The Pirahã: People Who Define Happiness Without God: Daniel Everett

This speech, slightly edited for publication, was delivered by Daniel Everett at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 32nd annual convention on Nov. 7, 2009, in Seattle. Everett went from missionary to atheist while working with the Amazon Pirahã tribe.

It’s great to be here. I’m taking off, as Dan said, for London to speak at the Royal Institution about the evolution of language. This speech is not about the evolution of language; this is about the evolution of my beliefs coming into contact with the Pirahã people.

My connection with Seattle and religion is a mixed one. In the summer of 1968, I was standing out in front of a Jimi Hendrix concert — you know Jimi Hendrix is from Seattle — in San Diego, selling LSD to get money to get in. And I met this young girl, a very cute girl, and we started talking, and it turned out she was the daughter of missionaries. And it began a long trip for me into the Christian church and the Christian faith and then out again many years later. And that’s been the greatest impact in my life.

Many people don’t know that Billy Graham wrote an undergraduate dissertation on blood atonement in the cultures of the world when he was a student at Wheaton College. He began the idea that later became known as redemptive analogies, which is the idea that God has prepared every culture on Earth for the coming of the message of his son and the need for salvation. And that’s a very powerful message. I’m going to tell you in a bit that it’s not true, but you probably know that I’m going to say that or I wouldn’t be up here! But it’s a very powerful message.

Years later, in the early ’70s, a book was published and promoted heavily by Reader’s Digest called Peace Child. It was written by a missionary, Don Richardson, with Regions Beyond Missions in New Guinea, in which he discovered, when he first started telling bible stories to the native people he worked with, that they laughed. They saw Judas as a hero because they thought it was great, according to his account of the culture, to be a trickster and lead people on and do the opposite of what they thought.

So Richardson was really confused. How could he get the message of the gospel across to a people who thought that Judas was the hero of the story? Then he realized that they had wars with neighboring tribes, and he found out that the way they stopped the wars was for one person from one tribe to give a baby to a person in the other tribe, and they called that the peace child. (I’m basing everything I’m saying on his description, whether it’s right or wrong. I often find that when I double-check the anthropological literature much more carefully, these descriptions don’t work out to be that accurate. But forget that; let’s just take it at face value right now.) As long as that peace child lived, there would be no war between the tribes.

Richardson said, “Aha, I have it now. Jesus is God’s peace child.” And so he told them that Jesus was the peace child from God and that Judas killed the peace child. So now they don’t like Judas, and they began to convert to Christianity in large numbers. I’ll get back to the ethics of missionaries telling stories in a bit, but he related this to the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 1-14.

For those of you who haven’t read the Gospel of John in some time, let me review it for you. It’s a fun study in the Greek. John, as you know, was a fisherman and had a vocabulary that was pretty small in Greek; Greek wasn’t his native language, so he had a very impoverished vocabulary. But he starts off: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” — or a God — it depends on how you translate that. Both translations are possible and completely irrelevant. But the word that was translated “Word” is the Greek term logos, which is where we get, you know, anthropologos, anthropology, and it means the ultimate reality, and it comes straight from Plato.

Plato was really a religious fascist, if you look carefully at what he wrote. Plato said that what we see here are just shadows of the ultimate reality that lies behind all of this. So when John started off his story, in chapter 1, telling the people that the Logos was God, the Greeks found that fairly easy to believe; but not in the Christian sense, in the sense that this was the ultimate reality. But then he gets down to verse 14, and he said, “And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.” For the Greeks, that was really difficult to understand, to accept that idea at all. But it was the entrance of Christianity into Greek culture. And that was used by Don Richardson and Billy Graham and others as an example of a redemptive analogy. The Greek culture was prepared by Plato to accept the message of the gospel.

Now, what’s wrong with this picture? Well, I want to tell you from my own experience, and going to the missionary field. I now have a Ph.D. in linguistics. I mainly write about the intersection of language and culture, and that has nothing to do with God. But when I first went to Brazil in 1977, my only degree was an undergraduate diploma in “Bible and Foreign Missions” from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

I went to Brazil believing very strongly that it was gospel-hardened, that nobody there was interested in the gospel and that we needed to take the gospel to places it had never been. I preached on this a lot — taking this word to people who had never heard it before who needed it and who would want it. So it was my impression that when I arrived at wherever I was going to be, there would be a group of people standing on the shores, delighted to receive me and hear this wonderful message that I had for them.

