There is a major controversy created by the initiation of construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope project on Mauna Kea, a mountain considered sacred by the Hawaiian people. Some comments on Civil Beat and other media websites about the nature of the controversy have revealed ignorance about the traditional faith of the Hawaiian people.

One commenter shared her perspective that the real issue was the legal obstacle to the telescope found in the conservation zoning status of the land. She noted that the law governing projects in conservation-zoned land prohibit projects with any significant environmental impact. That an 18-story building on 6 acres of land would have a significant impact seemed obvious to her. The violation of the law was equally obvious.

In making her case, however, she said that the issue was not “science versus superstition.” The use of the word “superstition” denigrated the traditional Hawaiian faith and demonstrated a lack of understanding about that faith. In that lapse of awareness and sensitivity, she perpetuated the division created within the Hawaiian community by the introduction of Christianity and the suppression of the traditional Hawaiian faith.


An artists’ depiction of ancient Hawaiian warriors witnessing the power of Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and creator of the Hawaii islands.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park via Flickr

Another commenter supported his perspective with the following statement: “It was science, not the irrational fear of pagan deities and inanimate objects, which brought Polynesians to Hawaii.” This misrepresentation of the Hawaiian faith is stunning.

Yet another commenter shared his perspective in the same “religion versus science” context. He wrote, “What science can tell us about our place in the universe is more honest, in at least the physical sense, than what any religion tells us, be it Christian, Hawaiian, Hindu, Muslim or Zoroastrian.”

First, he lumped all religions together as if they all share the same characteristics. The five religions he listed are quite diverse and divergent from each other in their character.

Relevant to the telescope discussion, the Hawaiian faith is science-based. The faith of the Hawaiian people is founded on the four Gods: the Sun, the Ocean, the Land and the Fresh Water. Those elements create and support life, including providing the food that keeps humans alive. Hawaiians worshipped food. That is why the true center of the Hawaiian faith is the Pu’uhonua, the protected area where growing food to feed the people was the primary kuleana or responsibility.

The Hawaiian religion was the practice of the individual implementing that faith into daily life. That practice was based on a highly sophisticated understanding of the natural world based on more than 1,000 years of observation. The traditional Hawaiians understood more about the physical world than the Europeans who reached the islands, because achieving that understanding was a spiritual practice and obligation. That understanding was very much grounded in knowing “our place in the universe.”

In the Hawaiian cosmology, the spirit world was just as real as the physical world precisely because the spirit world reflected the Hawaiian understanding of the physical. Pele’s moods reflect the observations of Pele’s behavior. Accepting that connection between the physical and the spiritual gave the Hawaiians information and insights that are foreclosed to those who believe that science excludes a belief in realms science cannot measure with experiments that can be replicated.

The same commenter wrote, “Religion, originally, performed some of the same functions that science does: it offered explanations about who we are and where we came from.”

The Kumulipo — the Hawaiian creation chant — is a textbook on evolution long before Darwin presented that concept. In the Hawaiian practice, all life forms that came before Humans are ancestors. That is simply the logic of evolution. To honor that history, the Hawaiians included ancestor worship in their spiritual practice. Hawaiians had no problem understanding who they were or where they came from.

For a more thorough examination of the place for the Hawaiian faith and religion in today’s discussion, I would encourage everyone to read the “Temple of Lono and Hale O Papa Statement” found at in the section titled “Protecting the Sacred Mountain.”

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About the Author

  • Lanny Sinkin
    Lanny Sinkin is an attorney in federal practice. His cases include suing the U.S. Navy to prevent their testing sonar on Whales, challenging NASA's use of plutonium on deep space missions, pursuing a racketeering case against the covert operators in the Iran-contra scandal, and defending Lakota Tribe members at Standing Rock.