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Duke Scholar Explores A Potent Brew of Religion, Ritual and Psychedelic Drugs

Religious studies instructor Larissa Carneiro has followed her romantic and academic heart to Durham and then back to Brazil to study the ayahuasca-embracing Church of Santo Daime, “Saint Give Me”

April 03, 2024 | By Dan Vahaba
Originally published on Duke Today


“To me, religion is just brain activity,” said Larissa Carneiro, Ph.D., a religious studies instructor at Duke whose work is at the intersection of religion, neuroscience, and psychedelics.

Despite her skepticism about the existence of God and reincarnation, though, Carneiro says she has lived many lives.

“I'm 57 years old, and I have had five different lives without dying and being born again,” Carneiro said.

Carneiro was born in São Sebastião do Paraíso, Brazil, and started her first life (or two) after moving to Belo Horizonte when she was 15 years old. There, she started on a path that would take her from reporting on the parallels between suicide bomber propaganda and Catholic saints as a journalist and film maker, to teaching about the science of Harry Potter “magic” as an instructor at Duke. She then returned to Brazil to learn about the syncretic Church of Santo Daime (Portuguese for “Saint Give Me”) and the congregants’ weekly service marked by song, prayer, and consumption of the indigenous South American psychedelic brew ayahuasca.

Several lives and many miles later, Carneiro says that, as the Don Juan quote goes, she has always made sure her path has a heart.

“Science Embedded in Religion”

Carneiro started her career covering intriguing communities as a journalist and documentary researcher/producer in Brazil. There, she covered topics as varied as the local heavy metal music scene to the sizable Israeli population in her new hometown of Belo Horizonte. It was from her time researching the pilgrimage of Jewish people from the mystical artist colony of Tzfat in Israel to Brazil that sparked Carneiro’s interest in religion.

“That's when I realized I wanted to abandon journalism, go into academia, study religion and media technology and become a better journalist,” Carneiro said. “Well, I didn’t go back.”

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Larissa Carneiro is an instructor of religious studies.
Larissa Carneiro is an instructor of religious studies. (John West Photo)

Carneiro instead enrolled in a college mirroring her own religious feelings, the “kind of secular” Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, and turned her attention to studying the similarities between the rhetoric of Catholic saints and the martyrdom propaganda created to promote suicide bombers through websites.

“It was transforming,” Carneiro said. “You know your high school classmate that’s a nobody? Suddenly, you look him up on a website, and he's saying he was sent by God.”

Her academic work was not the only thing she fell in love with while earning her master’s degree in communication and mediatic interactions. Carneiro also met her future spouse during her studies, David Morgan, Ph.D., professor (and current chair) of religious studies at Duke.

The happy couple eventually ended up moving to Durham, Carneiro with little more than a rollie bag and two dogs, and tied the knot.

Though she arrived with humble means, Carneiro quickly found her footing and enrolled in a doctoral program at North Carolina State University, earning her Ph.D. in communication, rhetoric, and digital media in 2016.

She also got hooked on science during her time in Raleigh, studying, among other things, how the contributions of 17th century science discourse affected Bible productions to justify Christianity. That work inspired the third theme in her holy trinity of research interests: science.

After she joined Duke as an instructor a year after defending her dissertation, Carneiro’s teaching inspired her to get back to Brazil and marry all of her research interests with an insider’s perspective. Surprisingly, this inspiration came from a friend’s advice to create a class on religion and Harry Potter (she’s a self-admitted mega-fan).

“I started to research Harry Potter and realized that it is not a magical world at all,” Carneiro said. “It is a scientific world of medieval and early modernity. Everything they do is actually science that they brand as magic. Alchemy, astrology, divination, spells, charms. Everything was used in the religious and scientific context which we call magic. Magic is actually science embedded in religion.”

From her Harry Potter-inspired research, she dove into the world of ancient religions and indigenous practices as part of her new course on paganism and witchcraft, and studied Native American, Celtic, Viking, and other cultures. One common theme emerged: psychedelics.

