Primitive Atheism and Skepticism

Religious Theism is Not Universal in All Human Cultures

Almost as popular as belief in gods and religions is the belief that theism and religion are "universal" — that theism and religion can be found in every culture that's ever been studied. The apparent popularity of religion and theism seems to give religious believers some comfort against the skeptical critiques of atheists. After all, if religion and theism are universal, then there is something odd about secular atheists and they must be the ones with the burden of proof... right?

Religious Theism Is Not Universal

Well, not quite. There are two fundamental problems with this position. First, even if true, the popularity of an idea, belief, or ideology has no bearing on whether it's true or reasonable. The primary burden of proof always lies with those making the affirmative claim, no matter how popular that claim is now or has been through history. Anyone who feels comforted by the popularity of their ideology is effectively admitting that the ideology itself isn't very strong.

Second, there are good reasons to doubt that this position is even true in the first place. Most societies through history have indeed had supernatural religions of one sort or another, but this doesn't mean that all of them have. This will probably come as a surprise to people who have simply assumed, without question, that religion and supernatural beliefs have been a universal feature of human society.

Will Durant has done a great service by preserving information about skeptical attitudes towards religion and theism from so-called "primitive," non-European cultures. I have not been able to find this information elsewhere and it runs contrary to common assumptions. If religion can be defined as the worship of supernatural forces — an inadequate definition, but one which serves for most purposes — then it must be admitted that some cultures have little or no religion at all.

Atheism and Skepticism in Africa

As Durant explains, certain Pygmy tribes found in Africa were observed to have no identifiable cults or rites. There were no totems, no gods, no spirits. Their dead were buried without special ceremonies or accompanying items and received no further attention. They even appeared to lack simple superstitions, according to travelers' reports.

Tribes in Cameroon only believed in malicious gods and so made no efforts to placate or please them. According to them, it was useless to even bother trying and more important to deal with whatever problems were placed in their path. Another group, the Vedahs of Ceylon, only admitted the possibility that gods might exist but went no further. Neither prayers nor sacrifices were suggested in any way.

When specifically asked a god, Durant reports that they answered in a very puzzled manner:

"Is he on a rock? On a white-ant hill? On a tree? I never saw a god!"

Durant also reports that a Zulu, when asked who made and governs things like the setting sun and the growing trees, answered:

"No, we see them, but cannot tell how they came; we suppose that they came by themselves."

Skepticism in North America

Moving away from outright skepticism of the existence of gods, some North American Indian tribes believed in a god but did not actively worship it. Like Epicurus in ancient Greece, they considered this god to be too remote from human affairs to be concerned with them. According to Durant, an Abipone Indian stated their philosophy thus:

"Our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers were wont to contemplate the earth alone, solicitous only to see whether the plain afforded grass and water for their horses. They never troubled themselves about what went on in the heavens, and who was the creator and governor of the stars."

In all of the above we find, even among supposedly "primitive" cultures, many of the themes which persist today in people's overt skepticism about the validity and value of religion: the inability to actually see any of the claimed beings, reluctance to imagine that something unknown caused what is known, and the idea that even if a god exists, it is so far beyond us as to be irrelevant to our affairs.