Missionary Deconverted by Amazon Tribe April 17, 2009

Missionary Deconverted by Amazon Tribe

You definitely don’t hear this side of the story very often.

Daniel Everett was a missionary sent to meet the Pirahã tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, “translate the Bible for them, and ultimately bring them to Christ.”

There’s a slight twist to the story:

Instead, [the Pirahã] brought him to atheism. “The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and in sailing toward the great abyss with a smile.”

Not that they have escaped religion entirely. Spirits live everywhere and may even caution or lecture them at times. But these spirits are visible to the Pirahãs, if not to Everett and his family, who spent 30 years, on and off, living with the tribe.

Everett wrote a book about his experience: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. In one review of it, the atheism bit is put this way:

[The Pirahã] pointed out that Everett simply had no proof for the supernatural world he described, and in the end he found himself agreeing with them. He left the church, choosing a world that more honestly integrated his goals as a scholar with the world view of his Pirahã friends — one where evidence matters.

It’s not exactly atheism as we know it if they still believe in spirits, is it? But still, it’s good to know that some tribes are impervious to missionaries.

Maybe we can get the Pirahã tribe to visit Christian churches — I’m sure the churches would love a taste of their own medicine.

(Thanks to Tony and Yuri for the link!)

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  • At one point in my life I planned on becoming a minister. My designs were foiled by the inability of anyone to prove to me that my faith was the one true faith and that all others were wrong. After all, I didn’t want to join the “wrong” religion. And even worse, I didn’t want to make a career of convincing other people to join a religion that I couldn’t prove was the “right” one.

    I think, like Daniel Everett, I would have been ripe for deconversion.

  • Polly

    FINALLY! I’m sick to death of white people traveling to far off lands to enlighten the poor, ignorant savages – but who aren’t medical doctors. Advanced medical knowledge and a thorough debunking of harmful superstitions are the only things of any use to people in these cases. Sedentary life is overrated other than those great advantages.

    When I think of the opportunities that travel offers to broaden one’s OWN vistas…and then I see missionaries bringing their bullshit with them…what a waste!
    Does it ever occur to missionaries that maybe others have minds and hearts and maybe even have insights of their own in other parts of the world? Good for the Piraha for seeing through the same baloney that’s being peddled and accepted around the world.

  • Ryan

    There’s a funny subtext of sorts to this–the Pirahã also deconverted Everett from Chomskyan linguistics.

    Anyways, I’d just like to say, I’m not sure how accurate this paradigm of “seeing through” the bullshit is. I mean, I’m as atheist as the next commenter (assuming they’re not a fundy), but the Pirahã didn’t really see through Everett’s proselytizing as not care about it. Their culture has a very here-and-now orientation, and IIRC I remember reading last year about Everett running into a number of problems when trying to convert the natives, among them skepticism that someone could have even lived 2000 years ago. This isn’t terribly surprising, given that they have no oral history to speak of, and aren’t terribly interested in kinship relations. I’ll try to find the article about that.

  • Mathew Wilder

    I’m skeptical the journalist who wrote the article accurately describes the Pirahã language. “No word for X” is a common claim, but, according to my reading of Language Log, is often (always?) false, just as “Eskimos have 56 words for snow!!” I’d like a more expert take on their language, and what it supposedly says about their culture.

    It’s too bad journalism sucks so bad, but I’d like an article written by an anthropologist or linguist much more.

  • Rob

    I’m as amused as Ryan is by the subtext.

    For those who aren’t familiar with academic squabbles, imagine for a moment if Everett were to travel to the Vatican, and explain to an audience including some very powerful cardinals about how the Piraha had convinced him that Christianity was wrong.

    This is about how it looked when Everett came to MIT to explain that the Pirahã do not use recursion in their language.

    I think the jury is still out on whether Pirahã is actually a counterexample to Chomskyan linguistics — actually, the science has gotten so lost under the academic politics that it’s more like a mistrial at this point — but Dan Everett sure has found a niche of being a professional apostate.

