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Is Christianity rooted in psychedelic rituals?
In "The Immortality Key," Brian Muraresku speculates that the Eucharist could have once been more colorful.
Brian Muraresku wants to be very clear: the immortality key is not psychedelics. He's referring to the concept of "dying before dying," a mystical, near-death state spiritual figures from around the world—and in his book's case, possibly early Christians—entered into during ritual. As the author stated during our recent interview,
"Certainly, psychedelics seem to be an awfully fast-acting, reliable way to enter into that state—that state between life and death. But it's not the only one, and I want to be very, very clear about that."
Still, "The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name" is kind of about psychedelics. The main thesis of Muraresku's exceptional investigative work: the modern Eucharist is a placebo variation of a psychedelic brew that originally represented the body and blood of Christ, as was likely practiced during the secret Eleusinian Mysteries. Unlike other religions and mythologies (which acknowledge prior influences), Christian leaders have remained steadfast in the assertion that Christianity emerged whole-cloth as a unique (and, in the eyes of believers, true) faith.
That's just not how religion works. Nothing is created in a vacuum.
This power play—one that, Muraresku writes, potentially demonized psychedelics and ousted them from spiritual rituals, as well as the keepers of ancient ritualistic secrets, women—has forced us to attribute the foundations of Western civilization to Christianity. The real lineage belongs to Greece. Muraresku, who holds a degree in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, spent 12 years investigating this book due to his longstanding love of the Classics, which he believes to be the West's actual inspiration.
When beginning his studies, Muraresku had Homer in one hand and the Bible in the other. He realized these works addressed the same communities. Paul's letters, which comprise 21 of 27 books in the New Testament, were addressed to "Greek speakers in Greek places." While the roots of Christianity are in Galilee and Jerusalem, the seeds were planted in Corin, Ephesus, and Rome. And if the Greek language underlies early Christian thought, then so do the philosophy and rituals.
"Would you study the Torah with somebody who didn't know Hebrew? Would you study the Quran with somebody who didn't know Arabic? It's really hard to make a left turn into Christianity and divorce everything that came before, which is not what happened, obviously."
The Connection Psychedelics Have to Early Christianity, Christmas
Muraresku was drawn into this research due to the mystical concept of dying before dying, as expressed during the Mysteries of Eleusis. He uncovered parallel narratives while conducting research with God's librarian in the Vatican Secret Archives—a research trip few people ever have an opportunity to experience.
"This is something preserved in St. Paul's monastery, for example: if you die before you die, you won't die when you die. That's the key. It's not psychedelics; it's not drugs. It's this concept of navigating the liminal space between what you and I are doing right now, and dreaming, and death. In that state, the mystics tell us, is the potential to grasp a very different view of reality."
Something funny happened on the way to the Archives, however. Muraresku, who has never taken a psychedelic drug, read about terminally-ill patients having a similar revelation after ingesting psilocybin. "Dying before dying" succinctly describes what they felt; the overwhelming sensations prepared them to actually die with confidence and grace. Could this be the same experience discovered by initiates at Eleusis and, later, early Christians?
The key to immortality might be dying before dying, and psychedelics appear to be one method for unlocking this mystery.
Muraresku spends the bulk of 400 pages chasing down archaeological and scriptural evidence for spiked wine. The wine and wafer of today is a far cry from the kukeon of the ancient Greeks, drunk by pilgrims, who were given the title epoptes, "the one who has seen it all." That's a heavy ask for a grape.
But if you were to mix that grape with blue water lily (with its psychoactive compounds, apomorphine and nuciferin), henbane, lizards—ancestral food choices that put Brooklyn hipsters to shame—or ergot, the fungal disease that gives LSD its kick, you might just "see it all." As Muraresku points out, the Greek language is descriptively rich and extensive, yet these philosophers somehow never invented a word for "alcohol." Their chalices weren't for wine alone.
The Telesterion at the Archaeological site of Eleusis ( or "Elefsis) or "Elefsina", Attica, Greece
Credit: Iraklis Milas / Adobe Stock
While he calls psychedelics "just one, perhaps very tiny piece" of early Christian rituals, it could be an essential one. Sadly, archaeochemistry isn't the most funded discipline, especially after asking the Vatican to hand over guarded relics in hopes of discovering trace amounts of psychedelics. And yet, even with those restrictions, Muraresku gains access to the Vatican Secret Archives and jet sets with a sympathetic Father Francis through the Louvre and Rome in search of potential connections in the literature and art.
There are plenty. While the gospel writers were busy writing what would become the world's most lasting bestseller, Dioscorides was penning his unforgettable recipe book, "Da meteria medica." The five-volume drug manual's influence lasted for 1,500 years before Renaissance botanists usurped his reign. Regardless, Dioscorides included cocktails spiked with plants, herbs, and toxins, some of which inspire a hallucinogenic—some would say religious—sentiment.
"It's no mistake that the Eucharist is described as the 'drug of immortality' by the early Church fathers because there was this sense of really sophisticated botanical understanding that goes all the way back to Homer. Obviously, it goes back a lot further, and so part of the reason I wrote the book is to show people that within Western civilization—at its roots, in fact—is this very pharmacopoeia. This tradition was certainly there, and it begs the question of how prevalent and widespread it really was."
Add to this already riveting tale the fact that the gatekeepers of Eleusis were women—a practice Christianity abandoned. Women were likely the distributors of the spiked beverages that helped initiates "see it all." Modern precedent exists, though not in American Christianity. The Western world was introduced to psilocybin after R Gordon Wasson sat in on a ceremony led by the curandera María Sabina. Likewise, ayahuasca is called "godmother" for a reason.
