Amongst renewed calls to close the climb of Uluru (Ayer's Rock), citing, primarily, cultural sensitivies and safety concerns, I think it's worthwhile to just take a look at what we all seem to think are valid beliefs worthy of public respect and debate.
H.L. Mencken once said, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." With this in mind, let's look at the beliefs of the Anangu people, the present "owners" of that big-arse rock.
"Uluru and Kata Tjuta provide physical evidence of feats performed during the creation period. [The indiginous tribe] Anangu are the direct descendants of these [ancestral] beings and are responsible for the protection and appropriate management of these ancestral lands," or so says a government Web site.
This story, while fascinating, has as much chance of being true as the biblical story of six-day Creation (Gen 1) or the quranic story of humans being made from a blood clot (Sura 96).
To what extent must we "respect" people's beliefs? To the extent that we return a big rock to their traditional name of "Earth Mother" (the literal translation of 'Uluru')? Sure. Why not.
To the extent that we nod and smile as the devout recite their mythology at you? Possibly, though I'm personally not inclined to do so.
To the extent that we elect not to climb a mountain or rock that they think is somehow sacred? Now we're bordering on pandering.
How about to the extent that we present their mythology as factual on a government Web site? Hell no.
Imagine seeing quotes from Revelations on the home page of the Minister for Defence. (http://www.minister.defence.gov.au/category/smith/). Would our obligation of respect extend to Stephen Smith's Roman Catholic beliefs? How about, say, quranic references on the attorney-General's site?
Here's what really happened with Uluru, more-or-less: about 500 million years ago, a big rock was formed by natural processes. 499.96 million years after that, a family walked over from Kenya into the Northern Territory and said, "Woah, that's one big rock! It must totally be sacred!"
Yes, they found it. This wasn't meticulously built like St Paul's Cathedral, nor carefully excavated like Petra -- both of which I would totally climb if I could get away with it -- no, a nomadic tribe was walking along and there it was. And at 360m (1,181ft) high and 3Km (1.86mi) wide, "discovering" it couldn't have been much of a chore.
This subject is woefully one-sided in every story I've ever read about it. A recent CNNgo story by Chantal Abitbol talked about "disrespect," about calls for closure of the climb, even one person who was quoted as enjoying the climb qualified her statement with, "...at what cost to the Aborigines, I don't know." There's nothing in the piece on the opposing notion: That the Anangu people might just be behaving like toddlers who don't want to share.
When you get to Uluru, you get a brochure on why you shouldn't climb it, but where are the brochures on why you should? It's taller than the Eiffel Tower, taller than the spire on the Chrysler Building, taller than Sydney Tower and triple the length of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And we don't climb it because the Anangu people think it's hollow and contains the energy source that began the Dreamtime! Seriously?
We should climb it because we can. It's very big, and we're explorers. It's the one 'mountain' that the average Joe can climb without any real risk. Our explorer gene is what got us -- all of us -- out of Kenya in the first place. We like taller, higher, faster, longer, stronger. To deny people the privilege of such a life-changing experience would be a far greater wrong than ignoring the manufactured, far-flung imaginations of what was an illiterate, superstitious nomadic tribe when the story was concocted, not unlike the illiterate superstitions of the nomadic Israelites of Iron-age Palestine. Uluru is far-and-away THE best vantagepoint from which we can absorb the majesty of the Sunburnt Country.
As to the safety concerns, are we really going to quibble over 37 clumsy, fat people who couldn't manage a brisk walk? If 100,000 people have been climbing the rock every year since 1958 (and the number hit 400,000 in 2000), that makes the fatality rate a nail-biting 0.0007%, making it almost as dangerous as crossing the street or baking a cake. And the truth is even more lame than that: there has only been one death in the last eleven years.
In contrast, Mt Everest's fatality rate is four orders of magnitude higher than Earth Mother and is every bit as sacred for the people indigenous to the area (they call it Chomolangma, "Holy Mother"), yet it stays open, weather permitting, for those who wish to attempt the climb.
Now don't go telling me I'm anti-reconciliation. This is about the automatic position of respect that we're all obliged to have for the most non-sensical ideas. Mention one silly aspect of Judaism and you're immediately branded an anti-semite. Quote something unsavoury from the quran and you're Islamophobic. And, in Australia, if you fail to nod politely when an indigenous Australian says they're the direct descendent of the Ancestral Beings who created Uluru, then you're anti-reconciliation. These are separate issues and should be discussed separately. No other religion in Australia is presented as factual on a government Web site.
So, in the wise and immortal words of Johann Hari, "I respect you, as a human being, too much to respect your ludicrous superstitions."