How an Amazonian tribe turned a missionary into an atheist

How an Amazonian tribe turned a missionary into an atheist

A RIVETING and hugely satisfying report on BBC Radio 4 today tells the story of a missionary who was charged by an American missionary group with taking the Gospel to the little understood Pirahas tribe in the Amazon – only to realise how ridiculous his faith in Christianity was.

Daniel Everett, 57, a linguist in the Departmental Chair of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University, told presenter John McCarthy on the Excess Baggage programme, that he had travelled to the Amazon in the 70s to bring the tribe “the joy of faith” only to discover that they were a deeply contented people. In fact they seemed far better contented than he was.daniel-everett-dont-sleep-there-are-snakes-life-and-langauge-in-the-amazonian-jungle

Tribe members asked the missionary whether he had seen or experienced any of the things he was telling them about. He had to admit that he hadn’t; that he was simply passing things onto them that were told to him by people who hadn’t seen or experienced them either.

The Pirahas, he said

Believed that the world was as it had always been, and that there was no supreme deity.

Furthermore they had no creation myths in their culture. In short, here was a people who were more than happy to live their lives

Without God, religion or any political authority.

Despite Everett translating the Book of Luke into Piraha and reading it to tribe members, the Piraha’s sensibly resisted all his attempts to  convert them.

According to a report in the New Yorker:

His zeal soon dissipated … Convinced that the Piraha assigned no spiritual meaning to the Bible, Everett finally admitted that he did not, either. He declared himself an atheist …

According to Wikipedia, Everett “was having serious doubts by 1982, and had lost all faith by 1985 after having spent a year at MIT. He would not tell anyone about his atheism for another 19 years; when he finally did, his marriage ended in divorce and two of his three children broke off all contact.”

Everett’s account of his life among the Pirahas is told in his book Don’t Sleep There are Snakes. BBC Radio 4 has chosen it as its Book of The Week, and it will be broadcast from Monday, November 17, 2008 ( weekdays 9.45am -10.00am, repeated 00.30-00.45am.)

The book concludes with Everett saying:

The Pirahas have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comforts of heaven or the fear of hell, and of sailing towards the great abyss with a smile.

And they have shown me that for years I held many of my beliefs without warrant. I have learned these things from the Pirahas, and I will be grateful to them for as long as I live.

You can hear the relevant extract, in MP3 format, here.

UPDATE – Nov 10: The Guardian has now picked up the story, which you can see here.

60 responses to “How an Amazonian tribe turned a missionary into an atheist”

  1. MRB says:

    I, for one, was baptist for much of my life. My best friend was the son of a pastor. I got baptised after my mother died. When they moved, I didn’t have a church to go to, and I learned to think on my own. About 2 years ago I went to another church. Nice folks, or so it seemed. I think it was the second or third service I attended the pastor chose the subject of love. At the end of the service he starts talking about homosexuals and how they’re causing the end of the world. I’ll tell you what, that was the last time I attended. How can you teach love to your people and turn around to only preach hate and segregation?

    I don’t consider myself baptist anymore- which makes this joke even funnier to me. “I had a dream I was walking in heaven with Jesus talking about the meaning of life. I spotted a group sleeping in a corner and asked Jesus who they are. Jesus says,”Shhh.. Those are baptists. They think they’re the only ones here.”

    I had the faith, I lost it, I tried to gain it back, and lost it again. I’ve read the bible, and to tell the truth… I don’t see any alters from which to sacrifice sheep 😉

    There are a lot of “What Ifs” floating around. The truth is that you have to find it for yourself. If your truth is your faith, then so be it. Whether you follow the old testament, new testament, koran, etc, etc- it’s all up to you. If you want good analogy, listen to some of George Carlin’s material.


  2. Michael says:

    Don’t quote Wikipedia for anything. It lacks journalistic professionalism. In your case of “was having serious doubts,” a far better reference would be the [5] footnote at the end of that sentence referencing an interview featured in New Scientist.

    I enjoyed your article, and enjoy Freethinker as a whole, but want you to hold your sources to the same standard professors hold their students when making research citations.

  3. RiHo08 says:

    We invoke spirituality to answer the question “why am I here?” Religion codifies spirituality with teachings and rituals. The up side of religion is group self re-inforcement, ala Alcoholic Anonymous. Evangelism seeks to recruit others as a form of validation for one’s belief system. The down side of religion is social manipulation and control. We are told that animals do not have the capability for spirituality as they cannot fore see into the future. Animals all are God’s creations but man is the only chosen one. More likely than not, we just can’t measure what animals are thinking and hence discount their intellect. For those who are not interest in answering for themselves the question “why am I here?”, there may be several choices: organized religion with its prescriptions; seek spirituality on some other already beaten path; or simply consider the question irrelevant for oneself. I think the observed decline in organized religion participation is a vote for the latter option.

  4. Bob says:

    Heh – the “No True Scotsman” contingent of believers has shown up and is ready to party! The contorted apologetics are simultaneously amazing, baffling, and more than a little sad.

  5. Bridge says:

    There is much to be learned from traditional cultures; and this learning needs to be done with respect, dignity and an open heart.

    My experience of working as a Christian missionary amongst the Warlpiri people was that my faith has been strengthened as the Old People exposed me to their secret/sacred knowledge. That knowledge meshed perfectly with my knowledge of the One True God gained from my study of the Bible.

    Upon my departure from the community that I was working in, most of the community embraced me and wept upon my shoulders because our lives had been so enmeshed in our common faith, mine expressed through my understandings of the nature of Jesus, revealed to me through the pages of the Bible; and theirs expressed through their understanding of the nature of Jesus as expressed through their culture, learned from their observations of the Creation around them.

    When the mob come into town from out of the bush, they go straight to my home to stay with our family. When I go back into the bush, I am welcomed as an important member of the extended family. Mutual love and respect – and this is the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose Atoning self-Sacrifice was to make one new humanity out of a fragmented world.


  6. Ginger says:

    This is the best story about a Christian missionary I've ever heard.

  7. Fábio de Oliveira Ribeiro says:

    This proof that Brazil was really a paradise.
    And it is this again, since we Brazilians expel the
    American missionaries that continue believing
    in god and destroying the happiness of the Indians.

  8. […] a Comment My interests in linguistics and atheism rarely coincide, but the other day I came across this post at the Freethinker website regarding a book by linguist and atheist Dan Everett. Daniel […]

  9. Chris Lee says:

    The Pirahãs, he said, “believed that the world was as it had always been, and that there was no supreme deity”. Furthermore they had no creation myths in their culture. In short, here was a people who were more than happy to live their lives “without God, religion or any political authority”.

    This article is good, but it uses emotionally prejudicial language. If you don’t have a supreme deity then you don’t give it a thought let alone believe there isn’t one.

    Theists have difficulty understanding the mind of those of us who have never been theist at all, and it seems that many ex-theists have the same difficulty.

  10. Ahhhh! It’s great to know that not everyone accepts Christianity.

    Long live the Pirahas!!!!!!!!!!!!