Is there any known natural born “religious-less” culture?

40


Discussion by: dcalderonv

I have been reading a lot about morals and how it has evolved with humans across different cultures, and apparently it has been lately when morals actually were involved with religion. Anyways, I was wondering whether there is any known existing or extinct culture that was never religous? I mean, do we know whether at least one tribe ever progressed without having religion as part of their culture and life? Or is it religiousness kind of a natural and inherent part of us as humans that only progress and further cognitive developments proved as unnecesary (and actually against knowledge) for us?

40 COMMENTS

    • In reply to #1 by QuestioningKat:

      I recall hearing something about a native/indigenous culture…maybe a couple of years ago??? Anyone remember? I think there was some form of spirituality though.

      These people, though they have sort of an animism thing going. I think any group of people will have some sort of superstitious belief, even without a fully formed religion. I remember the guy working with them (he originally went as a missionary and became an atheist) mentioning that they could “see” some figure standing even though nothing was there, but they wanted nothing to do with Jesus, as they could not see him, or something like that.

      FFRF has an article from Dan Everett about evangelizing to them and what he’s learned from him. He’s a linguist and I think some of his claims about their culture have been considered controversial.

  1. I have been reading a lot about morals and how it has evolved with humans across different cultures, and apparently it has been lately when morals actually were involved with religion.

    What you are reading conflicts with what I’ve been reading. Everything I’ve read: The Evolution of God (Robert Wright), In Gods We Trust (Scott Atran), Breaking the Spell (Daniel Dennett) and others all agree that religion and cultural mores and values go hand in hand for as far back as we can say anything meaningful about human culture.

    I was wondering whether there is any known existing or extinct culture that was never religous?

    Again, all those books I mentioned and others emphatically agree that religion is found in virtually ever ancient civilization that we know about. There are a few tribes that are mentioned at times by various people as exceptions to the rule. The one that I hear most often discussed is the Piraha I don’t know anything about them beyond what’s on the Wikipedia page I linked to.

  2. The purpose of any mythology is to a.) provide a cosmology b. create a communal sense of like ideas, sensibilities, tastes, mores and normalcy c.) assign authority to a god, messiah, or hero and d.) bind the individual to his/her tribe, race or community. To the extent that religion is conceived and experienced as “ritualized myth” one would be hard pressed to find any humanoid species without some form of the above practices. So, yes, these expressions are pretty much universal whether directed at some divine moralistic cynosure, blood-thirsty ancestor, or temperamental volcano.

    • In reply to #5 by mchasewalker:

      The purpose of any mythology is to a.) provide a cosmology b. create a communal sense of like ideas, sensibilities, tastes, mores and normalcy c.) assign authority to a god, messiah, or hero and d.) bind the individual to his/her tribe, race or community.

      I’m not particularly knowledgeable on the subject, but it always seemed to me that religion was never really the way ancient tribes and peoples understood cosmology. For example, all ancient high civilizations we know of knew that the earth was round. Yet all mythology we know speaks of a flat earth. I don’t think any Greek seriously believed that the sky was carried on the shoulders of a giant or that the gods were literally sitting on a mountain that was accessible by a good hike even at the time. I don’t think the Vikings who knew how to navigate by the stars and sailed from Norway through the Mediterranean all the way to Ukraine really believed the sky to be the skull of a giant.

      I think that mythology was always more intended to be interesting and relatable stories rather than a set of explanations or a source of ethics and morality. I have a pretty large collection of myths and fairy tales from all over the world and there are many cultures were myths and morals don’t go hand in hand (the best known example is again the mythology of the ancient Greeks). And there are quite a few cultures whose myths are not concerned with cosmological questions. In Melanesia most origin myths only tell how people came to this island from somewhere else. The same is true for at least some Micronesian tribes.

      Also, when you look how stories change over time (a good example would be the Noah/Utnapishtim myth as told in the Bible and in the Gilgamesh epos, but better yet are the variations of the Polynesian legends) you’ll find that the things that stay constant are not cosmology or the moral lesson, but the narrative effects that make the legend a good story.

      Long story short, I think the first and foremost function of mythology was always entertainment, especially for the kids, then I’d list your points b) and d) and the other points are optional and not really universal.

      • In reply to #12 by foundationist:

        In reply to #5 by mchasewalker:

        My favourite story as a child was the seven goslings. Is is about a mother goose who leaves her brood alone. A wolf comes and the kids let him in, against instructions. They hide. He finds them one by one and eats them. One hides in a clock and is not eaten. Mom comes home and the gosling in the clock explains what has happened. They find the wolf. Cut him open saving the goslings. They fill him with rocks and sew him up. Then he drowns.