But the first thing I had to deal with when I got to the Pirahã was that I hadn’t done my background reading, as any anthropologist would have done. As a missionary, I felt that this was a new story with me and God. Why did I need to read about these people? They were and are monolingual, one of the only groups known in the world that are completely monolingual. So I got off a little Cessna missionary plane and tried to talk to them and they said something like, “Xaói xáo hi ahoáisahaxai. Xapaitíiso abaxáígio hi ahoaáti.” It means “Don’t speak to me with a crooked head, speak to me with a straight head.” What that means is that the Pirahã’s language is “Xapaitíiso” (straight head), and our language, any foreign language, which is “Xapagáiso” (crooked head).

They don’t actually call themselves the Pirahã; that’s a Brazilian term, and nobody knows really what it means. They call themselves “Hiatíihi” (the Straight Ones). And we are all “Xaói” (bent). They’re ethnocentric; I didn’t tell you they were completely virtuous. A lot of people say that I’m claiming they’re this absolutely perfect group. They would not say that about themselves, and I certainly wouldn’t say that about them. They have their own issues, but one of them is not God.

So the first thing I had to do was study and learn the language of the Pirahã. You can’t study the language of any group unless you also understand their culture and how the language comes out of their values and beliefs and the things that are most meaningful to them. I did start to do a little background reading on them, because I knew that the Protestant missionaries who had preceded me, had started working with them in 1959.

The first team, with Wycliffe Bible Translators, which was the mission I was with, worked from 1959 to 1967. The next team worked from 1967 to 1976, and then I came in, in 1977. They had had absolutely no results whatsoever, and this was a very difficult thing to understand.

I believed that I was smarter and God was going to help me more, and I would find this redemptive analogy. I would find this key, this little Trojan horse that God had put into their culture and let out all their spiritual beliefs, and they would find out that they in fact were religious. But I also read the account of the first Catholic missionaries who worked with them in 1784, who abandoned them after just a couple of years as the most recalcitrant people they had ever encountered in the entire Amazon.

When you go there, their culture doesn’t seem that impressive. My first impression was they seemed like a bunch of people on a campout. They just were lying around most of the day, and I didn’t see much ritual, no body painting, no feather decorations or anything like that. I hadn’t yet been with them to the jungle, which was the big revelation about their culture to me. But superficially, they just seemed to be just a commune of hippies living in the Amazon, except they worked a lot less hard than people in other communes I had seen.

Pirahã are so good at fishing. I told people when I first saw an Indiana Jones movie that that’s silly, because one Indian running behind Jones would have riddled him with arrows, much less a whole group of Indians. I’ve never seen a Pirahã man miss with a bow and arrow at anything he’s shot at, and I’ve been with them hunting and fishing, and seeing them get in their canoe and just go out into the river and fire three times in succession and pull up three fish with a bow and arrow. They are really amazing at what they do.

Because they’re so good at it, and because they have such a great area to live in — the Maici River with 300,000 hectares for their own reservation, which I helped demarcate — they are able to provide for themselves. I would say the average person works about 15 hours a week to make a living, and they eat just fine. Hunters and gatherers, as you all know, have better diets than we do. They eat better and have more variety and healthier foods than agriculturalists, by and large. In fact, my friend Jared Diamond has written a book called Guns, Germs, and Steel in which he talks about the downside of agriculture for the development of a lot of human societies.

The way the Pirahã live is not idyllic but it’s pretty close. You just have to have really tough skin so you don’t mind bug bites and stuff like that, and they all have tough skin, so it’s different.

So, I had to talk to them about God. As I learned more of the language, I remember being so excited because this young boy showed up at the village and I asked the Pirahã fellow, and he said, “Baíxi hi hoagí xibíibihai,” and I realized that means “His father sent his son.”

I said, “Oh, there’s a great expression for me to translate.” I built up gradually the ability to translate parts of the bible, and I read to them my translation of part of the Gospel of John one night, and I gave them my testimony. And as you know — anybody who’s got the remotest connection with the Christian church — giving a testimony is supposed to be a powerful thing. You talk about how once I was blind and now I see, how I went from this very bad background to this very good person that I am today.

