book reviews / culture / research

When did Man discover God?


Credit: USAID

I’ve been reading Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People. He lived ‘a while’ with pygmies to understand their life, their ‘culture’, their beliefs. Turnbull doesn’t lecture, or present the material as an ethnography. It’s more like a biography of a tribe. As such, I get to wander through their lives, see what they do, how they do it, what’s important to them, without any judgments or conclusions other than my own.

I’m not finished, but half way through, it’s already clear they have no leaders. How can that be, you might ask? Doesn’t somehow just assume that mantle? Well, until I read this book, I would have agreed whole-heartedly, but that doesn’t seem to happen. A tribe member might demand everyone go hunting with him (it takes a large group to capture/kill the forest animals) and people may go, or they may not. Whatever they feel like. When they move to a new camp, houses and furniture must be built. People may start full of energy and ambition, promising to help neighbors and build big houses with multiple rooms. And then dwindle away as something else grabs their attention. Maybe finish, maybe not. Maybe use some of their neighbor’s roof leaves, or even his house since theirs isn’t built.

Most surprisingly, I have yet to discover a belief in a god. They don’t pray for help, for food or safety, for anything. If life doesn’t seem quite right, the closest they get to wishing it was better is to return to the forest where life is always good. So they do, to a camp surrounded by the depths of the jungle, where outsiders are afraid to go. But the forest isn’t their god, it’s merely where life is always good.

Hmmm. I have to ponder this…

8 thoughts on “When did Man discover God?

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  4. Well, I think you’re right that the fear of the unknown commits one to the belief in a greater power or force to keep them safe in this life and eternity. Organized religion took hold also in response to a seeming lack of morality. In my opinion, as soon as a man begins interpreting God and explaining the path to heaven, the point of religion is lost. He reduces moral decision-making to a reward/punishment system. I am much more motivated by watching someone help an old lady cross the street: the Pay it Forward mentality kicks in and I find myself doing characteristically Christian things without expectation of a payout!


  5. Yes, I concur. Very thoughtful. I had always considered religion the natural by-product of ‘not knowing’, that fear of the unknown drove us to religion, but the pygmies seem to disagree.


  6. So the forest is their sanctuary, like a traditional church/synagogue/mosque. They worship with their actions which is much more meaningful than just words. As I learned about it, structured religion filled in a gap of moral rules but still builds itself around rewards and punishment. It sounds like these pygmies have carved out natural Utopia.


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