Connecting dots between Santo Daime and blurring lines between religions

I attended a Bob Dylan concert in Baltimore some years back where I fell into conversation about Mr. Robert Allen Zimmerman and his music with a high-schooler sitting next to me. Suddenly, it hits this kid: "Wow! You're from the '60s!" I smiled. But the kid had it right. I felt like an archeological artifact.

Yes, I lived as a college student and as a working journalist, when I wasn't just hanging out, in New York's East Village and San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury. I covered Jerry Rubin's Yippies and Berkeley's People's Park. And despite the cliche, I remember that period of my life quite clearly. I know what I did.

By which I mean that in addition to a lot of brown rice and mung beans, I consumed a fair quantity of psychedelic drugs, natural and synthetic, in, shall we say, non-clinical settings. I do not recommend that anyone follow my example. But I was fortunate and avoided trouble. Moreover, I experienced altered states of consciousness that provided my first hint that there was more to life than the every-day material world, and that spirituality and religious tradition would be profoundly real and important to me.

Why this confessional now? To grab your reading attention, of course. It's called a lede.

Now that I apparently have it, let's discuss a recent story in The New York Times about an experimental Brazilian prison program that provides select maximum-security convicts with a plant-based psychedelic brew in the hope it will mitigate their anti-social behaviors. In short, it's meant as psycho-spiritual therapy.

The sessions are administered by practitioners of Santo Daime, one of many syncretic Caribbean and South American religions combining elements of Roman Catholicism, indigenous shamanism, imported (via slavery) traditional African beliefs, Spiritualism and, of course, trance-inducing practices (i.e., extended dance, chants, music, meditation) and consciousness-altering substances, including psychedelic plant-derived chemical compounds.

Because it involves often illegal drug use (but not in Brazil, where it's now legal), Santo Daime -- which traces its origins to the 1920s and '30s, (sources vary on this) in the far-west Brazilian Amazon -- has run afoul of the law in North America and Europe. That's right, North America and Europe (actually, Japan, too), thanks to cultural globalization's unprecedented circulation of people and ideas.

Authoritative, and therefore presumably fully accurate, data on Santo Daime is difficult to come by. So I offer, with caution, this seemingly exhaustive Wikipedia page on the tradition, including its legal problems. Note that some anonymous contributor argues that the page has unspecified issues.

You may be wondering by now how Santo Daime is relevant to reporting on the more mainstream religion scene. Fair question. So let's connect some dots.

If you've paid much attention to the current culture war flap over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act state offshoots you're probably aware that the original 1993 federal RFRA legislation stemmed from a case involving Native Americans ingesting peyote as a religious sacrament. Peyote is a cactus that contains consciousness-altering chemical compounds.

I'm not going to comment on the RFRA controversy that began in Indiana. I'll leave that to my GetReligion colleagues who are all over it. Besides, this is Global Wire; my role is to look beyond religion's domestic borders.

My point here is to emphasize that once-exotic faith traditions employing psychedelic and other consciousness-altering agents and practices are, to recycle the term, no longer exotic, even if they're largely unknown to most North Americans. 

I've mentioned that Santo Daime has become established in the U.S., but so have similar syncretic traditions, including Haitian Voudoun (Voodoo) and Cuban Santeria, the latter having received press coverage when practitioners in Florida and Texas were cited for offering animal sacrifices as part of their religious rites. Here's the Wikipedia page on Santeria. This time there is no warning about the information's reliability.

The page notes that the legal cases have resulted, so far, in victories for Santeria followers. (Quick aside, I peeled off for a day from covering Pope John Paul II in Cuba in 1998 to attend a private Santeria ceremony in Havana arranged for me by an American university religion professor; the Santeria priest made a point of mentioning that he was also a devout Catholic.)

There's another story line that may be connected to these imported traditions about which I'd welcome mainstream-news coverage. It's this question: Is there a link between them and the burgeoning growth of Pentecostal Christianity in the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as among immigrants to the U.S. from those regions? Here's a much-circulated, with good reason, Pew Research Center report on Pentecostalism's growth in Latin America.

I ask because there is a considerable emotional element to these syncretic traditions, as there is with Pentecostalism (I realize that practitioners might object to my linking what they would consider spiritual ecstasy with being swept up by emotions. I do not mean to be disparaging. I accept the reality of spiritual ecstasy; I've experienced it. It's simply a handy term that I think non-believers will be able to understand also.)

Emotional involvement is certainly not unique to both those religious forms;  Judaism has Hasidism, Islam has Sufism, and Hinduism has its Bhakti streams. Christianity has its high church bells and whistles, an appeal to emotion through our material senses. These all stress great devotion that practitioners will tell you lead to emotional ecstasy and transcendent spiritual states. Frankly, I'd say a strong emotional experience is key to just about any lasting religious connection.

So are people already primed by cultural awareness of religious paths that appeal more to the yearning heart than calm intellect more likely, should circumstances allow, to join Pentecostal churches or charismatic movements within the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches? I couldn't find any research or journalistic writing directly tackling this question.

I know there are other reasons -- historical, political, social and personal -- contributing to the large number of people now rejecting the historically dominate Christian churches of their homelands in the global South, which includes Africa and Asia in addition to South American and Caribbean nations. But I suspect there's a direct influence for many between these syncretic paths and Pentecostalism just waiting to be explored.

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