Alcohol – A Gift

More than any other driver, it seems that religion has had the most influence on how alcohol has been viewed and used since it’s discovery approx.12,000 years ago. This basis of religious/state sanctioned use of alcohol is at the heart of the next 12,000 years of attempts to control and mediate its use.

When we discuss religion, in this project its context is not just a belief system, but also the system of control over entire populations. Thus for the purposes of this project, Religion is the state, up until the Enlightenment when the two were ostensibly separated.

Alcohol was seen as something wonderful and mysterious. It came from nature, but had amazing power over the mind and body. It was a magical and mysterious force that must have come from the Gods and therefore should be worshipped. Historically, alcohol has had very close ties with religion. Sub-Saharan African ancient civilisations (the oldest on earth) made alcoholic beverages from honey, millet and sorghum and used these in almost all religious festivals or rites of passage.

Early in Greek and Egyptian history there is mention of alcohol being deified: from burying jugs of it with the dead for enjoyment in the afterlife, to personifying it in the Gods of Dionysis, Osiris and Bacchus. The God Osiris was believed by the Egyptians to have invented beer, and beer was brewed in homes on an every day basis; seen as sacred and offered to the gods.

shamanism = technique of ecstasy


Looking at surviving artwork and artifacts, “they support the idea that the preparation and uses of fermented beverages during the Paleolithic period were focused on an authority figure, the ‘shaman’, who oversaw a community’s religious and social needs”. 500



In antiquity, a variety of drugs and alcoholic beverages (Balché) were used in medicine and religious ceremonies.

“Drunkenness was connected with the wide-spread practice of divination, a ritual act designed to allow direct communication with certain supernatural forces such that an individual could foretell the future or understand due causes for events or illness not otherwise understood. A drunken state was supposed to give one the insight to interpret the reasons for illness, misfortune, adverse weather, and so forth. 501

In China as well, alcohol was seen as god-given and was considered a spiritual (mental) food rather than material (physical). A Chinese imperial edict of about 1,116 B.C. makes it clear that the use of alcohol in moderation was believed to be prescribed by heaven.

As can be seen, alcohol started its life being embraced by the human species as something that was a divine gift. Religion or belief systems sanctioned the use of alcohol and gave it a fundamental tick of approval. This basic fact is central to how alcohol has been regulated throughout history. The substance itself was quarantined from discussions and regulations that dealt with over-indulgence. The question of alcohol in itself being a problem was not asked until the 19th century.

Some religions have not embraced alcohol at all, for instance Islam.  In much of the Middle East, Religion and the state are still one, and therefore the religious interpretation of alcohol guides any controls or rules about how it is seen and used in society.

The topic of alcohol in Islam is full of vague texts and changing interpretations. The Qaran has been used to support the idea that God bans alcohol of any sort, but the references in the Qaran are very vague and may not even be referring to alcohol. Whatever the truth, the control of alcohol in the Middle East has been through religious regulations and education. It’s interesting to note that the Qaran does not mention drugs, and therefore there is a healthy culture of drug taking in the Middle East.

As much as there has been a long association with alcohol and religion, there has also been a long history of religion recommending moderation. The only religion or cult that did not condemn drunkenness were those linked to the hedonistic rituals involving over-indulgence in all areas. These Dionysian rituals spread throughout the conquered worlds and often were outlawed for their disruptive and immoral influences.

History has left us with a long list of laws and legislation that have been put in place to try and ensure moderation.

Egyptians did not necessarily believe that being drunk was that bad, however they warned against taverns (which were often houses of prostitution) and excessive drinking. 502

The Romans too, were known for their moderation in drinking (up until the 3rd century BC). However, drunkenness was looked down upon and legislated against. It’s interesting to note that these early regulations used social sanctions and were responses to intoxication, rather than being sanctions regarding use of alcohol.

In China, in 206 BC a fine of four ounces of silver was imposed if three or more people were found drinking together. The idea was to curtail drinking at feasts; a practice that encouraged excessive alcohol use. In 147 BC alcohol production was totally prohibited, but in 98 BC a revision in the law specified that only government officials could manufacture and sell alcohol, thus establishing a government monopoly. 503

Again in China, laws against making wine were enacted and repealed forty-one times between 1,100 B.C. and A.D. 1,400. 504 Perhaps the sheer quantity of regulations pertaining to alcohol in China reflects the fact that it was not sanctioned by their religion in the same way as in the west, especially with the rise of Christianity.

