Created January 29, 2009. Revised May 27, 2012; April 30, 2013; May 27, 2013; and June 1, 2013.
Copyright 1998-2013 by John W. Allen.


A Review of Andy Letcher's book
"Shrooms: A Cultural History."

By
Michael Hoffman



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Michael Hoffman's Review of Andy Letcher's Book, Shrooms: A Cultural History
Partial critical engagement with entheogen theory of religious origins
With 6 Comments (April 1, 2007. http://www.amazon.com).



 
Shroom covers topics including refutation of the mushroom theory of the origin of religion, the recent U.K. psilocybin mushroom scene, a critical treatment of Wasson's research methodology and mushroom theory of Vedic religion, and Tim Leary as backdrop leading up to the later popular use of psilocybin mushrooms. This is a valuable book that contributes some new perspectives and new coverage of entheogens in Western culture; this book is a must-have for entheogen researchers. The present review focuses exclusively on his critique of the mushroom theory of religious origins, which he sometimes treats as though it is a critical refutation of the overall entheogen theory of religion.

Letcher has not disproved the entheogen theory of religion, or even fully engaged with that hypothesis. At most, he has made a partial effort to call into question the mushroom theory of the pre-historical origin of religion, in the form of a secret cult spreading from a single origin over time and across regions. Letcher often comes across triumphally as having disproved the entheogen theory of the origin of religion, but a careful reading of his treatment of that particular topic shows that he has actually only shown something far narrower; he has only refuted a highly specific point.

At most, Letcher's treatment of the entheogen theory of religious origins shows that we have no compelling archaeological evidence for a prehistorical mushroom cult that was secret and unbroken. When his rhetorical verbiage and his general discussions of history are put aside, the substance of his argumentation that remains does not amount to a compelling argument against the frequent use of mushrooms (or other visionary plants) throughout religious history.



 
Letcher's writing style is rhetorical, so that he tells the story of recent mushroom scholarship and culture well, presenting much of interest to the audience, including valuable new material. He uses a biased rhetorical style; for example, "lunatic fringe," "conspiracy theories," "unfounded speculations," "the myth" of the entheogen origin of religion. This charged rhetorical style obscures that fact that his argument for his refutation of the entheogen theory of the origin of religion rests on only a few, fleetingly discussed points of argument.

Letcher does not engage the bulk of the literary and artistic evidence that provide sufficient grounds to support the general entheogen theory of religious origins. He merely puts forth brief and rather arbitrary arguments dismissing a couple of the many depictions of mushrooms in Christian art.

Letcher's inadequate selection of cases to refute, and his brief, perfunctory treatment of these cases, is not sufficient in breadth or depth to compel adherents of various variants of the entheogen theory of the origins of religion to change their position, no matter how many times or how confidently he rhetorically dubs the theory as a "myth." For example, he would need to engage the range of art that is presented in the first three issues of Entheos magazine, and the range of arguments such as those presented in Giorgio Samorini's articles about Christian mushroom trees.



 
It's admirable to see an independent critical thinker comment on selected aspects of Allegro and Wasson, but only a few of those comments actually amount to engaging with the evidence for the general entheogen theory of the origin of religion. Letcher makes the risky move of overextending his specific focus on psychoactive mushrooms, at the expense of being under-informed on the general entheogen theory and the full range of arguments, interpretive frameworks, systems of assumptions, and evidence of various types in support of that broad-ranging theory.

As a thought-experiment with the hypothesis that normalized religious cultic use of mushrooms is only a few decades old, this aspect of the book is a valuable contribution to the field; however, Letcher switches inconsistently between that bold but narrow hypothesis and a broader, firm conclusion that the entheogen theory of religion altogether is merely a recent fabrication of popular scholarship and merely wishful thinking.

Letcher leaps from what he narrowly demonstrates, to a stance and a claim to have shown convincingly that the entheogen theory of religious origins (and fairly frequent entheogen use throughout religious history) is nothing but recent wishful thinking, a fabrication by a group that is a historical novelty: late 20th Century psychedelics enthusiasts, including mushroom enthusiasts in the U.K. from 1976-2006.



 
All theories involve a framework of assumptions. The fact that a scholarly theory uses a set of unproved assumptions does not instantly do away with (or "demolish") the theory. Letcher handles the evidence by the common strategy of dividing, isolating, and diminishing each piece of evidence in isolation, operating under the arbitrary silent assumption that entheogen use was rare, secretive ("conspiracy"), and deviant. But such a methodology is problematic and is controverted by the maximal entheogen theory of religion, which holds that Western history and Western culture have always been inspired to some extent by the ongoing practice of using visionary plants. The unavoidable question remains, "How are we to judge what is plausible and what was normal for that culture?"

Should we assume that the use of visionary plants was normal and significantly present throughout mainstream religion and culture, or that it was rare, a secretive conspiracy, and deviant (exceptional)? Selecting our assumptions about the backdrop, of what was normal in a culture, affects the validity of completely isolating each piece of potential evidence and then attempting to judge the plausibility of reading that piece of evidence as supporting the entheogen theory of religion. What seems plausible to a critical scholar depends on the backdrop of what we assume was normal in the culture.



