The Problem of the Godless Tribe

A few months ago,I stumbled upon several articles,including videos such as:

It is about a Christian missionairy going to convert a local tribe that is actually atheist,that is,it does not have any religion.

The problem for me is the fact the tribe is godless to begin with.

I have heard that the fact all civilisations believed in a supernatural entity actually hints at the existence of God.

I also have heard that if God exists,then there is a chance you must expect all civilisations to have a belief in an entity or at least in an afterlife.

But the fact this tribe doesn’t have a religion or belief in any afterlife and so on is problematic for me…

Why doesn’t it have a religion?

Another problem is the fact a Christian missionary got deconverted because of that tribe.

Can any answer these problems?

It sounds so rare that it stands out as a complete anomaly. That the Sister had a lapse of faith is part or practicing issue to persevere in faith. Sounds like we can conclude atheism is a phenom arising from a anomaly. Probably predicated on the fact satan as a person has a gift of keeping himself unknown. :slight_smile:

I should just note: non-belief in the existence of any deity does necessarily equate to Western materialistic atheism or anti-theism.

What’s the name of the tribe? I don’t want to look it on Youtube because I would get video recommendations probably containing anti-religious things on my account. It happens often.

Most possibly it is an anomaly. The missionary is probably one whose faith is not that solid when it comes to encountering challenges like the tribe mentioned.

I guess this can disprove St. Anselm of Canterbury’s ontological proof. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only proof of God out there. There are many of course.

I am dubious as to the veracity of this. I don’t believe there has been a documented case of an aboriginal group, uncorrupted by and isolated from Western Culture that has no spiritual beliefs, at least animistic religions.

That sentence caught my eye. I haven’t watched those videos thoroughly yet, but I need to point out three things (in addition to the one I pointed out in my last post):

1.) Lack of an organized belief system does not necessarily imply the non-belief in the existence of some supernatural power or force (even if this had not coalesced yet to a belief in a ‘god’ per se). I just researched the Pirahã people (the tribe on the video) on Wikipedia (yeah, maybe not the best source - but bear with me for now), and this is what I found:

According to Everett, the Pirahã have no concept of a supreme spirit or god,[8] and they lost interest in Jesus when they discovered that Everett had never seen him. They require evidence based on personal experience for every claim made.[5] However, they do believe in spirits that can sometimes take on the shape of things in the environment. These spirits can be jaguars, trees, or other visible, tangible things including people.4 Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.” Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach.4

So the Pirahã are hardly materialistic Western atheists. If the above info is correct, they may not have a developed concept of ‘deities’ per se, but they do seem to hold a belief in supernatural spirits that appear as tangible things in nature - essentially, a form of animism.

2.) ‘Religion’ is really a concept that is different across different cultures: just because the Western eye cannot see anything in a culture it could distinctly recognize as being ‘religious’ in nature does not mean that they absolutely have no form of belief.

Interesting that this is the same tribe which has no words for numbers or colors. All they have for numbers is “one”, “two”, and “many”. Nothing else.

So maybe we can call them the “godless, numberless, colorless tribe”?

And ‘timeless’. The Pirahã don’t have an abstract concept of time or history either.

From the site:

The Piraha language is nearly devoid of any sort of abstraction. There is no semantic embedding, as in locutions like “I think she wants to come.” (“She wants to come” is a nominalized phrase embedded in “I think [X]”). The lack of nominalized phrases means that words are not abstracted from reality to be conceived as things-in-themselves. Grammar is not an infinitely extendible template that can generate meaning abstractly through mere syntax. Words are only used in concrete reference to objects of direct experience. There are, for example, no myths of any sort in Piraha, nor do the Piraha tell fictional stories. This absence of abstraction also explains the lack of terms for numbers.


This absence of linear thinking comes out in the language, which lacks tenses, and not only in the morphosyntactical sense of conjugations and tense markers. There is simply no verbal way to fix an event at a specific point in the past or future, for Piraha doesn’t have words for tomorrow, yesterday, next month, or last year. The sentence, “Let us meet here in three days”—or even, “Let us meet here tomorrow”—is inexpressible in Piraha. Piraha has only twelve time words at all, such as day, night, full moon, high water, low water, already, now, early morning, and another day. None of them allow the establishment of a time line. Accordingly, the Piraha have no sense of history, no stories that reach back before living memory, and no creation myths. "Pirahas say, when pressed about creation, for example, simply ‘Everything is the same’, meaning nothing changes, nothing is created."vi They often do not know the names of their deceased grandparents; their kinship terms do not apply to dead people. Theirs is a timeless world. The past, after all, is just another abstraction as soon as it extends back before living memory.

