The religious implications of Everett

by Peter Wells

Daniel Everett’s 2008 book Don’t Sleep: There are Snakes tells two stories of loss. First, it tells how the young missionary linguist, who had been trained to analyse languages at the Summer Institute (now SIL), found that the system promulgated by his hero, Noam Chomsky, was unable to cope with many features of the language of the Amazonian tribe he had been sent to. He calls them Pirahã (pronounced something like ‘pidahañ’), though they apparently call themselves the Hi’aiti’ihi (or ‘Straight Ones’). I reviewed this story in a previous essay.

However, Everett lost not one, but two faiths in Brazil, because his experiences among the Pirahãs led him to question, and then to reject, the evangelical Christianity that he had embraced so enthusiastically in his teens. The consequences of this change of heart were much more significant than his loss of faith in Chomsky. His disagreements with the great linguistic philosopher led him eventually (after some emotional turmoil) to distinguished professorships in Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology, but his abandonment of Christianity broke his marriage, and tore his family apart.

Everett started his project with youthful enthusiasm and in good faith:

My income and expenses were to be paid by evangelical churches in the United States so that I could ‘change the Pirahãs’ hearts’ and persuade them to worship the god I believed in, to accept the morality and the culture that goes along with believing in the Christian god. Even though I didn’t even know the Pirahãs, I thought I could and should change them.

The Pirahãs were the people whom he hoped to “take to heaven” with him. But on his first meeting with them, warning signs were visible:

The most striking thing I remember about seeing the Pirahãs for the first time was how happy everyone seemed. Smiles decorated every face. Not one person looked sullen or withdrawn, as many do in cross-cultural encounters. People were pointing to things and talking enthusiastically, trying to help me. Everyone was laughing. Most touched me gently as they came up to me, as though I were a new pet. I could not have imagined a warmer welcome.

If Everett imagined that he was going to bring joy to people living in fear and guilt, he was mistaken. They were happier than he was. They were already in Heaven!

I realized that I was more tense, less welcoming, less hospitable than these people. And I was a missionary.

Some hope may have been given to Everett by the fact that the Pirahãs believe in worlds above the sky and worlds beneath the ground. This seems similar to some Christian world views. In fact, the Pirahãs see spirits and converse with them. Intriguingly, two or more Pirahãs can see the same spirit at the same time, though the spirits are invisible to foreigners. Here is an account of an appearance of one:

– [various tribe members] Look! There he is, Xigagaí, the spirit …  Yes, I can see him. He is threatening us … Everybody, come see Xigagaí. Quickly! He is on the beach!
– [Everett, to Kohoi, his main language teacher] What’s up?
– Don’t you see him over there? Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, is standing on the beach yelling at us, telling us he will kill us if we go to the jungle.
– [Everett] Where? I don’t see him.
– Right there! [Kóhoi snaps, looking intently toward the middle of the apparently empty beach.]
– [Everett] In the jungle behind the beach?
– No! There on the beach. Look!

Spirits tell the people what they should not have done or what they should not do. They can single out individuals or talk to the group as a whole. The Pirahãs listen carefully and often (though not always) follow the exhortations of the kaoáíbógí. A spirit might say something like “Don’t want Jesus. He is not Pirahã,” or “Don’t hunt downriver tomorrow,” or things that are commonly shared values, such as “Don’t eat snakes.”

However, this ‘spiritual’ side of their life, which a missionary might regard as an opening, is a dead-end for evangelists. The kaoáíbógí aren’t invisible spirits. They are entities that take on the shape of things in the environment. Like human beings, they inhabit the real world.  Talk of the spiritual for the Pirahãs is talk of real events. This is no toehold for an invisible deity. There is no word for God in Pirahã.

[Kohoi] What else does your ‘god’ do?
[Everett] Well, he made the stars, and he made the earth. What do the Pirahãs say?
[Kohoi] Well, the Pirahãs say that these things were not made.

But this is not the only problem for the missionary. Evangelical Christianity is a creed that has nailed its colours firmly to the mast of historical fact. It depends upon stories about very distant times, which are claimed to be literally true, to the extent that if any of these stories could be effectively challenged it is hard to see how the faith could survive. God made the world, and put humans in it. The humans sinned repeatedly, creating a world of sin and guilt. Jesus appeared 2000 years ago and changed the ontological status of the universe. Thanks to his sacrificial death a way out of the the human predicament is now available, whereas before, it wasn’t.

