How an Amazonian tribe turned a missionary into an atheist

How an Amazonian tribe turned a missionary into an atheist November 8, 2008

A RIVETING and hugely satisfying report on BBC Radio 4 today tells the story of a missionary who was charged by an American missionary group with taking the Gospel to the little understood Pirahas tribe in the Amazon – only to realise how ridiculous his faith in Christianity was.
Daniel Everett, 57, a linguist in the Departmental Chair of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University, told presenter John McCarthy on the Excess Baggage programme, that he had travelled to the Amazon in the 70s to bring the tribe “the joy of faith” only to discover that they were a deeply contented people. In fact they seemed far better contented than he was.daniel-everett-dont-sleep-there-are-snakes-life-and-langauge-in-the-amazonian-jungle
Tribe members asked the missionary whether he had seen or experienced any of the things he was telling them about. He had to admit that he hadn’t; that he was simply passing things onto them that were told to him by people who hadn’t seen or experienced them either.
The Pirahas, he said

Believed that the world was as it had always been, and that there was no supreme deity.

Furthermore they had no creation myths in their culture. In short, here was a people who were more than happy to live their lives

Without God, religion or any political authority.

Despite Everett translating the Book of Luke into Piraha and reading it to tribe members, the Piraha’s sensibly resisted all his attempts to  convert them.
According to a report in the New Yorker:

His zeal soon dissipated … Convinced that the Piraha assigned no spiritual meaning to the Bible, Everett finally admitted that he did not, either. He declared himself an atheist …

According to Wikipedia, Everett “was having serious doubts by 1982, and had lost all faith by 1985 after having spent a year at MIT. He would not tell anyone about his atheism for another 19 years; when he finally did, his marriage ended in divorce and two of his three children broke off all contact.”
Everett’s account of his life among the Pirahas is told in his book Don’t Sleep There are Snakes. BBC Radio 4 has chosen it as its Book of The Week, and it will be broadcast from Monday, November 17, 2008 ( weekdays 9.45am -10.00am, repeated 00.30-00.45am.)
The book concludes with Everett saying:

The Pirahas have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comforts of heaven or the fear of hell, and of sailing towards the great abyss with a smile.
And they have shown me that for years I held many of my beliefs without warrant. I have learned these things from the Pirahas, and I will be grateful to them for as long as I live.

You can hear the relevant extract, in MP3 format, here.
UPDATE – Nov 10: The Guardian has now picked up the story, which you can see here.

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  • Kieron

    Heres the link, get it soon as its only up for a few days:

  • Thanks for posting this! As an atheist, decovert and linguist, this book sounds wonderful. I just added it to my wish list so I can buy it as soon as it comes out.

  • newspaniard

    Wife and 2 children ‘divorced’ him when he declared his atheism. What kind of family was that in the first place? Thank goodness for the third child.

  • Francois

    As an ex-christian I find the mere idea of this story riveting. One of the things that pushed me away from Christianity was the audacity of the whole missionary calling of forcing this religion on others like these tribes.

  • Barry Duke

    Kieron, the link embedded in the second paragraph of this post takes you to the BBC iPlayer broadcast of the programme, which may be available for longer.

  • Newspaniard – exactly. It happens a lot in the US (from my experience on other message boards).

  • Michael

    This interview is fascinating and worth listening to

  • valdemar

    This is indeed heartening. Is it me, or are there more good Americans about nowadays? It’s just like the war! Without the ‘being bombed by Germans’ bit…

  • I’ll have to see if I can get a copy of that book for the library. It sounds very interesting. It’s nice to hear that not every missionary succeeds in convincing the natives that everything they’ve ever known was wrong.
    That’s always bugged me about missionary work. The help always comes with strings attached.

  • Barry Duke

    In case you did not spot the addition to the final paragraph in the post, I should point out that BBC Radio 4 has chosen “Snakes” as its Book of The Week. It will be broadcast from Monday, November 17, 2008 (weekdays 9.45am -10.00am, repeated 00.30-00.45am).


