Chances are you know something about the debate over the level of religiosity of the aboriginal Pirahã of the Amazon basin. (Some say the Pirahã have no idea of God or the supernatural.) But I’ll bet you don’t know about the Hadza of Tanzania in east Africa.
One day, I was minding my own business, reading the December 2009 National Geographic. It contained an article on the Hadza, who were unknown to me even though they are one of the last few true hunter-gatherer peoples left. For some reason, they never achieved the fame of the !Kung bushmen of South Africa, the Pygmies, or the noncivilized aboriginals of the Amazon region. The article got around to describing a nighttime hunt of a baboon. My eyes began to widen as the piece casually described how the Hadza have no hunting rituals, pre or post. They widened further as the author went on to describe how these remnants of the once-universal hunter-gathering lifestyle had very little in the way of religion.
Until then, I had presumed that a significant level of some form of religiosity was universal among nonagricultural societies. National Geographic has a reputation for fact checking, but being a practicing scientist I went to the technical anthropological literature to be certain what was up. Sure enough, decades of research show that the Hadza have no shamans, medicine men, or priests and no belief in an afterlife. They do think of the sun, moon, and stars as some form of creation entities, but they do not waste time trying to seek their favor or influence their actions. It is particularly pleasing that they have consistently snubbed Christian propaganda. The scientific documentation of Hadza irreligiosity is much better than that for the Pirahã, though the latter tribe has received far more attention in the atheist community.
I was stunned, in part because shortly before the National Geographic story I had published a major paper in Evolutionary Psychology that concluded that low levels of religiosity are dependent upon superior, modern societal conditions, while high levels of supernaturalism exist when considerable socioeconomic and physical anxiety and fear drive folks to seek the aid and comfort of supernatural powers during earthly life (and hopefully after). A common hypothesis is that archaic proto-religions first appeared among Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, as evidenced by burials going back at least one hundred thousand years that indicate a comprehension of, and anxiety about, death. This supposedly led to the appearance of shamanistic religious leaders and rituals. Yet here we have the Hadza, who were not even bothering to bury their dead until pressed to do so in recent times. This though the Hadza lead tough, hard lives of deep poverty and profound uncertainty, with high rates of juvenile and adult mortality.
The importance of the nonpious Hadza cannot be overemphasized—in multiple regards. They are a genetically and linguistically very distinct people whose ways probably go far back into the Pleistocene. The possibility that they are the only prehistoric people with minimal religiosity is, statistically, very low. For all we know, lots of Ice Age hunter-gatherers were not religious. The problem is that there’s no way to tell, because if they existed such peoples were not burying their dead or leaving behind other signs of their nontheism, such as copies of Prehistoric Inquiry.
What the Hadza definitely do tell us is that popular nontheism is not limited to well-run modern societies such as those of Sweden, France, Canada, or the coastal United States. When you think about it, that makes historical sense. Chinese civilization is the most ancient of all, and it has never been particularly pious. Can you name the great Chinese god(s), whether invented or adopted? No. Nor has there ever been a well-developed powerful, influential Sino-priesthood. Sure, the Chinese have a form of ancestor worship, but that is nowhere close to the kind of intense organized religion that has long characterized, say, India—or pagan, then Christian, Europe—until recent times.
The primitive Hadza and the ancient Chinese establish that peoples who lead short and brutal lives may yet not be seeking the aid and comfort of the gods as expressed in serious popular religiosity. This leaves no doubt that religion is not, repeat not, universal to the human condition, as most naively assume it to be. Religion is not nearly as consistent among humans as language, which most developmentally normal children pick up with little effort—or the making and using of tools and other material goods (what our opposable thumbs make possible), or art, in which all cultures engage.
It follows that a host of hypotheses about why religion is popular are deficient. If the Hadza and the Chinese have never been deeply religious, then runaway pattern recognition cannot furnish a consistently compelling force driving supernaturalistic beliefs. Nor can there be a “God module” that is pushing most people to believe. The fear of death cannot be a persistent driving force. Forming power structures via shamanism and priesthoods is a limited factor too. Unlike language, materialism, and art, religion is optional in human societies, which helps explain why it is being so readily cast off in modern societies—including among the American white working class, even as its circumstances decline. What is true is that while bad conditions often produce popular theism, and the latter can only thrive in dysfunctional societies, it does not always do so.
The lack of knowledge among atheists, skeptics, and the like about the irreligious Hadza is an example of a regrettable failure of a community that takes pride in being scientifically knowledgeable to keep current about information critical to the field. This is just one such example. For reasons that have me scratching my skeptical head, there are a whole lot of cases in which atheists remain shockingly ignorant of key facts and analysis. The purpose of my FI columns and articles will be to shake things up in the field with coverage of fascinating yet too little appreciated aspects of a/theism.
Gregory Paul is an independent researcher and analyst. His latest book is The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Princeton University Press, 2010). This is his first regular column for Free Inquiry.