The Immortality Key, by the American author and lawyer Brian C. Muraresku, is at once entertaining, annoying, important, and badly argued. They key assertion is that the ancient mystery religions used psychoactive doped beer or wine, akin in its effects to psilocybin experiences of today. He does us a great service in reminding the present that the Eleusinian Mysteries, as they were called, involved a ceremonial consumption of psychoactive chemicals of unknown nature, and that the pilgrimage and associated ceremonies acted as the centre of a religious cult that lasted for centuries if not millennia. The Eleusisian Mysteries were not some trivial affair. The site, and its ceremonies, acted as the major cultic centre of the ancient Greek-speaking world. Romans too participated.
To summarize the argument, Muraresku claims:
- that Eleusis (a city near Athens) was the centre of a cult that involved psychoactive chemicals absorbed in religious context. Though the participants were sworn to secrecy, enough has been written about the effects of the ceremonies to give a reasonable confidence that whatever went on there caused participants to have profound psychic events that erased in them the fear of death.
- Other centres of such ceremonial consumption of psychoactive beer and wine existed in the Greek-speaking world.
- That some early Greek-speaking Christians practiced holy communions of a similar type. This is called the “pagan continuity thesis”. It means that Christianity emerged out of the interaction of Judaism with a Greek-speaking, wine drinking culture and that, to be accepted by the Greeks, the core ceremonies of Christianity were made attractive to the followers of Dionysus, god of wine. Although Muraresku is not clear on this point, it appears from his argument that some but not all early Christian house churches of the Greek speaking world practiced a communion with pyschoactive chemicals.
- This form of holy communion with the body and blood of the living God was suppressed by Roman Catholic Church authorities in the course of time.
- The Roman and other churches have been offering a placebo communion for the last two thousand years.
- The suppression of witches in the 16th and 17th centuries was a further continuing suppression of ancient female-borne knowledge of psychoactive chemicals.
The first two points are very likely to be true. The third is a stretch, but it could be true. The fourth point, suppression of psychoactive communions, depends on the third point being true, because there might have been no psychoactive chemical communions to suppress. The fifth point, that what is offered in communion to this day is a placebo, a substitute for the eating of the flesh and drinking of the blood of the true God, constitutes (I believe) a huge mistake as to what the Chritian message is. The last point, that the suppression of witches was the suppression of female centred drug knowledge, seems plausible
Muraresku calls this the “pagan continuity with psychoactive twist” thesis.
I find it significant that the author has never tried psychoactive chemicals of any kind. Thus his arguments cannot be refuted or defended against by saying he is a drug adept. For the same reason they also partake of a complete innocence of the issue. In my experience, psychoactive chemicals, such as psilocybin and other entheogens, have to be approached in a spirit of religious awe, and in a completely secure and preferably beautiful setting. The reasons for this is obvious to anyone who has tripped. Nor should they be done in a crowd. Not everyone can handle it. Some might be in a very bad mental space. For many practical reasons, you cannot have thousands of people tripping on acid or psilocybin every Sunday. It is hard to see how the Church could have become universal in time and place if its core ceremonhy had remained (if it ever had been) a quasi-private drug initiation.
Yet none of these reasons of prudential wisdom capture my real objection to the Muraresku thesis. Whether you are tripping or stone cold sober, you are required to believe certain impossible propositions in order to be a Christian. Impossible to nature that is. The idea that Christ rose from the dead is not made any more likely depending on the chemicals in your brain at the time of hearing the news. And if it were made to seem more likely by the consumption of entheogens, then the Gospel message would be made to look ridiculous in the sober light of the day after the trip. Either way, you may get to belief through psychoactive chemicals, or not arrive at belief at all. Pschoactive chemicals can loosen tightly bound minds. They do not bring one to belief, however.
Belief is not knowledge. If we knew, belief would be superfluous. I do not have to believe the car is in the garage if I see it parked there. Belief is what you reserve for what you cannot prove.
For a brilliant discussion of Christianity’s revolutionary message and effects, you are far better off reading Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.
As a prose stylist and as a historian, Holland is a far superior writer to Muraresku.
In Dominion, Holland reminds us of just how revolutionary it was for God to sacrifice his son to the humiliating death of a slave, through crucifixion.
I have no objection to psychoactive drugs taken in religious ceremonies, or for therapy, or for any solemn exploration whatever. But I do not believe that Christianity’s core sacrament is made valid or invalid according as we are stoned on enthogens at the time of participation.
Finally, as a lawyer, and therefore as an crafter of arguments, Brian Muraresku needs to be reminded that a paragraph consisting of a series of questions, however suggestive, does not constitute a rational discussion. State your argument, man! Say it boldly! His book would have benefitted from a reader who was ready to challenge him by asking: “what are you really saying here, Brian?”. “And if you really believe it, say it!” The book suffers from too much narration of the author doing his reasearch and talking with sources, and not enough careful exposition and handling of obvious counter-arguments. In the long run, no one needs to know what kind of day it was when he visited the Vatican Library.
Still, Muraresku has written an annoying, interesting, badly-flawed but possibly important book. Holland’s by contrast, is impeccable in style and content, and I commend it unreservedly.
Brian Muraresku appeared with Graham Hancock on the Joe Rogan show. He did not have time to get to the last three arguments noted above in bullets.