It’s common for people to mock the spiritual beliefs of others. I am not a big believer in sky fairies, river gods or underground demons, so it’s all to easy for me to fall into the trap of ridiculing the absurd beliefs of other people.
But in a tolerant society we allow people to hold whatever silly beliefs they want, so long as those beliefs aren’t harmful to others. So, for example, people who won’t get their kids immunised because they worry about the risk of autism, deserve to be ridiculed and shamed. Teachers and educationalists who disbelieve in evolution and think the Earth was created in six days have no place anywhere near a school science curriculum. Politicians who make policy based on what the Bible or Koran instructs should be hounded out of office.
But if a group of people want to believe that monsters live in our waterways, then let them.
Labour’s leader David Shearer has been attacked this week for appearing to believe in taniwha. The attacks have come from the right after Patrick Gower broke a story
about the content of Shearer’s university thesis 25 years ago.
Labour Party leader David Shearer has long-held beliefs that taniwha must be respected when it comes to Maori and their interests in water. His views can be traced back to his master’s thesis, and he stands by them today.
Water has been the big political issue of the year, but when Mr Shearer was first asked who owned it he didn’t know.
But it turns out Mr Shearer has a degree of expertise on the issue – a master’s thesis in fact. It was called Between Two Worlds, Maori Values and Environmental Decision-Making.
In his thesis he advocated that “the belief in taniwha or spiritual pollution…while they may appear irrational to many…cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant”. It’s a belief he still holds today.
Gower’s story was leapt upon by opponents of Labour, who claimed it showed that Shearer either believes in taniwha, or at least thinks taniwha belief should be taken more seriously than it deserves. It is also being claimed that a double standard exists, because many on the left have mocked John Banks for his belief that the story of the Earth’s creation in the Book of Genesis should be taken literally, while those people at the same time are now defending the rights of Maori to believe in taniwha.
In Banks’ case some of the mockery possibly crossed the line, although I still personally find it troubling that a minster with responsibilities in a number of important policy areas (including education) is so ready to utterly ignore the obvious. What did he do when as mayor of Auckland he visited the museum and saw all those dinosaur bones? Close his eyes and pretend they weren’t there? People are entitled to worry about the potential impact Banks’ creationist beliefs might have on education policy.
In contrast, it’s difficult to see how a belief in taniwha causes anyone any harm. There is a belief in talkback-land that Maori will say and do anything if it gets them compensation, and that all this talk of river monsters is just another way of extorting money from the government. That attitude belittles Maori beliefs, and borders on being racist.
I haven’t read Shearer’s thesis (I’m not sure who in the media has, other than Gower), but Shearer doesn’t appear to have said anything particularly controversial. Contrary to what some people have claimed, Shearer has not stated that he believes in taniwha. All he appears to have said is that Maori spiritual beliefs should be respected when environmental decisions are being made.
If this seems objectionable to some, then consider that we already structure much of our lives around Christian spiritual values, even those of us who don’t believe in the Christian god. Deborah Russell explains:
…we pay a huge amount of respect to Christian beliefs. Christian leaders are invited to pray at our festivals, such as at Anzac Day ceremonies, we structure our work week around the Christian holy day (Sunday), we have public holidays for the two major Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter, our parliamentary sessions open with a prayer to the Christian god. If this is not respect for Christian beliefs, I don’t know what is.
So all David Shearer has done is demonstrate that he is a decent man who respects the spiritual beliefs of others, even if he doesn’t share them. It doesn’t seem particularly controversial that when planners make environmental decisions they should consult widely and take heed of the views of others. That includes Maori.
It’s worrying though, that many supposedly-intelligent commentators cannot understand the difference between believing something is true, and respecting a person’s right to believe something is true.