One of the perennial topics of discussion on this blog is secular modernity’s disbelief in the spiritual world, or any sort of metaphysics, and how utterly out of step that is with the vast majority of mankind, and the greatest part of human history. On a number of of occasions, I’ve referenced the WEIRD hypothesis: that people from Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic cultures think that their point of view on the world is neutral and normative, but is in fact a far outlier of the human experience. The theory is not simply that people in other cultures value things differently than we in the secular liberal West do. It’s that their fundamental perception of reality differs substantially from ours. 

In our conversation yesterday, the commenter Thursday and I ruminated on the loss of metaphysical conviction in modernity, and what implications that might have for intuitive awareness of a level of reality that can only be known subjectively, noetically. The classic example I keep going back to is the (atheist linguist) Daniel Everett’s story about something he witnessed one day on the river bank, deep in the Amazon jungle, living with the Piraha tribe. The tribesmen were extremely agitated by the presence on the beach of a demon they called Xigagai; Everett saw nothing at all. Even to this day, he cannot say with conviction what, exactly, was there, or not there, that day. He wrote:

Even I could tell that there was nothing on that white, sandy beach no more than one hundred yards away. And yet as certain as I was about this, the Pirahas were equally certain that there was something there. Maybe there had been something there that I missed seeing, but they insisted that what they were seeing, Xigagai, was still there.


… What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahas culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another’s views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahas, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.

Thursday is interested in the cultures of North American Indians, especially in this respect. He is a Christian by conviction, but believes that the traditional cultures of the North American aboriginal peoples have preserved within them a capacity for intuitive knowledge that we in the modern world have shed. To be clear, he’s not engaging in a hippie-dippie romanticism about tribal peoples; he concedes that there are things about traditional folk religions and the cultures that produce them that are ugly. Thursday may wish to clarify his stance in the comments, but I took him to be saying yesterday that this is chiefly interesting to him as a spiritual, psychological, and anthropological phenomenon. Put another way, he’s asking: Do these peoples know something about ultimate reality that we do not know, and if so, how do they know it?

He gave me a book called Dancing With A Ghost: Exploring Aboriginal Reality, by Rupert Ross. Ross is a retired Crown Attorney for the government of Canada. In active service, he worked with Canada’s aboriginals (which seems to be his preferred term for what we used to call Indians) in legal matters. I began reading the book at bedtime last night. It concerns Ross’s frustration as a lawyer with the way aboriginals responded in court cases and legal disputes. When he began trying to understand why aboriginals found it so difficult to encounter the Canadian legal system, Ross learned that the aboriginal way of understanding and dealing with reality was far more alien to the European way than he had realized — and that this had profound consequences for native people subsumed by European culture.

I’m only a few chapters into the book, and I’ll write more when I’m done with it. It appears that Ross is headed in the same direction as Wade Davis, who argues that we have a lot to learn from traditional peoples, who are not romantic primitives, à la Rousseau, but who nevertheless have a great deal of wisdom to pass on, wisdom from which we have cut ourselves off. The point is emphatically not that we should all go live in the forest like aboriginal people, even if we could, nor is the point that they should shun everything modern. The point rather is that the experiences and the culture of native peoples are so different from our own, and because of that may allow them access to a kind of knowledge that we do not (or no longer) possess, because of our cultural assumptions, technologies, and practices. Here is Bruce Charlton on why animists are onto something about the nature of reality that eludes materialists (by the way, this “heart” theory of his is consonant with Orthodox Christian teaching, it seems to me).

Obviously one has to be very, very careful here, but the more you read about the experiences of peoples in traditional cultures, the more skeptical you may become about our pretense that science is the only way to understand reality.

I say all this as a long preface to news that Hispanics in America maintain a strong belief in the reality of the spiritual world. Excerpt:

But in all of this data, the most captivating part is what these groups have in common: Among all of them, huge proportions said they believe in various kinds of spirits. It’s not surprising that the unaffiliated were the most dubious, but even so, roughly 40 percent of them said they believe in possession, witchcraft, and the ability to talk to spirits.

These beliefs are particularly interesting in the Hispanic context. Spirit traditions vary widely across Latin America—for example, the survey found that Hispanic-Americans with Salvadoran roots were much more likely than any other group to believe in possession. Certain spirit-related rituals have become prominent in the United States, especially predominately Mexican traditions like celebrating the Day of the Dead and praying to Santa Muerte, Our Lady of the Holy Death. These seem to both draw from and transcend religious belief—they provide latent, powerful suggestions about the nature of the world around us, tools for navigating the mystery of life and death. Clearly, these are not backwater beliefs only held by the deeply religious or the culturally isolated, as certain stereotypes might suggest; for lots of people, the spirit world is real. This idea can be a lot of different things—sacred and secular, spooky and silly. Ghosts may often be treated as jokes or anachronisms, but for many, they still secretly haunt the heart.

It is very much not the case that believing that there is a non-material realm — as classical metaphysics of all kinds does — means that anything and everything one claims as spiritual is true, or benign. For example, it takes Harvard-educated nitwits to stage a supposed satanic black mass as part of a “cultural studies” event. In any case, reading Dante’s Commedia and digging deeply into Christian metaphysics reveals how very far from our own roots we modern Westerners — including us Christians — have departed. One can’t help wondering if a latter-day aboriginal and a Christian of the High Middle Ages may have more in common on a fundamental and important level than a modern American Christian and his medieval confrères.