Enhanced Religious Experience

Many cultures and religions have long cultivated other psychedelics, such as peyote, psilocybin, and cannabis, as Carneiro teaches in her course on psychedelic religions. (This new course achieved full enrollment within 15 minutes when it was first offered in 2022).

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An altar features Santo Cruzeiro, also known as the Cross of Lorraine. (Larissa Carneiro)
An altar features Santo Cruzeiro, also known as the Cross of Lorraine. (Larissa Carneiro)

“People are starting to find psychoactive substances in many different temples,” Carneiro said, such as a  recent discovery by archeologists in Israel who found cannabis in a 2,700-year-old-temple for Jewish worship. “In one of the temple’s incensors they found frankincense, and in the other one marijuana.”

While it’s hazy if marijuana was used to get high or just as perfumery, it does point to the long-standing history of psychoactive substances in religion, which is Carneiro’s specialty.

“I research contemporary religions that use psychedelics that I can go there and see,” Carneiro said. And that means returning to Brazil to study the Church of Santo Daime.

Santo Daime is a mixing pot of religions. A dash of South American shamanism. A hint of African animism. Add a splash of Catholicism and a seemingly Judaic star for good measure. One of the features that distinguishes it from its constituent ingredients, however, is the bi-weekly eight-to-12-hour service that begins with all congregants, young and old, consuming the potent psychoactive brew ayahuasca and ends with a campfire and conversation around 3 a.m.

“You will sweat. You will vomit -- a lot. You can have horrible experiences,” Carneiro said about the experience of drinking ayahuasca, which members refer to as “the force.” “And they see that as the cleaning and healing. They don’t see it as a conflict of the drug.”

Carneiro says that’s kind of the point. As stomachs settle, members of the Church of Santo Daime also partake in ritualistic singing and drumming before the late-night bonfire starts. It’s those very rituals surrounding the use of ayahuasca that might explain health benefits observed in religious groups who imbibe, such as the potential to treat psychiatric disorders, like addiction or depression.

“The first thing biomedical researchers started to do was try to purify it and transform ayahuasca into a molecule of DMT and give it to people to try to minimize the side effects, like nausea,” Carneiro said. “They realized that was not working, so now all the cutting-edge research in Brazil with ayahuasca actually has rituals.”

Several studies from Brazilian universities in Natal and São Paulo have found that a single dose of ayahuasca can lead to rapid and long-lasting treatments for depression. And the key to the trials’ success was making the laboratory more like a living room (or a Santo Daime service), with the addition of soft lights, a recliner, and instrumental music and Portuguese singing playing in the background during the experience.

“These churches -- Santo Daime, União do Vegetal, Barquinha – are now providing universities who are conducting this kind of research the [ayahuasca] brew,” Carneiro said. “It’s not pure anymore, it’s not DMT. It's DMT with a lot of other stuff.”

The “other stuff” also includes experiential elements like “the drumming, the music, the singing, the community with you,” Carneiro said.

These chemical and ritual ingredients might both be required for psychedelics such as ayahuasca and guided therapy sessions with psilocybin to take off as a new line of medical experiences to treat depression, PTSD, and other psychiatric disorders.

Members of the congregation pound on pieces of the vine jagube to begin preparing the ayahuasca. (Larissa Carneiro)

Mysticism and Belief

Carneiro is continuing to make summer visits to Brazil to continue to her research, which she hopes to write into a monograph soon. She’s blessed with funding in part thanks to the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and is praying for more financial assistance through an upcoming grant submission to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The added benefit of studying a population in her homeland has been the ability to visit her parents during her treks back to Belo Horizonte, where Carneiro’s family have their own discussions about religion and magic.

Carneiro’s father insists that her mother is “not very Catholic in the traditional sense,” since she has waning attendance at church. But her mom defends her flagging interest, saying that since mass is not in Latin anymore, it’s “less special and mystical now.”