Atheism In The Ancient World
The Comanche, Pirahã and Greek Mindset
One of the most pre-caricatured images today is that of the online atheist. He is a figure of mockery and ridicule - bearded, fat, unkempt, donning a fedora hat - in a word, low-status. Prior to this atheism has long been associated with left-wing thought, or as a consequence of left-wing thought. Atheism otherwise has connotations of cultural Judaism, the hippy movement, the rational freethinking scientist or some kind of unorthodox fringe character. Atheism in historical periods is not given much thought, with the exception of the ‘New-Atheist’ project to create a pedigree from Antiquity onwards. The presumption from many strands of thought is that religion belongs to a primal age of human development; this meta-story that humans are ‘story tellers’ who need to create gods and deities to ‘make sense’ of the world. On this point I am not so sure. Many simple hunter-gatherer peoples do not seem to possess complex systems of religious thought, some even disdain to believe in a Creator at all. The distinction between strict materialism and atheism should be maintained of course, one can believe in supernatural phenomena without recourse to a god. We shall examine three such peoples - the solipsistic Pirahã, the militaristic Comanche and some ancient Greeks. Three very different mindsets, but united in a rejection of the theological life.
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No Gods, No Numbers: Life with the Pirahã
The Pirahã people belong to a particular class of anthropological curiosities, those who defy categorisation and break all the rules of human universals. They are a small group of Amazonian foragers, between 500-1000 people strong, who live around the Maici river in the northern Brazilian state of Amazonas. Prior to the 1970’s the Pirahã were famous amongst linguists for their strange language, which was believed to be an isolate - unrelated to any living languages. But it was not until the missionary work of Daniel Everett that the world came to learn about the sheer strangeness of this remote people.
To fully grasp the Pirahã mindset I recommend readers hunt down a copy of Everett’s book Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. In it he explores their culture as an outsider, as a scholar, as a father and as a missionary. What he comes to understand is that the Pirahã have developed a radically empirical mentality, one which fervently rejects any abstractions of any kind. He calls this the ‘immediacy of experience principle’:
The immediacy of experience principle accounts as well for Pirahã’s simple kinship system. The kinship terms do not extend beyond the lifetime of any given speaker in their scope and are thus in principle witnessable—a grandparent can be seen in the normal Pirahã lifespan of forty-five years, but not a great-grandparent.
Anthropologists often assume that all cultures have stories about where they and the rest of the world come from, known as creation myths. I thus believed that the Pirahãs would have stories about who created the trees, the Pirahãs, the water, other living creatures, and so on. So I would ask speakers questions like “Who made the Maici River? Where did the Pirahãs come from? Who made trees? Where did the birds come from?” and so on. But I never had any luck. No one had ever collected or heard of a creation myth, a traditional story, a fictional tale, or in fact any narrative that went beyond the immediate experience of the speaker or someone who had seen the event and reported it to the speaker.
Eventually numerous published experiments were conducted by me and a series of psychologists that demonstrated conclusively that the Pirahãs have no numbers at all and no counting in any form… Not one Pirahã learned to count to ten in eight months. None learned to add 3 + 1 or even 1 + 1 (if regularly writing or saying the numeral 2 in answer to the latter is evidence of learning).Only occasionally would some get the right answer.
Some of the strangeness of Pirahã culture includes: their lack of numbers and ability to count; the lack of terms for colours other than those in their immediate surroundings; their reluctance to preserve food, preserve metal tools from rust or learn how to make canoes; their Darwinian approach to healthcare, pregnancy and child-rearing and their extremely strange habit of ‘becoming’ new people and forgetting that their previous personalities ever existed. On top of these the Pirahã became particularly famous for their apparent lack of linguistic ‘recursion’. Grammatical recursion is a feature which allows for a potentially infinite number of sentences with a finite number of words. The phrase “I went to town and saw Sam’s red car” contains two elements. The sentence “Sam’s red car” is embedded inside the main sentence, and is much easier to communicate than separating the elements out. The famous academic Noam Chomsky, and others, have argued that recursion is a universal feature of human language, one which provides the tool to create an infinite number of sentences. Pirahã appears to contradict this rule, and arguments have raged for decades trying to understand whether this absence of recursion is true or not.
