Ethnographic Evidence for Unbelief in Non-Western Cultures: Unbelief in Latin America

Ibn Warraq

In the following examples gathered from anthropologists’ and travelers’ accounts of their sojourns among the Indians of the Amazon, one cannot really speak of “atheism” among the various tribes encountered—that is to say, there was no conscious denial of a deity. It is a more a question of their total lack of any concept of the supernatural; they simply had no idea of a god or gods; hence, they could not deny their existence. But the essential point still stands; that is, these examples show that among these tribes there was no universal assent to, or innate belief in, the existence of a god.

Daniel Everett holds the chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and has taught at the University of Campinas, Brazil, and the University of Manchester. He lived among the Pirahã (pronounced: pee-da-HAN) Indians of Brazil for several years, starting in December 1977. Everett, a committed Christian at the time, was working for the Christian missionary agency the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), with the immediate aim of translating at least parts of the New Testament into the Pirahã language and the eventual goal of converting the Pirahã Indians to Christianity. In fact, he was to discover that no Christian missionary for nearly two hundred years has had any impact on the Pirahãs.

Some of his findings were startling. The Pirahãs have no creation myths, no stories about their past—where they come from, how the world was created, and so on. The Pirahãs had no word for god and were not interested in Jesus whatsoever. Everett was asked, “What does Jesus look like? Is he dark like us or light like you?”

Everett replied, “Well, I have never actually seen him. He lived a long time ago. But I do have his words.”

“Well, Dan, how do you have his words if you have never heard him or seen him?”

Everett suddenly saw the problem. “They then made it clear that if I had not actually seen this guy (and not in any metaphorical sense but literally), they weren’t interested in any stories I had to tell about him. Period. This is because, as I now knew, the Pirahãs believe only what they see. Sometimes they also believe in things that someone else has told them, so long as that person has personally witnessed what he or she is reporting.” Furthermore, how do you convince a happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus?

Everett also began to have religious doubts himself when the Pirahãs rejected the gospel. “All the doctrines and faith I had held dear were a glaring irrelevancy in this culture. They were superstition to the Pirahãs. And they began to seem more and more like superstition to me.” The Pirahãs did not believe in the fantastic and the miraculous; they had no fear of death; they accepted things as they were. Their faith was in themselves. They did not believe in heaven above us, hell below us, or that any abstract cause is worth dying for. They live without religion. Everett decided that “the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.”

Then came Everett’s final realization: “I no longer believed in any article of faith or anything supernatural. I was a closet atheist.”

Several other travelers, naturalists, and anthropologists have come to similar conclusions about some tribes in the Amazon basin. For example, Henry Walter Bates (1825–1892), naturalist and explorer, traveled to the Amazon in 1848 with Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), the codiscoverer, with Darwin, of evolution by natural selection. Bates stayed on for eleven years until 1859 and wrote a classic work, The Naturalist on the River Amazons (1863), in which he gives an account of some Indian tribes he encountered. Here is how he describes some Amazonian Indians:

The goodness of these Indians, like that of most others amongst whom I lived, consisted perhaps more in the absence of active bad qualities, than in the possession of good ones; in other words, it was negative rather than positive. Their phlegmatic, apathetic temperament; coldness of desire and deadness of feeling; want of curiosity and slowness of intellect, make the Amazonian Indians very uninteresting companions anywhere. Their imagination is of a dull, gloomy quality, and they seemed never to be stirred by the emotions: —love, pity, admiration, fear, wonder, joy, enthusiasm. These are characteristics of the whole race. The good fellowship of our Cucámas seemed to arise, not from warm sympathy, but simply from the absence of eager selfishness in small matters. … One day we had an unusually sharp thunder-shower. … I asked Vincente [a Cucámas Indian who was the pilot of the boat on the river] what he thought was the cause of lightning and thunder? He said, “Timaá ichoquá,”—I don’t know. He had never given the subject a moment’s thought! It was the same with other things. I asked him who made the sun, the stars, the trees? He didn’t know, and had never heard the subject mentioned amongst his tribe. The Tupí language [that he spoke], at least as taught by the old Jesuits, has a word—Tupána—signifying God. Vincente sometimes used this word, but he showed by his expression that he did not attach the idea of a Creator to it. He seemed to think it meant some deity or visible image which the whites worshipped in the churches he had seen in the villages. None of the Indian tribes on the Upper Amazons have an idea of a Supreme Being, and consequently have no word to express it in their language. … [In matters not concerning] the common wants of life the mind of Vincente was a blank, and such I always found to be the case with the Indian in his natural state. Would a company of any race of men be otherwise, were they isolated for centuries in a wilderness like the Amazonian Indians, associated in small numbers wholly occupied in procuring a mere subsistence, and without a written language, or a leisured class to hand down acquired knowledge from generation to generation?

