Has there ever been a human culture with no religion/gods/superstition/mythology?

In Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax novels, the Neanderthals (of an alternate Earth where Homo sapiens sapiens went extinct early) have nothing of what might be called “spiritual imagination.” They not only do not believe in God or gods or an afterlife, they are not even familiar with the concepts. Apparently their culture has never, ever featured belief in gods, magic, spirits, elves, fairies, goblins, demons, elementals – supernatural beings or forces of any kind. No churches, no temples, no fanes, no priests or shamans or wizards or medicine-men. No legends or mythology – no mention even of folk-tales.

In actual history, are there any known human cultures like that? I’ve never heard of one.

85% of modern day Swedes claim to be athiest or agnostic, though I’m sure some of them are either supersititious or vaguely “spiritual”. But still, I suspect modern day residents of Sweden and other similar countries are probably the closest to a non-spiritual society that has ever existed.

And I’m sure atheism has been widespread in many (not all) Communist countries where that was part of the official ideology. But I’m not counting modern **post-**religious societies. It seems that every human culture starts out with supernatural beliefs; atheism or agnosticism or skepticism only become even conceivable when philosophy, in the broad sense, reaches a certain level of development. Are there any exceptions?

There are plenty of cultures which have left no traces of writing, so we can’t know what they believed. Although there’s never been a shortage of people willing to assert what they believed. Existing decorated pots and the like often seem to suggest stories, but that proves nothing.

Of civilizations that we have any writing from, history at some point fades into pretty fantastic stuff that seems to be myth and/or religion. Gilgamesh may actually have been a king that lived, but the story as we have it is pretty clearly mythology. Maybe there was a Yellow Emperor, but the guy of Chines history/legend did damned near everything, and seems pretty fantastic. The Japanese have records of their rulers, but he traces his ancestry back to Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, just as the kings of greece and that Pharaohs of Egypt were descended from the gods.

I don’t know of any existing cultural groups that have been around a while and are made up of strict rationalists with neither a religion nor a mythology. Of course, I’m no professional anthropologist, and i’ve read only a tiny fraction of what’s available. My guess would be that such groups don’t exist. Heck, aside from self-organized and self-identified organizations (which don’t constitute a culture), we don’t have such groups today.

So what did they call H. sapiens sapiens?

I know that the Piraha people of Brazil have no sort of religion, but they do believe in spirits. I think they are the closest to what you desire. They convinced a Christian Missionary to lose his religion through their almost-total lack of belief.

I do remembering reading in a book that there has been no recorded human culture that didn’t believe in spirits or ghosts of some sort, but I think I read that for my Mythology class rather than in my Anthropology classes.

It appears that religion is a wide spread and maybe simply due to the way man’s brain is assembled. People are always looking for reasons to things. Why do the stars go around in what looks like a sphere? Was the Earth always here, or was it created? How did we come about? Why does it rain? The human brain is constantly looking for connections, and if it can’t find one, it’ll make them up. Without strong basic scientific knowledge, how else can you explain these things without invoking unseen forces?

Even many atheists fall into what many would consider illogical beliefs. I had a friend in college who was a strong atheist and kept poking fun at me for being religious. However, he also was a strong believer of astrology. When he poked fun at my beliefs, I would ask him about astrology, and he’d reply “But it’s so true!”.

And, it doesn’t have to be things we normally associate with religious beliefs. I know people who insist that early men were vegans or that early humans never cooked their food which is extremely toxic. Even the Soviet communists who insisted that religion was the opiate of the masses insisted in their belief in The New Soviet Man. A belief that man living in Communist society would evolve into a higher being. It was one of the reasons why Stalin’s belief in Trofim Lysenko was so strong. Damn the evidence, Lysenko’s theory matched Communist theology!ic

I don’t know what the connection is, but there seems to be a connection between a civiliation’s level of technology, democracy, science, etc. and agnosticism. I wonder if anyone has ever researched it. Even in the US roughly 40% of the population never or rarely goes to church according to exit polls from the 2008 election. Its like the more science and democracy we have, the less we want religion. So I wonder if religion serves a purpose that is better served by science (giving an understanding of the world, giving control over your environment, adding a newer level of meaning to the world around you, answers to the big philosophical questions in life like why are we here and where did we come from).


But to answer the OP’s question, I don’t know. I have not heard of any in my readings.

No, because rational inquiry is a recent thing in human history. A scientific outlook requires quite a bit of education and a democratization of power structures. Human history is wrought with superstition and concentrated power structures.