 
For example, Letcher affirms that the cathedral door at Hildesheim, Germany depicts the tree of knowledge in the shape that "looks extremely like a giant Liberty Cap," but he argues that it cannot have meant a Liberty Cap, because the doors were carefully designed and the depiction cannot have been secret in that case, so the image cannot represent anything other than, or in addition to, a "stylized fig tree."

It doesn't occur to Letcher to imagine and address the obvious critical arguments and questions against his hasty discussion, such as: why assume that a mushroom allusion had to be secret? why is an officially designed depiction of a mushroom automatically ruled out as unthinkable? why was the fig tree stylized in the specific form of a Liberty Cap mushroom? what about the hundreds of other specifically psilocybin mushroom-shaped trees in Christian art?

Letcher has much homework to do if he wants to try to retain his hypothesis that psychoactive mushrooms were absent from Western religious history until the late 20th Century, and if he intends to convince critical entheogen scholars of that hypothesis -- a hypothesis that will be hard to maintain after seriously addressing, with responses to at least the most obvious counter-criticisms, the current full range of artistic evidence (post-Wasson and post-Allegro), which Letcher has barely engaged.



6 Comments regarding Michael Hoffman's Review of Andy Letcher's book, Shrooms: A Cultural History (amazon.com).


 
Comment (1): Initial post Aug 2, 2008 7:02:12 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 2, 2008 7:03:20 AM PDT
Dr Tathata says: Just because some people experience epiphanies following psilocybe ingestion does not indicate, suggest, or 'prove' that wherever there are historical cultural artifacts indicating epiphanies, revelation, or spiritual transformation, there MUST be botanical hallucinogens involved. There seems to be an implicit assumption on the part of entheogenic hypothesizers of religious origins that religious experience is dependent upon hallucinogenic botanicals. This is a non sequitor, and is an apriori conclusion quite at odds with much if not most of the historical evidence. Yet some people with a blunt axe to grind and grind and grind persist in seeing hallucinogens everywhere, at all times. I would call this the delusion of hallucinogenic self-reference: I tripped and saw God, therefore, everyone who saw God was tripped out. Was St Joan a mycophage? St John of the Cross? The Neo-Platonists? St Paul? The Buddha? Ramakrishna? LaoTse? Chuang Tse? Gurdjieff? Next you will claim that Chi practices in ancient China, Ki practices in ancient Japan, and Yogic breath of fire exercises must derive from a scarcity of carpophores since the new Testament asserts that 'The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.' Part, cracked cheeks, and blow winds, blow.



 
Comment (2): In reply to an earlier post on Dec 19, 2008 10:13:20 AM PST
Diviciacus says: The Entheogen Theory of Religion holds that entheogens are the most reliable and efficient means of inducing the mystic altered-state. This does not rule out other means of accessing the mystic state, but greatly shifts the emphasis. Entheogens are the best explanation because they provide direct religious experiencing at hand, on tap. It's a question of statistics. Drug-free meditation may provide direct, primary, transformative religious experiencing, but for how many people? How *effectively* does meditation induce the mystic state? How many years of meditating does it take? Entheogens provide mystic experiencing for all people, immediately. This statistical efficacy makes entheogens a strong candidate as the explanation for historical religious experiencing. We are in no position to judge whether there is little or much historical evidence because we've barely begun to look.



 
Comment (3): In reply to an earlier post on Feb 19, 2009 11:18:26 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 20, 2009 6:01:36 AM PST
Brian P. Akers says: Recent research by Griffiths et alia, widely publicized in summer 2006, methodically tested the claim that psilocybin can occasion mystical or mystical-like experiences in carefully selected volunteers. Of 36 subjects, 22 had complete mystical experiences as phenomenologically defined (by psychological criteria previously formulated by Stace, and William James before him). The experimental controls and design were especially rigorous, and the study well reviewed and received.

Along with prior reports with similar findings, that's enough to demonstrate the validity of claims of psilocybin's potential for mysticomimesis. But it doesn't support a statement that "entheogens provide mystic experiencing for all people, immediately." A profoundly positive subjective valuation is basic to mystical experience. But more than 1 in 5 of Griffiths' subjects, despite careful preparation they underwent, had a trip dominated by sensations, thoughts or feelings they considered negative, especially apprehension and fear. (www.newscientist.com/article/dn9522-magic-mushrooms-really-cause-spiritual-experiences.html).

I think we all know (or should know): this side of psychedelic experience, this double-edged sword of heaven-or-hell potential, is also widely noted from previous studies and street-hip awareness alike. Unfortunately with respect to the latter, we sometimes find expressions of finger-pointing "attitude"; it can't be the drug's fault so let's blame the subject, who must not have been adequately groovy -- the underlying, unexamined premise apparently being a recriminatory one -- gotta blame someone or something!. Strikes me as a sort of "neanderthal" interpretive theory: bad trip Bad, good trip Good ... uggh.

The personal validity and meaning of psychedelic mystical experiences have been well demonstrated. But there are plenty of people who have experienced the effects of psilocybin and other substances with directly comparable effects such as LSD, who have not had mystical experiences. The mystical (or mystical-like) effects of such compounds are part of their spectrum of action, but not the whole.