Turning towards religion, the Pirahã again seem to disobey the general rules of anthropology and do not have a Creator deity. They do believe in spirits and supernatural phenomena, but oddly they only believe in these because they directly experience them. This leads to some truly odd moments in Everett’s book, where he struggles to make sense of the Pirahã mindset:
“Don’t you see him over there?” he asked impatiently. “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.”
“Where?” I asked. “I don’t see him.”
“Right there!” Kóhoi snapped, looking intently toward the middle of the apparently empty beach.
“In the jungle behind the beach?”
“No! There on the beach. Look!” he replied with exasperation.
In the jungle with the Pirahãs I regularly failed to see wildlife they saw. My inexperienced eyes just weren’t able to see as theirs did.
But this was different. Even I could tell that there was nothing on that white, sandy beach no more than one hundred yards away. And yet as certain as I was about this, the Pirahãs were equally certain that there was something there. Maybe there had been something there that I just missed seeing, but they insisted that what they were seeing, Xigagaí, was still there.
In trying to evangelise to the Pirahã, Everett encountered the brick wall of empiricism again and again. When they discovered that Everett had never met Jesus, and nobody he knew had ever met Jesus, they immediately dismissed the Biblical stories. No matter how hard he tried, their recalcitrance to accept anything beyond immediate experience was absolute. Not a single Pirahã has ever been recorded as converting to Christianity, from the time of the Spanish Jesuits to today. Something about their unique mentality will not admit the Gospels. In fact, their bizarre habit of getting dressed up as spirits and believing themselves to be possessed came to a head with Everett:
The morning after one evening’s “show” an older Pirahã man, Kaaxaóoi, came to work with me on the language. As we were working, he startled me by suddenly saying, “The women are afraid of Jesus. We do not want him.”
“Why not?” I asked, wondering what had triggered this declaration.
“Because last night he came to our village and tried to have sex with our women. He chased them around the village, trying to stick his large penis into them.”
Kaaxaóoi proceeded to show me with his two hands held far apart how long Jesus’s penis was—a good three feet.
I didn’t know what to say to this. I had no idea whether a Pirahã male had pretended to be Jesus and pretended to have a long penis, faking it in some way, or what else could be behind this report. Clearly Kaaxaóoi wasn’t making this up. He was reporting it as a fact that he was concerned about. Later, when I questioned two other men from his village, they confirmed his story.
Thus the Pirahã belong to that subset of tribal peoples who do not have a deity, have no creation myth and have no need of a god. So sure are they in their worldview that they often dismiss any and all foreign knowledge, words, technologies and beliefs, out of a simple and naïve xenophobia. Everett’s faith was so shaken by his time with them, that at the end of the book he admits that the Pirahã are happy without God, and he becomes an atheist himself.
The Comanche - Warriors and Skeptics
The Comanche notions of religion are as crude, imperfect, and limited, as of geography or astronomy. They believed in, or have some indefinite traditional idea of, the Great Spirit; but I have never discovered any distinct mode or semblance of worship among them. ... I perceived no order of priest- hood, or anything analogous to it, among them; if they recognize any ecclesiastical authority whatever, it resides in their chiefs; but I think their religious sentiments are entirely too loose, vague, and inoperative, to have produced any such institution. The elevation of the shield is the only act I ever noticed among them, that afforded the slightest indication of religious concernment; and I doubt if they have any opinions relative to future rewards and punishments that exercise any moral influence upon them. They have nothing like a system of mythology, and neither do they entertain any religious myths of a traditionary or settled character ... .Their minds are too little intent upon the subject of a future state, ever to have formed a connected system of opinions in relation to it. If the doctrine of metempsychosis has ever been presented to them, it has not received a national or general credence; indeed, I doubt if they have any common plan of religious belief, or of a supernatural agency operating on the affairs of this life, beyond the mystic vagaries of witchcraft; and of these they do not distinctly believe in anything beyond the potentiality of human means. It may be assumed of them, as to all practical results of religious sentiment, that "the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God”
-Comanches and Other Tribes of Texas and the Policy to be Pursued Respecting Them (1851) David Burnet.
