Drinking My Religion—an A to Z Primer

By Jodi Sh. Doff 08/13/17

From the Amish to Zoroastrianism, Jodi Sh. Doff explores 16 religions and their different takes on alcohol.

Greek God of Wine, Dionysus
Religion and alcohol have a long, interwoven relationship that varies from faith to faith.

Booze, in its many forms, was part of many ancient religions and offered to gods in various rituals and festivals. Egyptian mummys were sent into the afterlife along with a goodly supply of wine. Mesopotamia had a few booze deities: Ninkasi and Siris were both goddesses of beer, Geštinanna was the goddess of wine (and writers!). The Greeks had Dionysus, and intoxication was considered possession by the God of Wine, himself. The Romans had Bacchus, and both cults used wine, music and dance to reach a state of ecstasy. The Sumerians, Babylonians, and Chinese offered it up to the ancestors. The ancient Chinese considered jiu (alcohol) to be spiritual food and a source of inspiration, with an imperial edict in 1116 BC declaring moderate drinking to be an order from Heaven. The Norse used ale and mead during big religious and seasonal festivals as well as smaller religious family events like funerals and christenings. The Shintos used sake during purification rituals as a way to communicate with the gods.

Those were the good old days. What are today’s major religions saying about booze? There’s a reason we refer it as the “good” old days.

Amish / Church of Latter Day Saints / Mormon: The Amish aren’t really traditionally big drinkers. Despite what Breaking Amish might have you believe of Rumspringa, drinking among the young Amish is considerably less than average American teenager. As Donald Kraybill says in The Riddle of Amish Culture: “Alcohol abuse, present among some youth, is practically nil among adults.” The Amish aren’t across the board teetotalers, though. You can be excommunicated for drinking alcohol, but there seems to be a loophole built in for drinking “pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.”

Bahá'í: Bahá'ís believe intoxicants rob you of your reason and lead your mind astray. In "The Most Holy Book," Bahá’u’lláh says: It is forbidden for an intelligent person to drink that which depriveth him of his intelligence; it behoveth him to engage in that which is worthy of man, not in the act of every heedless doubter. Drinking is like playing “Take a Giant Step (Away)” with God and is forbidden except by a doctor's order.

Buddhism: The 5th of the “Five Precepts,” states: I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from drink and drugs that cloud the mind. That said, strict avoidance is rare. Many Buddhist monks and lay-people take a pretty relaxed view as long as it does not disrupt mindfulness or impede one's progress in the Noble Eightfold Path. In other words, you might be able to get away with practicing “Mindful Drinking.”

Christianity: Trappist monks brewed beer and made wine, and the Blessed Virgin told her son to turn the water into wine. But just when you think BYOB is going to be okay with the Church, you read the stories of naked Noah running around and let’s not even mention Lot and his daughters. With the exception of the Eucharistic wine that the Church says has been turned into the blood of Jesus Christ through transubstantiation, blame for Prohibition and bathtub gin rests pretty much on the Methodists and the Christians.

Confucianism: Brewing alcohol dates back to the beginning of China’s 5,000-year history. Back then, it was strictly for the elite and only the upper class could consume alcohol regularly, keeping in mind that Confucianism allowed alcohol, but discouraged over consumption. The rest of the population didn’t have to worry, they could barely afford alcohol.

Hindu: Alcohol consumption is not recommended in Hinduism, but it’s allowed for special occasions and medicinally. Wine is considered a potent healer for specific health conditions in Ayurveda, the oldest documented system of medicine. It does not recommend wine for everyone, but this ancient Indian healing system does use fermented juices and herbs medicinally.

Islam: When Muhammad was alive, Muslims drank alcohol. It was not until many years later that khamr, the Islamic term for any beverage causing drunkenness, was seen an incentive from Satan that weakened the conscience of the believer and so prohibited in the Koran. That hasn’t stopped Muslim majority countries from producing alcoholic beverages like rakı (Turkey) or boukha (Tunisia). It’s possible they’re inspired by the Koran’s promise that “one of the delights of Paradise for the righteous is wine which does not intoxicate as a promise by God.”

Jainism: Based strongly in nonviolence and deeply committed to vegetarianism, Jainism doesn’t permit alcoholic beverages because fermentation depends on microorganisms, thereby making the beverage non-vegetarian.