    What a wonderful story! How fascinating! If this is well-documented as true, I would enjoy reading it!
    As for his wife and children, no, I am not surprised. All that unnecessary pain over absurd lies.
    Valdemar, I don’t know if there are more good Americans, but I hope more are beginning to see through the lies that the bad ones tell.

  • What a heartwarming story! We could learn a lot from the Pirahas, I’m sure. The Book of luke, not so much.

  • Tyler O

    I’ll stand out here like a sore thumb, but it’s cool. Just bear with me.
    As a devout Catholic, I am inspired by St. Francis who challenged Christians to preach the Gospel… and use words when necessary. In other words, my goal is to share faith by example and action instead of shoving a copy of the Bible down throats.
    Fundamentalists (the right word to describe most Protestants I know) don’t seem to get this… and don’t seem (to me anyway) to get the golden rule itself.
    It’s been said that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and all too often “Christians” use the word of God as vinegar.
    While I’m saddened to lose another believer, I can’t be surprised that his tactics didn’t work, and actually blew up in the face of his old self.

  • It’s sad when people just believe dogma and receive no fulfillment from their religion. God is an experience. It has nothing to do with belief.
    If you have peace, joy, and charity in your heart that is all that matters.
    Being prideful about Atheist or Christian “truths” is divisive.
    May the pain of your childhood religious experiences be healed fully and your acceptance grow abundantly.

  • xznofile

    I read on an archaeological website somewhere, that may lowland tribes in South America have a philosophy of existence such that if you can’t account for having witnessed or experienced something personally, you’re essentially lying, like a kid bragging, & inviting embarrassment for taking credit for someone else’s experience. it’s a definite foe-pa.

  • Jack

    Wow…I am familiar with Mr. Everett’s linguistics work, and also aware of his association with the SIL missionary group. Never knew he had abandoned them though!
    Quite relieving, I must say.

  • Ganesh

    Anybody got the mp3 of the BBC Radio4 show that Kieron posted as first comment ?

  • ywamer

    Interesting read.
    As a missionary myself, I can imagine the struggles Everett must have faced if he was a closet atheist attempting to translate the Bible for an un-churched ethnic group. And therein lies the difference between mere proselytism and truly sharing ones faith – of repeating a memorized routine vs a heartfelt desire to speak of what one thinks and believes (just as we all do on this blog).
    Forcing a religion or idea or culture on any ethnic group is not God’s intent. Never was.
    True faith, as represented by scripture, is simply that people have the opportunity to hear and decide.

  • But here’s the thing. What if what those people in the books he now has given up-The Bible-where telling the truth about Jesus of Nazareth. After all, although the ex-missionary had never seen the people before he went there, he did go based upon his belief in the experiences of others. The fact that the tribesmen seemed contented doesn’t mean that all is well.

  • Wow. I’m glad I didn’t have to travel to the Amazon to discover the absence of god. I’m especially glad that my wife didn’t divorce me, and that my daughters are too young to care about my lack of religious beliefs. What and outstanding story by this man.

  • Henry

    Has it ever occurred to you that, on the Internet, yor readership is global and it makes absolutely no sense to say “the program will air 10 a.m.” ?
    You *must* use Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). It’s the international standard (and no, “Eastern Time”, “Pacific Time” and “Atlanta Time” are not).

  • ozma

    This is an interesting story. More interesting is his attempt to undermine Chomskian linguistics. Getting linguists to reject this might be even more difficult than getting Christians to reject Christianity.
    “One of the things that pushed me away from Christianity was the audacity of the whole missionary calling of forcing this religion on others like these tribes.”
    I’m not sure what I think about missionaries but this did not seem to be a case of forcing. No coercion seemed to be involved. It might be better overall if all outsiders left tribes like this alone, even linguists who study their languages.
    “Valdemar, I don’t know if there are more good Americans, but I hope more are beginning to see through the lies that the bad ones tell.”
    I assume you are British? Are the British good? Is there some nation full of good people and some nation full of bad people these days? I wasn’t aware of this.

