South American society offers insight into spiritual experience

mystical_rainforest_path_1It’s often been claimed that human religiousness is universal – that societies everywhere have gods, spirits, ghosts, creation myths, religious rituals, or any combination thereof. This assertion is often used to base arguments about the genetic origin of religious behaviors. But what if there were a society that had no religion? Would that mean that religion is learned, not inherited? Followers of linguist Daniel L. Everett (Bentley University) claim he has found just such a society: the Pirahã, a South American tribe. But as is so often the case in the study of religion, things might not be so simple.

As a Christian missionary in his youth, Daniel L. Everett was sent from America to Brazil to convert the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN), a small river-dwelling tribe in the Brazilian Amazon. Their language had proved remarkably difficult to previous generations of missionaries, but Everett’s superiors hoped his exceptional linguistic skills would help him break through the cultural barriers. As it turns out, they were right, but even after Everett mastered the Pirahã language he found that converting the tribespeople was less than an easy task. In fact, it turned out to be just about impossible.
Detailing his experiences as a missionary and linguist in his book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (Pantheon, 2008), Everett recounts his frustration at making the first translation of the Gospel of Mark into the Pirahã language, only to have the locals good-naturedly mock and deride the stories. They seemed to have no interest in the Biblical stories of God and the Jews in a faraway desert land.
And in fact, this was exactly the case – after years living with and studying the Pirahã, Everett concluded that their entire culture, including their language, was set up to focus exclusively on aspects of life that could be immediately experienced or reported. For example, a story about a fish someone just caught would be acceptable, but a fictional story about visiting Cairo would not, since the latter story would not be a report of something someone actually experienced.
This exclusive focus on experiences that could be immediately reported by their first-person witnesses made it impossible, or nearly so, for the Pirahã to take Christian stories seriously. Narratives about Jesus not seemed not only silly but downright nonsensical, since no one alive could have possibly met Jesus in person. The extreme empiricism of the Pirahã also explained, according to Everett, the total lack of creation narratives, myths, or stories about gods and spirits in their culture. The Pirahã believe only in what they can see – and nothing more.
Since the publication of Everett’s book, the Pirahã have been used by many writers skeptical of religion to showcase a society in which religion has no place (for one example, see here). The Pirahã have also been cited as a counterexample to the common claim that religious beliefs are human universals. But there’s a problem with these arguments, and Everett himself highlights it: in his many articles and interviews about the Pirahã, he reports that the Pirahã world is chock-full of spirits, including sky spirits, forest spirits, and evil spirits. Rather than being taken on faith, however, the existence of these incorporeal beings is simply assumed, since nearly everyone in the Pirahã society claims to actually see and interact with these beings.
This strange admixture of the spiritual and physical worlds highlights one of the most important facets of religious phenomena, one that is often concealed in Western academic discourse influenced by abstract theology and philosophy: for many people, spiritual realities are experienced, not speculated about. The Pirahã shrug off stories about Near Eastern religious visions, but they themselves often pointed out and had matter-of-fact conversations with spirits in the forest.
What does this tell us about human religiosity? For starters, the claim that the Pirahã disprove the universality of religious beliefs may be a little premature, since spirits are as prominent a part of their world as post offices and street signs are of ours. Secondly, in order to understand religion properly, scholars might want to pay closer attention to the experiential aspect of religious phenomena – since, despite the fact that theologians usually talk about God as an abstract principle, many people's spiritual experiences are anything but abstract. To ignore this spiritual concreteness leaves the study of religion sorely lacking.
It’s interesting to note, however, that Everett lost his Christian faith in the Amazon jungle and became an atheist – the challenges posed to the Christian narrative by the Pirahãs’ questions and lifestyle made his former religious convictions seem nonsensical. Everett’s loss of faith illustrates that true cross-cultural meetings of the mind often have destabilizing effects on their participants. But, while Everett ceased believing the Christian God, nowhere has he said that the Pirahã stopped believing in their spirits. After all, the Pirahã only believe what they can see.

For a speech given by Everett at the Freedom from Religion Foundation, see here.

See here for Everett's 2006 paper ("Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã") in the journal Current Anthropology.