Judaism: Alcohol is generally considered okay within moderation or as part of religious duties like sanctifying the Sabbath. Medieval Egyptian Jews used wine in feasts and as part of Talmudic medicine. The Old Testament says that wine “gladdens human hearts” and you can “spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire.” Mostly a male-bonding experience, modern “Kiddush Clubs” meet after Sabbath services to make kiddush (blessing of wine) and socialize. Drinking itself doesn’t violate Jewish law, but entering the Temple drunk does, so many Kiddush club meetings have moved into members homes after services are completely over. With a growing awareness of alcohol abuse issues in Jewish communities, specifically Jewish non-profit addiction rehabilitation and education programs have sprung up to provide treatment for alcohol (and other substance) abuse within a specifically Jewish framework for recovery.

Seventh Day Adventist: Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and author of “The Ministry of Healing” wrote: “Moderate drinking is the school in which men are educated for the drunkard’s career.”  Believing the wine referenced in the water-into-wine Bible story to be unfermented grape juice, SDAs follow closely to Fundamental Belief #22 which states “our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, we are to care for them intelligently…alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and the irresponsible use of drugs and narcotics are harmful to our bodies, we are to abstain…” With not a lot of room for misinterpretation, maybe there is something to 2005 National Geographic cover story that claims that Adventists live longer because, among other things, they do not drink alcohol or smoke.

Shinto: Sake and Shinto are inseparable, connecting the corporeal and spiritual world. If rice is a life-giving gift from the gods, then the joy of sake is extra special. Shinto shrines ask the gods for the prosperity of the brewers, and sake manufacturers donate the sake needed for ceremonies and festivals. Sake is offered to appease the wild spirit of aggression and valor (Aramitama) that’s both without and within us, and to thank the spirit (Nigimitama) of calm, serenity, gentleness. Marrying couples ritually sip sake during a Shinto ceremony. Yakudoshi is the Japanese superstition that says that 33 is an unlucky age for women, 42 for men. A “Carp Releasing Exorcism” ceremony involves feeding Japanese rice wine to a carp and releasing him into a river, paying homage to the carp, earning good karma, and breaking the yakudoshi curse at the same time. “[S]ake has always been a way of bringing our gods and people together,” says Tetsuo Hasuo of the Japan Sake Brewers Association. “In some of this country’s oldest texts the word used for sake is miki, written with the characters for ‘god’ and ‘wine.’” Drinking rice wine at a festival or shrine is still a symbolic unification with the gods.

Sikhism: The Persian word for wine, sharaab, translates to the water of mischief. Body-as-temple is taken very seriously by Sikhs and intoxicants of any kind are forbidden. Entering the Golden Temple with even a teeny bit of booze in your body ends in forcible removal by temple guards. A Sikh’s only intake should be food. Christians have confession, the Jews have Yom Kippur, but in the words of 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint, Bhagat Kabeer Ji, those who imbibe, “no matter what pilgrimages, fasts and rituals they follow, they will all go to hell.”

Taoism: Through much of Chinese history, watered down wine was a primary beverage because it reduced the risk of drinking contaminated water and served as a general health tonic. Most Taoist sects don’t have a prohibition against alcohol, but drunkenness shows a poor level of spiritual development and is frowned upon. Taoists, like Buddhists, have a list of pretty easy to understand precepts, the fifth of which states: Do not get intoxicated but always think of pure conduct. The Elder Lord explains: "One should not take any alcoholic drinks, unless he has to take some to cure his illness, to regale the guests with a feast, or to conduct religious ceremonies."

Zoroastrianism: Wine plays a significant role in many Zoroastrian celebrations. Persian poet Hafiz referred both to drinking adventures occurring “within the Magian (magus refers to Zoroastrians) tavern” and Zoroastrian tavern-wenches serving wine and providing entertainment. In today’s Iran, where alcohol and liquor trade are prohibited, Zoroastrians are still allowed to brew and drink behind closed doors. While there are no restrictions against alcohol, Zoroastrianism’s focus on responsibility and balance means excessive drinking is unacceptable.

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Jodi Sh. Doff is a self-described scribbler, shutterbug, and succulent cactus. She writes about booze, sex, crime, and righteous feminist indignation. She is also an editor, script doctor and a ghostwriter for non-native english speakers. You can find Jodi on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.