Missionary Deconverted to Atheism: Epistemic Issues

Just went through a few videos on YouTube that relate stories of how Daniel Everett, a Linguistics professor and former Christian missionary  to the Piraha tribe of Brazil, got deconverted after reflecting on their worldview. Below is the BBC reading from his book Don't Sleep There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

An excerpt from his lecture explaining the metaphysics and epistemics of Piraha culture:

Now to the Epistemic Issues:

1. I hold no reserves with regard to this first premise that a missionary is always going to be in danger if his connection with the supernatural is not proper. I intend no accusation. But, Jesus made it clear to the disciples not to venture out till they were baptized with the Spirit. If I'm not so sure of my position, I have no rights trying to defend it or woo others to it. Those who consider missionary work to only be about linguistics, translations, and teaching Gospel stories may soon be disillusioned. The missionary is God's ambassador, and has no business going out without God's leading. It is sad that a missionary here was unable to offer visible evidence, when the Blessed Holy Spirit is here with us with this chief purpose to confirm the Word with visible evidence.
For I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ has not accomplished through me, in word and deed, to make the Gentiles obedient-- in mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and round about to Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. (Rom 15:18-19)

how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will? (Heb 2:3-4)

2. An instance of a simple pragmatic, empirical outlook in one tribe is not reason to throw off faith. This is too simplistic. I hope Dan Everett doesn't say he doesn't believe in Alexander the Great or Plato or Nebuchadnezzar because these entities are beyond the limits of immediate experience. He has neither seen them, nor did his father nor friends see them. Obviously, the Piraha are still too empirical to accommodate historical knowledge. But, if Everett wants to accept the historicity of Alexander the Great (3rd c. B.C), then he can't reject the historicity of Jesus Christ (1st c. A.D.) either. In addition, the whole of history, and the philosophy of history come into reckoning.

3. It is obvious that the Piraha have some belief in the supernatural as Everett himself reports, that they talked of spirits and Xigagaí, a being who lives in the clouds. That is not too simple. Everett also reports that the Piraha mourned over the death of a dog. As the principles of Rational Fideism suggest, in keeping with the Classical Indian Criteria for Revelation, the principle of rational anticipation of faith does exist. There is a preparatio evangelica.

4. A satisfied life-style doesn't prove the irrelevance of the Gospel. It is like saying children do not really have the "right to education" or do not need education because they are satisfied with playing in the soil.

5. The idealistic framework cannot be neglected. Pure empiricism cannot exist by itself. Some idealistic combinationalism is required to engender a worldview that gives meaning to one's experience of the world. Or else, what remains is sensations without relations and sensations without significance (beginning with the epistemic and proceeding to the social and spiritual). Once one begins to talk of ideas, one enters the world of philosophy, warrant, and rational evidence.

Domenic Marbaniang, January 30, 2010.


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