  • Don

    yeah, this is an interesting story, but nothing new. I’ve met many atheists that thought they were christians once because they went on mission trips or read the bible once through. its more than an ‘experience’ or title you give yourself.

  • travis

    Very interesting article, it’s interesting and accurate to hear of ‘Athiests in Christian clothing’. Makes me wonder how many others there are. Though, as a Christian, the name of this site, ‘freethinker’ doesn’t sit right with me. From this article I know that you don’t fully understand all there is to understand about belief in God, nor are you really thinking freely. This is so ‘unbelievably’ biased.

  • Doink

    I consider religion the only virus spread by sight and sound. In it’s more vicious form, it is most dangerous to all mankind. In it’s milder forms, it’s not much better.

  • poodle

    How can this be an attack on true Christian beliefs when this guy never was a Christian to start with? He never really believed anything so how can this to be made out as a ‘Christian’ turning into an athiest. He always was an athiest, he just didn’t quite know it.
    You are trying to attack true Christian beliefs and make them out as ridiculous and stupid, but you aren’t actually getting to the heart of what Christian beliefs are. You’re just dancing around the issues. Get real!

  • Neeraj Pall

    Okay. This Guy First Of All Is Not A Christian. I Have Two Dearest Atheist Friend’s Who Try To Tell Me That There’s No God Or Jesus But To Be Honest With You ,I Have A Had Enough Of My Prayer’s Answered To Say No To “No There Is Not God A God”. Hallejuah To That.
    – Neeraj Pall.

  • Re comment #4. Christianity is not ‘forced’ on anyone. People are simply told of the Gospel, and it is up to them to decide whether to accept or reject it.
    This is a very sad story, that someone would claim to know Christ and then turn his back on Him.
    I don’t blame the family for walking out on him per se; the Bible states that a Christian is to be married to only another Christian.
    It would be a little like a man telling his wife of so many years that he’s discovered all the sudden that he’s a homosexual – would you really expect the wife to stay, given such a profound change in personality/ views/ morals/ worldview and all that?

  • Do a Google on the phrase “End of the Spear” (a movie based on a true story), and you’ll find information about Steve Saint (his father was a Christian missionary). Here’s an excerpt from Wiki:
    “End of the Spear is a 2006 docudrama film that recounts the story of Operation Auca, in which five American Christian missionaries attempted to evangelize the Huaorani (Waodani) people of the jungle of Ecuador.
    Taking a unique spin on actual events from the 1950s in which five male missionaries were speared by members of the Waodani tribe, the movie tells the story from the perspective of Mincayani, one of the tribesmen who killed the missionaries, and Steve Saint, the son of one of the murdered missionaries. The two eventually form a bond that continues to this day.”
    -And many in the the Waodani tribe became Christians, and no, they weren’t “forced” into it. They heard the Gospel and decided of their own will to accept Jesus.

  • Pingback: The Freethinker › More on missionary-turned-atheist Daniel Everett()

  • Barry Duke

    I have posted a relevant extract from Everett’s book in MP3 format here.

  • Orlando

    How typical that Christian posters leap to inisist this chap was never actually a proper Christian in the first place or can’t have properly understood the faith etc. How many people do you know who decide to become missionaries in the Amazon on a whim?
    I find this an inspiring tale of intellectual courage and honesty, especially as it eventually cost him so much to be open about his new understandings.
    I can’t see how anyone can disagree with the things he points out — how the tribespeople seemed more clear-thinking and honest than him in their lack of myths and lack of beliefs about things based on hearsay and tradition rather than experience; how they showed they were able to be content with life as it is and not look for a heaven or fear a hell; how they saw no need to give fanciful explanations for things they did not know. By his account they lead contented lives; how would it help to get them to believe in such ideas as “original sin” and hell and Jesus’ blood sacrifice etc? – He was right to see they were doing fine on their own, thanks very much.

