The World Without Beliefs in Which Humanity Once Thrived
The Pirahã, an Indigenous Culture that Yet Lives in Harmony with Nature
Remarkably, some hard evidence supporting the idea that people who are happy don’t need beliefs is provided by a book by Daniel Everett, “Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes.” In it, Everett tells the story of his life with the Pirahã over a thirty-year span. They are an indigenous culture located deep the Brazilian rainforest.
By modern standards, the Pirahã have nothing—no institutions, no education, no gods, no beliefs, no money, no marriage, no hopes, no dreams, no conveniences, no technology, no progress, no concept of good and evil, no judicial system, no police, no prisons, and no human rights. And yet, they are considered to be the happiest people on earth, by most of the people who have spent a significant amount of time with them.
Given their lack of anything that all moderns consider essential for happiness, why are the Pirahã so happy? In my judgment, it’s because their feelings are their guide, not instituted law. As a result, they are some of the last humans on earth who are living a sustainable way of life—that is, sustainable over evolutionary time. If, as I have come to believe, happiness is evolution’s reward for being true to life, and if their way of life is indeed sustainable, then how could they not be happy? After all, sustainability is essential to life’s existence.
Of all the things the Pirahã don’t have, the most significant is not on the above list. The Pirahã don’t acknowledge, or care about, the right to own property. As a result, women are not property, and this frees Pirahã women to play their essential role in maintaining order through emotionally bonded social groups. The order created by spiritually free women is neither imposed nor planned, but is simply the result of their presence, their natural reactions to everchanging circumstances.
Men Owning Women Through Marriage Destroys Natural Social Order
On the other hand, when men destroy emotional freedom in even the most primitive cultures, by owning women through marriage, men lose touch with their need for brotherhood and their sense of identity. Normally, men form brotherhoods only when they have a common mission to unite them, which is true even today. In a culture governed by instincts, men’s role, or mission, is to support and defend the sisterhood and their children.
By owning women, men destroy sisterly bonds, thus their natural connection to brotherhood and identity. This reduces men to finding a sense of identity, or purpose, in ritual, superstition, and religion, These “vision quests” lead to errant behavior, sometimes even to cannibalism and headhunting.
The key to the Pirahãs’ emotional health is that they do not practice marriage, and for this reason they don’t need beliefs. Once women are owned by men, female spiritual honesty is no longer possible because, to have a home, each woman must please her husband. This distracts her and her sisters from their essential role of taking care of life. Only primitive cultures that don’t practice marriage, exemplified by the Pirahã, are models for how humans naturally relate to each other and the habitat that sustains them.
Because the Pirahã own nothing, their survival depends on the quality of their relationships, not the quality of their “holdings.” The Pirahã love one another, which is the key to their happiness. In contrast, we modern people, locked as we are in our ownership paradigm, love our holdings. This does not make modern people evil and the Pirahã good. Neither we nor the Pirahã have any choice but to love, above all else, that which we depend upon to survive.
The reason we love money, instead of people, isn’t because we are different from the Pirahã. It’s because of our circumstances. The nice thing about depending on people, instead of money, to survive, is that people can do something that money can’t. People can love us back. What it all boils down to is: Do we want to spend our lives in a room full of money, or among people who love us? Money can do things for us that those people can’t. But, those people can do things for us that money can’t, like give us a reason to live. The Pirahã have many reasons to live, while many of us aren’t even sure why we’re here.
People Who Aren’t Lost Don’t Need Beliefs
We moderns don’t realize that the right to own property, which we so cherish, not only estranges us emotionally, but brings with it the burden of having to own property to survive. Owning nothing, the Pirahã have no personal claims on the future, which frees them to live in the moment. Indeed, they have no option other than to do so, and the rewards are many. To live in the moment is to be true to our feelings of the moment. When we live in the moment we are spiritually alive. We find all the satisfaction human beings are capable of experiencing through relationships of mutual dependence with those around us—relationships characterized by a natural preoccupation with the wellbeing of those with whom we live and the habitat that sustains us. We feel complete because we live in concert with the needs of our souls. Feeling complete, we need nothing more, not even tomorrow. Like the Pirahã, we too would not fear death.
