Church of the Universe: Marijuana as a Sacrament

A strong selling point of the Church of the Universe is the use of marijuana as a sacrament — so assuming someone is inclined to indulge, the church is a godsend.

That link to the divine, however, did not stop police three years ago from charging two of the brethren with possession of marijuana for the purpose of trafficking.

Now the case, which began in April, is in one of the more unusual phases to ever take place in a Canadian court room: A debate over what exactly constitutes a religion and even whether such a definition is even possible.

Brother Peter Styrsky and Brother Sharooz Kharaghani — two bearded, gnome-like men who sport funky wool caps to court and whose supporters in the gallery smell vaguely of something illegal — believe their freedom of religion, under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, had been violated.

The two men are ministers at the “G13 Mission” in Toronto, which is a church, an organic plant store and allegedly an illegal source of marijuana.

“This is an inside joke among people who like to smoke marijuana,” suggested Crown attorney Nicholas Devlin during cross-examination of a senior member of the Church of the Universe, in April.

On Monday, Mr. Devlin called to the witness stand Katherine Young, a professor of religion at McGill University, to articulate what a religion is and then to show why the Church of the Universe is more of a club to smoke pot than a real faith.

Prof. Young herself warned that trying to come up with a definition is an enormous problem for scholars because of the complexity of religious beliefs. Indeed, defence lawyer George Filipovic attacked Prof. Young’s theories under cross-examination, charging that her definition was arbitrary, too specific and her research into the Church of the Universe would be “laughed at by fellow academics and would never have been written by a respectable scholar.”

Prof. Young looked at the characteristics of major and minor religions and then compared those characteristics with the Church of the Universe. She studied major and minor religions and created a list of 10 common denominators that she said all faiths had: a supernatural dimension, whether it be God, gods, ghosts or spirits, or an ultimate experience; a way to help people to live with such paradoxes as life and death, good and evil, and order and disorder; a source of authority from a scripture or ancestral teachings or a magisterial structure like the Catholic Church; a system of symbols; sacred times, such as holy days, and sacred places, such as temples or pilgrimage routes; a series of repeatable rituals; an ethical system and taboos; a comprehensive way of life; the ability to sustain a group, not just individuals; and an identity or tradition that can be passed from one generation to the next.

Prof. Young said she could not see anything that resembled ritual, sacred spaces or symbols, or helped its members deal with life’s paradoxes in the Church of the Universe.

The only “scripture” or other literature she could find was from Cannabis Culture magazine, a secular journal, and some information on a web site.

“The group raises a lot of suspicions,” she said. “It’s not clear if it’s a religion or a front [for protection against marijuana laws].”

She also said the group did not require obligations from its adherents and the general teaching was “do anything you want to do” — a characteristic she had not found in any other accepted religion.

“If there are no obligations then you are left with anything you want it to be,” she said.

Mr. Filipovic said Prof. Young’s definition of religion was far too specific and many notable scholars have put forth definitions that were far broader.

He quoted William James, the philosopher who authored The Varieties of Religious Experience, who wrote: “[R]eligion shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine.”

Mr. Devlin mentioned Sir Edward Tylor, an a renowned anthropologist, who thought religion could be boiled down to just a belief in a spiritual being.

Mr. Filipovic added that at least two established religions, the Quakers and Unitarians, forego creeds, use little or no symbols, and will often meld traditions of other faiths into their worship.

He also challenged the idea of endurance. Fifteen years ago, he said, Falun Gong had not a single member. Within six years the movement had grown to an estimaged 70 million members, far surpassing many religions that are hundreds or thousands of years old.

– Article from The National Post.