In a curiously timed release, the National Party has let us know that Labour Party leader David Shearer thinks that taniwha ought to be respected. Oh ha ha ha, isn’t he silly, etc.
The usual suspects are coming up with two lines of criticism. First, it’s absurd to believe in taniwha, and second, how come we aren’t allowed to be rude about belief in taniwha when we ridicule Christian belief all the time.
The fist criticism conflates two sets of attitudes about taniwha. One can believe in taniwha, or one can respect, or at least tolerate, other people’s belief in taniwha. Personally, I don’t believe in taniwha, or elves, or the Norse gods, or the Christian god, or all sorts of other things, but I can see that other people believe in these entities, and even more than that, that they order their lives by reference to their beliefs. So while I may not believe their belief, I’m prepared to tolerate it, to the extent that it doesn’t cause harm. That’s a fairly standard move in liberal thinking.
I’ll even go a step further than that. When it comes to many indigenous beliefs, I’ll take the view that if there is a legend or a belief about spirits, or monsters, or blessings, or whatever, then it may actually encode other important knowledge, such as hidden water currents, or seasons of the year, or degrees of genetic relationship that lead to appalling birth defects, or whatever. So there is good reason for the belief, even if the way that the reason is communicated can seem very odd to someone from a different cultural background.
Or those beliefs may encode important information about who has guardianship duties, or property rights, or ethical duties, within a particular land area, or cultural grouping, or whatever. The beliefs are a way of structuring lives. And as such, they need to be respected.
So when David Shearer says that he respects belief in taniwha, he is doing exactly what a clear thinking liberal ought to do – acknowledging the reality of the belief, and its importance, even though it may not be a belief he holds himself. It’s a straightforward difference between believing a belief, and respecting a belief, and any liberal thinker, or indeed any thinking person ought to be able to grasp the difference.
So much for the first claim.
But what about the second claim, that Maori beliefs are sacrosanct, while Christian beliefs are ridiculed?
This is simply not true. Maori beliefs are routinely trampled over in this country. Witness the current furore over taniwha.
And 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.
David Shearer has got this one exactly right.