Spirituality and Sacred Space of Astronomers and Hypocrisy

Spirituality and Sacred Space of Astronomers and Hypocrisy

It is clear from an editorial in the Honolulu Star Advertiser (July 9, 2015) by H. Gerald Staub titled “Imagine mutual respect and accommodation on Mauna Kea” that many astronomers viewing the cosmos have profound spiritual experiences and a sense of the sacred. If astronomers can experience spirituality and sacredness looking millions to billions of miles through space and millions to billions of years back through time, then it would seem that they could appreciate and respect the spirituality and sacredness of Mauna Kea which is so immediately present in space and time. If so, surely they must be conflicted in favoring the TMT which would inevitably desecrate the sacred mountain of Mauna Kea from the perspective of the Native Hawaiian protectors and others.

Usually it is hard for scientists to openly admit any adherence to religious or spiritual beliefs, values, and practices, although some do as made clear in the book The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words edited by Nancy K. Frankenberry. One of the scientists featured in this book is the Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996). Among other accomplishments, he is famous for his role in the documentary film series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage on PBS television in 1980. As just one example, Sagan drafted an open letter signed by 32 Nobel laureates and other scientists which concludes that: “As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect” (Frankenberry 2008:223). (Of related interest are works by Puhipau, et al., 2005, Swimme and Berry 1992, Swimme and Tucker 2011a,b, and Vendetti 2015).

Consequently, the question arises: How can astronomers pursue their own spirituality and sacred space in the universe while simultaneously denying that of Native Hawaiians who are trying to protect Mauna Kea and pursue their own spirituality and sacred space? Any denial by some astronomers can only be the height of hypocrisy.

References Cited

Frankenberry, Nancy K., ed., 2008, The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Puhipau, et al., 2005, Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege [50 minutes, full film available free online]  http://oiwi.tv/oiwitv/mauna-kea-temple-under-siege/.

Sagan, Carl, et al., 1980, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Arlington, VA: PBS Television/KECT/Sagan Productions, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) [13 episodes, 60 minutes each].  https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLBA8DC67D52968201

Staub, H. Gerald, 2015 (July 9), “Imagine mutual respect and accommodation on Mauna Kea,” Honolulu Star Advertiser.

Swimme, Brian, and Thomas Berry, 1992, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins.

Swimme, Brian, and Mary Evelyn Tucker, 2011a, Journey of the Universe: The Epic Story of Cosmic, Earth and Human Transformation, Mill Valley, CA: Northcutt Productions [DVD, 58 minutes], http://www.JourneyoftheUniverse.org.

_____, 2011b, Journey of the Universe: The Epic Story of Cosmic, Earth and Human Transformation, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Vendetti, Tom, 2015, The Quietest Place on Earth [Haleakala, Maui, DVD 58 minutes] http://www.thequietestplaceonearthfilm.com/

Leslie E. Sponsel


Sacred banyon tree and spirit house in Bangkok, Thailand.

Dr. Leslie Sponsel; Sacred banyan tree and spirit house in Bangkok, Thailand.

Leslie E. Sponsel earned the BA in Geology fromIndiana University (1965), and the MA (1973) and PhD (1981) in Biological and Cultural Anthropology from Cornell University. Over the last four decades he has taught at seven universities in four countries, two as a Fulbright Fellow. In 1981 he joined the Anthropology faculty at the University of Hawai’i to develop and direct the Ecological Anthropology Program. His courses include Ecological Anthropology, Environmental Anthropology, Anthropology of Religion, Spiritual Ecology, Sacred Places, Anthropology of Buddhism, Ethics in Anthropology, and Anthropology of War and Peace. Although retired since August 2010, he teaches one or two courses annually and devotes the rest of his time to research and publications.

 From 1974 to 1981 Sponsel conducted several trips to the Venezuelan Amazon to study human ecology with the Yanomami and other indigenous societies. Almost yearly since 1986 Sponsel has made research trips to Thailand to study various aspects of Buddhist ecology and environmentalism together with his wife, Dr. Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, retired from Chaminade University of Honolulu. In recent years their work in northern Thailand has focused on exploring sacred caves.

 Among Sponsel’s extensive publications are more than two dozen journal articles, three dozen book chapters, 29 entries in seven different scientific encyclopedias, and two edited and two co-edited books. Henceforth he will focus on publishing other books integrating his previous articles and chapters on several different subjects as well as on developing the Research Institute for Spiritual Ecology (RISE) and its website: http://spiritualecology.info/rise-2/.

Also see faculty homepage:


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