Hell, Heaven and Now

Daniel Everett, a priest and linguist, was sent into the Amazonian jungle to convert the Piraha people to Christianism:

Soon after he first arrived in the Amazon, Everett was nearly killed when the Pirahã discovered he was ordering passing river traders not to give them whisky. The Pirahã were rarely violent, but intensely rejected any kind of coercion. Crucially, Everett came to see his religion as fundamentally coercive. His academic studies were ultimately designed to help him translate the Bible into Pirahã. When they heard the word of God, his evangelic mission believed, they would be converted. Everett translated the Book of Luke, read it to the Pirahã and they were utterly unmoved. By 1985, he had privately lost his faith.

"It's wrong to try and convert tribal societies," he says. "What should the empirical evidence for religion be? It should produce peaceful, strong, secure people who are right with God and right with the world. I don't see that evidence very often. So then I find myself with the Pirahã. They have all these qualities that I am trying to tell them they could have. They are the ones who are living life the way I'm saying it ought to be lived, they just don't fear heaven and hell."

Beyond religion, Everett closes saying "If anything, they are superior in many ways to us. Thinking too much about the future or worrying too much about the past is really unhealthy. The Pirahã taught me that very lesson. Living in the moment is a sophisticated way to live."