Masters and Houston, in their book Varieties of Psychedelic Experience provide a good overview about this. They specifically argue against an "I've taken psilocybin (or LSD, mescaline, whatever) therefore I've had a mystical experience" interpretation.

Both posts above, in opposite ways, appear to overstate their otherwise valid points. I'd like to see more discussion of this interesting subject with the rhetoric brought down within bounds, and the balance turned up -- the facts are already sensational enough by themselves. Who's up for it? Anybody?



 
Comment (4): In reply to an earlier post on Jun 29, 2009 8:14:21 PM PDT
Diviciacus says: I don't have time to reply in full, but I'd like to note that because some people report "negative" thoughts or feelings, that does not mean that they were not having a mystical experience. I don't consider the mystical experience to be all bliss and light. There is certainly fear and apprehension, destruction and loss in mystical experiencing, as reported throughout the world's mythological traditions.

The terms "mystic experiencing" and "mystic altered state" and their overlap and differences may be important for this discussion.



 
Comment (5): In reply to an earlier post on Jun 30, 2009 3:14:27 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 5, 2009 10:43:37 AM PDT
Brian P. Akers says: People can have their own opinions, it's a free country. "Certainly" one can serve and volley semantics, say up is down, note what they like or whatever else. But careful investigations, as well as personal reports by astute, educated observers (Huxley, Alan Watts, etc.), have been pretty consistent concerning psychedelic drugs and mystical experience. They don't support the statement "entheogens provide mystic experiencing for all people, immediately."

The theoretical foundation for phenomenological study of mysticism was laid by Wm James a century ago, and further developed since then. "Varieties of Religious Experience" is the best foundation text. Interested readers seeking a greater informed understanding -- this won't include everybody -- might check out a 1966 article "Implications of LSD and experimental mysticism" by Pahnke and Richards (J. Religion and Health 5: 175-208). The authors set forth nine experiential criteria of mystical experience, carefully defined. "The world's mythological traditions" (you cite) goes far beyond subject and is not the appropriate frame of focus or relevance. Mystic and mythic are not synonyms.

Obviously, somebody's individual ideas or opinion not based in the research may depart from the concept of mystical experience as accepted and used in psychedelic investigations. If someone prefers their own maverick definitions over those already painstakingly clarified and agreed upon, despite the confusion and inconsistency it poses, fine. (My cell phone company uses the word "minute" to mean "60 seconds OR ANY PORTION THEREOF" -- pretty sneaky for billing purposes). Castaneda fabricated his own goofy pet definitions for anthropological terms (like tonal, and nagual) that had nothing to do with their actual meanings, based in ethnography. He used them in his own way for his own questionable purposes, even convincing some undiscerning readers the anthropological lit was using those terms erroneously. Nice accomplishment there.

There's no law against disregarding meanings of words, or making up one's own terms. But they aren't binding upon psychedelic research, nor can they address its findings. They mainly obscure the subject; and for what purpose? Indeed, purposes or values are central, key factors. That's a point deserving emphasis.

For clear understanding of such a theoretically challenging subject, that sort of thing has to be distinguished and recognized for what it is. Especially where it would exaggerate, argue or disagree (a la T. McKenna and all his empty, wild-ass "theorizing") with findings from direct, careful, intensive studies with sound research methods and resulting validity. And propose its own divergent conclusions instead. Again, for whatever reason, with whatever intent.

The research on psychedelic drugs conducted by competent investigation actually stands up pretty well. There has been a goodly amount of it too, especially back in the 1950's and 1960's. Most recently, Griffiths' work in particular has admirably withstood hard critical review, and received significant acceptance. His conclusions -- and those of others before him -- are clear, carefully qualified, and build usefully upon previous findings. Interested readers can check that out. If one would rather ignore that stuff and argue Griffiths' conclusions from his own research are wrong ... hey, knock yourself out.

Depending upon one's objectives, a sound, well-informed understanding of the research is likely to shed more light on such a complex subject, than vagaries of rhetoric, personal terminologies or pet theories that don't integrate the data and research findings (or even try to). To invent new, hair-splitting distinctions ("mystic altered state" vs. "mystic experiencing?") while ignoring or blurring key critical concepts and tiptoeing around previous, substantiated findings -- all to try and justify (much less "prove") an argument -- is pretty gratuitous. That can't address anything usefully, only clutter the discussion table. You seem to echo Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty: "I use words to mean what I want them to mean." Fine if that's what one wants, but otherwise, no.

Steering toward the latter is ok (I guess) if one really prefers it; but its contribution is doubtful -- at best. No point of any greater value than an individual's agenda (whatever they're trying to "prove"). Plenty of that around already, seems to me.



 
Comment (6): Posted on Nov 6, 2012 3:38:33 AM PST
Dan says: This reviewer mentions the Hildesheim doors; Well, I've seen plenty of trees with pointy tops, but I've never seen a 10-foot high magic mushroom with branches.
QED?

The Review and Comments on this page are from Amazon.com




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