This intriguing and quite wonderful passage comes down to us from one of the earliest Anglo-American observers of the Comanche, David Burnet. He, like other witnesses to the expansionist, militaristic power that was the Comanche Nation, struggled to understand their loose and quite vague religious beliefs and practices. The Comanche were obviously one of the Plains peoples, having descended from the Eastern Shoshone, and they presented many Plains traditions such as the suttee practice of killing a dead man’s wife to place her in his grave, or taboos on mentioning the names of the dead. They shared some rituals and a personal focus on amulets and spiritual medicine, but observers from the 19th to the 20th century, through the different anthropological schools, consistently described the Comanche as skeptics and largely irreligious:
Commenting on a tearful Kiowa memorial service, a man told me "Comanches don't do that. You can't bring 'em back. We just find a good place to put them, and that's the end of it" (Gelo 1986)
Men who lived so dangerously were and had to be deeply religious, although their beliefs were primitive and, according to their cosmology, entirely practical .... The people never had time for abstract thought.... The Nermernuh understood each other's secret incantations and personal taboos and respected them without ever attempting to correlate them into a coherent body of belief (Fehrenbach 1979)
The Comanches have often been designated as the skeptics or unbelievers of the plains…. They had no dogma and no professional priestly class to formulate a systematic religion .... It was not in the nature of the Comanche to be introspective. Nor was it in his nature reflectively to state his motives or ways of acting in formulae. The Comanche was oriented to see things as isolated episodes, not as a patterned unfolding of a great schema (Wallace and Hoebel, 1941)
"The Comanche do not know anything; they do not think"; by which they meant that the Comanche possessed no "spiritual knowledge," rather that than they were ignorant of anything pertaining to warfare, the chase, and other temporal matters (Curtis, 1930)
Nearly every important tribe, excepting perhaps those aboriginal skeptics, the Comanche, has or did have a tribal "medicine" equivalent to the taime, around which centers the tribal mythology and ceremonial with which the prosperity and fate of the tribe is bound up (Mooney, 1898)
These selected passages and quotes emphasise a familiar position over many decades. The Comanche comes across as practical, concerned with war, hunting, life and death, and satisfied to let individuals find their own way spiritually, without dogma or expert guidance. It is tempting to wonder if these qualities were not also part of their overall conquering mentality, an almost imperial aloofness compared to their more ritualistic neighbours. Sometimes these divisions between the Comanche and the other Plains nations border on comical:
While the Cheyennes and Arapahoes thought of bears as their ancestors, and believed that they were capable of sexual intercourse with human beings, so that to eat a bear was an act of cannibalism, those "aboriginal skeptics" the Comanches found bear very good eating when they could hunt it down (Marriott and Rachlin, 1968, 159)
One of the few rituals mentioned by observers is their habit of ‘shield-sunning’, which involved placing their hide shields on tripods to face the sun all day and absorb its power. Grease and menstruating women were kept away from the it, lest it be defiled. Other traditions such as dances, the presence of healer ‘medicine men’ or shamans, vision quests and sweat lodges all seem to be present, but with no coherent religious framework. All the trappings of a traditional way of life existed, but were never used like the Kiowa or the Pawnee.
Is this an example of atheism, as we moderns might understand it? Not in the truest materialistic sense, but it is an intriguing example of a warrior society which developed a practical and skeptical mindset towards religious beliefs. What spiritualism did exist seemed oriented towards the hunt, towards war and success. It is possible that anthropologists were simply denied access to some inner sanctum of dogma, and the Comanche protected their beliefs against outsiders. We may never know.
Critias, Alcibiades and Ancient Greek Atheism
So, speaking words like these
Most cunning doctrine did he introduce,
The truth concealing under speech untrue.
