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CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGIST DEBORAH PRUITT

Dr. Deborah Pruitt, PH.D., a cultural anthropologist, testified about what constitutes a religion and the differences between faith based and experience based religions. Below is a draft copy of her affidavit filed with the court.

Resume of Deborah J. Pruitt, Ph.D. (80.00 Kb)


DEBORAH PRUITT, PH.D. declares under penalty of perjury: 

 I am a cultural anthropologist serving as tenured faculty member at Laney College at 900 
Fallon Street, Oakland, CA, 94607. I also serve as an associate faculty member at the Western 
Institute for Social Research, 3220 Sacramento Street, Berkeley, CA. I was awarded the Ph.D. in 
Anthropology from University of California at Berkeley in 1993. My doctoral research was 
conducted in Jamaica, 1989-1991, during which I worked with numerous NGOs and community 
groups working on community development. These groups included two Rastafarian associations. 
One established a basic school and the other developed a crafts producers' collective. Peer reviewed 
publications include research on the cultural impact of tourism in Jamaica, women and family law in 
Jamaica, ethics in teaching anthropology, and ethics and cultural pluralism in professions. 
For the past seven years, I have taught courses on the anthropology of religion. These 
courses include a survey of the religious use of drugs from anthropological studies spanning the 
past century. For this reason I have been asked to explain the cultural context of the use of mind 
altering substances for religious purposes to the court. This declaration represents the perspective 
drawn from cross-cultural and pan-historical accounts of the use of psychotropic substances. 
This issue deserves much more attention than is possible in this declaration. This 
declaration is intended to be a summary and guide to decades of intensive research and insight into 
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the common uses of psychoactive substances for direct access to sacred forces and healing in the 
universal quest for a better life. I have provided references for further investigation into this very 
complex issue. 
I begin with a short explanation of what constitutes religion as a universal human 
phenomenon. 

What is religion? 

 Religion is often mistakenly identified with established institutions. But religion is more 
accurately understood as a set of beliefs and practices that address the relationship between people 
and sacred, mystical forces. Every society of people has explained their existence as originating in 
mystical times and circumstances and have sought ways to reconnect and/or influence those forces 
from which they come (Eliade, 1949). Thus religion manifests in many forms in different societies 
and may include formal doctrine and institutions but often does not. 
The basis of what we call religion then, is the fact that humans universally are driven to seek 
experiences of unity with spiritual forces (Eliade, 1949; Harris, 1989). As I will explain below, 
people have employed numerous methods to do so. That pursuit leads to what are commonly called 
“religious experiences.” 
 A religious experience is a subjective state that has emotional and psychological elements 
that may involve fear, a general sense of well-being, or a profound sense of connection with a 
spiritual force. (Clark, 1958) It always involves an experience of something that exists beyond the 
individual and that is understood to be an essence of the universe ordinarily out of awareness. 
Clark’s definition of religion included the effect such an experience has on behaviors while one 
attempts to live her or his life in accord with the values derived from that inner experience. 
There is an important distinction to be made between religions based on faith (that doctrine 
or sacred scripture speak truth) and religions based on experience. Religions based on faith rely on 
full-time specialists to serve as intermediaries to spiritual realms and seek to influence the gods 
through prayer and ritual (Turner, 1972). Through special training they become the legitimated 
voices for the religious beliefs and practices, interpreting god's will for the populace. 
Religions based on experience revolve around creating the circumstances in which members 
can directly experience the numinous aspect of life. This is the ecstasy, or state of grace described 
in every major religious system and may include direct contact with spirits or deities. Adherents are 
sometimes referred to as "mystics." Examples include the magical rituals of Wicca, the spirit 
possession of vodun, Sufi trance dancing, or the healing journey of the shaman. Slotkin (1955:65) 
quotes a Comanche peyotist as saying "The white man talks about Jesus; we talk to Jesus." 
Gnostics fall in the category of religion based on experience (knowledge) - seeking direct 
experience of God and the divine nature within. As such, they comprise a mystical segment of 
Christianity analogous to Muslim Sufis, or Jewish Qabalists. 
Historically, we see that as religions became more formal and codified within doctrines and 
institutions, they became more faith based and reliant upon specialists. Established institutions 
show great concern over maintaining consistency of teachings and their doctrine. Competing 
interpretations are not allowed. Direct mystical experience is de-emphasized as more emphasis was 
placed on specialists and their roles as intermediaries between humans and the spirit realm. As 
doctrine is institutionalized, those groups that continue to emphasize direct experience of mystical 
realms and promote individual enlightenment are considered threatening to newly emerging order 
and are identified as heretical by the church authority, thus marginalized, and sometimes persecuted. 
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Early Christian history is a prime example. During the first century of Christianity there 
were many competing ideas and beliefs. Gnostics represented a substantial branch of Christianity at 
the time. Historians identify theologian St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon during much of the second 
century, as a prominent figure in establishing the early Christian canon and attacking Gnosticism as 
heresy. Their numbers quickly diminished and Gnostics have carried that legacy sense. 
Methods of Pursuit of the Sacred 
Cross-culturally, a myriad of methods have been employed for transcending ordinary 
everyday experience to enter into a sacred realm. These vary widely with cultural tradition and 
purpose. 
• Meditation may be passive or active. In active meditation, commonly used by shamans, the 
mind is focused on an object or sound such as rattling or drumming in a monotonous 
rhythm. 
• Spirit possession involves offering the self as a vessel for a spirit to enter and communicate 
with people on the earthly plane, bringing spiritual information and sometimes healing. 
• Isolation and sensory deprivation such as experienced through fasting, vision questing, or 
prolonged meditation are frequent modes of transcendence. We see these among the vision 
quests of Native American tribes as well as Buddhist and Christian monks. 
• Sleep deprivation is sometimes a component of altering consciousness, employed over a 
period of several days along with prayer and meditation. 
• Pain, usually self-inflicted, is a common form of worship and transcendence. Common 
across South Asian groups (where it is sometimes combined with spirit possession), present 
in the Native American Sun Dance, and Christian self-flagellation originating in 11th Century 
Italy and practiced across the world to this day. 