  • Csqaured

    I stumbled upon this web site as I am preparing to leave America for a short term missionary trip in summer of 2009.
    As a Christian I am charged with living my life in a way that reflects the attitude and mind of Christ. I also have the charge of presenting the gospel message from a heart of love. If what the Bible says is correct, (which is what I obviously believe) then what I am doing is attempting to share an eternal life saving truth. I have nothing to gain from doing this. Jesus(God)gives all the free will to accept or reject His message of hope and redemption. If you dare–go to this web site and watch with an open heart. By the way, name calling or labeling me doesn’t change anything.
    No harm or gain toward the giver will come from a true believer sharing the Word of Truth.

  • Marcus

    And which particular culture do you and your Invisible Friend intend fucking up with biblical claptrap, CSquared? You failed to tell us.

  • Csqaured

    Dear Marcus,
    I will be visiting and sharing with those who are interested the gospel of Jesus Christ. For those it offends I expect them to discount His Words and move on with their freethinker livestyles.
    Ever wonder why the name of Jesus is so offensive? He healed the sick, blind, deaf and lame. He brought dead back to life and offers to forgive one of their sins. Yes, his followers have screwed things up and fallen short of the mission at hand. Guess what that proves? We are not Him and our nature is selfish, sinful and we are prone to missing the mark. Here is the deal; Either one believes Jesus is their Lord or he is a liar and or lunatic. It is a choice to be made by all. No one gets a pass on choosing and no one comes to Christ by force.

  • Ray

    My heart goes out to this man. If he were truly a Bible believing man, he would have known that the Gospel is not taught by persuasion. This man was already losing his own faith prior to even going on this trip. The Holy Spirit is what this man needed on this trip, and he never experianced the holy spirit himself. You don’t come to Christ by information, you come to Christ by Revelation. Someone like brother Yun would have brought fire with him because he is a man filled with the Holy Spirit. You have to be light in the midst of darkness, but he was already in darkness when he entered. Although this tribe lives a happy life, there souls are lost. No matter how good we are, we all fall short of the glory of God and must be born again.

  • Barry Duke

    Ray, your arrogance beggars belief, and is so typical of individuals incapable of accepting that their delusion of choice might be just that – pure fantasy.
    To suggest that Everett “was already losing his faith” flies in the face of reality. By his own account he was a devout believer prepared to go to inordinate lengths to bring Jesus to the tribe, but, confronted with the fact that humans do not need gods or superstition in order to live happy, fulfilled lives, he had the intellectually honesty to recognise Christianity for the horrible sham it is, and declared himself an atheist.
    He is not a man to be pitied, but to be admired.
    How much better this world would be if all missionaries were to recognise that they are simply shabby purveyors of deception and lies, and start doing something more useful with their lives.

  • It’s fascinating and interesting.
    As a christian, I see it as a rejection of Western Culture. Not a rejection of Christianity or Religion.

  • Barry Duke

    As a Christian Ray, you would do, wouldn’t you? This report, and the man’s own words, make it emphatically clear that this was a case of TOTAL rejection of religion. Anyone who thinks otherwise has to be deluded or in denial.

  • heyheyhey

    once a christian, always a christian

  • Jesus2.0

    “As a christian, I see it as a rejection of Western Culture. Not a rejection of Christianity or Religion.”
    This is why you also believe that there is a supreme being that watches you masturbate. Because even when the truth (i.e. This man is no longer religious) is stated to you in black and white (i.e. He said that he is no longer religious and has been an atheist for over 19 years) you STILL say something utterly ridiculous like that! 🙂
    Haha, you people crack me up. 🙂

  • Barry Duke

    Once an idiot, always an idiot. Yes, Heyheyhey, I’m talking to you!