        I never did find out why cutting him open did not wake him up.

        I would make mom tell the story the same way, where each gosling hid. There are similar stories the bible — e.g. Joseph’s coat of Manny’s Cruellers.

      • In reply to #12 by foundationist:

        I think the first and foremost function of mythology was always entertainment, especially for the kids

        Myths may have entertained but that doesn’t explain why people worshipped the characters in these stories. The Adam and Eve story is a miniature literary masterpiece but you would only worship Yahweh if you thought there was really a supernatural being with life and death power over his ‘children’. It is also ‘explanatory’. It is primitive science. It is also morality. What is right is what the Supreme Being says is right.

        • I don’t think all characters in Greek myths were worshipped at all- (some yes, creators, fertility gods etc) but look at Narcissus- it’s clearly a parable about selfishness. Some myths are parables that use metaphors (like drowning in your own reflection in a lake) to teach a moral lesson.

          Also, Freud really distorted the Oedipus myth– it’s about our tendency to grow up like our parents and develop relationships based on our relationship with our parents. Freud took it literally.

          Lots of people seem to forget that about myths; many of them were not only moral tales, but psychological ones about human nature. That’s why you see some psychological disorders named after them “Narcissism”, “Electra/Oedipus Complex”. They weren’t observing the gods necessarily, but humans.

    • I don’t think “B” has to involve any kind of deity. Myths can be parables, moral tales. So I think you’re prematurely extrapolating that to say that there will be ‘divine retribution’ in any kind of morality tales.

      I think we just assume that negative consequences in a morality tale are because of divine intervention.

  3. Thanks all for you comments, I really didn’t know about The Pirahã people and they are actually amazing from what I have read so far. I was probably too open with my question, especially mixing morals with religion. What I am specifically wondering is about deities and supernatural beings as inherent part of the culture and religious beliefs as fear/rewards systems in their society.

    I know it’s a tough question, since hundreds of studies show these features as inherent to our beginnings as human beings.

    • In reply to #6 by dcalderonv:

      Thanks all for you comments, I really didn’t know about The Pirahã people and they are actually amazing from what I have read so far. I was probably too open with my question, especially mixing morals with religion. What I am specifically wondering is about deities and supernatural beings as inheren…

      Take the work on the Pirahã with a pinch [a bucket] of salt! The subjects of an outsider inquiry have no investment in telling the truth. Plus lies, exaggerations & embellishments are a healthy, fun way to respond to nosey questions.

      Look up Margaret Mead for an insight on how anthropologists can simultaneously import their own values, misunderstand alien customs & do a spot of wishful thinking on the side.

  4. If you read about early ‘religion’ there are good theories that they start with our evolved propensity to obey parents and wise elders – especially in early times with no writing and primitive languages – since they possessed all the useful knowledge. This ‘elder reverence’ developed into ‘ancestor reverence’ so that their wisdom could be recalled after they were gone, then onto ‘ancestor worship’ to ritually reinforce the best ways to do things.

    For those who hadn’t experienced much of life, this knowledge had to be taken ‘on faith’, since there was no way to test the ‘theories’ that were passed down from ‘the other side’ or wherever the ancestors went upon death.

    It’s not far from there to where shamans and others – who saw ways to lead and dominate their groups without having to do much productive work – came along to evolve memes and memeplexes to ensure their own prosperity and survival.

    Wind forward several thousand years and look what all that story-telling, imaginative explanation, dogma, power-mongering, threats and manipulation and have led to…. 8-( Mac.

    • In reply to #9 by Sample:

      If there is something inherent to humans it seems to me not to be religion per se, but rather the ability to make observational mistakes about reality.

      I’d agree. Maybe one could imagine that religious ideas started from how the world looked and trying to make some sense of it.

      For example, the world looked flat. But you’d know from tables etc that flat surface need something to hold them steady, so the world had to be held up by something. Again, if you throw something up in the air it cames down: so there must be something to hold the sun & moon up, etc and move them around. Since they moved regularly, it seemed they had some intelligence or were moved by some intelligence which – obviously – had to be up in the sky. Etc.

      So religion may have sprung from human curiosity about the world and how it works: in other words, very early science. But it got entangled in superstition and power politics – and the rest is history (or at least a big chunk of history).

  5. Not only are there probably no human societies that have developed without religion, according to Volker Sommer primates of various kinds also act ritually which he defines as a rudimentary religious activity. For example, he describes how chimpanzees (I think) ate ants in small numbers and he believes since they would only eat, say 6 or 8 at a time, he concluded (I’m simplifying, obviously) that it was not dietary. Furthermore other groups of the same species did not eat ants at all.

    So you get the general idea. He’s written several books, of which I’ve read … er none, but I did catch an interview with him on the radio a few weeks ago which was fascinating. Anyone else know anything about Volker Sommer and could recommend which book to read?

  6. If there are, they are few and far between. Spiritualism is a natural consequence of being rational, curious, looking for answers (which also a natural consequence of basic survival instincts), and attributing agency to the world. I don’t think, as a tribal, social society, you could escape from believing in the supernatural, ancestors spirits and all that.

    Or is it religiousness kind of a natural and inherent part of us as humans that only progress and further cognitive developments proved as unnecesary (and actually against knowledge) for us?

    So yeah, that. It’s past its sale by date.

  7. There was a good, concise article in the New Scientist a few months ago (The God Issue – 17/3/13) entitled ‘Born Believers’. Research shows that “In order to function in social groups, avoid predators and capture prey, we must be able to think about agents we cannot see.”
    Apparently, “When it comes to the origin of natural things, children are very receptive to explanations that evoke design and purpose.” So, all cultures cannot avoid investing the world with supernatural agencies (beliefs).

    The counter to this tendency is no doubt education – but even then, it is quite probable that the way the human mind works it will continue to ‘latch on’ to supernatural and other beliefs in the hope of maintaining and protecting a separate ‘self’ concept that ensures its continuation.

  8. It depends on how you define religion. There are animist cultures is Africa where there spirits associated with everything including ancestors to propitiate. The Hindus have dozens of gods. You are free to worship any subset of them depending on your current requests for divine intervention. Ganesh the elephant specialises in removing obstacles, for example.

    You could probably find a tiny one on a communal farm in rural North America. China is officially atheist, but ancient religious beliefs are still ubiquitous. A possible candidates: Saba in the Caribbean, Sweden.

  9. Sir James George Fraser contended that early man attempted to influence nature, such as fertility, with the use of “sympathetic” and “mimetic” magic rituals. This led to specialist priests, shamans and the like, and sacrificial, propitiatory, animal or human victims, or representations of them. These abound in history and right down to the time Fraser was writing, whether their original meaning was still understood or not. We have the lengthened shadow of these practices today in the sacrifice of the Mass, which applies human sacrifice to solving the problem of good and evil, not to earthquakes and famines. I think we have ancient power politics to thank for the switch.

  10. I expect there are many peoples who have lived without a religious faith. There’s the well-known story of Daniel Everett, an American missionary, who was deconverted by an Amazonian tribe. This is what QuestioningKat was referring to in #1.

    **The Pirahã 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”. **

    Pirahã deconvert missionary

    As Roedy points out in #15 ‘It depends on how you define religion.’ The Pirahã have animist beliefs but find the doctrines of an organized religion like Christianity to be ridiculous.

  11. It depends on what you mean by religious. If you simply mean supernatural, then probably myths involving supernatural things have existed since homonids developed sufficient language skills to ask why things are the way they are. If instead you more correctly, in my mind, define religion as institutionalized mythology, then all cultures were once religion-less. Look at ancient Greek mythology–they had very weak enforcement of religious doctrine for centuries. Anyone could become a singer of the great myths, you did not have to be ordained. It is only after some decide they are in control of the myths that religion is born as an institution and begins to pursue its institutional interests and perogatives.

  12. In reply to #7 by Michael Fisher:

    Certainly sounds like they have a highly developed sense of humour….

    Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.” Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach.

  13. In reply to #7 by Michael Fisher:

    Certainly sounds like they have a highly developed sense of humour….

    Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.” Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach.

  14. Most very ancient religions had very little connection to what we think of morality. The various gods were very human, but more powerful, and ate, drank, got drunk, maybe did a bit of rain making and sun moving, but not much law giving. Kings and priests had certain duties to their gods and often were representatives of deities, but there was generally no direct connection to law and morality.

    When you have blood sacrifice and your god is expected to help you kill your enemies you are a long way from what we think of as morality. For Example see Ancient Mesopotamia at wikipiedia.

  15. Well, by definition to have an “organised” religion you have to have more than one organism/person. So therefore maybe it’s to do with being a social species. Religion and the social aparatus that supports it is part of some kind of instinctive survival mechanism.

  16. Anyways, I was wondering whether there is any known existing or extinct culture that was never religous?

    needs more definition. we’ll never know what superstitions early humans had. for that matter we have no idea what superstitions are currently held by chimps, or elephants, or dolphins. Religion is a result of anthropomorphism of nature by humans. if cats had religion it would be the result of filimorphism or something. the point being that humans have evolved to see agency as part of a survival strategy so there’s no reason not to think that could be the case for all sentient beings at some level.

    so my view is for a religious-less culture to exist in humans it would have to have evolved from a culture with some sort of religion and yes there is one right here on this site

  17. I don’t think there is such culture…I believe we ARE all supernatural beings….

    As an Anthropologist, the question I would be asking is :

    Why ARE there vestiges of religion throughout cultures in the world???? Ever wonder?

    Could it be that this phenomena is actually very REAL, that even far apart cultures claim to experience similar phenomena???? Hmmmmmm 0.o

  18. Yes, some native/indigenous cultures in the past and today have lived their life through the classic hunters and gather lifestyle. Checkout the Amazon Rainforest, African and Australian tribes. Curiosity has always be a human mechanism that has allowed us to survive and progress. Religious like cultures, like the Native Americans or others that create gods or spirits to manifest the natural forces is a primitive form of critical thinking. ~ though through those cultures critically thinking evolved into what we have today. But Yes, some still are content without ever asking the big questions or create a theory to how/why things are the way they are, and just keep on hunting and gathering for the sake of surviving.

    • In reply to #27 by Ted Green:

      Yes, some native/indigenous cultures in the past and today have live their life through the classic hunters and gather lifestyle. Checkout the Amazon Rainforest, African and Australian tribes. Curiosity has always be a human mechanism that has allowed us to survive and progress. Religious like cultu…

      I don’t think this is right. Primitive peoples are the least likely to be critical thinkers in the way we would use the term, if only because their educational standards don’t match our own. Even if they lacked organized religion, they had traditional folk beliefs and superstitions that were pretty much on par with anything dreamt up in the Abrahamic faiths. For instance, the Aboriginal Australians were survival pragmatists and incredibly superstitious simultaneously, believing in the Dreamtime creation myths and Rainbow Serpent legends, and I think some of them also perform rain dances. In the politically incorrect words of one anthropologist (I think), “How could people so smart be so dumb?”

      • In reply to #28 by Zeuglodon:

        In reply to #27 by Ted Green:

        Yes, some native/indigenous cultures in the past and today have live their life through the classic hunters and gather lifestyle. Checkout the Amazon Rainforest, African and Australian tribes. Curiosity has always be a human mechanism that has allowed us to survive and…

        The tendency to dismiss the knowledge of tribal people as stupid or somehow intellectually lacking is amongst the worst of snobberies, or cultural condescension at best. By the time a young person, either gender, has become in the eyes of the tribe capable of being recognised through initiation as a fully contributing tribal member, with genes demonstrated to be worth perpetuating, he/she will have gone through an educational process at least equivalent to a graduate degree in our culture. Just because it is not about business administration, or engineering, does not stop it being a massive achievement.

        If you doubt it, I challenge you to strip naked and walk into the Australian bush, or the Canadian arctic (as a concession you can start in the summer) and earn your living.

  19. put simply, I don;t think so. Superstition, religious belief was natural when we lacked the means to provide real answers to the questions that naturally plague the human mind. How they survive today is of more interest to me.

  20. OT

    I’m sorry, but the word “anyways” drives me up a tree. I found this on the web;

    Then we have “anyways,” a colloquial corruption of “anyway.” It’s universally considered nonstandard and should be avoided altogether. It might help to remember that “anyway” is an adverb, and adverbs can’t be plural.

  21. I see the question posed by the topic as one interchangeable with the following:

    Is there a culture born as fully informed cosmologists, physicists, biologists and chemists with no work left to do?

    Our species has the self-awareness and cognitive reasoning to question origins. Without the aforementioned disciplines, our compassion and innate respect for elders draws upon their opinions as a substitute. Hence ritual, religion etc.

    The mention of morality, as if it is in any way reliant upon, or exclusive to religion, makes my skin crawl however.

  22. Interesting question. There are godless ones because there are millions and millions of Buddhists who do not believe in a god. But some would argue that it is a religion while others would call it a philosophy. That’s another question. Does a belief require a god (or goddess) in order to be considered a religion. I think I’ll research this. This was one of the more simply stated questions that is actually the best one I’ve seen so far. Thanks!

  23. Because of the way that colonialism subsumes indiginous cultural practices (that are often nature-based in their spirituality) I think it becomes difficult to separate how many cultures once were, not to mention how Western outsiders tend to view them or observe their practices through western eyes and cultural filters. We’ve all heard of many cultures revering nature, animals and ancestors, but how much of that is really “worship” in the sense that they regard them as powerful deities who rule the universe and determine their fate? ( We ‘worship’ celebrities, in the sense that we obsess over them, find them desirable and want to be like them, but we don’t exactly think Madonna controls our fate…).

    Hard to say. Cultures also change so much over time, theologies morph to incorporate new influences. Look at any Christian holiday and you will see lots of Pagan symbolism.

    I guess I’m giving a total ‘non-answer’, but so much about mythology depends upon the readers’ interpretation. I’m sure that many myths that may’ve been written by an author became interpreted as literal truth by others (including oral traditions). Even in established religions, like Christianity, they debate about what’s literal (wine as “Blood of Christ” etc) and what was meant as metaphor. Because so much of early culture either preceded documentation and/or did not leave behind documents, so hard to know. I just think that to assume that it’s universal based on our current knowledge is hasty. Pardon the wordy evasion of an answer.

  24. I’d also like to add that conquering cultures historically have tried to destroy the conquered culture, (destroying the art, the texts) thus “paganistic” (for lack of a better term) cultures are kind of endangered cultures, historically speaking.

  25. Many years ago I sent time in Northern New Guinea, and I spoke reasonably well two languages, apart from the lingua franca, Melanasian pidgin. It was interestingly, an area where Margaret Meade had done much of her research, and some of the people I worked with could remember her from their childhood.

    So much for background. The understanding of the Cosmic order (if you will) of these people was very different to ours. In our system, one is supposed to pray to a god, who will evaluate the request, and may or may not comply. If he/she/it does comply, it will not be in a manner recognisable, and the rules also say that you can only pray for transcendental things, like forgiveness, (from what ?) or goodness, or similiar.

    To the New Guinea tribesman, this makes no sense. He prays for what he wants. A pig, a radio, a crack at his next door neighbours wife, and if he gets the prayer right, or sings the song right, or dances the dance right, the gods have no option but to grant the request. If it does not happen, he got the prayer wrong, and he must try again.

    The gods to whom he is praying are not really gods, in our sense, but are the multiple, and unrestricted in number, and everywhere, consciousnesses that he believes frame his existence. To him, the whole world, streams, hills, land, pigs, everything, is alive. There is a question of degree, as to just how alive they are, but all are involved in the granting of the request. Personally, I find it less silly an idea than the requirement to worship the vindictive old bastard from the OT, and it is one that has survived for probably at least 40,000 years, a darned sight longer than Yahweh has been around.

    To some extent, all prophesies are self fulfilling, and if one obsesses about ones next door neighbour’s wife long enough, who knows what might happen. So, when it happens, he puts it down to the correctness of a particular prayer, and files it away for future reference. When it does not work a second time, or it does not work for his friend, to whom he has revealed his success, it is not wrong, it just needs more work. And of course, he is now a prophet with a track record, and can make a claim to be followed.

    Nascent religions may be a bit like evolution at the very start. You only have to get it right once, and it will have, literally in the case of evolution, a life of it’s own. In our culture consider the effect on Goliath, and on the next few thousand years, of David’s lucky shot.

    When the Europeans first came to New Guinea, the locals watched in head shaking amazement as they toiled massively to cut down trees and stick them into the water in a straight line along the shore. When a ship then appeared full of good things for the white man, all of a sudden it did not look so silly a ritual. The Europeans later cleared huge strips of inoffensive jungle only to attract huge birds full, again, of good things. Airfields were cleared in imitation, and remarkable decoy aeroplanes were even made to attract these wonders to land for them. There is really little wrong, from the New Guinea perspective, with the logic.

    When a village in New Guinea was bombed during WW II, not with bombs, but with supplies, food, medical equipment and so forth due to a navigational error by the American pilot, it was just after an individual had claimed, utterly coincidentally, that if you gave him your pigs and wives etc, he would make food fall from the sky. The damage that this did, crops burnt, riots, and the elevation of this individual to a status reminiscent of Mohammed, was vast.

    The creation and growth of the Cargo Cult in New Guinea may provide insight into the manner in which theistic religions develop from tribal “myths of convenience.”
    I have rambled too long on this. It is well documented, and really worth reading in Peter Lawrence’s “Rot Bilong Kako,” (The Road to the Cargo.)
    My time there was in the late ‘60s, on Manus Island, when cargo riots were still an occasional occurrence, fading from their height in the post war period.

Leave a Reply