It is at this point that the evangelical missionary comes up against the Pirahã fixation upon the immediate present. As mentioned in the previous essay, every verb (and thus every sentence) in Pirahã has to signal its status in respect of the present. A verb must be vouched for by one of three grammatical suffixes that indicate that the statement being made is based upon personal observation, reliable hearsay 0r logical deduction

This means that Pirahãs cannot engage at all with the Biblical accounts of Creation, Adam and Eve, or Jesus. Unlike nearly all other cultures, the Pirahãs do not have any history, creation myths, or folklore – or, for that matter, any fiction. The nearest thing they have to myths – stories that help bind their society together – are the new stories about things that have just happened that they tell each other almost every day: events of which there are living witnesses. Everett, by contrast, could not claim to have met Jesus, or even anyone who had met him:

– Hey Dan, what does Jesus look like? Is he dark like us or light like you?
– Well, I have never actually seen him. He lived a long time ago. But I do have his words.
– Well, Dan, how do you have his words if you have never heard him or seen him?

Most versions of Christianity offer, as an inducement to conversion, the promise of a blissful existence after death in ‘Heaven’ for those who choose the right path. This fails to attract the Pirahãs for two reasons. First, they have no more interest in the future than they have in the past. To repeat, they focus entirely on the present. Secondly, they have no complaints whatsoever about their present existence, although their environment is virtually uninhabitable by anyone except themselves. They think it’s fine. They believe that Westerners who come to visit them do so out of envy of their happy lot. Life, for the Pirahãs, is good. Heaven, however described, would not – could not – be an improvement.

Yet another way in which the Pirahãs present inhospitable soil to missionaries is their lack of ritual. There are some loosely followed traditions surrounding burial, but most aspects of burial are subject to variation, and Everett did not find any two burials exactly alike. The Pirahãs don’t wear feathers, enact elaborate ceremonies, paint their bodies, or show other exotic outward cultural manifestations like other Amazonian groups. There are no weddings: couples initiate cohabitation and procreation without formalities.

The principle of immediacy of experience means that formulaic language and actions that involve reference to non-witnessed 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. The Pirahãs avoid formulaic encodings of values and instead transmit values and information via actions and words that originate  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 the Eucharist, which recalls an event from 2000 years ago. would be meaningless to the Pirahãs, and a vital weapon in the evangelist’s armoury is knocked from his (her) hands.

More problems: By the standards of American Protestant morality, the Pirahãs are worryingly lax, especially in matters of sex. Unmarried Pirahãs have sex as they wish. Marriages are recognized simply by cohabitation. Though monogamy is the norm, sex is not limited to spouses. Marriages can be dissolved by the simple process of one partner going away with someone else. If they return and remain together, the former partners are thereby divorced and the new couple is ‘married.’

The outcome of this relaxed approach is that most members of a Pirahã community have had sex with a large number of other members. Only a small number of sexual couplings among the Pirahãs, (full sibling with full sibling, grandparent or parent with child) are prohibited by incest taboo. The strait-laced Everett was outraged to see men engaging in games involving grabbing each other’s genitals, sex play between children, and even sex play between children and adults – sometimes performed in front of his children. The package deal of Evangelical Christianity includes not only ritual and belief in an ancient story, but also a list of prohibitions.  During a dance (a wild, orgiastic event which is the nearest thing they have to ritual), a Pirahã woman asked Everett,

 – Do you only lie on top of one woman? Or do you want to lie on others?
– [Everett] I just lie on one. I don’t want others.

Eventually, Everett realised that there was no hope of converting the Pirahãs to Christianity. More, he began to believe that it would be wrong to try. His disillusionment perhaps began when he found that his  translation of Mark’s gospel had no ‘epistemological grip’ on their minds (though they loved the decapitation of John the Baptist). When he gave his own personal testimony (the story of his journey to Christ), he included an account of the suicide of his stepmother, which they found hilarious. However, as Everett began to appreciate the impregnability of the wall he had run up against, he also began to notice that the Pirahã exhibited a range of moral virtues possibly more important than marital fidelity.

He was impressed by their patience, their happiness, and their kindness. They like to touch to show affection. They are caring for the elderly and the handicapped. Parents and children are openly affectionate—hugging, touching, smiling, playing, chatting, and laughing with one another. Most Pirahãs have nuclear families that include the stable presence of a father, a mother, and siblings (full, half, and adopted). Parents treat their children with much affection, talk to them respectfully and frequently, and rarely discipline them. Parents do not strike their children or order them about, except under exceptional circumstances. Indeed, violence against anyone, children or adults, is unacceptable to the Pirahãs. Anger is the cardinal sin. Even when provoked, the Pirahãs are able to respond with patience. Everett saw no aggression internal to the group. Although, as in all societies, there were exceptions to the rule, this remains his impression of the Pirahãs after many years. They are peaceful people. They are unbelievably happy. They laugh all the time.

