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Longtime readers will know I don’t have much patience for the concept of “religion”. I continue to endorse the various critiques I’ve made in the past: the concept of “religion” confuses more than it clarifies. And yet as it turns out, I owe the concept of “religion” a favour.

What do I mean by that? I mean that I recently got a valuable and important opportunity which I don’t think I could have undertaken if the concept of “religion” didn’t exist.

Let me explain: ayahuasca, a mixed liquid traditionally brewed in the Amazon, contains the psychoactive substance DMT, which is illegal under the law of the United States, where I live. DMT is a Schedule I drug, the kind with the most severe penalties under the law, because the law considers it (rightly or wrongly) to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” So theoretically, both the mix and the plant used to brew it are against the law. I have long been curious about ayahuasca, but have many reasons not to want to break such laws.

But, it turns out, in the US there is an exception to that law – and that exception is for religion. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 specifies that “laws ‘neutral’ toward religion may substantially burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise”, and that when they do so they count as violations of freedom of religion. Thus one can receive an exemption from US drug law – but only if it is on “religious” grounds.

That brings us to Pachamama Sanctuary in New Hampshire, where I spent a valuable weekend this summer. I partook in one of the ayahuasca ceremonies that Pachamama openly advertises on its website. How is it able to provide this Schedule I drug, without the cops coming in to shut it down? According to its website:

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing churches to utilize Ayahuasca during services. Because Ayahuasca is the sacrament of our sanctuary, we hold a right to utilize it in our religious services as a part of our faith. This right is upheld under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Thus, one can legally partake of ayahuasca in this context because it is a “religious” use. And to partake one must sign a membership form attesting that one is a member of Pachamama Sanctuary, and in that sense a part of the “religious organization”. But the site also specifies, “You do not need to be a particular religion to attend our ceremonies.” The website has a statement of beliefs, but little reference is made to those beliefs during the ceremony. I don’t doubt that the organization’s founder holds the beliefs sincerely, but they were not integrated into the process. The organizers recommended bringing an object to focus on to stay grounded; I brought a picture of a Buddha statue.

Is Pachamama practising a “real religion”? Given my many criticisms of the “religion” concept, linked to above, I think that’s a silly question: I’m not convinced there is such a thing as a “real religion” – or for that matter a fake one. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter. All that matter is whether it counts as a “religion” for the purposes of the law. Because that has real and concrete effects. If the law, as specified in the RFRA and enacted by the decisions of judges, counts Pachamama’s ayahuasca ceremonies as “religious exercises”, then they can conduct those ceremonies without fear of punishment; if not, not. And as far as I can tell, it does. It is a pure question of positive law, nothing natural about it. And because of it, I had a powerful and wonderful experience, about which I hope to say more later, though it’s not easy to describe.

I think the laws prohibiting psychedelics are generally foolish; if I were in charge they would simply be regulated, as alcohol is. But I’m not, of course, and those laws do in fact exist. So I’m grateful that a “religious” exemption exists. I would not want to see that exemption struck down, even though I’m not convinced that “religion” is a real thing.

In the more general case, is it foolish to make legal exemptions for “religion”? If we could get to a more reasonable régime of regulation for psychedelics, could we just drop references to “religion” in law? I would still not want to be too hasty about that. A while ago I expressed admiration for the UK case in which a company was disciplined for attacking its employee’s strong environmental convictions, because of a law prohibiting discrimination and harassment on the grounds of “religion or belief.” I think there’s value in allowing conscientious objection to military service, for example. But the point there shouldn’t be whether one’s “religion” forbids military service, whatever that might mean; rather, one should have to demonstrate that one has a sincere, longstanding commitment to strict pacifism.