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'Sacred Drugs' aims to blow Emory students’ minds with scholarly analysis

In religion professor Gary Laderman’s “Sacred Drugs” course, students examine how psychoactive drugs are intimately related to religious life historically and how they remain connected today.

Emory College students packed into Gary Laderman’s introductory-level religion course,  “Sacred Drugs,” this fall looking for everything from a basic understanding of Christianity to a more expansive sense of religious institutions’ influence on political policy.

Few expected Laderman, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Culture, to kick off REL 270 by saying they were all on drugs — himself included.

He qualifies that he means psychoactive drugs – legal substances like coffee, prescriptions like antidepressants and, yes, illegal drugs – that affect how people think, feel and behave.

The class has since spent the semester digging into the idea that drugs, as a ubiquitous feature in modern life, connect to an ancient, and ongoing, desire for religion.

“Drugs and religion both have the power to help us feel better, to escape the daily grind and tap into our questions about meaning in the face of suffering and joy,” Laderman says. “More than living in a moment where drugs are everywhere, drugs have become a primary source of religious and spiritual life in America.”

He created the course to discuss the theory that psychoactive drugs are intimately related to religious life historically, and that the two remain connected today. A historian by training and a leading scholar in the study of death and the sacred, Laderman also sees the connection as something that can matter to anyone and everyone.

He is now working on a book on the topic, hoping that it and the course create a space for people to explore drugs and religion and consider their value and significance in the American spiritual landscape.

“We think about the world we live in with a religious orientation about what is right and wrong. Drugs are often central in our stories of right and wrong,” Laderman says. “I’m asking my students to apply historical and cultural studies, anthropology and neuroscience to make sense of drugs and religion and tell a richer, unfamiliar story.”

Creating space to engage

Laderman’s scholarship is serious, but he keeps his lectures light for the 286 students who fill his Zoom screen.

He worked through the summer on how he could make the course something of a campus event, putting extra effort into ways to help the large class stay engaged in the remote format.

With teaching assistant Elaine Penagos, a PhD student in the Graduate Division of Religion, he curates an Instagram account that shares cartoons, student submissions and news stories that relate to class discussions.

Laderman also created and playfully updates a class Spotify playlist of songs about drugs and religion. He regularly stops talking during lectures to ask about music. He also has had numerous guest speakers including Emory professor Gillian Hue from the neuroscience and behavioral biology program and hospice and palliative care specialist Dr. Bruce (BJ) Miller Jr.

But amid the backdrop of the humorous “Decaf is against my religion” T-shirts, the topic can be deeply sobering. Drug use and addiction are important social issues. According to Laderman, we ignore to our peril how much religious ideas – like mystical experiences or notions of salvation – inform drug use, abuse and treatment.

“The modern world is not just about the secularization of psychoactive substances,” he explains. “My suggestion is that the sacred remains, even as they become commodities. That’s their value, but not their only value.”

The challenge is opening up students’ understanding and conceptualization of religion in their lives. The reward is a better sense of the world, wherever their careers take them.

“It makes sense that religious institutions, like political institutions, would shape how we view drugs,” says Mollie Gradie, a senior human health major considering a career in public health. “The faith we traditionally had in religion as a source of comfort we are now placing in pharmacology instead.”

Religion through the lens of history and culture

Officially known as “Special Topics in Religion: Sacred Drugs,” much of the course examines the long, shared history between religious cultures and drugs.

Medieval Sufis embraced coffee for its ability to allow them to contemplate Allah longer into the night. Both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament incorporate stories about the sacramental quality of wine, while some Buddhists and Muslims have shunned all intoxicants.

Other faiths include hallucinogenic plants in their rituals — such as the Native American Church’s use of peyote —while others integrate psychedelics to support spiritual awakening.

Seeing that common thread reinforced sophomore Danielle Mangabat’s thoughts about becoming an attorney or working in public policy, focused on changing existing drug laws.

“This class has made me think, if someone said, ‘coffee is my religion,’ I would never have second-guessed what that means,” says Mangabat, an anthropology and human biology major. “But if someone told me peyote or mushrooms were part of their religion, I’d be skeptical.”

“Why is that? I think it has a lot to do with the groups possessing the drugs, not the drugs themselves,” she adds.

For other students, the course has been a provocative entry into the study of religion.

As a neuroscience and behavioral biology major on the pre-med track, sophomore Matt Wang already had an understanding of the science of psychoactive drugs. He enrolled in the course looking for how, as a lifelong agnostic, he might connect his growing belief in a higher being to his existing values.

The class didn’t give him the answer, but it did show him that other people are looking for something to believe in. “Sacred Drugs” is his first religion class. It won’t be his last.

“I feel like the very nature of Emory College is to learn how to answer a question by getting more questions,” Wang says. “That we can have these conversations, and have a place to openly ask these questions, is so important.”

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