Everett does not idealise the Pirahãs. He concedes that when they get drunk (as a result of the interference of unscrupulous traders) their behaviour is ugly and even dangerous. He was in danger of being killed by a group of drunken men on at least one occasion. They can be savage in defence of what they consider their land. And they are too much inclined, in his view, to allow very ill people to die (and even, on occasion, to euthanase them). Although extremely hospitable to strangers, they set their faces against ever accepting a stranger into their community. Their smug assumption that they are superior to any other group on the planet can be irritating. However, on the whole,

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.

As a result, Everett

began to seriously question the nature of faith, the act of believing in something unseen. Religious books like the Bible and the Koran glorified this kind of faith in the nonobjective and counterintuitive—life after death, virgin birth, angels, miracles, and so on. The Pirahãs’ values of immediacy of experience and demand for evidence made all of this seem deeply dubious. Their own beliefs were not in the fantastic and miraculous but in spirits that were in fact creatures of their environment, creatures that did normal kinds of things (whether or not I thought they were real). There was no sense of sin among the Pirahãs, no need to “fix” mankind or even themselves. There was acceptance for things the way they are, by and large. No fear of death. Their faith was in themselves.

There is another version of Christianity, less well known than Everett’s American Protestantism. If Evangelicalism stands on History, the alternative is to believe in Eternal Truths. One might say, ‘God is; and Jesus is the window through which we (emphasised) see him most clearly.’ Roughly speaking, on this account, Jesus did not change the world at a point in time two thousand years ago; rather, he embodied the unconditional love of God which has always existed.

This ‘liberal’ brand of Christianity avoids some of the problems that Everett encountered. It does not rely on the historical accuracy of ancient stories. In theory, if someone could prove that Jesus never existed, this would not affect the faith of the participants. They have accepted the nature of God as they see it displayed in the Scriptures (and in their own experience), and their faith does not depend on past facts, but on present (because eternal) truths.

This approach also tends to co-exist with a more relaxed attitude to moral regulations. Liberal Christians have been in the forefront of programmes to improve the position of women, divorced people and gay people in the Church and in society. To the sexual proclivities of the Pirahã they would bring something of a ‘situation ethics’ approach.

But a liberal missionary (if there are any) would find the task of gaining the Pirahãs’ interest almost as difficult as Everett did. The Pirahã are just as resistant to abstract ideas as they are to talk about the past or future. They have no interest in them. Their resistance goes back to the principle of Immediacy of Experience which had the striking effect on Pirahã grammar described in my previous essay. There we noted that Pirahã does not do subordination, because a subordinate clause does not make a declarative statement rooted in the present. That is to say, in the sentence ‘Bring the nails that Dan bought’, the embedded clause ‘that Dan bought,’ which means ‘Dan bought the nails,’ is not explicitly made by an eyewitness, nor is it clearly the result of logical deduction or hearsay.

But the effect of the principle of immediacy of experience on the Pirahã language is wider ranging than that. Every form of generalisation moves discourse into an area remote from the immediate present. For example, stones are real and immediate, but as soon as you state that there are three of them you bring into the situation a concept that is neither real nor immediate – the concept of three. This is why the Pirahã have no numbers – not even one and two. Left and right are a similar generalisation – a concept that we can apply to the car on our left and then, when we turn round, to the letterbox which is now on our left. The Pirahã consciously or unconsciously avoid this abomination, and use the thing which is always present – the river. ‘The dog is upriver from the snake … After the big tree turn downriver.’ Colours are equally suspect. There might be blood, or a fruit of the same colour, or a Westerner’s scarlet jacket. But there is no such thing as red. So they say that the jacket, or the fruit, looks like blood.

Without further labouring the point, it is clear that the Pirahã are not going to be moved by a statement such as ‘Love is the answer’ any more than they are by ‘Jesus died for our sins.’

They have no craving for truth as a transcendental reality. Indeed, the concept has no place in their values. Truth to the Pirahãs is catching a fish, rowing a canoe, laughing with your children, loving your brother, dying of malaria.

Liberal Christianity can entertain the idea that the Pirahã are not beyond the grace of God, but even a liberal Christian has to acknowledge that it has little to offer them. Indeed, perhaps they have something to offer us.

Considering how extremely uncivilised they appear to the Western eye, this suggestion is somewhat counter-intuitive. The Pirahã produce very few tools, almost no art, and very few artifacts. Of the few artifacts they make, none are permanent. Their habitat is under threat, and they have no resources to defend themselves effectively against encroachment. They number only a few hundred. They live from hand to mouth and are constantly in danger of starvation, but they don’t store food. They are surrounded by dangerous fauna and diseases. Their life expectancy is less than half of ours (one Pirahã, seeing Western missionaries return after many years in undiminished health, asked Dan if Americans ever die). Perhaps more than any other race, they are described by people who encounter them – especially Brazilian neighbours – as ‘animals’. That being the case, it becomes somewhat sensitive when it is suggested that the language they speak lacks a qualifying feature of human language. Yet human – fully human –  they undoubtedly are.

