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Why are atheists supportive of the Uluru climb ban?

November 5, 2017

This past week the traditional owners of Uluru (Ayers Rock) in central Australia voted to ban people climbing upon the rock.

Many have been very positive about this move, including many atheists. For example, Clementine Ford, a speaker at the upcoming Global Atheist Convention, tweeted:

It appears many atheists (and those on the ‘left’ of politics) are enthusiastic about this move.

Personally I was quite happy with the decision and I support it. I love a good climb and when my wife and I visited Uluru a number of years ago we refrained from joining the hordes of tourists clambering to climb the rock and instead elected to walk around this fascinating monolith. The walk around the base of Uluru was enjoyable and rewarding. And I was satisfied to respect the wishes and spiritual concerns of the traditional owners.

Atheist Counter arguments to the ban

However I was intrigued when I saw some of the the responses of other atheists to this decision. I felt that they raised valid and interesting counter points. For example to Clementine Ford’s tweet, one responded with:

He went on…

and more…

@Neutron2261 raises some interesting thoughts..

Uluru is a natural feature

Indeed, as Neutron2261 and others pointed out, Uluru is a natural feature in the ‘outback’. It doesn’t actually ‘belong’ to anyone in quite the same way as other religious or spiritual spaces. Moreover, unlike cathedrals, mosques or temples it is not a site constructed especially for ‘spiritual’ reflection or worship (ironically one can climb famous cathedrals and mosques!)

Hence it is intriguing that an atheist is satisfied with a group banning people from climbing a rock – a natural feature – to respect ‘super’ natural beliefs.

On the homepage of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) it claims:

We can understand why primitive cultures believed that invisible beings controlled what we now call the elements and natural phenomena. With access to factual knowledge, there is now no excuse for believing in gods, fairies or any supernatural concept.

The AFA believes that is ‘no excuse’ for believing in ‘any supernatural concept’, presumably like sacred sites – will they oppose this decision? Encourage the owners to consider the rights and desires of those who visit this national icon? Surely someone should have the ‘right’ to climb a natural feature in Australia – a secular nation?

Yet the fact that atheists are supportive of climbing a natural feature seems puzzlingly inconsistent.

Freedom, Equality and discrimination

This raises the tricky dilemma of competing worldviews. One worldview – the atheist one – suggests that ‘it’s just a rock, a natural feature’, yet the alternative – the one of the traditional owners – believe that it is a ‘sacred’ site with spiritual significance. The atheist view would suggest that it’s fine to climb whereas the traditional indigenous view says it shouldn’t be climbed.

So which worldview wins?

There is no easy answer. And this challenges the maxim that you can believe what you want as long as it doesn’t harm or impinge others. The decision of the traditional owners clearly does impact on the freedoms of the many thousands of tourists who visit Uluru each year.

One commenter from The Age nailed this challenge:

If you choose not to climb Uluru because of your own beliefs, that is your decision.

Telling other people not to climb is religious overreach.

I don’t like the idea of religious groups not allowing certain people to get married, and a climbing ban is an imposition of one persons belief system on others.

Exactly. This decision could be seen as discriminatory as it imposes certain restrictions on many (the many tourists) based on the spiritual convictions of some.

As Neutron2261 raises, could a similar argument be mounted against abortion? That based on the spiritual conviction of some that a fetus is human, prevents some exercising their ‘rights’? Or similarly against Same Sex Marriage – that the spiritual conviction of a few should impact the many who don’t share that conviction and are denied an experience that they would like?

In a land which prizes itself on being young and ‘free’, this decision is one which inhibits freedom to access a natural feature. Hence my question: why are atheists supportive of this decision?

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3 Comments
  1. There is nothing inconsistent between being an atheist and respecting someone else’s beliefs. I think there is a big difference between being an atheist and a disrespectful pratt.

  2. Tara Marshall permalink

    Considering that the Native people of Australia we’e subject to genocide for decades, I say we let them decide what to do with what remains of their own land. I don’t have to agree with their decision to support their right to make it. And yes, I am an Atheist… but I’m also part Native American, which may very well cause me to hold seemingly disparate beliefs on the subject.

  3. People are entitled to their spiritual and religious beliefs but they should not impose them on others. If people do not want to climb for spiritual reasons, fine. Those who do not share the beliefs should be free to climb. There is a public amenity benefit. The only harm is to one group’s sensibilities. Atheists who support the ban are inconsistent: another example of cultural relativism.

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