Daniel Everett
Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
Profile Books 2008


Everett Snakes 263

263 One morning in November 1983, after I had spent about fourteen months off and on living among the Pirahas, I was sitting in the front room of our house in the village drinking coffee with several Piraha men.

Hey Dan, I want to talk to you, Kohoi said, the Pirahas know that you left your family and your own land to come here and live with us stop we know that you do this to tell us about Jesus. You want us to live like Americans. But the Pirahas do not want to live like Americans. We like to drink. We like more than one woman. We don’t want Jesus. But we like you. You can stay with us. But we don’t want to hear any more about Jesus. Okay?

269 The difficulty at the core of my reason for being among the Pirahas was that the message that I had staked my life on did not fit the Piraha’s culture.
At the very least, one lesson to draw here was that my confidence in the universal appeal of the spiritual message I was bringing was ill founded.

The Piraha were not in the market for a new worldview. And they could defend their own just fine. Had I taken the time to read about the Pidahas before visiting them the first time, I would have learned that missionaries had been trying to convert them for over two hundred years. From the first record of contact with the Pirahas and the Muras, a closely related people, in the 18th-century, they had developed a reputation for “recalcitrance” - no Piraha are known to have “converted” at any period of their history. Not that this knowledge would have dissuaded me. Like all new missionaries, I was prepared to sweep aside mere facts and believe that my faith would ultimately overcome any obstacles. But the Piraha did not feel lost, so they didn’t feel a need to be saved either.

270 The the immediacy of experience principle means that if you haven’t experienced something directly, your stories about it are largely irrelevant. This renders them relatively impermeable to missionary efforts based on stories of the long ago past that no one alive has witnessed. And this explains why they have resisted missionaries also long. Creation myths are no match for this demand for evidence.

Another edge to the Piraha’s challenge was my growing respect for them. There was so much about them that I admired. They were a sovereign people. And they were in effect telling me to peddle my goods elsewhere. They were telling me that my message had no purchase among them.

All the doctrines and faith I had held dear were a glaring irrelevancy in this culture. They were superstition to the Pirahas. And they began to seem more and more like superstition to me. I began 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 Pirahas’ values of immediacy of experience and demand for evidence made all of this seemed deeply dubious.

271 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 Pirahas, no need to “fix” mankind or even themselves. There was acceptance for things the way they work, by and large. No fear of death. Their faith was in themselves.

272 The Pirahas made me question concepts of truth that I had long adhered to and lived by. The questioning of my faith in God, coupled with life among the Pirahas, led me to question what is perhaps an even more fundamental component of modern thought, the concept of truth itself.
Indeed, I decided that I lived under a delusion - the delusion of truth.
God and truth are two sides of the same coin. Life and mental well-being are hindered by both, at least if the Pirahas are right. And their quality of inner life, their happiness and contentment, strongly supports their values
.


From the time we are born we try to simplify the world around us. For it is too complicated for us to navigate; there are too many sounds, too many sites, too many stimulator for us to take even a single step unless we can decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
In specific intellectual domains we call our attempts at simplification “hypotheses” or “theories”. Scientists invest their careers and energies in certain attempts at simplification.

The Pirahas are firmly committed to the pragmatic concept of utility. They don’t believe in 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.

273 Is it possible to live a life without the crutches of religion and truth? The Pirahas 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 Pirahas 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.

They have no craving for truth as a transcendental reality. Indeed, the concept has no place in their values. Truth to the Pirahas is catching a fish, rowing Cano, laughing with your children, loving your brother, dying of malaria. Does this make them more primitive? Many anthropologists have suggested so, which is why they are so concerned about finding out the Pirahas’ notions about God, the world, and creation.

But there is an interesting alternative way to think about things. Perhaps it is the presence of these concerns that makes a culture more primitive, and their absence that renders a culture more sophisticated. If that is true, the Pirahas are very sophisticated people. Does this sound far-fetched? Let us 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, recognising the likely futility of looking for truth or God?

The Pirahas have built their culture around what is useful to their survival. They don’t worry about what they do not know, nor do they think they can or do know it all. Likewise, they do not crave the products of others’s knowledge or solutions.

Their views, not so much as eyes summarise them dryly here but as they are lived out in the Pirahas’ daily lives, have been extremely helpful to me and persuasive as I have looked at my own life and the beliefs that I held, many of them without warrant. Much of what I am today, including my nontheistic view of the world, I owe it least in part to the Pirahas.


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