To “open the doors of perception,” to recognize the futility of getting and spending and focus on experiencing the moment, to access superhuman reserves of strength or love—such are the promises of religion. Such are also the promises of LSD, marijuana, PCP, and ecstasy, respectively. A cannabis high may not take us all the way to the Most High, but it’s high enough. We can take LSD trips as surreal as Dante’s. On PCP you can move mountains, or at least small cars. Ecstasy fills us with instant agape.
It’s no surprise that drugs have developed their own culture—that people who use drugs, and explore non-normative experiences, often feel themselves set apart, able to relate to each other but not to the mainstream of society. Hence the tendency of the great books and poems that sing of those exalted and/or crushed by drug use—consider the great Beat classics, like Howl or On the Road—express a very strong sense of community. The Beats, both in their writing and in their lives, have given us some of the great stories of friendship in American literature: their adventures, their tragedies are often lived, languaged, experienced together. To know Kerouac you must know Neal Cassady. The Beats themselves are one of the few collections of writers who were comfortable with a group designation; who actually invented the catch-all term by which they are known. (Usually, it’s a critic who names a group of writers, like the “New York School,” while the writers grumble how they’re actually all quite different, thank you very much.)
It is little different with religion. To stick to literary examples, consider the friendship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz, a very Kerouac-Cassady, writer-liberator relationship. Likewise Virgil taking Dante on a trip. And where does Dante finish his trip? In heaven, among the Elect, plural. Similar hosts of enlightened beings populate the Buddhist universe (Bodhisattvas) and the Hindu universe (Devas, or Gods)—always plural. (Even the term Elohim, in the earliest Hebrew, used to be understood as a plural noun; note also how much of the Qu’ran is in the first person plural.) The company of the Elect in heaven is mirrored by the company of the Select here on earth: There’s evidence enough of this in church congregations, sects with their own compounds, Bible camps, and so on.
Is it merely that the likeminded like to hang out with the likeminded? Yes, but this fact of human nature governs political parties and the Trekkies who gather at Comicon. What sets both drug culture and religious culture apart from the run-of-the-mill version of this phenomenon—apart, I would argue, in the same way—is existential exclusivity. These are not cigar aficionados or Jane Austen fans, meeting up and chatting on the basis of a shared obsession. The true user and the true believer have accessed an experience that penetrates to the nature of their being; something exogenous (God, MDMA, LSD) has unlocked something internal (Christian love, feelings of universal intimacy, hallucinations). They cannot go back easily to those who have not gained this self-knowledge, those who have perhaps no inkling of it. The mechanism guiding a “drug culture” parallels the one that establishes a religious community: The insights resulting from an abnormal experience estranges a small group from the rest of humanity. These insights are often similar: The often mocked and reviled lassitude of the pothead is a philosophical outlook very close to Wordsworth’s “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” which in turn is very close to Ecclesiastes 5:10: “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.” The loving uprush of Ecstasy, transient though it is, may well be the compassion a Bodhisattva feels all the time.