Alfred Russel Wallace also wrote of his time in the Amazons: “I cannot make out that they [the Amazonian Indians] have any belief that can be called a religion. They appear to have no definite idea of a God; if asked who they think made the rivers, and the forests, and the sky, they will reply that they do not know.”

Two Germans travelling in Brazil from 1817 to 1820 also concluded of the natives that “In general, as they are wholly destitute of all religious notions, and all ideas of revelation, all the terms appropriate to those subjects must be taken from the language of the missionaries, or new made according to the analogy of the Indian language.”

Karl H. Burmeister (1807–1892), a naturalist who studied southeastern Brazil, confirms the above statements. John Lubbock (1834–1913), banker, polymath, archaeologist, and close friend of Darwin, wrote this useful survey of the Amazonian Indians’ lack of religion:

[I]n the list of the principal tribes of the valley of the Amazons published by the Hakluyt Society, the Chunchos are stated “to have no religion whatever”, and we are told that the Curetus “have no idea of a Supreme Being”. … The South American Indians of the Gran Chaco are said by missionaries to have “no religious or idolatrous belief or worship whatever; neither do they possess an idea of God, or a Supreme Being. They make no distinction between right and wrong, and have, therefore, neither fear nor hope of any present or future punishment or reward, nor any mysterious terror of some supernatural power, whom they might seek to assuage by sacrifices or superstitious rites.”

Lubbock gives an astonishing number of examples of various tribes round the world—from Africa, North America, Australia, and the Arctic—tribes who were thought to have no notion of a god or supreme being. Herbert Spencer, in his Principles of Sociology, gives even more examples:

Concerning an African race Heuglin says—“The Dōr do not seem to have religious conceptions properly so-called, but they believe in spirits.” We learn from Schweinfurth that “the Bongo have not the remotest conception of immortality. … All religion, in our sense of the word religion, is quite unknown to the Bongo.” It is true that in such cases there is commonly a notion, here distinct and there vague, of something supernatural associated with the dead. While, now in answer to a question, asserting that death brings annihilation, the savage at another time shows great fear of places where the dead are: implying either a half-formed idea that the dead will suddenly awake, as a sleeper does, or else some faint notion of a double. Not even this notion exists in all cases; as is well shown by Sir Samuel Baker’s conversation with a chief of the Latooki—a Nile tribe.

Baker: “Have you no belief in a future existence after death?”

Commoro (loq.): “Existence after death! How can that be? Can a dead man get out of his grave unless we dig him out?”

Baker: “Do you think man is like a beast, that dies and is ended?”

Commoro: “Certainly; an ox is stronger than a man; but he dies. And his bones last longer; they are bigger. A man’s bones break quickly—he is weak.”

Baker: “Is not man superior in sense to an ox? Has he not a mind to direct his actions?”

Commoro: “Some men are not so clever as an ox. Men must sow corn to obtain food, but the ox and wild animals can procure it without sowing.”

Baker: “Do you not know that there is a spirit within you more than flesh? Do you not dream and wander in thought to distant places in your sleep? Nevertheless, your body rests in one spot. How do you account for this?”

Commoro (laughing): “Well, how do you account for it? It is a thing I cannot understand; it occurs to me every night.”

Baker: “Have you no idea of the existence of spirits superior to either man or beast? Have you no fear of evil except from bodily causes?”

Commoro: “I am afraid of elephants and other animals when in the jungle at night, but of nothing else.”

Baker: “Then you believe in nothing; neither in a good nor evil spirit! And you believe that when you die it will be the end of body and spirit; that you are like other animals; and that there is no distinction between man and beast; both disappear, and end at death?”

Commoro: “Of course they do.”

And then in response to Baker’s repetition of St. Paul’s argument derived from the decaying seed, which our funeral service emphasizes, Commoro said:

Exactly so; that I understand. But the original grain does not rise again; it rots like the dead man, and is ended; the fruit produced is not the same grain that we buried, but the production of that grain: so it is with man,—I die, and decay, and am ended; but my children grow up like the fruit of the grain. Some men have no children, and some grains perish without fruit; then all are ended.