Everett’s mission was to convert the Pirahã to Christianity. But, after years of valiantly trying, during which his message continued to fall on deaf ears, he finally came to realize that you can’t save people who aren’t lost—that is, who are not in pain. In the end, Everett was instead converted to their values and ways of thinking.
Spiritual Freedom is Easily Lost
There is a practical reason why the Pirahã remain spiritually free—that is, free to be true to themselves, their instincts, their feelings of the moment. It is because their location is so remote, and the conditions so disagreeable, that no legal institution has bothered to exercise its jurisdiction over their territory. To grasp how easily spiritual freedom is lost, consider what would happen if an institution should decide to exercise its jurisdiction over the Pirahã. Overnight, they would be as unhappy as the rest of the world’s institutionalized population.
Under institutional rule, each of them would be fingerprinted (or tagged, by some means, for positive identification), and taxed, and thereby immediately become subjects of the state. To pay their taxes, they would have to start earning money, thus become economically enslaved, as are all civilized people. Each woman would have to make a legally imposed commitment to live with and love a man, for life, in order to have children, to have a “home.” Each “family” would be given title to a separate plot of land, through which they would become responsible only for their own wellbeing. For the first time in the life of their culture, they would find themselves largely without love, not because they had changed, but because their circumstances had changed.
On the very day of their subjugation, they would no longer be dependent on one another for emotional and material support. They instead would be dependent on the state to protect them and their property from one another.
If Beliefs are Beliefs, not Facts, Why do we Believe?
If people like the Pirahã are happy without beliefs, why don’t we solve our problems by ceasing to believe? To answer that question, we must first recognize why the Pirahã are happy. It’s because they are free to answer to the wisdom of their souls. We moderns, on the other hand, depend on institutions to survive, not on the people around us. We have no choice other than to obey the law. Not free to find emotional comfort by being true to ourselves in each moment, we are emotionally repressed. Instead of being true to ourselves, we find comfort in the idealized future promised by our beliefs in science, religion, ideology, progress, etc.. We can’t stop believing because, when not free to satisfy our feelings of the moment, we are as dependent on the future promised by our beliefs for emotional support, as is a drug addict on his drugs. Consequently, as in drug addiction, our belief-drugs become more important to us than life, itself, which is why institutionally subjugated humans regularly kill and die on behalf of their beliefs.
Remarkably, our minds are able to take comfort in the promise of our beliefs, despite the fact that we know that beliefs, by definition, are not supported by facts, or we would never refer to them as beliefs. A belief cannot be proven, because the future in which its promise resides has not yet occurred. The fact that the believer accepts the belief as true, despite knowing its promise cannot be proven, reveals that beliefs are accepted because they satisfy feelings. Religious or political arguments are not resolvable because beliefs are not based on facts. They exist to satisfy the believer’s feelings. No one can argue with another person’s feelings.
Each believer is absolutely certain, of course, that his belief is supported by facts. But, unbeknownst to him, his mind subconsciously blinds itself to all facts that refute his beliefs. This is why intelligent people can hold opposing beliefs, even when informed with the same facts.
Think of a hypnotized man who, as a result of the power of suggestion, is unable to see a comb in plain sight on the floor in front of him. I don’t know whether beliefs actually hypnotize us, but that image of a man in a hypnotic trance, who can’t see something that is in plain view, illustrates how closedminded our brains are to any evidence that refutes our beliefs.
As a consequence of being dependent on institutionally imposed laws to survive, we are not free to find emotional comfort by being true to ourselves, our feelings of the moment, as are the Pirahã. Consequently, rather than knowing the happiness that is inherent to living in the moment, we are so emotionally dependent on the future promised by our beliefs that our minds see truth where there is none, and are shockingly blind to any evidence that refutes what we believe. In the most literal sense, beliefs disconnect our brains from reality—a disconnection that is essential to our ability to function in our unrealistic, emotionally abusive world.
Why, among all forms of animate life on this planet, are only humans unable to see the “comb on the floor?” What must happen if we are ever to see it again?
Excerpt from: Rediscovering the Wisdom of Human Nature
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