  • Kiwiguy

    LOL no one comes to Christ by Force
    Reminds me of my favorite Monty Python quote
    “You know what they say! No one expects the Spanish inquisition!”
    😛 🙂
    And Quoting….
    “He would not tell anyone about his atheism for another 19 years; when he finally did, his marriage ended in divorce and two of his three children broke off all contact.”
    Gee, yup great forgiveness there I must say and even though I am not a “high and mighty morally pure christian” I can forgive you.
    “I like your Jesus, but your Christians are so unlike Jesus..M Gandhi”.
    I have always thought of knowledge as food but once digested just like food it should be “excreted”. You can let it pass through you but don’t try to “hold on it” just imagine what would happen to your body if you tried to hold onto all of the food you eat.
    Well its not different to belief, knowledge is useful for the moment it is used but after that it should be let go just like your digested lunch.
    It explains why so many people that are tied up in belief are so uptight about it, they know they haven’t had a conceptual dumb and are getting a bit uncomfortable…
    😛 🙂 Just let it go…. You dont need to be a “anything” just be you.
    I’m not an Atheist, I’m not religious. I’m me.

  • B. Nicole

    “Well its not different to belief, knowledge is useful for the moment it is used but after that it should be let go just like your digested lunch.”
    Excuse me? That thought itself would strike down education and the entire concept of building this generation of science upon the one before as unnecessary. How are we supposed to move forward as a culture if we don’t take the things we have learned on the past, keep them, and build on them, rejecting them only if we find them false?
    I had that Ghandi quote in mind while reading through responses, and I am disappointed that it was used without any real backup. What Ghandi said was true; while the supposed teachings of Jesus were decent morals to live by (don’t kill others, don’t steal, love your neighbor as you love yourself) it seems that they have all gotten skewed in the guilt that the church lays on to keep untaxable dollars flowing in. Jesus’ existence has not been proved, nor have the existences of many of the places he has “been” (ie: Bethlehem)! A book that is a mismatched collection of stories used to manipulate and gain power is no proof.
    I am saddened and frustrated in seeing so many people here alone who think that “you wouldn’t understand, it’s an experience, this missionary was not a Christian in the first place” is a proper argument. I’ve run across it in real life as well; if you would kindly take three steps back from your faith impartially, looked at what it is based on versus what the bible preaches and the history of it, you would realize that you have been blindly believing lies. I was raised a Catholic and separated from the church on my own in this realization.
    I applaud Mr. Everett and will be purchasing and reading this book. The world needs more open-minded people who are willing to examine their own beliefs and leave them if they are found faulty when challenged.

  • Mike

    Please resepct people who believe in Religion. Some people may feel naked without it. If you tell a religious person about an Atheist experience, it is like questioning the basic beliefs in life. It is like pulling away a blanket (security) from a kid. It will make the kid angry, cranky and wild. Give the kid time to grow up.

  • Barry Duke

    No, no, NO! Respect, Mike, is something that has to be earned. Very few religionists show respect for the views of others, especially atheists, yet demand repect for their own delusions. To hell with that!

  • As someone who doesn’t need a deity to dictate my moral code, I am interested in this book. Also the “deeply contented people” thing. I would like to become one of those please.

  • Kiwiguy

    To B. Nicole
    What I am trying to demonstrate is the over importance of belief here.
    Hey the knowledge is let go and like all good compost it allows something new to grow.
    I didn’t say “forget it”, What I was trying to say is “lose egotistical attachment to it”. 🙂

  • Mallory

    “According to Wikipedia”… Come on, Barry! Being a free thinker should mean you need to actually think. Using Wikipedia as a source is equivalent to asking random people on the street what they think and then using them as a serious citation.
    Your article may actually contain truth, but any intelligent reader will necessarily discount anything said by a writer citing Wikipedia as a source.

  • brought up religious

    Several people have made the claim that no one is forced into Christianity, and that it is always a choice.
    I’d contend that being given the options of believing in — or pretending to believe in — a religion, or being disowned by family and outcast from one’s social network is not much of a choice.