So I gave them my testimony and I told them about my stepmother committing suicide. When I got done telling them, they all burst out laughing, and I said, “What are you laughing about?” I was really hurt. “Why are you laughing?” They said, “We don’t kill ourselves. You people kill yourselves? What is this?”

I realized they don’t have a word for worry, they don’t have any concept of depression, they don’t have any schizophrenia or a lot of the mental health problems, and they treat people very well. If someone does have any sort of handicap, and the only ones I’m aware of are physical, they take very good care of them. When people get old, they feed them.

I remember one man who was too old to get around. He couldn’t hunt, he couldn’t even gather firewood anymore. They would bring him food every night and help him chew it, even helping him with his jaw. I said, “Does it bother you to give him food? I mean, he’s not doing anything.” They said, “When I was a little boy, he put food in my mouth and took care of me, and now he’s an old man and I take care of him.”

I noticed they didn’t store food. They know how to smoke and salt meat, but they almost never do that. When they bring in meat, they give it away to everyone. I asked one of them, “Don’t you want to keep meat for tomorrow?” He said, “I keep my meat in my brother’s belly. That’s where I keep what I have. I store it with my friends.”

There were a lot of values there I wasn’t prepared for, and actually those sound pretty much like values that a lot of religious people ascribe to, or aspire to, and yet they had them.

Then I had to start working on their belief system. I was starting to get interested in anthropology and linguistics and wanted to find out about the creation myths. Many of you might know that the great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss died on October 30 [2009, at age 100]. I’ve written an obituary of him. He worked in Brazil, and he worked in places very close to the Pirahã. In fact, he worked one tribal group over from people that the Pirahã know. One of the proposals of Lévi-Strauss and many other anthropologists is that creation myths are universal. They actually have ways of interpreting this, and theories of creation myths and myths in general, about series of oppositions.

I couldn’t wait to hear what the Pirahã creation myth was, so I asked them: “What was the world like long ago, before there were Pirahã? Who made the trees and who made the water?” The guy just looked at me and said, “What?” I repeated, “Who made the trees and who made the water?” He answered, “Nobody made the trees and nobody made the water; they’re just trees and they’re water.”

I said, “But you know, a long time ago, when there weren’t any trees.” He said, “You saw a time when there were no trees?” I said, “No, no, but didn’t your fathers . . .” He said, “No. “We don’t talk about that. No, the trees were always here and the water was always here, unless you know that they weren’t.”

So I thought, well, maybe this guy’s just some unusual person; I’ll find somebody else. And so I worked with person after person in the village, and no one could tell me about a creation myth. I finally found one guy who started telling me about the creation. He told me, “Long ago, there was a big spirit, and he is our heavenly spirit, he’s the up-high spirit. And he had another spirit that worked for him, sort of like his son. And he sent him off, and he told him to create things and live on earth.”

I said, “Hey, I’m in business now, I’m finding the right story.” But it turned out that this guy had been the translation helper for the previous missionaries and was telling me back what I wanted to hear.

I told some anthropologists that I thought this is “the first group that I know of that doesn’t have a creation myth.” I think there are others. In fact, I think a lot of the things I said about the Pirahã will turn out to be in other groups as well.

Several anthropologists wanted to study the Pirahã. One from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro went to the village. He didn’t speak the language. I gave him a tape in the language introducing him to the people. But he felt that they had to have a creation myth. So six months later, he came to my house in São Paolo and he said, “I’ve found the creation myth; you were wrong.” And I said, “Oh, well, let’s hear it.”

We started the tape. He asked, “What was made first?” He says this in Portuguese but was also trying to use phrases I had given him. There’s a silence. He said, “What was first?” Then you hear in the background somebody yelling to the speaker that he’s recording, “Bananas!”

So the guy says “Bananas.” And the anthropologist says, “Then what was next?” And somebody yells out, “Monkeys,” and so he says “monkeys,” and so there’s this disjointed list of things. Then they start talking really quickly, and he thought, “Well, it took them a while to get into it, and now they’re telling me the story and I’ll take it to Dan and he’ll translate it.”

Then the Pirahã said, “Hey, Dan, he says that you’re listening to this too. And when you come back, we need some matches and some fishhooks.” They don’t want many things from the outside, but they gave me a list of the things that they did want, and that was their creation story.

Why no myths?

