Mental Floss

Losing His Religion: The Incredible True Story of A Missionary Deconverted by the Tribe He Was Trying to Reach

Ransom Riggs

It may seem heady subject matter for daily flossing, but I've been doing lots of research lately into indigenous and recently-contacted tribes in remote areas, and the people who contact them -- which, more often than not, are missionaries. One strategy that a particularly devoted kind of missionary uses to reach remote peoples is to live with them over a period of years and learn their language, and then slowly translate the Bible into that language. That's what Daniel Everett was doing back in the late 70s and early 80s. He's a professor of linguistics now -- and an avowed atheist -- and this ten-minute radio piece lays out how he lost his faith among the Pirahã tribe of Amazonian Brazil.

In this video, Everett links his de-conversion even more strongly to language and linguistics, especially the Pirahã verb "xibipiio," which means to go in and out of one's realm of experience. The Pirahã, he argues, are the ultimate empiricists, something that's borne out through their language. (This links back to the ideas tossed around in my post from last week, "Does Language Shape Culture?") Anyway, I'm not making an argument for or against religion here. I just think Everett's experience is fascinating.