it seriously on defenses of entheogen or psychedelic uses.

Recognition of cultural texture for the widely accepted notions of multiculturalism remain laudable but insufficient for the dynamic nature of twenty-first century globalization.  While the traditional liberal notion of tolerance also remains important, we must question the inherent notions of cultural superiority imbricated within liberal politics and legal frames. Referring to cognitive liberty alone is not enough, because at heart such a defense protects individuals instead of collectivities.  Counterintuitively, liberal notions of education need to move beyond merely seeking something “outside” of experience that is sought only with the intention of assimilating it into experience.  This means, in a way, a resistance to “newness” that must simultaneously be a resistance to traditionalist and nostalgic conceptions of culture.  Indigenous people have no direct link to an archaic and “forgotten” past.  They continue to exist in the face of hundreds of years of colonialist attempts to wipe them out.  If Western seekers only look to their ayahuasca experiences to form “new tribes” or to heal the alienation of liberal subjectivity through Freudian-influenced psycholitic therapy, they are not resisting but rather perpetuating Christian colonialism in its older and broadest sense.

[1] Jessica Rochester, “Important Announcement,”, June 6, 2017.

[2] Charlotte Walsh, “Psychedelics and cognitive liberty: Reimagining drug policy through the prism of human rights,” International Journal of Drug Policy 29 (2016) 80.

[3] Charlotte Walsh, “Drugs and human rights: private palliatives, sacramental freedoms and cognitive liberty,” The International Journal of Human Rights, 2010, Vol.14(3), 439.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Joe Friendly, “Horizons 2015 Psychedelic Drug Policy Activism, Cognitive Liberty,”, 11 October 2015,

[6] Charlotte Walsh, “Drugs and human rights: private palliatives, sacramental freedoms and cognitive liberty,” The International Journal of Human Rights, 2010, Vol.14(3), 433.

[7] Charlotte Walsh, “Ayahuasca in the English Courts: Legal Entanglements with the Jungle Vine,” The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies (Vitality of Indigenous Religions), Ed. Beatriz Caiuby Labate; Clancy Cavnar; Alex K. Gearin (2016-09-01).  (Kindle Locations 6266-6267). Taylor and Francis,2016, Kindle Locations 6266-6267.

[8] Ibid., 6373.

[9] Ibid., 6476.

[10] Ibid., 6505-6507.

[11] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectival Anthropology,” The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds, Chicago: Hau Books, 2015, 59.

[12] Ibid., 59.

[13] Ibid., 58-59.


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