Perhaps one of the single most harmful passages in all of occidental literature is something Christians refer to as “the Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20), in which Jesus ordered the apostles to “go and make disciples of all the nations.” Christians have taken this order literally, and to an extreme, over the centuries, going so far as to use it to justify swordpoint conversions all over the world. The tales of forced conversions to Christianity are legion. They range from the Orkney isles in the Middle Ages (the famous example of Earl Sigurd who was forced to be baptized) to the coercive tactics of Spanish missionaries in the New World, whose policies were backed up by the tacit threat of armored Spanish soldiers. Whole civilizations have been utterly destroyed, all around the world, by Christian missionary activity.

That’s why this news — conveyed in this book review (of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett) in the Portsmouth (NH) Herald — is so welcome:

The Pirahã are the “Show me!” tribe of the Brazilian Amazon. They don’t bother with fiction or tall tales or even oral history. They have little art. They don’t have a creation myth and don’t want one. If they can’t see it, hear it, touch it or taste it, they don’t believe in it.

Missionaries have been preaching to the Pirahãs for 200 years and have converted not one. Everett did not know this when he first visited them in 1977 at age 26. A missionary and a linguist, he was sent to learn their language, translate the Bible for them, and ultimately bring them to Christ.

Instead, they 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.”

The Pirahã are still animists of a sort, though, who believe in and communicate with spirits, which counts as a form of metaphysics. But they don’t really have a religion … they have no marriage or funeral rites, even if they do “pair up” as more matrimonially-inclined cultures do. One of the better-known (if not all that well-understood) features of Pirahã culture is their language, which has minimal ability to describe non-material or abstract concepts. Everett concludes this is not because of a limitation with the Pirahã or their language, but because they choose not to express themselves that way:

Over the years, Everett comes to the conclusion that the Pirahã language reflects and arises from their culture in its directness, immediacy and simplicity.

Theirs is a simple world, one to which they are well-adapted, and they do not perceive any need for gods, much less one which is foreign to them, as is Jesus Christ. Think how different occidental history might have been, had Christian missionaries run up against a roadblock such as the Pirahã, early on.

Note: This book review mentions the controversy among linguists over the nature of the Pirahã language. If you want to learn more about this interesting exception-to-most-linguists’-rules, you can do so here or here.

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