What do we make of that? Some people have tried to explain it and say they don’t have a creation myth because their culture was destroyed by the Europeans who came conquering them. Well, it is true that the greatest genocide I know of in the world is what happened to the American Indian in North and South America, where maybe as many as 98% of the population was destroyed by diseases and direct killing, most of them by diseases. If you read the book, 1491, which I highly recommend, about the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans, there is actually evidence that the oldest civilization in the world is not Sumeria in Mesopotamia, but Guatemala, and that the first major civilizations might have been American Indian.

Also that probably the greatest “invention” in human history — corn — came from the Mayans. A lot of things, from over 50% of the food that we eat, including one of my favorites, chili peppers, come from American Indians. So there was a trauma in these cultures; they were deeply affected by the outside world. But it’s not clear that that even matters in terms of finding a group that today doesn’t have a creation myth, because the Pirahã have been described by missionaries and travelers for about 300 years, and as far as I can tell they haven’t changed much at all in that period of time. So they never had, apparently, a creation myth. Nobody tells anything about creation myths.

If you ask them about God, they don’t understand it, even when you translate it. I remember another missionary came in, didn’t believe he needed to learn the language, and used a mixed Portuguese and some other language called Nheengatu, which used to be spoken in that area, which the Pirahã remember a little bit of, or know a little bit of, and he preached a sermon when I wasn’t there.

After I came back, a Pirahã guy said, “I used to want to go to town, but I don’t want to go to town anymore. I wanted to see how Brazilians live but I don’t want to go there anymore.” “Why not?” “Well, this guy came and he said that this guy he said was God and Jesus wanted me to go to town, and they were going to put me in a building that I couldn’t get out of, and they were going to kill me, and take me to heaven.”

That was how he had interpreted going to church and then afterward going to heaven. And he didn’t know what heaven was, anyway.

For the Pirahã, here’s a very interesting view of the universe. I looked at the ground, and I got the word for ground, “bigí,” and I got the words for “The ground is wet,” the phrase, “Bigí xihoíi.” I looked up at the sky, and I asked the Pirahã, “What’s that called?” “Bigí.” Um. It sounded like the word for ground, and it turned out that it was the same word. And cloudy sky is “Bigí xihoíi,” just like wet ground.

For the Pirahã, the universe is layered, and we happen to live in this biosphere that’s bounded by the sky and the ground, which are just both barriers, so they’re both called “bigí.” There could be entities above that, but they wouldn’t be supernatural entities; they would be entities like us but maybe with different characteristics of some sort. And there could be entities below that. But the Pirahã don’t worry much about that, because they live where they’re at now.

In fact, I began to realize that not only do they not have creation myths, they have the simplest kinship system known. They just have a word for “generation above,” no gender distinction, “my generation,” no gender distinction (which is brother, sister, cousin, uncle, anything like that), and “generation below,” without any gender distinction, and then two words for biological son and biological daughter. And that’s it. That’s the Pirahã kinship system.

They don’t have any words for colors. They can describe colors — they see colors — but they’ll say, “That looks like blood,” or “That looks like the urucum plant,” or “That looks like water” or “That’s not quite yet ripe” or “That’s transparent” or “That looks like it has an opaque eye.” Those are the ways they describe different colors. They don’t have any words for numbers.

In fact, the article I and three co-authors published in the journal Cognition was chosen by Discover magazine last year as one of the top 100 science stories, simply because it was the first time a group has been documented that doesn’t have any numbers, not even the number 1. I’m sure there are others, but this is the first time it’s been documented. They don’t have quantifiers, so they don’t have a word that means “all.” They have a word that means “a lot of.”

Actually, we don’t tend to use the  word “all” in its most precise sense, either. If your son or daughter comes home and says, “But Mom, everybody’s going to the party,” they don’t literally mean everybody, they just mean the people they know, they consider relevant. And we can use the literal meaning back to get a laugh (but not out of our children) when we say, “It can’t be the case that everybody’s going, because you’re not.”

They don’t have a number of characteristics that we thought they might have had. They can whistle the language and hum the language. They don’t have to use consonants and vowels, and they don’t have creation myths.

I thought and thought and worked on this for years and years and finally decided to put forth the hypothesis that’s become really controversial. It’s gotten me vilified by lots of people, and other people are on my side; it just depends on what you believed before you heard my hypothesis.