• Psychoactive substances are commonly used throughout the world. 

Religious use of Psychoactive Substances: 

 The use of drugs for pleasure exists everywhere, however, religious purposes are the 
dominant use. Not all societies depend on psychoactive plants, but where they exist they are 
embedded in the culture and spiritual practices, playing important roles in the belief systems, social 
organization and economic behavior (Dobkin de Rios, 1990). They are seen everywhere to be 
sources of divine inspiration. Robert Forte (1997) writes, "Entheogens . . . alter consciousness in 
such a profound way that, depending on the set and setting, their effects can range from states 
resembling psychosis to what are perhaps the ultimate human experiences union with God or 
revelation of other mystical realities." 
Many studies by anthropologists, psychologists, religious scholars, and theologians have 
confirmed the spiritual significance of entheogens. Examples include Ralph Metzner (1968) 
Harvard psychologist; Walter Houston Clark (1969) professor of psychology of religion at 
Andover Newton Theological Seminary; Harvey Cox, a Harvard theologian; Huston Smith (2000) 
MIT theologian and comparative religion scholar; David Toolan (1987) Jesuit scholar; 
ethnopharmacologists Terrence and Dennis McKenna (1976); and anthropologists Peter Furst, 
(1972, 1990) Michael Harner (1973); Francis Huxley (1970); Jeremy Narby (1998) just to name a 
few. 
Commonly cited and well-studied examples are: Huichol peyote, Yanomamo ebene, Jivaro 
ayahuasca, Native North and South American tobacco, Rastafarian marijuana, Psilocybin 
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mushrooms in Mesoamerica, Arawak coyaba, Ancient Maya ritual enemas, Ancient Hindu soma, 
Aztec ololiuhqui (morning glory seeds), Eleusinian Mystery rites in ancient Athens, Australian 
Aborigines pituri, the Fang of Equatorial Africa and the use of Tabernanthe iboga, and many more. 
In summary, we can say that indigenous people across Russia, Africa, Mexico, South American, 
North America and Asia use a variety of psychoactive sacramentals (Jesse, Robert "Testimony of 
the Council on Spiritual Practices, 1995) 
The types of drugs most commonly used, called hallucinogens, are also frequently called 
“entheogens” (from Greek roots meaning “to realize the divine within”) to mark the use of 
substances for spiritual purposes. Researchers have identified the chemical and psycho-neural 
properties of entheogens as distinct from products such as cocaine and heroin that serve to prohibit 
addiction. “Were it not for the legal classification of most entheogens as Schedule I drugs, it would 
go without saying that the examples of entheogen use... bear virtually no resemblance to the 
patterns of abuse and addiction frequently seen with drugs such as alcohol, cocaine, and heroine” 
(Schuster, 2001). This aspect, along with ritual setting are seen to generate the healing and 
enlightenment properties of drug use and preclude the damaging addictive effects of purely 
recreational use. 
Studies regarding the use of psychoactive substances for spiritual purposes identify a clear 
distinction between spiritual uses and recreational use of drugs. Key here is (1) the spiritual intent 
of its use and (2) the ritual context of its consumption - what we call “set and setting.” (Huxley, 
1970, Schuster, 2001). The religious use of drugs everywhere is distinguished by the desire to 
achieve direct access to alternative realities for the purpose of spiritual insight and healing. This 
"set" of intention is distinct from secular drug use for recreation or escapism. The “drug” must be 
placed in service of an idea and consumed in a manner that provides for spiritual communication. 
Ritual provides the "setting," creating a structure for establishing an altered state of 
consciousness. Ritual is understood to be necessary to generate spiritual results and to protect from 
madness - from getting lost, losing touch with reality, or sliding into addictive use. Universally, the 
religious use of drugs is bound in ritual context, often with the guidance of a religious specialist 
