It's really a philosophical query, one reporters aren't well-suited or aptly trained to answer. But the current case of Temple 420, a Hollywood congregation that reads the Bible and smokes marijuana to communicate with God, is begging the question.
The Rev. Craig X Rubin, a minister ordained by the interfaith Universal Life Church and founder of the temple, sued the LAPD for $30 million Wednesday, claiming his religious and civil rights were violated when narc officers raided his sanctuary/head shop in November and purportedly told him it was not a "real religion."
But what is a real religion?
"There is no standard in nature to which one can go to decide if a group is a 'real' religion," says Dan Olson, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Indiana University South Bend. "It all depends on whether people in the society that they are part of are convinced they are a religion. When different parts of society don't agree, like so many other things in life it often comes down to the group that has the most influence and power to determine whether the group will be persecuted and harassed or given respect and resources by others in society.
"Almost every accepted religion today has historical roots in some group that either broke away from a major religion (and was thus considered a heretical sect -- Christianity started as a sect of Judaism) or started from scratch with the vision or innovation of a prophet/visionary/founder who was probably seen as a kook or a dangerous heretic by most people in his/her day."
The role religions serve in society also complicate our understanding of what is sincere or genuine and what is "fake."
"You have to give people a feeling or a sense of the sacred and then you have to bond them in community," Robert C. Fuller, a religion professor at Bradley University in Illinois and author of Stairways to Heaven: Drugs in American Religious History, told me. "The fact of the matter is anything that helps with those two function has religious values."
Last summer, a month before Rubin opened Temple 420, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine reported that Timothy Leary was correct: Hallucinogens do enhance spiritual experiences. One third of the 60 percent of study participants who reported a "full mystical experience" described it as the most significant spiritual event of their lives.
Does that mean smoking pot -- whether it comes from what Rubin believes is the tree of life written of in Genesis or just a weed -- has religious value? Rastafarians use it, and the courts have ruled in their favor for consumption, though not transportation and distribution.
For Rubin, who is charged with two felony drug counts, and his followers, an LA Superior Court Judge will have to decide.