Whom do we sacrifice our virgins to now?
August 22, 2006 5:34 PM   Subscribe

Has there ever been an atheist civilization\tribe?

Maybe atheist is too strong a word as it denies the existence of god(s). Perhaps, a tribe who did not have the concept of a divine being?
Are there any arguments for the existence of a god that incorporate this preponderance of religion?
posted by pantsrobot to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, there are religions that are not theistic religions. Taoism, for instance. But a society with no religion at all? Not that I know of.

And indeed, many people of faith do point to the fact that all societies seem to have a religion of some sort to defend their beliefs. However, I would also point out that just because the majority of people say something doesn't necessarily make it true.
posted by magodesky at 5:47 PM on August 22, 2006


I think most Chinese don't worship a supreme being. The country is officially atheist, with a significant percentage of Confucianists, Daoists and Buddhists-- none of which have a clear idea of "God" in the traditional sense.
posted by justkevin at 5:47 PM on August 22, 2006


A fundamental theory of Emile Durkheim is that the energy that arises out of members of a society gathering is what is perceived to be a higher force.

If you subscribe to Durkheim, this "collective effervescence," that is a common experience of those in tribal/social gathering, must necessarily be perceived as divine force. In which case I can't imagine you can have a tribe/society/community that didn't at least start off perceiving something like a divine force

*I hope I didn't butcher Durkheim too much...its been a while I must admit!
posted by Eudaimonia at 5:58 PM on August 22, 2006 [3 favorites]


Since long lasting religious art is a principal way we come to know ancient tribes and civilizations, particularly those that were nomadic and didn't build monuments, we would know less about them if they weren't religious enough to create spiritual totems and other art. Whether you believe certain legends or not, the European Huns of the 4th and 5th centuries were not particularly religious, and some accounts suggest they were notably opportunistic regarding religion, if not avowedly anti-religious. Huns believed in plunder. Huns believed in Huns.

So, I suppose it depends on who you'd view as an atheist, as your question hints. If you demand that atheists actively argue against the very existence of god(s), you're inherently looking for cultures built on a negative belief. Generally, cultures promulgate positive systems of belief, that aid their adherents. So, science became the religion of the Enlightenment and modern eras, and science has spread because of its ability to aid its adherents. Science however is not atheism, in that it doesn't centrally deny the existence of god(s); rather, science is a set of practices and beliefs that attempts to put rationality at the top of the human value pyramid. So, I think there is a lot of interpretive ground to cover in answering your question.

But from a Western perspective, I'd start with the Huns.
posted by paulsc at 6:08 PM on August 22, 2006 [2 favorites]


Ah, I hadn't thought about communism when I posted the question, but I'd rather ignore it. I was really looking for older societies. The other examples are great!
(and to clarify: My second question did not support that line of reasoning, I was merely wondering whether it had been used before)
posted by pantsrobot at 6:24 PM on August 22, 2006


I vehemently disagree with paulsc's description of the Huns as atheist or even "not particularly religious." Neither a lack of lasting religious monuments and art nor a documented interest in plunder and group prosperity are evidence of any lack of religion. It is likely that the Huns had a religion similar to that of other Mongol and Turkic peoples of the area; this religion is characterized by shamanism and animism. This religion is not incompatible with self-interested violence nor is it entirely incompatible with "conversion" to other religions; one of the characteristics of this type of religion is a tradition of syncretism. For instance, Siberian Mongols in the 19th century were observed to be including Nikolai Buddha in their shamanist ceremonies. Nikolai they got from Russian Christian missionaries; Buddha they got from the south many centuries earlier.

The Huns were nonreligious like American Indians were/are nonreligious. (That is, not really much at all.)

These religions don't have such an anthropomorphized God as Western religions do (although they do have a top spirit [see Tengri], but it would be hard to argue there is not, in the most basic sense, a divine being.

Buddhism is atheist.
posted by thirteenkiller at 7:25 PM on August 22, 2006


Whether you believe certain legends or not, the European Huns of the 4th and 5th centuries were not particularly religious, and some accounts suggest they were notably opportunistic regarding religion, if not avowedly anti-religious. Huns believed in plunder. Huns believed in Huns.

Well, there is the rub in that many of the accounts we have of the Huns basically consists of propaganda from literate cultures that survived the collapse of Atilla's empire. We also don't know where the Huns came from, or where they went after Atilla. There are hints of sword worship similar to other central European nomads, and Tengriism from Mongolian and Turkic groups. Some Hun leaders notably converted to Christianity.

On preview, what thirteenkiller said.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:24 PM on August 22, 2006


Well, are we talking about societies that don't have a single dominant religion that defines their culture or societies that have no religion at all? Because the Huns, for instance, may not have been defined primarily by their religion, but there were still Huns who practiced religion. And there have been many societies in which religion was not the defining characteristic.

However, to my knowledge, no society has had no religion at all. Even Communist states that have specifically targeted religious institutions have failed pretty miserably at squelching the practice of religion entirely.

