To its protectors it serves as a temple, a place set aside where the world as they know and worship it began.
Places of creation are made sacred by what happened there and the power from beyond that continues to wield its force for those who respect them and against those who profane them.
To worshippers, profanation brings lethal consequences. That’s why profanation of a sacred place can be a cause of especially determined opposition, even cause for war.
Religion is an abstraction when spoken of in general terms. We think we know it when we see it, but it exists before our eyes even when we are blind to it. It is the source of the most intense emotion human beings are capable of.
In the service of their deities, humans have sacrificed themselves in a transaction they believe will have ultimate consequences. Theologian Paul Tillich identified religion as “ultimate concern,” what human beings live by and are willing to die for.
Religions, on the other hand, are particular and distinct cultural practices, handed on from generation to generation.
They serve a societal purpose, binding a self- identified group together in shared activities called rituals. No nation can exist without its holidays and enactments.
So, what is happening on Mauna Kea — and Haleakala — in the most basic religious terms?
I would argue that the rising religion of the Western world is science, which means “knowledge.” Gods reveal knowledge when experts perform prescribed practices.
Religious knowledge is believed to protect and maintain society, which is why it is defended so fiercely.
At Mauna Kea and Haleakala, we see the old pattern repeating itself: an invasive power is building its temples — telescopes — in the sacred space of the kanaka maoli.
The new religion promises to reveal ultimate truth about the origin of the world by connecting astronomers to the heavens at or near the time of the creation of the universe.
This truth will be told in myth — cosmogeny — to all of us by the priesthood that discovers it. To scientists, the motivation for building the telescopes is to access and surpass any knowledge revealed by older divinities.
Protest is not war, but if the Mauna Kea protectors were more numerous, the struggle would probably be violent. What is most important in our brave new search for ultimate truth is that scientists recognize that they are engaging in an intensely tribal need to impose their version of truth and power upon another.
Before building telescopes on top of mountains in Hawaii and Chile (where natives also consider them sacred), scientists need to appreciate how ultimate the attachment to sacred places is.
The Polynesians accomplished astounding feats powered and sustained by their religion. They traveled farther on vast oceans and preserved their deeds in the most impressive oral genealogies known.
Respecting sacred places is essential to maintaining peace between peoples. Before building telescopes, scientists need to hear the protectors and negotiate the co-existence of new and old in the same space.
Decades ago a proposal to run a cable car to the top of Mount Sinai was narrowly defeated.
Mauna Kea is no less sacred to the protectors than Sinai is to monotheists.”