Martin Dobrizhoffer (1717–1791) was an Austrian Roman Catholic missionary whose account of the Abipones Indians of Paraguay was written in Latin, then translated into German, and finally into English in 1822 by Sara Coleridge, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s daughter. He spent eighteen years among the Guaranis and Abipones. Here is an extract from volume 2 of his narrative:

Theologians agree in denying that any man in possession of his reason can, without a crime, remain ignorant of God for any length of time. This opinion I warmly defended in the University of Cordoba, where I finished the four years’ course of theology begun in Gratz in Styria. But what was my astonishment, when on removing from thence to a colony of Abipones, I found that the whole language of these savages does not contain a single word which expresses God or a divinity. To instruct them in religion, it was necessary to borrow the Spanish word for God, and insert into the catechism Dios ecnam caogarik, God the creator of things.

Penafiel, a Jesuit theologian, declared that there were many Indians who, on being asked whether, during the whole course of their lives, they ever thought of God, replied no, never. The Portugueze [sic] and Spaniards, who first landed on the shores of America, affirmed that they could discover scarcely any traces of the knowledge of God amongst the Brazilians, and other savages. [Many] will say that the American savages are slow, dull, and stupid in the apprehension of things not present to their outward senses. Reasoning is a process troublesome and almost unknown to them. It is, therefore, no wonder that the contemplation of terrestrial or celestial objects should inspire them with no idea of the creative Deity, nor indeed of any thing heavenly. Travelling with fourteen Abipones, I sat down by the fire in the open air, as usual, on the high shore of the river Plata. The sky, which was perfectly serene, delighted our eyes with its twinkling stars. I began a conversation with the Cacique Ychoalay, the most intelligent of all the Abipones I have been acquainted with, as well as the most famous in war.

Do you behold,” said I, “the splendour of Heaven, with its magnificent arrangement of stars? Who can suppose that all this produced by chance? The wagon, as you yourself know, is overturned, unless the oxen have some one to guide them. A boat will either sink, or go out of the right course, if destitute of a pilot. Who then can be mad enough to imagine that all these beauties of the Heavens are the effect of chance, and that the revolutions and vicissitudes of the celestial bodies are regulated without the direction of an omniscient mind? Whom do you believe to be their creator and governour [sic]? What were the opinions of your ancestors on the subject?”

My father,” replied Ychoalay, readily and frankly, “our grandfathers and great grandfathers were wont to contemplate the earth alone, solicitous only to see whether the plain afforded grass and water for their horses. They never troubled themselves about what went on in the Heavens, and who was the creator and governour of the stars.”

Will Durant gives further examples of tribes without a notion of God: “The Eskimos, when asked who had made the heavens and the earth always replied, “we do not know”. A Zulu was asked, when you see the sun rising and setting, and the trees growing, do you know who made them and governs them? He answered simply, “No, we see them we cannot tell how they came; we suppose that they came by themselves.”

However, many modern sociologists and anthropologists have cast doubt on at least some of these claims. But can they all be dismissed as crude misunderstandings? Many of the observers in the field in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did learn the languages of the tribes concerned, and many were in contact with the tribes for several years. The Christian missionaries were desperately hoping to find in the Indians some notion of a supreme being, so that they could begin the process of converting them. Surely these missionaries would have pounced on any evidence of such a notion among the tribes if it had existed. Despite their eagerness, on many occasions and with many tribes they did not find any evidence that they had any notion of a god.

Surely Daniel Everett’s twentieth-century methodology is far more sophisticated than that of the nineteenth century, and he did learn the language very well. Can he also be dismissed as being delusional? I do not think so. He published his work, quoted above, in 2008. Has he changed his mind since? No, he has not. In an email to this author received November 2, 2018, Daniel Everett wrote, “No, they have no religion at all.” No one seems to have challenged his finding on this particular issue.

Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq, Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, was a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of many books, including What the Qur’an Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002) and Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics.

In the following examples gathered from anthropologists’ and travelers’ accounts of their sojourns among the Indians of the Amazon, one cannot really speak of “atheism” among the various tribes encountered—that is to say, there was no conscious denial of a deity. It is a more a question of their total lack of any concept of …

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