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.