referred to in the anthropological literature as a shaman. Those who are skilled in the use of 
psychoactive substances as a method through which to contact the spirit world in service to their 
communities and bring them physical and spiritual healing and spiritual guidance are called 
shamans. Shamanic traditions include an immense knowledge of plants and their properties - 
knowledge that science has barely begun to assess. 
The intention for the use of these substances is understood to affect the outcome of the 
experience. These plants are sacred in their native cultures for a reason - they are known to be 
powerful and will cause serious problems if abused (Narby, 1998). For instance, members of the 
Native American Church are emphatic that peyote should not be taken outside the ritual setting. The 
healing and spiritual wisdom available from peyote will not be available (Slotkin, 1955). Another 
revealing example from Native American cultures is that of tobacco. While tobacco is consumed by 
many people in the US habitually, it has a spiritual meaning in indigenous American cultures and is 
used to heal (Narby, 1998). 
The meaning and experience of drugs is culturally mediated. The fact that South American 
shamans can use tobacco to achieve spiritual visions and healing, while many habitually smoke 
dozens of cigarettes a day with no spiritual significance illustrates this. The substances that are 
considered sacred by most people in the world are prohibited in the US. The legal classification and 
prohibition of substances traditionally used for attaining spiritual enlightenment has further 
disconnected these entheogens from their spiritual context (Schuster). 
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The disciplined practice of transcending the material realm and the ego mind in order to 
connect with larger sources of knowledge and insight is a time honored tradition in every culture. 
Seeking direct access to and connection with the life giving forces bring wisdom and perspective to 
daily life. Psychoactive substances have played an important role in that pursuit of spiritual 
enlightenment. In fact, the use of psychoactive substances for religious purposes is so common 
throughout the world that it can be said that it is not the act of using a substance such as marijuana 
or peyote that is unusual or exceptional, rather it is the prohibition of such use that is peculiar. 
Prohibition of psychoactive substances has only occurred in very recent state organized 
societies that use their monopoly on power to constrain the population and guarantee its allegiance. 
Such prohibition can be seen as the ultimate limit to freedom - the freedom to make spiritual 
connections as one understands them. 

New Religious forms: 

 From the view of mainstream religious institutions, new religious groups are generally seen 
as strange "cults", or even as charlatans. But new religious groups form all the time in response to 
new insight or something perceived as lacking in existing religious institutions. Thus, by definition, 
they are viewed as suspicious or even threatening by established religions. This does not make them 
any less “religious” or sincere however. These were the beginnings of all religious institutions 
viewed as "mainstream" today. 
It could be argued that new religious forms necessarily spring from a highly genuine and 
sincere spiritual pursuit because of the effort it takes to articulate and develop a practice (or in the 
case of Gnostics, to revive one) rather than to follow an established conventional path. In addition, 
they must do so in the face of skepticism, sometimes ostracism, and at times, persecution. This is 
especially true in the U.S. when psychotropic substances are involved. The religious rhetoric 
surrounding their use is often dismissed as rationalization for getting an exemption from the laws 
that prohibit their use. This is likely due to lack of recognition of the distinction between 
recreational and religious use of drugs. 
DECLARED UNDER PENALTY OF PERJURY THIS 25th DAY OF APRIL, 2006 AT SAN 
FRANCISCO, CA 
/s/ Deborah Pruitt, Ph.D. 


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