With the rise of Christianity, although there was still opposition to excessive drinking, it was no longer assumed that drinking inevitably led to drunkenness. Wine came to be seen as a blessing from God and a symbol of joy (Psalms 104; Zachariah 10:7). These changes in beliefs and behaviors appear to be related to a rejection of belief in pagan gods, a new emphasis on individual morality, and the integration of secular drinking behaviors into religious ceremonies and their subsequent modification.505

We can plot the Christian attitude towards alcohol throughout the ages as such:

The Early Church: In moderation, wine was heartily embraced and used in religious ceremonies as well as in the everyday lives of people. Interestingly, The virtue of temperance passed from Greek philosophy into Christian ethics and became one of the four cardinal virtues. Drunkenness, on the other hand, is considered a manifestation of gluttony , one of the seven deadly sins, as compiled by Gregory the Great  in the 6th century.

Middle Ages: With the fall of the Roman Empire there was a drop in consumption of wine in western and central Europe. However, medieval monks retained the knowledge of viticulture and brewing and refined these.

The Reformation: A new call for moderation, but not abstinence.

Colonial America: A rise in the idea of prohibition of alcohol

20th Century: religion combined with the Temperance movement to call for total prohibition.

Today: Christians hold varying views of alcohol ranging from: moderationism, abstentionism, and prohibitionism

The task of overseer of alcohol in society moved from the realm of religion and into the jurisdiction of governments during the early Industrial Revolution. At this point in time, the drivers of profit and capitalism took the place of religious instruction as the main influence on politics and state organisations.

Children were an integral part of the new industrialised workforce

The British industrial revolution drove millions of workers off the lands where they had lived for centuries. They took up residence in cramped cities in often terrible conditions where they worked often 14-hour days. Alcohol was one of the only ways for many workers to escape the totalitarian misery of their lives.

Problems commonly associated with industrialization and rapid urbanization (such as urban crime, poverty and high infant mortality rates) were also attributed to alcohol. Over time, more and more personal, social and religious/moral problems were blamed on alcohol. This is another reason that attitudes to control moved on from preventing drunkenness to viewing consumption of alcohol at all as unacceptable.

Total alcohol prohibition never made it in England, but various forms of alcohol regulation did. Alcohol regulation became the normal method of alcohol control in most countries in the world. Alcohol prohibition became the exception, tried only in the U.S., in Norway, and in some Muslim countries. 506

Americans showed little concern over drunkenness until the civil war when the first serious efforts to regulate liquor consumption occurred. Following it, social conditions weakened traditional controls over drunkenness and consumption increased even further.

In America, the early temperance movement developed among New England Federalists. Congressional attempts to impose a tax on distilled spirits resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion (1794).

Prohibition had its roots back in the temperance movements of the nineteenth century. Prohibition in the United States was a measure designed to reduce drinking by eliminating the businesses that manufactured, distributed, and sold alcoholic beverages. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took away license to do business from the brewers, distillers, vintners, and the wholesale and retail sellers of alcoholic beverages.

The first prohibition law was passed in Maine in 1851 and throughout the second half of the century, various anti-alcohol measures were enforced in states all over the Union.

By 1906, the movement was well under way.  The conflict between rural and urban lifestyles was becoming more apparent with the growth of the cities, which were perceived by country-dwellers as hotbeds of crime and vice. Employers were concerned, as they always had been, about the effects of alcohol on the efficiency of their workforce. These factors, combined with a temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, introduced in World War I to save grain for food, led to total Prohibition in 33 states by 1920.

Prohibition- both failure and success

Whether Prohibition was a failure or success has been argued for decades, although it most definitely led to a reduction in consumption of alcohol. In the end, most historians agree that the lack of implementation of the legislation was a major factor in it not being as effective as hoped. For instance, between 1921 and 1923, about seven thousand persons were arrested for breaking prohibition laws in New York. However, only 27 of them were convicted. 507

As the drug and alcohol problem has become globalized in the past decades, control and legislation has transferred from the realms of national responsibility to that of world organisations. Recently, non-political organisations have also begun to take on this responsibility, as can be seen in the increasing role of the World Health Organisation. Scientific theories have been important at the international level, and public health concepts have been disseminated, rather than formal international controls. “The most recent international dimension of significance is through the impact of international trading treaties that prevent rather than promote greater alcohol controls.” 508

In conclusion, the fact that the ruling belief systems from the beginning of time accepted and embraced alcohol in the end is the cause of the legacy that the new ruling groups have inherited in trying to find ways of enforcing moderation in alcohol use.