  • Jeff Satterley

    I heard about this guy’s work before. Always happy to see people presenting the problems with Chomskyan linguistics. Too many linguists fall over themselves to fall in line with generative grammar, even with its growing mountain of problems. (Sorry, linguistics rant, I’ll stop…)

    I had no idea this work also brought him to atheism, very cool indeed. Forget creationism, the fundies should start teaching the Tower of Babel theory of linguistics!

  • Ryan

    Mathew, I follow LanguageLog pretty regularly, and totally agree that the “No word for X” snowclone is abused pretty badly by the media. However, in this case they’re at least (partly) right. Pirahã has no words for integers, according to (what I believe is) the current consensus of scholars who have studied the language. They’ve got words for quantities (a couple, a few, and many), and in the realm of colors, their only irreducible words for colors are “light” and “dark,” though this of course doesn’t prevent them from coming up with compounds to express the larger spectrum of colors. If you’re interested, I believe Everett has a number of his papers up on his website.

    Jeff, you bring up an interesting point. How exactly do creationists explain the various similarities apparent in languages as different and geographically dispersed as English, Romanian, Lithuanian, Persian, and Hindi? I suppose this does presuppose an assumption that they’re aware of them…

  • Rob

    I had no idea there were so many linguists here, let alone linguists who were skeptical of universal generative grammar.

    Then again, it makes sense for the skeptics to be overrepresented here. 😉

  • Chal

    Fuck computational linguistics, eh? 😛

    It’s an interesting question, whether it’s a good thing that they don’t believe him for the wrong reasons.

  • Hemant, this is amazing. I have been “lurking,” enjoying your blogs for a month or two, and I have enjoyed every post, more or less. [That post about geometry was hilarious!]

    I had heard that native cultures still support a naturalistic view of the world, but I had no evidence.



  • River

    Yay, other linguists! The name Pirahã must have caught you guys’ eyes like it did mine. Hmm, linguistics -> athiesm? Curiouser and curiouser!

  • I read about this last month and was more fascinated with the linguistics aspect than the atheism.

    I don’t know nearly enough to have a side in the debate, but I find his claims about Piraha intriguing. I’m a mite skeptical.

    I posted some links to a very in-depth New Yorker article, and one that includes a sample of him reading from the Piraha bible.

  • Would someone care to explain universal generative grammar in somewhat simple terms? I read a few related wikipedia articles and to me the theory seemed presumptuous.

    Not a linguist, obviously, but I’m highly sceptical of anything described as innate.

    Even colour, for example. I’ve never seen any reason why you and I should have the same image in our minds when we see something that is pink. I don’t see how we have to model any information the same, visual or otherwise, and these differences are what makes some people artists and others mathematicians. Likewise, people who “see” auras. I don’t see why they couldn’t just be picking up on visual clues and then modelling that information subconsciously as a colour around the person in question.

    So this tribe is doubly interesting for me if they perceive colour differently.

  • Victor

    Religion it either being real or not is the best form of law enforcement. It being real or not it does keep the riff raff that believe that god is watching in check. A job that police are overwhelmed and inadequate at. Once the human race reaches a higher level of morals and ethics we will be able to give up religion. Religion is not for the awakened but those who know what religion is still cant dismiss that we live in an intelligent dream universe where our beliefs take a life of their own and our perception controls the world. bitches

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Tao Jones, you may already know about it, but if not, you might be interested in reading about synesthesia.

  • chancelikely

    One more linguistics student adding his voice to the choir – there does seem to be a largish overlap between atheists and linguists. My hypothesis: linguists and biologists get a pretty up-close-and-personal view of how messy and jerry-rigged reality is. If there’s a loving God, he wouldn’t have designed the knee, the throat, or the prostate the way we see them, and he sure as hell wouldn’t have burdened the world with English spelling, Russian plural genitives, or Turkish vowel harmony.

    I would expect any study of emergent systems (economics, linguistics, biology, meteorology) would either attract or create more atheists than the norm (or at the very least, more worshipers of Loki or Coyote).

    Chomskyan or no, there’s no denying that Piraha is one weird-ass language. (If Piraha were a creature, it would be an axolotl.)

  • Attila the Hunch

    I dont believe in linguists, just because they post here doesnt mean they exist.

  • Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM

    Language both creates and reflects the world view of its speakers. The more distant the language is from English the greater the differences in the way speakers of LOTEs think.

