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December 27, 2005

Anthropological Questions

Sir Samuel White Baker, one of the discoverers of the sources of the Nile, believed he had come upon humans of "so abject and low a type that the mind repels the idea that [they are] of our Adamite race.

"Without any exception," he proclaims, "they are without a belief in a Supreme Being, neither have they any form of worship or idolatry; nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened by even a ray of superstition."

There is much to respond to in this cocktail of Victorian prejudice, but I want to restrict myself here to just one set of questions: Is his point about religion in any way true? Is there some sense in which atheism precedes religion?

Baker was mostly wrong about the members of the Nilotic tribal group he encountered in central Africa: They had, we now know, their share of earth and sky spirits. Most preliterate societies apparently do. And even hunter-gatherers have their totems and taboos.

Is this what we mean, or should mean, by religion? Have there been any societies -- aside from Left-Bank Parisians -- that don't worship some variety of spirits? What anthropological work should I be reading?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 27, 2005 12:23 PM


Again, at best pre-literate on this question,I don't have any answer to your query. But since, technically speaking and quibbling over semantic nuances (pace Bill Clinton), Jainists don't worship gods, maybe they come pretty close to satisfying. Commentators go to extremes to explain why Jainists are not "really" atheists (saying this is a religion that doesn't really reject gods) but (pace Shakespeare), methinks the scholars protest too much.

Posted by: George at December 27, 2005 4:49 PM

Jainists are interesting. You make a case, so guess I need to investigate more, though methinks (or methought) they believe too much. The Buddha is, of course, interesting. Best candidates in India, to which I'm heading shortly, may be the Carvaka -- out and out hedonists (mentioned briefly atop the "Cast of Characters" below).

Posted by: mitch at December 28, 2005 8:58 AM

Is Taoism an atheist religion?
Though not directly pertinent to the question of atheist societies, your anthro reading would be incomplete without Colin Turnbull's The Mountain People, a look at a horribly amoral African tribe, and especially Weston La Barre's erudite & entertaining (if overly Freudian) The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion.

Posted by: Pierce R. Butler at December 29, 2005 12:28 PM

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