So this explains the dilemma the linguist Daniel Everett and the missionary in the video would have faced: they were in contact with a people who have very different ideas and perceptions of the world than they - and most of us - were used to.

Well then let’s rename them as the “not-up-to-the-Western-standards-of-civilization” tribe, shall we? Or at least “a relativist’s favorite tribe”… :rotfl:

Which begs the question, what makes a civilization, a civilization? Can tribes be considered as “little civiliziations”?

Yeah. Part of the problem is, that the whole idea of people either being ‘primitive’ or ‘civilized’ is itself a rather loaded concept - the word ‘civilization’ itself carries with it a lot of baggage.

P.S. This kinda ties in with an issue I’ve been wondering about for now: does ‘Christianity’ really have to be synonymous with ‘Western culture’? I mean, do we really have to bring the Western understanding, the Western definition of what ‘Christianity’ must be when we evangelize other cultures? My position there is really, I don’t think so. Western culture may have been deeply influenced by Christianity, but IMHO Christianity is hardly synonymous with ‘Western worldview/ethics/thought/culture’.

voltaire once said, if God didn’t exist, man would have to invent Him. i guess this tribe didn’t get the memo.:stuck_out_tongue:

Well, they have the spirit world.

P.S. I kinda implied in the last post that Daniel Everett and the guy in the videos are two different people. They are not - Everett’s the guy.

This is from Everett’s book, Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle:

Perhaps the activity closest to ritual among the Pirahãs is their dancing. Dances bring the village together. They are often marked by promiscuity, fun, laughing, and merriment by the entire village. There are no musical instruments involved, only singing, clapping, and stomping of feet. …]

Pirahãs have told me about a dance in which live venomous snakes are used, though I have never seen one of those (such dances were corroborated, however, by the eyewitness account of the Apurinã inhabitants of Ponto Sete, before the Pirahãs dispersed them). In this dance, the regular dancing is preceded by the appearance of a man wearing only a headband of buriti palm and a waistband, with streamers, made entirely of narrow, yellow paxiuba palm leaves. The Pirahã man so dressed claims to be Xaitoií, a (usually) evil spirit whose name means “long tooth.” The man comes out of the jungle into the clearing where the others are gathered to dance and tells his audience that he is strong, unafraid of snakes, and then tells them about where he lives in the jungle, and what he has been doing that day. This is all sung. As he sings, he tosses snakes at the feet of his audience, who all scramble away quickly.

These spirits appear in dances in which the man playing the role of the spirit claims to have encountered that spirit and claims to be possessed by that spirit. Pirahã spirits all have names and personalities, and their behavior is somewhat predictable. Such dances might be classified as a weak form of ritual, in the sense that they are witnessed and imitated and clearly have value and meaning to the community. As ritual they are intended to teach the people to be strong, to know their environment, and so on.

The relative lack of ritual among the Pirahãs is predicted by the immediacy of experience principle. This principle states that formulaic language and actions (rituals) that involve reference to nonwitnessed events are avoided. So a ritual where the principal character could not claim to have seen what he or she was enacting would be prohibited. Beyond this prohibitive feature, however, the idea behind the principle is that the Pirahãs avoid formulaic encodings of values and instead transmit values and information via actions and words that are original in composition with the person acting or speaking, that have been witnessed by this person, or that have been told to this person by a witness. So traditional oral literature and rituals have no place.

If you read Everett’s book (even in places), you’ll notice that the spirits do occupy a place in Pirahã society: they trade names with the Pirahã from time to time, they can tell the village what it shouldn’t have done or what it shouldn’t do, they can appear in dreams (dreams in Pirahã thinking are classified as real experiences - they are not just figments of the imagination. You see one way awake and another while asleep, and both are considered to be ‘real’), and the Pirahã claim to see them.

I think the ‘problems’ Everett encountered is more due to the fact that the Western version of Christianity is pretty much centered on concepts that are foreign to the Pirahã: history (things that happened ‘in the past’), oral tradition, and a lesser emphasis on ‘seeing is believing’ (“Blessed are those who have not seen yet believed”). The Pirahã value direct experience over abstract concepts, actual eyewitnesses, and the ‘now’.

You may hear people say these things, but that doesn’t make them true nor does it make them the foundation upon which the Church bases it’s belief in God nor should you base it on such lines of reasoning.

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