The place he spoke of as the God's abode
Was that whereby he could affright men most,—
The place from which, he knew, both terrors came
And easements unto men of toilsome life—
To wit the vault above, wherein do dwell
The lightnings, he beheld, and awesome claps
Of thunder, and the starry face of heaven,
Fair-spangled by that cunning craftsman Time,—
Whence, too, the meteor's glowing mass doth speed
And liquid rain descends upon the earth.
Such were the fears wherewith he hedged men round,
And so to God he gave a fitting home,
By this his speech, and in a fitting place,
And thus extinguished lawlessness by laws.
Thus first did some man, as I deem, persuade
Men to suppose the race of Gods exists..
A curious feature about modern atheism is the presence of moral teachings and givens. Scratch the surface on just about disbeliever today and they will be committed to egalitarianism, democracy and human rights. There is really no justification for this, other than the general social milieu they find themselves in. Many thinkers from Democritus to Dostoevsky have battled with the ethics of atheistic thought. The writer Peter Hitchens has pointed out that atheism historically leads to Felix Dzerzhinsky, whose brutal reign of Leninist terror is symbolised for him by Dzerzhinsky’s funeral wreath, fashioned out of bayonets. The Bolshevik and the New Atheist skeptic are not logically separated by any real creed, and any period of ‘real’ atheism will lead to the rule of Nature, that is, the rule of the strong.
how can a man be happy who is the servant of anything? On the contrary, I plainly assert, that he who would truly live ought to allow his desires to wax to the uttermost, and not to chastise them; but when they have grown to their greatest he should have courage and intelligence to minister to them and to satisfy all his longings. And this I affirm to be natural justice and nobility. To this however the many cannot attain; and they blame the strong man because they are ashamed of their own weakness, which they desire to conceal, and hence they say that intemperance is base. As I have remarked already, they enslave the nobler natures, and being unable to satisfy their pleasures, they praise temperance and justice out of their own cowardice. For if a man had been originally the son of a king, or had a nature capable of acquiring an empire or a tyranny or sovereignty, what could be more truly base or evil than temperance—to a man like him, I say, who might freely be enjoying every good, and has no one to stand in his way, and yet has admitted custom and reason and the opinion of other men to be lords over him?—must not he be in a miserable plight whom the reputation of justice and temperance hinders from giving more to his friends than to his enemies, even though he be a ruler in his city?
-Callicles to Socrates, The Gorgias
Callicles’ point to Socrates, his argument for the right of the strong to rule the weak, is developed more fully in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, where he lays out the psychological movement from good and bad, to good and evil. The rage of the weak against the strong, like the lambs against the eagle, leads to the development of morality proper, and the use of morality to bind the powerful. Nietzsche may have been inspired here by reading about the Athenian period of tyranny, known as the Thirty Tyrants in 404 BC. One of the main instigators of the tyranny, a man called Critias, is often described as portraying one of the earliest examples of atheism. He and Euripides are both touted as possible authors of the above Sisyphus Fragment. Critias is one of the best examples of the Calliclean ‘master morality’ at work, unconcerned with the divine judgement of the gods, and brimming with an aristocratic lust to crush democracy and restore the rule of the mighty. Critias and his friend, the general Alcibiades, were both suspected of desecrating a statue of Hermes. Alcibiades himself was further accused of profanity against the Eleusinian Mysteries, underlining the reality that mockery of the gods was a public evil in Athens.
The outrage against the Tyranny, and the execution of Socrates, clearly left a deep scar within the Athenian and wider Greek psyche. The shocking brutality of Critias and his cronies, their corruption and violence, demanded a response against whatever ideology propelled them. Plato and subsequent philosophers turned to morality to defend themselves and their vocation, changing the course of philosophy and enquiry forever:
Plato here develops some of his most important and worked-out ideas about the nature of deity, and in particular focuses on proofs that gods exist. These take two forms. The first is a cosmological one. The regular motions of the heavenly bodies demonstrate that a divine hand is at work. Anything that moves must have something that animates it, the Athenian supposes. In the case of living beings, that is the soul. In the case of the heavens, that is god. The second argument is a moral one: if we do not accept that humans have share in the divine, in the form of our souls, then we cannot aspire to moral perfection that is the property of the gods alone.
