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January 01st 2012 print

Christopher Akehurst

Smoking Out Evil Spirits


Does science believe in evil spirits? That ought to be an easy question.


Of course it doesn’t, nor can scientists—who must test and quantify to hypothesise any “belief” or statement about what is and what isn’t—believe in anything whose existence is not, at least theoretically, empirically demonstrable. Metaphysics is not the business of science.

You would therefore expect the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation to be a pillar of scientific orthodoxy in this regard. Ask a CSIRO scientist whether spirits, good or evil, exist, and surely the answer will be a dismissive no. The S in CSIRO does not stand for superstition. You might even be told that for an enlightened and august body of the CSIRO’s stature to have any truck at all with non-provable beliefs would be unthinkable.

Well, it’s thinkable all right. For the CSIRO, along with all the rest of the right-on and culturally on-message of our nation, has discovered the Aboriginal smoking ceremony. And where Aboriginal matters are concerned, the canon of Western sceptical thought goes out the window and the CSIRO abandons scientific rigour for feel-goodery.

The rubrics of the smoking ceremony are set out in paragraph 3.3 of the CSIRO’s Indigenous Engagement Protocol for Performing a “Welcome to Country” and “Acknowledgement of Country” (November 2010, pdf online here). “The ceremony,” we read, “aims to cleanse the space (of evil spirits) in which the ceremony takes place … ” (does one detect in those brackets a discreet ahem, a touch of discomfiture in the CSIRO hierarchy at having to use the language of folklore?). The paragraph continues: “Given the significant nature of the ceremony, smoking ceremonies” (the writer clearly has no time for elegant variation) “are usually performed at major events.” These include, as defined inter alia in paragraph 2.1, the “opening of a new CSIRO Laboratory or Building”, “major launches of CSIRO publications, reports, policies and programs” and “conferences and forums held or sponsored by CSIRO”.

Imagine the shrieks of protest from within the CSIRO if a service of Christian blessing were proposed at the opening of a new laboratory. And not only from within the CSIRO but from the secular media and the humanists and the Greens and all the other stern invigilators against religion in the public sphere. But perhaps the CSIRO is no longer committed to a purely physical view of science. Perhaps that view is now held to be a “racist” and Eurocentric heresy designed to exclude what cultural relativism tells us are the equally “valid” sacred stories of “oppressed” peoples. Perhaps there is now a CSIRO department devoted to the scientific investigation of spirits. Does it employ theologians? Is computer modelling conducted to try and resolve the conundrum that supposedly defeated the Scholastics of how many angels—angels are spirits and they come in two types, good and evil—can dance on the head of a pin?

A further item in the CSIRO’s indigenous engagement repertoire is the “Welcome to Country”, which, explains paragraph 3.1 of the protocol, “is where the Traditional Custodians welcome people to their Land”. Their land. Is it churlish to ask why other Australians who were born here and whose families may have lived here for generations should be welcomed to their own country? Paragraph 3.1.1 of the protocol high-mindedly states, “One of the most significant practices for all parties is the capacity to show mutual respect for different cultural groups and their practices.” Did the protocol-writers ask themselves what respect a “Welcome to Country” ceremony pays to the cultural group that constitutes the majority of Australians, that pays the bulk of the taxes that fund the CSIRO and without whom there would be no new laboratories to cleanse of evil spirits? Where is the Justice Mordy Bromberg who will find that the feelings of non-Aboriginal Australians are offended by ceremonies that “welcome” them to their own country as though they were blow-ins?

As for the “traditional custodians”, does the CSIRO have any intention of putting its money where its mouth is and handing them the title deeds to its many premises? Would that not be the truly reconciliatory thing to do? Of course if every property where a smoking or related ceremony is held or a plaque “acknowledging” prior Aboriginal custodianship affixed were actually to be returned to its pre-1788 custodians the nation would be in chaos. Science is devoted to imposing order on chaos so perhaps that is the CSIRO’s justification for keeping its property titles safely under lock and key, although the protocol wisely avoids this potentially embarrassing topic.

Paragraph 2.3 of the protocol is “Significant Dates and Indigenous Events to Remember”. The top dates are “Sorry Day” and “(since 1788) Australia Day”, the year helpfully inserted presumably for the benefit of any CSIRO functionary who thinks Australia Day goes back to the dawn of time. Another name for Australia Day is “Survival Day (which is an Indigenous perspective)”. It could be better put but we get the idea. If we’d never had Australia Day there’d be no need for Survival Day. Perhaps the CSIRO would be happier if Captain Phillip had taken his ships elsewhere. 

It is a sad fact of history that stronger or more advanced peoples have always invaded or colonised the lands of those who are weaker. Isn’t that what some of the more recent groups of Aborigines who crossed from the Indonesian archipelago did to those who had arrived before them? It seems unlikely that, once established here, they held sorry days to ease their consciences. Or that the Normans asked a Saxon “Auntie” to welcome them to country at Duke William’s coronation in 1066.

It is what the Normans did do that Australia might emulate. Over not many generations they intermarried with the Saxons to make a new race. Why can’t this happen in Australia? It’s no use reaching for the usual “racism of the masses” explanation. How many impeccably “non-racist” proponents of reconciliation have married Aborigines? How many have Aborigines as friends? How many even know any? For all their professed concern about Aboriginal welfare, those who promote sorry days and smoking ceremonies have obstructed the process by which Aborigines might be reconciled into the community of the majority which, as it was for the Saxons, is their best hope of a decent future. To do so, they intone, would be “genocidal”.

If the CSIRO does not believe in evil spirits, its endorsement of smoking ceremonies is cynical and insulting to Aborigines. A stronger objection is that it reinforces a patronising perception of Aborigines as quaint curios, picturesque Stone Age relics lost in their own dreamtime, a people divorced from the rest of a nation that ought to belong to everyone who lives in it. 

Christopher Akehurst is the former editor of Coast & Country magazine. He wrote the Argus column in Quadrant from 1995 to 2002.