It is true that their passionate commitment to actuality, to the present, may be said to resemble the life of animals, as far as we can imagine them. They admire animals, and the way they live. But unlike non-human animals, they have a language, which like any other language can express anything they want to express. They have complex personal relationships as parents, children, lovers, friends, neighbours. They have clear standards of morality. They have a sense of humour. (No matter how intelligent your pet is, you will never see it laugh.) They have amazing skills of jungle craft, especially in hunting and fishing, that require teamwork and intelligence:

The Pirahã are supremely gifted in all the ways necessary to ensure their continued survival in the jungle: they know the usefulness and location of all important plants in their area; they understand the behavior of local animals and how to catch and avoid them; and they can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game.

In fact, it has been argued that, far from being primitive, they are actually more advanced than we are.

Let’s ask ourselves if it is more sophisticated to look at the universe with worry, concern, and a belief that we can understand it all, or to enjoy life as it comes, recognizing the likely futility of looking for truth or God? The Pirahãs have built their culture around what is useful to their survival. They don’t worry about what they don’t know, nor do they think they can or do know it all. Likewise, they do not crave the products of others’ knowledge or solutions.

It has even been suggested that, far from belonging to a backwater in which they have been left behind while other communities moved on, they are a group that deliberately left a more highly organised, ‘civilised’ society in order to live as they wished. Everett describes them as “a sovereign people”. There are hints in Everett’s account that may remind well-read Western readers with a religious background of Biblical texts which Christians, liberal or conservative, may wish to keep at arm’s length:

Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also (Mt 5.39).
Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (v 42).
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal (6.19).
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear (6,26).
Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (6.34).
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged (7.1).
Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff (10.9f).
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (18,3).
if a brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times (18.21f).
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now for you will be hungry (Luke 6.24f).

In the Acts of the Apostles, 2.44f. we are told that, in the earliest days of the Church,

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

This is widely held by bible scholars to be a fantasy, and by economists to be a recipe for disaster. Yet it describes something not unlike the life of the Pirahãs.

The Pirahãs don’t need walls for defense, because the village is the defense—every member of the village will come to the aid of every other member. They don’t need houses to display wealth, because all Pirahãs are equal in wealth.

A key concept is xahaigí, which means, roughly, siblinghood: family, community. Each Pirahã is important to every other Pirahã. Xahaigí is especially seen in the treatment of children and the elderly. A father of one family will feed or care for another child, at least temporarily, if that child is abandoned, even for a day. Once an old man got lost in the jungle. For three days the entire village searched for him, with little food or sleep, until they found him. Like many native American societies, they are by tradition egalitarian. There is no trace of hierarchy. Peace and harmony are maintained with a minimum of coercion.

There’s a trope in science fiction films, such as Star Trek, that the Earthlings stumble upon a perfect society which for a time attracts them, until they realise that they would be – happier? more at home? more purposeful? – in poor old Earth, with all its conflicts and problems. The land of the Pirahãs, though physically inhospitable, is comparable to the utopias of those futuristic tales. There is a price to pay for the stress-free society that the Pirahãs have built up. Their belief that they are the best of people in the best of environments renders them powerless in the real world of loggers, miners, big business and crooks. In danger of extinction, they would be in even greater danger were it not for churches, charities, and campaigners for aboriginal rights. Their intense conservatism stifles creativity and individuality. They are virtually incapable of learning anything, due to their cultural taboo on absorbing any foreign influences. After reading Don’t Sleep, we may (like Everett himself) decide that we prefer modern plumbing and smartphones, libraries and legal systems, science, art and learning, and are prepared to pay the price for these things in units of stress. But not, hopefully, without having learned something of use.

They don’t believe in a heaven above us, or a hell below us, or that any abstract cause is worth dying for. They give us an opportunity to consider what a life without absolutes, like righteousness or holiness and sin, could be like. And the vision is appealing. Is it possible to live a life without the crutches of religion and truth? The Pirahãs do so live. They share some of our concerns, of course, since many of our concerns derive from our biology, independent of our culture (our cultures attribute meanings to otherwise ineffable, but no less real, concerns). But they live most of their lives outside these concerns because they have independently discovered the usefulness of living one day at a time. The Pirahãs simply make the immediate their focus of concentration, and thereby, at a single stroke, they eliminate huge sources of worry, fear, and despair that plague so many of us in Western societies.