    While there are thousands of Australian aboriginal languages they share several features which makes translation of the Jewish-Christian concepts difficult.

    For example, the Noah’s Ark story is impaired because Australian Aboriginals classify creatures differently: in groups according to how they are cooked or prepared for eating.

    Generational and family features are also very different. While there are many tribes there are only four “dreamings” across these tribes. The children of a mother are given a “dreaming” (like a number) at birth. How they relate to others is dictated by this category membership: who they may marry, who they may talk to directly, who they must talk to indirectly or in the third person and who they must ignore, and so on. This makes Biblical geneology and family relationships difficult to explain. The Yahweh god was designed to fit into the Middle Eastern concept of family. On the other hand, the Australian Aboriginal languages provide “dreaming” mythology which fits both the language and the culture of the first Australians.

    These socio-linguistic differences may not so gross as those of the Piraha or other cultures which have developed over thousands of years in isolation from the language and cultures of the Middle East and its offshoots. Nevertheless, they still demonstrate the influence which religious concepts have had on language development and therefore the way we think and formulate ideas. If the concept is not in the language then the speaker cannot think about something in that manner.

    The lesson for us is that it is important to develop a linguistic “concept of atheism” so that it may become a natural part of our world. The Women’s Liberation movement has already raised our consciousness about the paternalistic nature of the English and other languages and efforts have been made to change this.

    We are in the process of defining atheism and what it does and does not mean. We are also in the process of redefining religions, especially the dominant religion of the English speaking world. One of the problems which we are seeking to address is the prevailing concept that the apex of morality can only be achieved by adherence to a religion.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    Good for the Piraha for seeing through the same baloney that’s being peddled and accepted around the world.

    As another poster stated, they clearly didn’t “see through the same baloney”. They were merely apathetic towards the Christianity being imposed upon them. Their supernatural beliefs are just as loony as Christianity.

    And further, who cares what they practice? I doubt these primitive people could make much noise if they became fundie Jesus freaks.

  • Ryan

    Tao: UG doesn’t claim things about things like color words. It’s very clear that English has no main color words to distinguish light blue from dark blue, like Russian. What UG is about is that there is some specific “module” in the brain designed to learn language. It’s equipped with all the parameters of human languages, whether they be synthetic (Russian) or analytic (Mandarin), Subject-Object-Verb (Japanese) or Subject-Verb-Object (English), or Nominative-Accusative (English) or Ergative-Absolutive (Basque). Basically, UG holds that every human child has some specific biological equipment that allows them in particular to learn language, and essentially fill in the blanks and checkmarks left on a metaphorical survey sheet tucked away in their brain. Does that make any sense? Not necessarily the idea, but the explanation, I mean.

  • When you say ‘It’s not exactly atheism as we know it if they still believe in spirits, is it?’

    They don’t ‘believe’ in them though, do they, they actually see and communicate with them which is a different matter altogether.

    Also: ‘Not that they have escaped religion entirely’. PLEASE PEOPLE, REMEMBER that
    religion and ‘spirituality’ are two entirely seperate things. Religion attempts to co-opt spirituality with it’s myths and dogmas. Spirituality attempts to determine ‘truth’ through a systematic ‘turning inward’ of the individual. This process may involve various ‘systems’ from time to time but it is not singly reliant on any one. Once a certain ‘state’ has been attained, the method used is seen as redundant or no more valid than any other method.

    i.e. the Zen of archery/gong fu/sitting/ping pong/motorcycle maintenance etc

    It’s wonderful that so many people these days are rejecting organised religion, but why then must we dismiss ALL aspects of human ‘spirituality’ as equally invalid.

    I thought our beef was with the priests who attempt to define and restrict human nature with dogma, not with individuals who may or may not feel a connection with ‘divine’ sources.

    Even saint Dawkins defines himself as a 6.9
    with 1 being a fundy and 7 an outright atheist.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d pipe up,
    peace in the valley.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I can only see the first 13 comments here, but the header says that there are 20 comments (and I had a comment around #15 or so).

  • Hank Bones

    sailing toward the great abyss with a smile

    I like that. 🙂

  • Commenting on this thread has halted temporarily because of the # of hits on this post. It’ll be updated with all recent comments soon.