We live in a world that went from honoring goddesses to hunting witches, though we shouldn't glorify ancient Greece. The first democracy didn't allow women to vote and likely didn't let them partake in epic plays. Men performed as women in the Tragedies. Highborn women often become slaves in these plays, such as with Cassandra, Hecuba, and Tecmessa. Misogyny is ancient. While Greek city folk were jacked up on testosterone, Eleusis offered a different landscape.
Regardless, Christian leaders exiled women from both leadership and ritual. While in the Archives, Muraresku found evidence of at least 45,000 so-called witches being executed, with "countless more" tortured or imprisoned. The patriarchy initiated a pattern:
"[The leadership] wasn't just trying to rid Christianity of folk healers. It was trying to erase a system of knowledge that had survived for centuries in the shadows."
Conspirituality interview with Brian Muraresku
The knowledge was the pharmacological expertise these women had amassed over untold generations. The two banes of the Church—mind-altering substances that afford the initiate a mindset comparable (or, perhaps exactly akin) to prophets and sages and women, the holders of the Secrets—were swept up in one millennia-long cover-up. As Muraresku succinctly phrases it, "the Catholic Church started the War on Drugs." Perhaps the War on Women, too.
Perhaps they're two aspects of the same war.
Interestingly, this 12-year-long odyssey only deepened Muraresku's Catholicism, which is rooted in the Jesuit tradition. As he says, Christianity—a religion that was a cult for over 300 years before being catapulted onto the global stage—has always evolved. Could the Church possibly change again and offer the psychedelic sacrament that might lie at the heart of the religion? Is another Reformation possible?
As Muraresku concludes during our talk, each attempt to get back to the roots, beginning with Martin Luther and continuing right through to Pope Francis, is an analysis of the origins of the faith. To know your history is to understand where you're heading. Muraresku would like to see another step forward.
"There was no monolithic Christianity. Just like today, you look around and see 33,000 denominations of Christianity—a few of which include psychedelics as their sacrament, such as the Santo Daime or the Native American Church, which has some Christian syncretism to it. The possibility of a psychedelic sacrament in antiquity is not laughable. In fact, it's quite plausible according to some of the literature and data that's just beginning to emerge on the scientific front.
"When I look and see Hellenic Christianity that was very much at the roots of the Catholic Church, and the more I found that Greek influence underneath the Vatican—in some cases, literally, in the catacombs—the more I began to really love and appreciate what this was all about. The more I read the Greek and the more evidence that I see, the more in love with Christianity I become. Now, it might not be some people's definition of Christianity today, but again, if you just step back and take a very honest look at the Greek of the New Testament and the Greek landscape in which it emerged, it's a really powerful statement."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.
Debating is cognitively taxing but also important for the health of a democracy—provided it's face-to-face.
- New research at Yale identifies the brain regions that are affected when you're in disagreeable conversations.
- Talking with someone you agree with harmonizes brain regions and is less energetically taxing.
- The research involves face-to-face dialogues, not conversations on social media.
There are two kinds of identity politics. One is good. The other, very bad. | Jonathan Haidt<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6f0e52833af5d35adab591bb92d79f8e"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/l-_yIhW9Ias?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Unsurprisingly, harmonious synchronization of brain states occurred when volunteers agreed, similar to <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322764116_Creativity_and_Flow_in_Surgery_Music_and_Cooking_An_Interview_with_Neuroscientist_Charles_Limb" target="_blank">group flow</a>—the coordination of brain waves that hip-hop and jazz musicians (among others) experience when performing together. Coordination exceeds the social, into the neurological. As the team writes, "talking during agreement was characterized by increased activity in a social and attention network including right supramarginal gyrus, bilateral frontal eye-fields, and left frontopolar regions."</p><p>This contrasts with argumentative behavior, in which "the frontoparietal system including bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, left supramarginal gyrus, angular gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus showed increased activity while talking during disagreement."</p><p>Senior author Joy Hirsch notes that our brain is essentially a social processing network. The evolutionary success of humans is thanks to our ability to coordinate. Dissonance is exhausting. Overall, <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210113090938.htm" target="_blank">she says</a>, "it just takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree," comparing arguments to a symphony orchestra playing different music. </p><p>As the team notes, language, visual, and social systems are all dynamically intertwined inside of our brain. For most of history, yelling at one another in comment sections was impossible. Arguments had to occur the old-fashioned way: while staring at the source of your discontent. </p>
People of the "left-wing" side yell at a Trump supporter during a "Demand Free Speech" rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images<p>Leading us to an interesting question: do the same brain regions fire when you're screaming with your fingers on your Facebook feed? Given the lack of visual feedback from the person on the other side of the argument, likely not—as it is unlikely that many people would argue in the same manner when face-to-face with a person on the other side of a debate. We are generally more civil in real life than on a screen.</p><p>The researchers point out that seeing faces causes complex neurological reactions that must be interpreted in real-time. For example, gazing into someone's eyes requires higher-order processing that must be dealt with during the moment. Your brain coordinates to make sense of the words being spoken <em>and</em> pantomimes being witnessed. This combination of verbal and visual processes are "generally associated with high-level cognitive and linguistic functions."</p><p>While arguing is more exhausting, it also sharpens your senses—when a person is present, at least. Debating is a healthy function of society. Arguments force you to consider other viewpoints and potentially come to different conclusions. As with physical exercise, which makes you stronger even though it's energetically taxing, disagreement propels societies forward.</p>In this study, every participant was forced to <em>listen</em> to the other person. As this research was focused on live interactions, it adds to the literature of cognitive processing during live interactions and offers insights into the cognitive tax of anger. Even anger is a net positive when it forces both sides to think through their thoughts and feelings on a matter. As social animals, we need that tension in our lives in order to grow. Yelling into the void of a comments section? Not so helpful. <p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
In a joint briefing at the 101st American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting, NASA and NOAA revealed 2020's scorching climate data.