Monday, 2 April 2012

Dan Everett on atheism

I got to interview linguist Dan Everett last week for an episode of the 'Talk the Talk' podcast.

He's well-known for his work with the Pirahã people, and we talked about the implications of their language for linguistic theory. But the Pirahã people also served as a catalyst for his deconversion from Christianity, as he has discussed in this video from Fora TV.



So after all the talk about language, I got to ask him about atheism.

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Daniel Midgley: I'm just curious about atheism. As an atheist myself, I liked reading about your deconversion, but I think that must have been a really difficult time for you.

Dan Everett: Yeah, it was a very difficult time for me. I mean, I was raised with a complete apathy towards religion, and would have considered myself an atheist until I was about 17, when I had a dramatic conversion experience in San Diego in the 60s. And that was very useful; it got me off drugs and other things I was doing that I shouldn't have been doing. And I met a family who had been missionaries in the Amazon for many years. That got me interested in the Amazon. And when you become a missionary, not only is your faith a personal thing, but it becomes a very public thing. You are being supported financially to do something based on what you say you believe. You've raised your family a certain way. So now suddenly to say, "Oh, wait, I don't believe this stuff anymore," it causes friends who've been giving money to you to help you do this work, and your family -- it produces all sorts of trauma. Even when you would rather that it not do that, but at some point you have to say, "I don't believe this stuff anymore for a number of reasons, and I can't be dishonest and pretend that I do. I have to just say that I don't, and take the consequences.

DM: It's really hard to come out. I had not quite the same experience, but I used to be a Mormon, and I did the whole two year mission that they do. And there's something about when you feel like you have to say that you believe something, it becomes very difficult -- when you're very much invested, it becomes very difficult to deconvert, I think.

DE: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right. And so you would know from your Mormon background almost exactly what it was to go through this huge social pressure, and a lot of people that you like very much.

The other really interesting thing is there is no... I've never found a social equivalent to church for atheists. I mean, we don't get together on a regular basis and sing songs and take care of each others' children and have potlucks, because atheists don't share beliefs. They just don't believe something. And so we don't have the same positive unifying force as people who share beliefs. And so once you do make that decision, you lose a certain social network that you had before, that, whatever it was based on, was psychologcally supportive. So there are a number of pressures that don't involve threats that keep people believing, even when their inner brains tell them, "This doesn't make any sense."

DM: Do you think humanism could fill in the gaps somewhere?

DE: I'd like to think that it could, but I think that many of us who are atheists are pretty independent-minded anyway. So it's difficult. I belong to a couple of humanistic societies, and I get their newsletters, and I'm encouraged by what they do, but they don't have any particular events that look like a lot of fun that I'd like to go to. But I do enjoy the symphony and I enjoy going to concerts and things like that, so those things have to become church to me.

DM: Do you identify with the New Atheism crowd, Dawkins and Myers and skeptics like that?

DE: My view of Dawkins' book in particular is that ... somebody wrote me one time and said "I suspected that Dawkins was an atheist, but I just didn't realise that he was an amateur atheist!" And my view is that... I respect what they're doing. I think that, you know, my favourite writer in this regard is Christopher Hitchens. But at the same time, I don't think that people have done a very good job of trying to understand the cultural meaning that people find in the social attraction in religion, and why really really intelligent people can be religious. I think that just to say that this is all stupid, and anybody who believes this stuff is an idiot... you know, I can see the appeal in saying something like that, but it doesn't really give a satisfying explanation to me. So while I think there need to be writings trying to lay out the case against theism and why it can be a very negative force, I think we have to do it with understanding and compassion in a way that I haven't really seen in much of the New Atheism writing.

DM: I think one of the approaches that a lot of people take is that we need a multiplicity of approaches -- we have people that, you know, mock and ridicule because that fires up the base and it can shake some people, but then we also have the 'nice atheists' who understand what it was like to be maybe a fundamentalist and can approach things a little more gently.

DE: Yeah, as I say, even having said what I just said about the need for more compassion I still find Christopher Hitchens' work to be absolutely hilarious and wonderful to read and he just brings so much wit to the process. But still, it's got to be aggravating and I don't know who it would convince if they believe fervently the other way. So I agree. There needs to be a multiplicity of approaches, and among other atheists, I don't need to hold back my opinion of theism, but when I'm with... you know, I have people that I love and respect very much who are strong believers, and I don't hold back -- I tell them what I think -- but at the same time it would never occur to me to insult them because they believe differently than me.

DM: I tend to say: I respect people but I don't respect ideas.

DE: Yeah, I agree with that. I completely agree with that. It's just that sometimes people that we respect hold ideas that we hate. And so we have to speak to those ideas. And there are some times when there's just no way to be diplomatic about it. So if I say, you know, "I don't believe in God, and Jesus is not my saviour," well, that's what I believe and there are some people who are going to be offended by that no matter how nice I try to say it, but that is the bottom line.

DM: Sometimes you have to say, "I'm not going to sugar-coat this for you. That's how it is."

DE: I agree with that, too. Yeah, there are times you just have to say it. My grandkids come up to me, and they say, "Are you afraid of going to hell?" And I said, "No, I'm not." But I said, "You don't need to be afraid about it either, because even if there is a hell, you didn't send me there. I make my own decisions, and I'll have to deal with it when I die. But I don't believe I'm going to such a place."

DM: How do the other family members feel about that?

DE: They've become pretty understanding of me nowadays. I mean, it was hard initially for a number of reasons because I made the announcement of my atheism, and that was a very strong contributing factor to my divorce, and the divorce in itself was traumatic, so there's a lot of stuff going on. But right now they're all quite understanding of me, and they tolerate me. More than tolerate; they love me as their father, but you know, I don't bring these things up all the time. Sometimes sitting around at one of my daughters' homes, their sons will ask me or daughters, you know, what do you think about this? And I don't lie and I don't hold back.

DM: I found that my linguistics kind of informed my atheism in a way. Like I used to be a literal Tower-of-Babel believer on some level, even if I never thought about it very much, because I was kind of a literalist, like a lot of Mormons, I think.

DE: Uh-huh.

DM: Did your linguistics factor in?

DE: In a different way. My linguistics factored in for two reasons. One, it was teaching me how to think scientifically. And two, it brought me into contact with other people who were thinking scientifically. It gave me a different social crowd. And I realised that I admired this crowd more -- that people who reasoned, however imperfectly, in a scientific way, seemed to be more interesting people than people who did not reason in a scientific way, the people who simply based everything on what they interpreted a book written a couple of thousand years ago said. So it was very appealing, and also I didn't like all the rules and regulation of religion, to tell you the truth. I was very happy to be able to think for myself about what I thought morality should be, and what I can and can't do.

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The rest of this interview will appear on an upcoming episode of 'Talk the Talk'.
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2 comments:

  1. Interesting interview. I think there was an earlier post I was going to ask you about this on (grammatical evidentiality in linguistics.) I mean, I know that Sapir Whorfism is kinda a joke in serious linguistic circles, but does it happen that grammatical evidentially does make people "empiricists"? Or do they just find different ways to justify/talk about their beliefs so that it fits with the demands of the grammar?

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    1. No joke -- Sapir-Whorf is coming back in some circles, annoying as that is.

      But there's nothing wrong with linguistic categories influencing thought. We can use evidentiaries, in a way -- "I heard that...", "I suspect that..." -- but our grammar doesn't require it on every verb, and theirs does. If nothing else, having evidentiary particles would bring the idea to the front of our minds when we made assertions.

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