Alien Belief Systems

  • David Papineau


In this chapter I am going to discuss the interpretation and explanation of what are often called ‘alien belief systems’. Roughly speaking, these are those systems of beliefs about primitive gods, ancestral spirits, magical powers, totemic creatures, witches, sorcerers, and so forth, which are found amongst traditional peoples, and which inform their magical and religious practices and the explanations they offer for various natural and human events. As such, ‘alien belief systems’ are to be distinguished from modern world religions, which have given up altogether to science the attempt to control and explain the natural world. As a recent writer has put it, modern religions are almost exclusively ‘anthropocentric’ in being concerned solely with the moral status of man in his relation to God, while traditional thought has a ‘cosmocentric’ focus on the explanation and anticipation of natural and human events.1


Belief System Irrational Belief Literal Meaning Traditional Society Traditional Belief 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    J. Skorupski, Symbol and Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 25–9. The present chapter owes a considerable amount to Skorupski’s book.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    B. L. Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality(Wiley, 1956).Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande ( Clarendon, 1937 ), Part I.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© David Papineau 1978

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Papineau
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of CambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations