Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lacking in Religious Thought

Razib of Gene Expression (definately my favorite of the atheist science blogger set) has an interesting not up today talking about an article in the New Yorker about an Amazon tribe whose cultural assumptions basically rule out the ability to understand religious concepts. I'd be curious to know if the tribe lacks a sense of the supernatural and/or superstition, or if they simply can't wrap their minds around some of the abstract ideas and understanding of past events which Christian missionaries have tried to present them with.
...Overall the tribe seems to have a rather attenuated tendency toward engaging in abstract thought, and has been incredibly immune to any attempts by Christian missionaries to convert them. At some point in the piece the author notes that occasionally someone will ask a Christian if they've ever met this Jesus Christ that they keep talking of, and when they're told that he died 2,000 years ago all interest disappears. Below, I argued that humans have psychological propensities which bias them toward being religious. If the research about these Amazonians pans out I think you have here a group which is totally insulated by their culture from the attractions of religion because they lack some of the necessary psychological propensities (I suspect, and the article pretty much claims, that those propensities can be developed by tribal members who are raised outside of the group, but that culture constrains cognition in this case). Now, I've said that though I'm not religious myself and kind of find the whole behavioral tendency kind of alien and strange, I think that we'll have to turn humans into autistics for them to truly be "rid of" religion. The Amazonians are not autistic, but, in some ways they are pretty strange, and I don't know if we want most people live like them if that's the price for being grounded in the empirical present instead of delusions of the supernatural.


mrsdarwin said...

This is fascinating. I wonder if the tribe has any grasp of historical concepts or higher mathematics?

Perhaps the missionaries would do better to take St. Francis's take: Preach the gospel, and use words if necessary.

Razib Khan said...

I'd be curious to know if the tribe lacks a sense of the supernatural and/or superstition

that's the implication. they have no creation myth, for example, though that's not totally unheard of in the amazon.

This is fascinating. I wonder if the tribe has any grasp of historical concepts or higher mathematics?

nope. here is a list of unique traits.

Razib Khan said...

and just to be clear: attempts to translate and read the scipture of christianity to this tribe doesn't seem to induce any response more positive than "that's a nice story."

mrsdarwin said...

I believe I've heard of this tribe before, in terms of their lack of numeracy. I have to agree with you, Razib -- it seems a strange and barren way to live: no numbers, no stories, no history, no spiritual sense or curiosity. It sounds like they're unable or unwilling to extrapolate universal concepts from particulars. "Alien" about sums it up.

Darwin said...

If this quote is accurate, it sounds like they've got some sort of superstition:

They have very little artwork. The artwork that is present, mostly necklaces and drawn stick-figures, is used primarily to ward off evil spirits.

Still, that sounds like something entirely present tense and non-abstract, which would fit.

I find myself wondering if what is being obserbed with this tribe is a culture which for some reason has selectively repressed certain elements of thought and cultural tendencies which were in fact present in some of their ancestors. Given the dates I've seen for human migration to the new world, it seems odd to think that at the time of the migration the capacities that this tribe lacks were not present in the migrating population.

Foxfier said...

Sounds like they're either uber-skeptics, or they could be not talking about stuff-- maybe a rule against talking to anyone other than direct blood relations?

Maybe only trusting direct blood relations? (I mean parents, siblings and children)

If they want to ward of spirits, they must have stories about spirits... maybe they believe that everyone not verifiably human could be a spirit?

Very odd, and very sad.

CMinor said...

Interesting that Razib used the term autistic to describe them there at the end--I was reading down the piece and wondering if anybody had studied brain function or done any kind of assessment on any of those folks. If they're fairly isolated it seems plausible that there might be something genetic & neurological going on there, rather than just cultural.

It seems almost animalistic--very limited object permanence with no ability to increase.

Or maybe, as Foxfier suggests, they just don't wanna talk about their deeply held beliefs with those weird guys in pith helmets.