    Thanks for understanding!

  • linus bern

    It reminds me of the anecdote of the missionary in the Arctic who told the Inuit that those who didn’t believe in Christ were doomed to Hell. A man asked him if they would be doomed to hell if they had never even heard of Christ and therefore couldn’t believe in him. The missionary told the man that God was just and so wouldn’t send you to hell if you hadn’t heard of him. The Inuit man asked “then why did you tell me?”

  • Adam

    “It’s not exactly atheism as we know it if they still believe in spirits, is it? But still, it’s good to know that some tribes are impervious to missionaries.”

    Only if you have a limited definition of “spirits”. There is a long history of subjective/experiential contact with the “spirit” of forest/plants etc, I would view these not as metaphysical entities but rather emergent from the subjective realm of consciousness, anyone who spends enough time around the natural world knows that intimate connections can form with the world around them. Thousands of years of “spirit” contact should not be dismissed as the ramblings of delusional/religious folks but rather perhaps an integral part of human consciousness.

  • Jake


    Historically, there was a racial precedent… But you raise an interesting point when you don’t call the religious converters ‘missionaries.’ You call them ‘white people.’

    It might be time to set aside these kinds of racial preconceptions; I have meet/seen/interacted with many missionaries from every continent on earth.

  • Blairsky

    It’s unwise to be skeptical of an idea when there are thousands of books to read on the subject from different times, places, and authors. If there was only one book to refer to that came from another time you’d almost have to pull ideas from the air to keep it fresh.

  • bill

    I don’t have a problem with people believing in spirits and things like that if what it really means is that they’re receiving cues from and about the world around them. That’s the real problem with Christianity: it’s so far removed from reality that it has become an extremely misleading force.

    Anyway, this is a neat article.

  • Daniel

    After reading this post, I went out and bought this book. It is excellent! DEFINITELY pick it up it will challenge your morals, values, and conception of society

  • Paul

    This is off the topic of the above discussion, but really that is still atheism. Theism is specifically the belief in the existence of a god or gods. The prefix “a” means “without”. This tribe doesn’t believe in any gods, but the paranormal existence of spirits. Paranormality doesn’t entail the existence of a god, although some people seem to relate the two.

    I see what you may have meant, but I thought I’d say something about it.

  • FranklyNO

    All I had to do to become unbornagain was go to seminary and then become a pastor. The very first time Some one said I led them to Christ, I sank in my socks and said to myself, “Oh Shit”. I think the thing that convinced me most, was that all the truly important answers were based on blind and illogical references to the bible or simply ignored with comments like “God knowss.” Nothing important is ever answerable by religion

  • Grey

    Shamanistic beliefs that spirits permeate everything are not atheism. Still, I applaud Everett for being open minded enough to learn of their beliefs before condemning them to falsehood.

    Even if he hadn’t changed his beliefs, this was a huge step for a christian missionary.

    It gives us hope that people may someday learn to accept others beliefs for what they are and cease to attack them for it even if we don’t agree.

  • Me a moi

    Nice to hear a deconversion story…

    My own deconversion story:
    I was actually in training to be priest when, in going through scriptures, I decided to map out a sequence of events. I found out that it was impossible for events to have been accurately ordered in all the gospels (because things took place in different time frames. The same event might have a couple days separation in one book, and months in another). It was a mathematical proof that the bible was not inerrant that I had found by my own hand, and then I had to give up being a Christian, because morally, I felt the worse lie was one you tell yourself.

    From there, I effectively built my own beliefs from the ground up (starting with a des cartes-esque reducing my views to a cartesian point to build from… although (hopefully) without the absurd leaps of ‘logic’ that come later, eventually resulting in realizing that the only thing that could even remotely be worthy of the title ‘god’ would have to encompass everything, quite literally having to BE everything (basically, the only thing that can be all-powerful is all things combined. So god can only exist as merely a synonym for everything). No religion, no spiritual stuff. Just me and everyone else. (A philsophical pantheism if you will.)

