Myths have no place in law

Last updated 06:33 20/04/2013
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Martin van Beynen

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Martin van Beynen

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OPINION: Just when I think we scornful atheists and ridiculers of believers are winning the day along come events and new trends which suggest progress has been illusory.

We had the usual fracas over Easter trading and then last week a commercial pilot was fined $3750 for the "gravely" offensive act of hovering his helicopter over the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook.

In a summary of facts read to the court, the Department of Conservation said Ngai Tahu believed the peak was the most sacred of ancestors, from whom Ngai Tahu descend and provide the iwi with its sense of communal identity, solidarity and purpose.

While people with deeply held religious beliefs are justifiably held to be somewhat simple if not deranged, the myths and supernatural ideas of indigenous people like Maori are still given a surprising and patronising respect by those who should know better.

Of course, not all the beliefs of indigenous peoples are given equal credit.

Last week we also had reports from the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea where women have been burned and decapitated because of a belief they were witches and sorcerers.

Why do we protect one belief in law - that ancestors die and come back as mountains - and react in horror to the suggestion indigenous people should be allowed to kill people they think have magical powers which cause death and other harm.

There is good reason to regard all religions and beliefs about the supernatural, indigenous or otherwise, as superstitions. Some are magnificently imaginative superstitions and often understandable in their context, but in the cold hard light of the 21st century knowledge and learning, superstitions nonetheless. They might be laudable attempts to make sense of the human condition but they are products of ignorance and perhaps even cynical manipulations to maintain power and control.

People are, of course, entitled to believe whatever they like but in a secular society we must constantly guard against giving superstitions the protection of the law or cultural reverence.

If Ngai Tahu wants to regard Aoraki Mt Cook as the embodiment of important ancestors, all well and good, but the line should be drawn at any secular authority like the court giving it credibility.

Most Pakeha and probably most Maori regard Aoraki/Mt Cook as an impressive, awe-inspiring mountain but which is essentially a big, snow-covered rock with no supernatural connection with anything. I agree helicopters should not be allowed to hover all over the mountain but not because of any supernatural argument. As for giving Ngai Tahu its sense of community and identity. Really?

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Scientists can't prove Aoraki/ Mt Cook is not an ancestor of Ngai Tahu but they can provide some logical and tested explanations based on provable facts of how the landform arose.

One way of handling belief in the supernatural is to mock it, ridicule it, deride it and then dismiss it. This was the approach of the late Christopher Hitchens and the great American editor and critic Henry Mencken who said the way to deal with superstition was "not to be polite about it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous".

The stridency of these sceptical views, which I so enjoyed and provided so much solace, alas, seems to be going out of fashion. The atheist English philosopher, Alain de Botton, propounds we need to fill the hole left by the death of religion by selecting and "importing a range of ideas and practices from religion into the secular realm".

To religion we should add "any belief in the supernatural".

De Botton's more open approach is followed by many atheists who do not want to throw out the beauty and intelligence evident in the great religious texts or myths just because they no longer share the belief underpinning the works.

Francis Spufford, the author of Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still make Surprising Emotional Sense, calls the ill-tempered atheists and rationalists the new Puritans and says religion is in our DNA.

". . . the gunk the new Atheists scrub at so assiduously is the inevitable matter of human culture, of imagination . . . We'll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should . . . The world cannot be disenchanted."

No it can't but surely we can treat those ancient explanations for the human condition and natural phenomena as wrongheaded superstitions and beliefs which are interesting but don't help much in the modern era.

All they show is every certainty - that God became man, that homosexuality is an abomination in God's eyes, that our ancestors are present in the stars, the mountains and papyrus, that the South Island was fished out of the sea by an ancestor - is soon eroded.

And those who cling to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming logic to the contrary are simply rejecting the freedom and responsibility of knowledge.

- The Press


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