Now, I suppose you could argue based on popularity that if either side of the debate is more likely to be wrong, it would be the atheists who make up the minority. But this assumes that everyone on both sides is equally capable of making such a judgment. It also assumes that you have nothing else to base your judgment on other than the number of people who are or are not religious. And even then, what you have still is not an argument for or against God's existence. You just have a probability as to which side is more likely to be right. And again, just because the majority says something doesn't make it so. If 6 billion people said that 2+2=5, that wouldn't make it true.
Perhaps you're confusing "God does not influence the observable universe" with "There is no god"?
Actually, science doesn't even say that God doesn't influence the observable universe. Science is merely a systematic technique for acquiring information. It takes as a fundamental assumption that the universe can be observed. But it doesn't assume anything about God or even about its own correctness.
As God is magic supernatural, outside the confines of reality the natural world, God is unobservable. Unfalsifiable. Completely exterior to science.
I think you're misunderstanding the principle of unfalsifiablity. Science makes no claim that phenomena that are unfalsifiable are nonexistent. It is merely that such phenomena can not be proven scientifically. Just because something isn't scientific doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
posted by magodesky at 8:43 PM on August 22, 2006


One trait that ancient people share is that they all believed in many things that didn't exist. Some of these things were similar to modern conceptions of god. Some of these things are not. What characteristics does a mythical figure need to have to be considered a god? Most mythical "gods" were not omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, or benevolent. In mythology the line between gods, monsters, and spirts is pretty murky. Some gods were thought to be material but elusive. Some of these gods weren't particularly powerful. Capable of far less than a tank or a helicopter for example. In addition to things that kinda resemble god, shapeshifters, witches, half-human half-animals, ghosts, and giants are all pretty ubiquitous. Humans tended to be wrong about things in ways that were surprisingly consistent across cultures.

People sought to interact with these things in a variety of ways. Offering sacrifices of different types, performing rituals, refraining from certain activities. Of course people also sacrifice things, perform actions, and refrain from doing things all the time. So it seems what is special about these actions, the only thing special about this compared to other endeavors, was that it was a waste of time. And the people didn't know it.

So since the dawn of time people have done things for no good reason, thinking they were doing things for a good reason. The thing that separates religion from other areas of human endeavor is that it is a waste of time, but you don't think it is.
posted by I Foody at 10:08 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


Well, the question is a lot trickier than you might think. The way in which people have been religious has changed dramatically over time. It's not clear at all that you can consider a lot of historical societies, particularly Paleolithic societies devoted to animism and shamanism, to be "religious" as we use the term today. It's often been suggested that shamanism, in particular, isn't a religion at all but rather a "mythical science." This is where the simple definitions break down and you have to really examine the concepts closely. There are also others who propose that many of the educated ancient Greeks (particularly the pre-Socratics) where atheists and this is what designates ancient Greece as the first "modern civilization" (as in, fundamentally pluralistic). Finally, as MattD (foolishly) suggested, all people of faith are atheists insofar as they deny the existence of the gods of other's faiths. A more interesting question is to what extent various societies have been essentially atheist throughout history.
posted by nixerman at 10:52 PM on August 22, 2006


I'm not an expert on this, but I remember an anthropology class discussion based on the book _The Forest People_, about the Mbutu people (often called pygmies) and how they didn't have a religion in the sense of belief in spirits or deities or any discussion of an afterlife. Not sure if this is correct, however, or just not covered in the book.

Buddhism may sometimes be non-theistic, but some flavors, especially some of the more traditional, are extremely and multiply theistic.
posted by lgyre at 11:07 PM on August 22, 2006


[many comments removed - this is not the "is there a god" ask metafilter question. take that discussion elsewhere, or to metatalk and please keep comments on topic.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:07 AM on August 23, 2006


With all due respect, how do you know they didn't exist?

Maybe giants, centaurs, and gnomes walked the earth while brownies made shoes for struggling cobblers and banshees wailed at frightened leprechauns. And now they have merely gone extinct, for as man lives on bread these creatures dine on man's belief in them and they have all long starved.

Religion serves very important social functions in terms of cultural and psychological well-being. Prove it.
Speaking as the orthodoxy of 7000 years ago I must inform you that up till now we worshiped a variety of gods and spirits. Thus I must inform you that worshipping many gods is a cornerstone of the human experience. The belief in many gods is essential to our cultural and psychological well being. Polytheism and animism are essential to our very humanity!
posted by I Foody at 7:08 AM on August 23, 2006


Whom do we sacrifice our virgins to now?

I'd like to answer but I'm guessing question one is rhetorical and not requiring one?

Has there ever been an atheist civilization\tribe?


Sure has, some very significant civilizations have been organized around a set principles or system of thought that does not include a god as such - e.g. communism, buddhism.

Are there any arguments for the existence of a god that incorporate this preponderance of religion?

Question three is a little unclear in intent so:

Yes - there are arguments incorporating the preponderance of religion - it is argued that we all know very well there's more to life than what we see whether we acknowledge that or not, and the existence of everything from shamanism to ancestor worship to polytheism to Hindusim to Christianity to Islam to New Age is an indication of that universal human reality.

- or -

No - a 'proof' of a god that incorporates the preponderance of religion does not exist. None exists and this one is no different, if that's what you'e asking.
posted by scheptech at 9:27 AM on August 23, 2006


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