    On the downside… without the church community I had before, things feel quite a bit more lonely. It had been one of the major groups I’d go camping with, travel with, where a lot of my family is, there were yearly gatherings of people from around the world where I could build contacts and worldwide friendships, etc.

    I don’t think I’ve yet fully come to terms with that part of the transition. For the de-converting crowds, advise is appreciated.

  • Atlas

    I guess I don’t understand how this would be

    1. notable news for atheists? Superstitious naturalists (oxymoron?) convince missionary of senseless foundation for the supernatural…?

    2. I get how it is academically newsworthy though but it seems troubling for ‘anti-chomskyans’. I am no linguistics student, but by granting the Piraha case as evidence that invalidates the Chomskyan linguistic theory aren’t you by the nature of that argument validating its falsifiability and thereby undermining a main critique against it. In that case by establishing its falsifiability wouldn’t the Piraha case become an exception in need of studying instead of regarding it as THE foundation for discrediting Chomskyan linguistics?

    The whole thing just sounds like bad science. It just seems like this was a guy who didn’t know what he believed and he went to a fascinating place and found out what he was doing (proselytizing) wasn’t what he really loved doing, but he ended up finding his passion anyway.

    But to say that Piraha people had a strong linguistic argument against Everett’s faith and that is what changed his mind is like saying a 15 year old blind Ray Charles could go to an old partially deaf Beethoven and convince him that his symphony no. 5 had no ‘soul’ and would never make it.

    I’m curious about the amount of study that exists of materially significant language verses metaphysically significant language across cultures and whether academic study has been impartial in the relative quantities of study?

  • GullWatcher

    Would someone care to explain universal generative grammar in somewhat simple terms? I read a few related wikipedia articles and to me the theory seemed presumptuous.

    It’s a work in progress, a search for a way to describe how language works that will work for all languages. I’m not sure how it came across as presumptuous, unless you think they think they’ve already figured it out (they haven’t and they’re still working on it) or if you think for some reason they shouldn’t try.

    Also, with an isolated group like this, there is a remote possibility that there could be a genetic component that does make their language different from all others, and so it wouldn’t fit the model.

    The problem here is that there’s only one linguist in the world that really knows the language that well. It makes it hard to dispute his findings. He could be completely off base – or he could be right. It’s hard to prove either way.

    Even colour, for example. I’ve never seen any reason why you and I should have the same image in our minds when we see something that is pink. I don’t see how we have to model any information the same, visual or otherwise, and these differences are what makes some people artists and others mathematicians.

    How we perceive it and how we model it are not the same thing. We will probably never know what another person actually sees when they see pink, but if we all call the same wavelength of light by the same name (more or less), communication happens. It’s a fluke that in english we call pale red “pink” but pale blue is still “blue”, but most people do understand, even without any study of color theory, that they are closely related.

    The most likely explanation is that everyone does see the same colors, but choose to describe them differently, or not describe them at all. Is that a language or a cultural difference? There is also a major gender difference in use of color words, at least in english, and that’s within a single language, how should that be accounted for? Or maybe the problem is that linguistics was developed by people from cultures with whole vocabularies for color, so they think it’s a language basic when it really isn’t.

    Linguistics still has a long way to go to explain even a single language, much less all of them. It’s still pretty new. Give them a few hundred years, we may have some really good answers.

  • johnson

    you could claim it’s still a sort of atheism since these spirits that they claim are visible. maybe it’s just what they call their instincts. not necessarily claiming supernatural beings, but more of general signs of certain things, allowing them to predict future events with some certainty. animals that teach them with their behaviors. ‘spirits’ in this case most likely refer to places where a lesson can be learned, whether it be from the wind, an animal, environmental changes, etc…. atheists are at heart logical, and therefore they have that instinct to have lessons beaten into them from the world.

  • Atheism is not believing in “higher powers”. Since spirits could be continuation of personal energy, which has nothing to do with a soul, or “god”, it is not necessarily exclusive.
    Good story regardless.

  • Nate

    This is absolutely amazing 😉

  • SteveG

    Fora.tv has a video of Daniel Everett’s speech on their site.

  • david warburton

    >>How exactly do creationists explain the various similarities apparent in languages as different and geographically dispersed

    Probably with a reference to the tower of babel myth.

