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Alcohol and religion

Alcoholic drinks are highly symbolic in many religions. Islam and Buddhism reject alcohol for its psychotropic properties. However, it features in rituals in other religions. The Fali people use beer in all their ceremonies, while wine plays a sacred role in Judaism.
ST031-01 Benediction vin grand rabbin Eliezer Zev Israel 2016
© Shutterstock / david156 - Rabbi Eliezer Zev blesses the wine, Israel, 9 November 2016

The two sides of alcohol

Alcoholic drinks feature in many religions. Whether beer, wine, pulque (made from agave sap) in Central America, chicha (made from corn) in the Andes, or rice-based spirits in the Far East, all these fermented drinks are highly symbolic. The complex fermentation process requires skill and, if the result is sometimes unpredictable, this has been attributed to divine intervention. Wine very soon replaced the sacrificial offering of animal blood to the gods and was a way for people to commune with deities. The Catholic Church gave wine a sacred dimension, recalling the blood of Jesus Christ.

Alcohol can also be a symbol of excess and confusion. Consuming alcohol has psychotropic effects that can be pleasantly liberating or cause debauchery and social disorder. Some of the world’s religions have made a distinction between temperance, inebriation and drunkenness. They disapprove of disorderly consumption of alcohol and only tolerate a certain level of intoxication in a clearly defined context. Buddhism and Islam condemn alcohol because it induces a loss of self-control. In the Sunni tradition, “alcohol is the mother of all vices and it is the most shameful vice” (Sounan Ibn-Majah, Hadith 3371). However, wine remains the promised drink in heaven.

Ceremonial use of alcohol

Alcohol played an important role in ancient rituals. It was offered as a libation and would accompany the deceased on their final journey, or play a role in rites of passage, the cycles of life or the seasons, for example. It could also induce mystical intoxication. The link between religion and alcohol remains present to this day, as in some animist and polytheist religions. Among the Fali people in Cameroon, millet beer (known as bolo) is a festive drink that features in every ritual. They use it to warm up the body during initiation ceremonies. It can be an offering and help people make contact with their ancestors and with supernatural powers. The Shamanic ritual uses other psychotropic beverages to access the afterlife and make contact with the spirits, as is the case with ayahuasca (a drink made from vines) in the Amazon rainforest.

Wine is a central part of Judeo-Christian religions. In Judaism, wine is sanctified and consumed as part of rituals. Festive and Sabbath meals always begin with the ‘kiddush’, the blessing of the wine before blessing the bread. The participants then pass the wine cup around. During the Passover Seder meal, one of the most widely observed feasts in Judaism, adults and children drink from four cups of wine at specific times. This custom serves, among other things, as a means of expressing the joy of freedom regained, of rejoicing and praising God’s generosity. Wine also takes pride of place during the feasts of Purim, which commemorate the salvation of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire, and Simhat Torah, which celebrates the receipt of the Torah. At Purim, guests are even encouraged to become slightly inebriated as this is seen as an expression of joy. However, aside from these more permissive festivals, in general, drinking alcohol, even in moderation, remains heavily codified. Christianity permits the consumption of alcohol during convivial moments of sharing, but condemns drunkenness as part of the sin of gluttony, given that it merely serves to provide selfish, carnal pleasure.