One of the most important values in Pirahã culture is what I call immediacy of experience. If you look at their stories, they don’t talk about things to come. They might talk about what they’re going to do tomorrow based on the things they’re doing today. They don’t talk about the distant future. They don’t talk about the distant past. All of their stories and all of their songs have to do with what they did today, what they saw today. They don’t make a big distinction between dreaming and regular experience. They don’t think that dreaming is just regular experience, but it’s another experience, and they don’t talk about them as being that different.

Why wouldn’t they have color words or number words? Because those generalize and range across things that go beyond immediacy of experience. They don’t have creation myths because that’s certainly something you haven’t experienced. Why would you talk about something if you can’t experience? And so they  have suffixes that go on the end of their verbs that tell you whether they saw it or they overheard it or they inferred it. Evidence is very important to them; they’re sort of like the original Show Me State [Missouri]. Or as one philosopher said, the ultimate empiricists.

Well, I wasn’t ready to give up on them. I wanted to get to the bottom of this, and I felt surely that if I worked hard enough I would find the redemptive analogy still. So one morning, about 10 a.m., I was sitting there having coffee with a group of men in the village. They do love sweet coffee. They mainly like the sugar, and you can put as little coffee in it as you want.

One of the guys said, “Hey Dan, I want to talk to you. You’ve been here for a long time, and we know that you love this place. That’s why you came here, because this is a beautiful place. We have lots of fish here and you don’t have that in the States.”

Then he said, “But you know, we’ve had people tell us about Jesus before. Somebody else told us about Jesus, and then the other guy came and told us about Jesus, and now you’re telling us about Jesus, and we really like you but, see, we’re not Americans and we don’t want to know about Jesus. We like to drink, and we like to have a good time, and we like, you know . . .” (the equivalent of multiple sex partners is the way it came out, and that applies to both genders).

He said, “So we really don’t want to hear about that. You can stay here. We like you, we like your kids, but we don’t want to hear about Jesus or God or anything any more, we’re tired of that.” So I felt like, you know, they don’t want to hear about it, so I shouldn’t tell them about it.

I moved to another village. They spoke the same language. I had been there for several years and I showed them filmstrips. A lot of indigenous groups like the Pirahã don’t make a distinction between fiction and fact. They don’t have this tradition of theater. So if I show them a filmstrip or a movie of Jesus, they think that’s real. And so you could say that it’s actually deceitful to show these things. Because you’re coming from another culture, with all this money and all this access to power and airplanes, and all these things you can do. The people want to please you. For all they know, you could call in a bombing raid and have them wiped out at some point. They don’t know what you are, really, to deal with.

In fact, just three years ago, a Pirahã guy said, “Hey Dan, do Americans die?” I said, “Yeah, we die, why?” “Because you’re really, really old and you’re not dead yet.” I said, “I’m not that old.” “Yes, you are. You’re really old.”

I didn’t want him to do any empirical investigation of the possibility. But when you show them these things, and you tell them what you believe, they believe you’ve got some reason for saying it.

A group of men at this other village said, “Dan, so tell us a little bit more about Jesus. Is he brown like us or is he white like you? And how tall is he? And what sorts of things does he know how to do? Does he like to hunt and fish and stuff, or what does he do?”

I said, “Well, you know, I don’t know what color he is, I never saw him.” “You never saw him?” “No.” “Well, your dad saw him then,” because you can give information that was told to you by somebody who was alive at the time.

I said, “No, my dad never saw him.” They said, “Well, who saw him?” And I said, “Well, they’re all dead; it was a long time ago.”

“Why are you telling us about this guy? If you never saw him, and you don’t know anyone who ever saw him,” and those are the two basic forms of evidence for the Pirahã.

So then I translated, and I paid a Pirahã to repeat after me on the tape, the Gospel of Mark. I had this Pirahã guy saying it, and it sounded pretty natural. We added a little music to it, and I gave it to them. And I sat around with a group of men around the fire, and they were playing this and understanding it. I know they’re understanding it because they’re asking questions. And they say, “Who’s talking on this tape? Sounds like Piihoataí,” and I said, “It is Piihoataí,” and they said, “He doesn’t believe this stuff. And he never saw Jesus either.” That was the end of it.