  • Wow, what a great website you have here. It is nice to see actual fresh content for a change. From one webmaster to another, I congratulate you for the effort you must have put in. I will definitely recommend your website to my readers which is highly related to your theme. Keep up the great work on your website!

  • jim

    All this god thing is I think is strictly local stuff. They emerged from the great nothing (quantum fluctuation if you want) just like we and the microbes have. For all that that might be millions of them, like habitable planets. No way is any of them omnipotent. That’s church lie. So what do you do with a great nothing that throws out opposing particle clusters that feels like “you”? I suppose you are already doing it otherwise there were no “u”. I don’t see a problem here.

  • Actually Creationism has what is probably the most logical explanation for language similarities, in that we believe that they all had a common origination and were changed through confusion and dispersion, including an intentional confusion by God because of our arrogance and a banding together to do wrong.
    The fact that languages bear striking similarities fits perfectly with the Creation model, as does the rest of the available and perinent evidence.

  • Matt

    That is awesome!

  • kial

    Is it that the existence of the word makes you look for it? or is it that the existence of the phenomenon demands there be a word?

  • that is so much of a comforting news to hear!

  • nice going, send a weak missionary, this is what happens.

  • farmermaggot

    I would like someone to explain why Operator Grammar remains so obscure when it holds such potential. If linguists are deconverting from Chomskyism, why not in that direction?

  • Atheism is denial of a theos.

    If you want a general denial of non-physicalist embodiment, you’ll have to invent a new word.

  • The first book we were assigned to read in my Religion 101 class was one that treated all religions as myth, even Christianity.
    What a mind opener that was.

  • daniel james

    what would those pirahas do without the good spirits to caution them?

    does this story fit into the context you’re trying to make it?

    did the missionary really ‘come’ to athiesm?

  • arlene corwin

    I think more people should become familiar with the ideas in Vedanta philosophy. The way you approach the universal problems of finding yourself and your place in the universe has nothing to do with a-theism or
    theism which [attitude/approach] has more to do with aptitude than anything else. Insight has more to do with a sense of revelation than of cumbersome analytical intellect, although even there it’s all a matter of aptitude. Finding God or ‘It’ will always be empirical, personal and not open to discussion.

  • Every time I see a church, great cathedral, or small chapel, I have to ask myself (and others), “What if the resources of time, money, and effort expended here were spent on health care and education instead of building and maintaining monuments to a myth? How much better off would the people be?”

    When I toured Europe last year, we were paraded through many ancient monuments to monotheism and I began to really understand the dark ages.

    That’s when I formulated my little saying, “Mankind will never truly be free until the dark yoke of religion is lifted by the clear light of truth and logic.”

  • john

    The deeper story to me is that this man Daniel is as confused as every other man is for the rest of his life. Allmost everyone of you here will deny that there is any doubt of your beliefs out loud but deep inside you sometimes question yourselves, could there be any thing else? This man is like most people. You can sit here and say welcome to the family daniel but really he, just like you and me, could change his mind at any point in life. Listen I am not hating on you all, in fact the discussion here is vibrant. I cant wait to see how this kind of comment is received.

  • Jakykong

    @Tao Jones

    I don’t know a lot about linguistics, but I’d like to think I know a bit about vision.

    We perceive colors based on light frequencies in the visible spectrum, with the high-end below ultraviolet and the low-end above infrared. Colors are very directly associated with specific frequencies, and this is why, for example, everybody (except the color-blind) can see a spectrum from a prism. Therefore, we are all decoding the same information.

    Whether we see the same image in our mind is somewhat more complicated. Since subjective experience, also known as Qalia, are, by definition, subjective, there isn’t any objective way we could really measure this. But there is some evidence that we all do perceive the same image.

    Firstly, we all agree within epsilon what colors any given object is. Apples are red, violets are blue, paper is white, and nobody would complain about that. Secondly, we all seem to agree on what colors are “warm” and “cool”. It’s reasonable to assume that if everybody perceived colors differently, then the quality of “warmness” and “coolness” would also be subjective, since it’s an aspect of the color itself.

    While not iron-clad, this is still good evidence that everybody perceives colors more or less the same way.

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