Humans seem to have a religion gene. It makes sense in a evolutionary way. If we can get people to stick together who arent related, then their chances of group survival goes up.

how do the neanderthals in the novel handle ignorance/the inexplicable? indifference?

I’m not sure about that. It seems much more likely that the original “default” would be agnosticism, in the sense of not yet occurring to them . . . that it would take a while before someone actually came up with the beliefs in question.

Well, how do we atheists handle things that we don’t know yet? Hardly indifference.

yeah but we’re hardly fighting day to day for our very own survival. people need explanations when people die for no apparent reasons. there is comfort even in the illusion of control.

You’re mixing up terms left and right, and it’s hard to answer you from an academic perspective. On technical grounds, it is safe to say that there has never ever been a society with nothing from the set {legends, mythology, or folktales}, simply because even mildly fictionalized versions of real experiences are a technical subcategory of legend. You’d have to posit a human society with no narration, and that is such a fundamental part of language that it’s impossible.

The other thing you are asking gets mixed up between the supernatural, the superstitious, and the religious. These are three related but distinct categories, and they are not necessarily irrational in that they often have an internally consistent logical system. Not scientific, not correct, but not irrational either. (Of course they can be inconsistent, irrational, or illogical: examples of that abound.)

So, one by one: religion. There are no societies without some sort of religion, but that’s sort of meaningless. Anthropologically speaking, religion is an complex set of interrelated phenomena including myth, belief, ritual, and magic; every human society will have some sort of ritual, which has positive social functions as well as potentially mystical ones. No avowedly atheist traditional societies have been reported, but given the bias of historically active anthropologists and rather fuzzy distinctions between “god” and “spirit,” you might be able to find a society without gods.

Superstition: a lot of social scientists avoid the term, because the basic meaning is “belief I think it wrong / old-fashioned / stupid.” This is almost inherently cross-cultural: if your whole small-scale society holds the same beliefs, only outsiders would consider them superstition. Because of the way humans disseminate knowledge in traditional societies, you won’t find any without folk beliefs, including ours. You have only to look at people’s responses to vaccination to see folk beliefs in action.

Magic and the supernatural: I can’t recall a description of a society entirely without magical and supernatural beliefs as the word is commonly used. I’m a folklorist, so if there were such a society extant, I think I would have. It’s unlikely but more possible than the other categories above.

The thing to remember is that even when based on false premises, these beliefs are still functional in other ways as well, socially and psychologically. For that reason, they may be positive contributors to the human experience even if they are wrong / harmful when viewed point by point.

Yes, and that’s when the myths get started. But there was a time before that, when there were no myths.

I don’t claim to be neither atheist nor agnostic. I’m simply irreligious and don’t think in religious terms.

H. sapiens sapiens never evolved on their Earth, as I recall.

A relevant book would be Stolen Lightning by Daniel O’Keefe, which is a social history of magic (in the broad sense that encompasses religion and all other superstitious beliefs). An excellent book by the way, and well worth tracking down. In essence, all the kinds of beliefs referred to in the OP are going to arise fairly quickly, in any human society, to fill the gaps between the human desires for control, knowledge and explanation and the actual lack thereof.

If you’ve noticed that sometimes the crops fail and nearly everyone dies, you start looking for any possible way of making sure the crops don’t fail. If someone points out that when a young woman died in the village, the harvest was good, some people start to wonder if sacrificing a young woman might just do the trick and help everyone to have enough wheat next year. And so it begins.

When you have learned enough about irrigation, agriculture and farming, the ‘sacrifice a virgin’ thing gets phased out as ‘bad idea, didn’t really work’. At least it does by most people.

So, to answer the OP, no, not really. You’ll find all of those things in every human culture except where the gaps have been reduced or eliminated and they no longer satisfy a need.

I agree with Simplicio that Sweden comes pretty close to a sane, rational society where people see religion for what it is and figure they can waste their time in more enjoyable ways. This is just one of many good and great things about Sweden. If they had a better climate, weren’t shut in cold darkness for way too many months of the year, and could get their tax rates down just a little bit, it would be the perfect country.

Yes, or scientific curiosity.

They did, but they died out early. The “Barasts” (Neanderthals) refer to them as “Gliskins,” from the place where the first H. s. s. remains were discovered.

My only formal philosophy classes were 40 years ago at the U. of Evansville. The prof described Taoism as an atheist religion. He said the Taoist sees everything as no more or no less holy than anything else. Nothing is good or bad, it just is. There’s more to it than that, but no gods, spirits, or myths.