But as I started working with them, really paying attention to this, I realized: What do I bring to them? What is the message that I’m supposed to be giving to these people? That they’re lost? They’re not going to feel lost. I mean, my evangelism teacher in bible school said, “You’ve got to get them lost before you can get them saved.”

That’s why David Livingstone, when he went to Africa as a missionary, said that the first step of missions is to destroy the local culture. Destroy it through capitalism, because as you create a desire for Western goods, they will realize how worthless they are and they will listen to the missionary about their god. That is an effective strategy, by the way.

Evangelize the traumatized

The church growth movement that was alluded to earlier is also a movement in missionaries, among missionaries, and it says that the groups most likely to respond to the message of the gospel are groups that have been traumatized. So those are the places you should work, among traumatized groups, and then tell them about the gospel.

This is not a big surprise, that if people are down and out on their luck, and somebody comes along who’s rich and powerful and tells them, here’s how I got rich and powerful, they might believe that. But what I was trying to say didn’t fit, and it became clearer and clearer to me that it didn’t fit. I was just completely irrelevant, and it was even more than a feeling of irrelevancy. It was a feeling of profanity, that I was profaning something very beautiful by telling them that I had access to proof that they needed when clearly I didn’t.

Over the years, I’ve taken a lot of people with me to the Pirahã to do different kinds of research. These claims about no numbers and no quantifiers and this sort of thing have been really exciting. In 2007, I took a team of people from Massachusetts Institute of Technology Brain and Cognitive Sciences. While we were there, one of them, who was actually my first Ph.D. student and now a full professor at MIT, said, “These seem like the happiest people I’ve ever seen in my life.”

I said, “Yeah, well, how would you measure that? I think they are, too, but when I tell people that, they say that’s silly. So how would you measure whether they’re the happiest people or not?” Well, as true psychologists, they said, we measure the time they spend smiling and laughing, and we measure the time that other cultures spend smiling and laughing.

That’s probably not a bad indication. As one of them said, “I haven’t looked at these people at any one time and not seen the majority of them looking happy.”

When the group went down to do the documentary, we saw all these Pirahã lying around on the beach, pretty much just lying around the beach most of the day talking to each other. And they said, “I don’t sense a lot of angst here.”

What is the likelihood there are lots of other groups like this? What are the lessons we can learn from the Pirahã? Well, for one thing, the Pirahã are happy without god. And that violates a lot of the predictions not only of religious folks but of anthropologists, who believe that god is an essential ingredient of all cultures. That’s false. There are cultures that get by just fine without any concept of god.

The Pirahã have very little coercion in their culture. You don’t tell other people what to do. One adult doesn’t tell another adult what to do. There are expectations, and when they’re violated they can be remedied in different ways. For example, most Pirahã are promiscuous during the full moon when they’re walking around in circles, or you can call it dancing, but it’s basically walking around in circles singing and having a good time.

I went to get this fellow to work with me on the language one day. I walked up to his hut and didn’t really pay much attention to the configuration there, but I said, “Can you work with me?” His head was in his wife’s lap. He started to raise his head but she had him by the hair and put it down and whacked him on the head with a stick.

He grinned and said, “I can’t go today. I have to stay here.” “Why not?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know.” So I left and I asked another guy, “How come his wife’s hitting him in the head?” And he said, “Oh, well, because he was out with some other woman last night so he’s got to sit there today and he can’t move.” And that was the end of it. That’s the punishment.

There’s no form of marriage, there’s no form of divorce, except that if you want to get married, you go away with them for a couple of days and when you come back you’re married. And if you were married before that, that’s also the divorce. And that’s the end of it. There’s no more to-do. There’s nobody to pay, nothing to say, and people who were crying and screaming and wailing because their spouse ran off with another spouse a few days before are done with it when they get back.

They have very interesting ways of dealing with their problems and dealing with the issues around them. They’re individualists. Everyone is pretty much responsible for themselves, but if you can’t take care of yourself, then they will take care of you. Children are pretty much autonomous from the time they’re 9 or 10. A boy knows how to fish very well when he’s 9 or 10. He doesn’t need his father to feed him. He’ll do whatever his father says if he feels like it, which most of the time he does, because his father can get more fish than he can. And his father will share with him if he gets fish.

But they are raised by the village. If the parents go off, they might take their children or they might leave them there, but everyone takes care of them. So it’s a very interesting combination of individuality and group responsibility.

