By skepticlawyer

I don’t normally go around pimping other people’s stuff independent of our Saturday chit-chat threads, but this short essay on the difference between respecting beliefs you don’t share and giving those beliefs force of law is so good it deserves a wider audience.

It had its genesis in this advisory from Te Papa (the National Museum of New Zealand):

Te Papa storeroom tours

A behind the scenes tour of Te Papa’s collection stores and collection management systems
Te Papa, 10:30am- 2:30pm, Friday 5th November 2010
Places are limited to 7 people

A chance for Local regional museums to visit various Te Papa store rooms and meet the collection managers of:
– The Taonga M?ori collection – Lisa Ward, Moana Parata, Noel Osborne
– Photography and new media – Anita Hogan
– Works on paper – Tony Mackle
– Textiles – Tania Walters

Conditions of the tour:
* No photographs are to be taken of the taonga, however some images can be made available.
* There is to be no kai (food or drink) taken into the collection rooms.
* Wahine who are either hapü (pregnant) or mate wähine (menstruating) are welcome to visit at another time that is convenient for them.
* We start our visits with karakia and invite our manuhiri to participate.

Who is it for?
– This tour is for representatives from small museums, art galleries, heritage organisations, the arts and cultural sector or iwi organisations.

The tapu attached to Maori Taonga (in this case, items that have been used to kill, often in warfare) is a common one in many non-monotheistic cultures. Those of you in my Bring Laws and Gods reading circle will know that a similar tapu attached to a Roman legionary standard. It is an argument that objects used for a certain purpose can have their own spirit or power (often called mana in the South Pacific). For those classicists among our readership, the analogous Roman concept is numen.

For further background (and, incidentally, a wonderful account of why people get piddled off with the media), start with this post, then go onto the essay I’ve flagged. Money quote:

In order for this policy to work, and remember, this is a policy for a national museum that is open to everyone, you have to believe that taonga have a spirit which can affect pregnant and menstruating women. Women are asked to stay away, not out of respect for the culture, but because the spirits really do exist.

At that point, the state institution has moved from asking people to respect a particular culture’s beliefs, to actually believing them. At that point, through Te Papa’s policy, the state is imposing a particular religious belief on people.

Now before I, or anyone else, starts shrieking, “Taliban! Taliban!” it’s worth remembering that there are absolutely no consequences to refusing to take on the belief about spirits in taonga, and very few consequences for failing to act in accordance with the belief. Requiring people to believe in the spirits is a long way removed from the way in which the Taliban has attempted to impose its beliefs on people. To be sure, it is a difference of degree, not kind, but it is a difference of degree so great that for most purposes, it is a difference of kind.

Nevertheless, Te Papa explained their instruction to pregnant and menstruating women not to come on the grounds that the women might be harmed by the spirits of the taonga. That explanation is the beginnings of the state imposing beliefs on its citizens.

There a few other things going on here that resonate for me, which I’ll flag for completeness, if nothing else.

Doing the necessary comparative religion research for Bring Laws and Gods has forced me to engage with the ways in which religious traditions both resemble and differ from each other, as well as highlighting their strengths and weaknesses (yes, I’m unafraid to make value judgments on that; spot the Enlightenment liberal).

As a general rule, the paganisms are much better at religious tolerance and sexual diversity. Women have a generally higher status. They are, however, weak on care for the poor and (especially) the disabled. Monotheisms are poor at religious tolerance and sexual diversity. Women have generally lower status (with the important but partial exception of Judaism). They have an ethic of compassion and care, however, that is probably the origin of all modern progressivism, from early Church charitable movements to Marx to the Beveridge report and everything else in between.

I think — intellectually — that I’m more on the pagan side than on the monotheist side, and that’s only partly because the welfare state doesn’t work very well.

There is another crucial take-home point, however.

All of it is bollocks, for which there is not a shred of empirical evidence. Just because the bollocks in this case is coming from a religious tradition that doesn’t as a general rule seek to impose itself on others doesn’t make it any less bollocks. Just because it is coming from a group that has historically been oppressed, rather than doing the oppressing, doesn’t make it any less bollocks. Cultural bollocks from the South Pacific is every bit as much bollocks as the current claims for the miraculous emanating from the Vatican.

It’s a good idea to keep that in mind.



  1. Posted October 18, 2010 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo has an interesting take on one aspect of this issue:


  2. Posted October 18, 2010 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Skeptic Lawyer. I thought it was an easy point to understand (i.e. respecting belief vs compelling belief), but evidently not, given the furore in New Zealand over it all.

  3. TerjeP
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    When I visited Uluru I climbed the rock. I don’t share the indigenous beliefs about the rock. If they said climbing is not permitted I wouldn’t have climbed the rock, however it would have been out of respect for property rights not religious beliefs. On the whole I don’t respect superstition even if it is called religion. I tolerate it which is something different.

  4. TerjeP
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    p.s. I can respect people without respecting their beliefs.

  5. KiwiInOz
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Oh dear. My home country is normally more secular and sensible than this.

  6. Posted October 18, 2010 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    women might be harmed by the spirits of the taonga

    Sounds like some waiver absolving the woo from any resultant harm might be worth trying, not unlike the waivers signed by experimental subjects, or the software licenses that indemnify producers from consequential damage of using the software.

    I’m imagining the case of a young teen girl, getting weird cramps for the first time, innocent of knowing what is happening in her body, who gets her first period inside the exhibition. So, good faith by the girl, the woo purveyors unable to reject any claim of extra pain and suffering caused by their woo: is there a duty of care to give a quick diagnostic (perhaps in interview, palpation or quick hormone level test) to all girls in the demographic, and if so, who should pay for such procedures? If there is a claim of extra pain, who should the girl sue?

    An alternative for a state-funded museum is to say “ok, if your woo can be so dangerous, then we don’t support your exhibition, and perhaps it’s best for public welfare that destroy such harmful things, that will supposedly die out when there are no more believers, by carrying out a public service campaign to eradicate the risk of infection by such memes, akin to the destruction of smallpox”.

    SL: Lorenzo’s story is shocking. Such a rabbi should be questioned (remembering Josephus in the cellar) about what those in concentration camps who pushed their fellows into gas chambers should have done instead, perhaps protest so much they themselves were shot, or committed suicide. (One /could/ regard such rabbinical statements implying the nonsense of his own woo by reductio ad absurdam.)

  7. derrida derider
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    There is a difference, too, between respecting a belief and respecting the feelings of those who hold a belief – ie good manners.

    On utlitiarian grounds I personally would honour the prohibition, and indeed were I the collection curator would impose it, assuming that there are still Maori about who genuinely hold the belief. But whether caretaker or visitor it doesn’t change my private scorn for the superstition, and were I the caretaker I’d be more careful in my phrasing.

  8. Posted October 18, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    I think we’ve gone too far with good manners when it comes to religion (all of it, not just ‘home grown’ versions like this). It is probably time to at least snicker publicly at piffle, purely on the grounds that it pour encourager les autres.

  9. Posted October 18, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: as I’ve said before, forget the sniggers, ask people to put their bodies where their beliefs are. Concious patients either sign an affirmation that woo cannot affect health, or treatment is limited to woo only. We can snigger at the stats for conversion to unbelief.

    I wonder how many orthodox jewish and moslem diabetics dealt with the time when porcine insulin was the only insulin available.

    Posted October 18, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    With anthropology, history, teleology and meataphysics but a short way away, must say I lean a little dd’s way.
    Live and let live.
    The fact that a number of people did or did not take place in certain types of (evolving) ceremonies is actually very interesting from the socscience perspective and cognitive archeologies of time and space. Wish I had a thousand years and twenty or thirty spare iq points, to be able to trace all the behavioural threads, including mediated through factors like climate, population growth, historical accidents and the like.
    The genesis of your terseness, apart from this nasty bug, probably lies in the form that some events took place and what the significance of the forms indicates.
    It could be possible to read into sociocultural action,a traceable strain of “patriarchy”, for example, in some of these examples.
    Is “patriarchy” a conscious thing or something merely phenomenal that grows out of material conditions and variability of location across time. Given relativity and contingency, its impossible to render a final judgement, what if there are certain variables we are yet to identify?
    As to condemnation, its a subjective thing- when we came down out of the trees we weren’t given a road map, we’ve only had the one chance. Perhaps also useful to see things as processive, in ways we don’t fully understand yet.
    Hasn’t human evolution been hit and miss; twenty-twenty in hindsight is too easy.
    Perhaps with the now palpable reality of history as a perspective to learn from, things can change from this point in a less random and more conscious way for humanity.
    btw, hope you and your blokes bugs are easing for you.

  11. Posted October 18, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Dave, to do what you suggests requires snickering first, that’s the problem. Only then do we get to the legal waiver stage 🙂

    Interestingly, Mark has written a thoughtful but somewhat unclear post on the Mary MacKillop canonisation over at LP. His assertions linking Hobbes to broader Protestant anti-clericalism are too sweeping (Protestants had their miracles too), but the concerns are real and valid. And I must admit I hate journos interviewing one another over the top of anything — it could be tiddlywinks.


    My comment (in response to lots of angst in the thread) was as follows:

    I suggested Mark write about this topic on Facebook (I don’t mind outing myself, Mark), and because I’m not in Australia at the moment, I haven’t witnessed the vacuous reporting he mentions, but I don’t doubt that it’s been going on. A few observations:

    1. When a proposition struggles to make out its first principles — as all religions do — then criticism based on that point (which both Dawkins and Hitchens engage in) has to be taken seriously.

    2. Dawkins does not grasp either paganism or Buddhism; this is a fair criticism. He makes point 1 beautifully, but struggles to understand traditions that don’t care very much about point 1.

    3. It is worth looking at the social effects of different religions. Paganism and eastern religions are better at tolerance. The monotheisms have had a terrible historical problem with intolerance. All of these things are worthy of investigation. None of them involves a consideration of point 1.

    4. Recruiting the Oz media to run an ad campaign for one’s ‘brand’ of monotheism is not likely to solve the intolerance problem in the long term; like most celebrations of celebrity, it is also likely to get out of hand. Once something has been ceded to popular culture, then it’s damned difficult to reclaim it.

    5. Maybe this is a good thing. Who knows?

  12. Patrick
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    That’s fine, Dave, but only if you agree to the same dichotomy: you either accept religion’s crucial role in human development, or you swear off any medicines developed by devoutly religious scientists and swear of any treatment administered by devoutly religious nuns, nurses and doctors.

    That may restrict your options somewhat and be utterly ridiculous and not even internally consistent, but hey, looking at your idea the above is a model of rationality…

    And that’s before taking into account the positive benefits of prayer for the devout – you can think of it as a variety of meditation if you like, but there is no doubt that a devout person who is gravely sick will often feel much relieved by prayer, especially group prayer. Why do you care if you think that the beliefs underpinning his/her relief are nonsense? Does that make the relief less real?

    You have doubtlessly felt relieved before after taking medication that with hindsight might have been thought a mere placebo, but that didn’t diminish your relief.

  13. Posted October 19, 2010 at 3:50 am | Permalink

    My understanding is that all the relevant studies done of prayer indicate that it doesn’t do anything, and may be slightly negative if the sick person doesn’t recover and finds out that they’ve been prayed for:


  14. Posted October 21, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    If prayer worked, we would behave differently.

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