These are not just philosophical arguments; they are also justifications for the legal repression of atheism. The Athenian pitches his arguments in response to ‘certain clever moderns’, some ‘young men’ who hold disreputable views about the gods. There are, he claims, three types of position that such people hold: either they hold that the gods do not exist; or that, if they do, they have no involvement in the affairs of humans, or that they do, but they are easily swayed by sacrifices and prayers. Is he talking about a real community? Does he mean that there was a sizeable movement among the young in Athens who held such beliefs? One respected scholar has argued exactly this: that there was an ‘atheist underground’ at Athens, on which Plato is here shining a light. He may well be right. But the primary target of this designedly non-specific attack is, surely, the phantoms that have haunted Plato ever since the trial of Socrates. Book 10 of The Laws is ultimately about disavowing all traces of philosophy’s origins in (real or perceived) atheism.
-Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (2015). Tim Marsh.
Going one step further, Costin Alamariu, in his dissertation work Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy, argues that the atheistic master morality of Callicles and Critias was the Nazism of ancient Greece. The response to the Tyranny, he outlines, was akin to the modern terror of any work being associated or leading towards fascism. This is why Plato and the rest of the philosophical world took a turn towards moral thinking, to disavow any hint that the materialistic coldness of Critias could be connected to such a way of approaching the world and Nature:
Critias, Socrates’ student, was the Hitler of the ancient Greek world. He and his friends established a regime based on atheistic biologism so to speak; on “Sparta radicalized,” a eugenic antinomian dictatorship. He was maybe what Hitler’s most hysterical detractors claim of him today. Critias killed more Athenians in his short rule than died in the decades of the war with Sparta. He expelled almost everyone from the city, and burned the docks, which were the perceived source of democratic power. He wasted all the priests of Eleusis for being tedious religious moralists. He saw the purpose of the Spartan constitution as the creation of one “supreme biological specimen,” and Critias sought to found a state based on such ideas. He and his friends were overthrown quite quickly. Against this catastrophe, carried out in the name of philosophy and nature (of biology) there was a predictable reaction. Socrates’ other students, most of them at least, as well as Isocrates and others, went out of their way to distance themselves from Critias and what he was perceived to stand for: “We are not like that guy. We are good boys. Philosophy isn’t actually about that. We’re doing something different. We’re socially responsible good guys.” Does this sound familiar? It doesn’t matter if someone like Critias represented a distortion of philosophy as it existed at the time, or a distortion of the idea of nature as biology and eugenics. The reaction against him, and the eagerness of other prominent members of his “tribe” to distance themselves from him caused an equal distortion in the opposite direction.
Thus atheism in ancient Greek thought may have been one of the prime movers of the Western intellectual tradition, though an inadvertent one. The action and reaction of the Tyranny and its aftermath could be one of the most important drivers of philosophy, hiding the roots of natural enquiry behind a veil of morality.
Two Forms Of Atheism?
The three manifestations of atheism and skepticism I have presented here are all different from one another. The Pirahã are a profoundly strange people, and their insistence on a radical immediacy and empiricism make them almost the opposite of the ancient Greeks. For them, an extended intergenerational discussion of Nature and her phenomena seems utterly irrelevant. The Pirahã refuses all intrusion from the outside, whereas the Greek mind was fertilised by contact with the foreign. The Comanche charted a different path again, distinguishing themselves from their more ritualistic neighbours by adopting a conqueror’s mindset, and valuing what is pragmatic, expedient and useful. Personal charms, medicine and beliefs are fine, but codifying a system of thought and practice was the custom of a less vital people. This perhaps comes closer to the master morality of Callicles and Critias, who see the merit of religion as a system for lesser men, but see it as a set of constraints and shackles for men like themselves. These types of atheism are of course nothing like the contemporary form, which is suffused with ethical and moral concerns. It would be better described as humanistic, or even a type of secular Christianity, rather than atheism, which has never held a great popular appeal in its purest forms. Perhaps it should remain the preserve of warrior aristocrats and social refuseniks.
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