Are there other groups like this? I’m almost certain that there are. And I think that many of the descriptions that we have in the ethnographies that have been written by anthropologists over the centuries have been done by people who have their own biases. Whenever we go to a village, we have a bias. Whenever we go to do this kind of research we have a bias, whether it’s theoretical, or culture, or religious, and we have all of those.

We find anthropologists who, like Malinowski, one of the fathers of modern anthropology, kept two sorts of journals. He kept one journal about the cultural observations he was making and another journal about his personal reactions. He hated the people he was working with. He said terrible things about them in his journal. He kept them separate in his journals, but I doubt if he kept them separate successfully in his mind.

All of us, whether we’re scientists or missionaries, take biases with us. But as William James said, it’s the “varieties of human experience” that are crucial to understanding the nature of humans.

Living free of guilt

As I hear about studies and generalizations based on what religion does for us, like what we just heard in the previous lecture about the professor at Harvard telling us how religion improves this and improves that. We need to look at a multitude of cultures, as many cultures as we can look at in our survey. Not just this one culture that comes from European culture, that has over 2,000 years of Christianity affecting it tremendously and has given us this great concept that the Pirahã show very, very rarely, if at all, which is called guilt.

We live in guilt and Christianity takes away our guilt. We have been made lost by religion, in many respects. Finding salvation has become the task of so many Americans because they’ve been told that they’re lost in one form or another by this guilt and the oppression of religion.

As I began to think back on it, and reflect at night of all the people I had met, it occurred to me that the most important lessons in my life were from meeting people who were not like me, whether they were Brazilian intellectuals, or people from other religions, or people who had no religion, or people of other races and ethnicities. These were the lessons that had most affected me.

So when the BBC asked me for a 60-second idea on how to change the world, I said, “Live a week with strangers.” I highly recommend living with strangers by yourself. Take a week off. I hear now about this show called “Wife Swap,” where women do sort of live a week with strangers, but I had in mind an even more profound difference.

Especially if you feel uncomfortable with a group, go try to work it out to stay a week and just live with them. Learn from other people. Learn how different people come up with different solutions to the problems of the world.

Many of the problems that face all of us are the same from culture to culture. They can vary as the culture plays a bigger role in setting the problems, but the biological problems — survival, happiness, food, clothing, shelter — are universal. How have different cultures solved them?

In a big rainstorm in the Amazon, a pretty common occurrence, the flimsy little Pirahã houses very often blow over at night, at 3 in the morning. And everybody’s sopping wet. What do you hear when this happens? Everybody’s laughing. They think it’s the funniest thing that ever happened. My house blew over! What do they do? They move into somebody else’s house.

When we were there doing the film, they were all sleeping on the beaches. It was dry season, but nevertheless a huge storm blew in one night and there was no shelter because they had just come to see me and they were all sleeping on the beaches. I knew exactly what they were going to do, but I didn’t say anything to anybody. They all came on the boat. A hundred Pirahã came on the boat and it just scared everybody else, but it was fun. And they can’t understand, why would you mind missing a night’s sleep, you know? Just sleep a little bit more tomorrow; what’s the big deal?

They can build sturdier houses, but it would take more work to do that. They know how to do it, but why spend your time doing that when you can spend it lying around talking to your friends? 

It’s going to be very difficult for any missionary to have a foothold in the Pirahã. There is no redemptive analogy there, there’s no Logos that became flesh and dwelt among us, there is no peace child. They are who they are as the result of a long period of evolution.

I should say they’re not related to any other known language in the world. We don’t know where they came from; we don’t know where their language came from. We only know that they’re very, very different, but in that very difference, they teach us something about ourselves that we couldn’t learn otherwise.

We learn that not all the things we thought were universal are universal, not all the things that make people happy are necessary to make people happy, and that the idea that somebody died on a cross 2,000 years ago that nobody ever saw, nobody knows anybody who ever saw, has any relevance to my happiness or my life in any way today.

We might take a lesson from the Pirahã’s skepticism there.

Daniel Everett is chair of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University. Everett first went to the Amazon in 1977 as a missionary. In his book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (2008, Pantheon Books), he recounts his loss of faith. Everett is the subject of two BBC documentaries and is collaborating on a screenplay for a movie he says may never get made.

Freedom From Religion Foundation