  • MRB

    I, for one, was baptist for much of my life. My best friend was the son of a pastor. I got baptised after my mother died. When they moved, I didn’t have a church to go to, and I learned to think on my own. About 2 years ago I went to another church. Nice folks, or so it seemed. I think it was the second or third service I attended the pastor chose the subject of love. At the end of the service he starts talking about homosexuals and how they’re causing the end of the world. I’ll tell you what, that was the last time I attended. How can you teach love to your people and turn around to only preach hate and segregation?
    I don’t consider myself baptist anymore- which makes this joke even funnier to me. “I had a dream I was walking in heaven with Jesus talking about the meaning of life. I spotted a group sleeping in a corner and asked Jesus who they are. Jesus says,”Shhh.. Those are baptists. They think they’re the only ones here.”
    I had the faith, I lost it, I tried to gain it back, and lost it again. I’ve read the bible, and to tell the truth… I don’t see any alters from which to sacrifice sheep 😉
    There are a lot of “What Ifs” floating around. The truth is that you have to find it for yourself. If your truth is your faith, then so be it. Whether you follow the old testament, new testament, koran, etc, etc- it’s all up to you. If you want good analogy, listen to some of George Carlin’s material.

  • Michael

    Don’t quote Wikipedia for anything. It lacks journalistic professionalism. In your case of “was having serious doubts,” a far better reference would be the [5] footnote at the end of that sentence referencing an interview featured in New Scientist.
    I enjoyed your article, and enjoy Freethinker as a whole, but want you to hold your sources to the same standard professors hold their students when making research citations.

  • We invoke spirituality to answer the question “why am I here?” Religion codifies spirituality with teachings and rituals. The up side of religion is group self re-inforcement, ala Alcoholic Anonymous. Evangelism seeks to recruit others as a form of validation for one’s belief system. The down side of religion is social manipulation and control. We are told that animals do not have the capability for spirituality as they cannot fore see into the future. Animals all are God’s creations but man is the only chosen one. More likely than not, we just can’t measure what animals are thinking and hence discount their intellect. For those who are not interest in answering for themselves the question “why am I here?”, there may be several choices: organized religion with its prescriptions; seek spirituality on some other already beaten path; or simply consider the question irrelevant for oneself. I think the observed decline in organized religion participation is a vote for the latter option.

  • Bob

    Heh – the “No True Scotsman” contingent of believers has shown up and is ready to party! The contorted apologetics are simultaneously amazing, baffling, and more than a little sad.

  • There is much to be learned from traditional cultures; and this learning needs to be done with respect, dignity and an open heart.
    My experience of working as a Christian missionary amongst the Warlpiri people was that my faith has been strengthened as the Old People exposed me to their secret/sacred knowledge. That knowledge meshed perfectly with my knowledge of the One True God gained from my study of the Bible.
    Upon my departure from the community that I was working in, most of the community embraced me and wept upon my shoulders because our lives had been so enmeshed in our common faith, mine expressed through my understandings of the nature of Jesus, revealed to me through the pages of the Bible; and theirs expressed through their understanding of the nature of Jesus as expressed through their culture, learned from their observations of the Creation around them.
    When the mob come into town from out of the bush, they go straight to my home to stay with our family. When I go back into the bush, I am welcomed as an important member of the extended family. Mutual love and respect – and this is the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose Atoning self-Sacrifice was to make one new humanity out of a fragmented world.

  • Ginger

    This is the best story about a Christian missionary I've ever heard.

  • Fábio de Oliveira Ribeiro

    This proof that Brazil was really a paradise.
    And it is this again, since we Brazilians expel the
    American missionaries that continue believing
    in god and destroying the happiness of the Indians.

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  • Chris Lee

    The Pirahãs, he said, “believed that the world was as it had always been, and that there was no supreme deity”. Furthermore they had no creation myths in their culture. In short, here was a people who were more than happy to live their lives “without God, religion or any political authority”.
    This article is good, but it uses emotionally prejudicial language. If you don’t have a supreme deity then you don’t give it a thought let alone believe there isn’t one.
    Theists have difficulty understanding the mind of those of us who have never been theist at all, and it seems that many ex-theists have the same difficulty.

  • Ahhhh! It’s great to know that not everyone accepts Christianity.
    Long live the Pirahas!!!!!!!!!!!!