For over a month now, thousands of Native Hawaiians have been protecting the sacred mountain, Mauna Kea, against the Thirty Meter Telescope. One persistent but inaccurate charge against the mountain’s protectors is that they are enemies of science, obstinately clinging to their religion — or, as some put it, their “superstitions.”

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Native Hawaiians know that “religion” and “science,” as uttered in American public life, are terms alien to indigenous people, who have not traditionally compartmentalized their lives in that way. Besides, as Native Hawaiian scholars point out, their people were navigating by the stars and practicing sustainable agriculture when Christian Europe was punishing its scientists as heretics.

Although misplaced, the charge of opposing science is hard to budge because it’s weighted by two heavy anchors — one is colonialism; the other is a division in white America between those who cultural capital is invested, respectively, in science or religion.

For centuries, Euro-Christians have told themselves that indigenous people are primitive and backward, which became a justification for conquest and colonization. Within this mindset, the resistance of Native Hawaiians to the TMT only confirms the righteousness of subordinating indigenous culture to American government, science, and business interests.

Circle of Supporters opposed to TMT form a large circle to chant and sing.

Opponents of the TMT form a large circle to chant and sing on the mauna, July 14.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The other anchor, which seems quite different but is actually connected, is the intra-white schism that first boiled over the Scopes creationism trial of 1925 (the so-called “monkey trial”) and is still with us a century later. Under new names, creationism lives on, and now is amplified by other forms of science denial, like the rejection of vaccinations and the refusal to acknowledge climate change.

Racial hierarchy is the link between the two. That’s obvious in the case of colonialism, which has typically been inflicted by white people on people who are black or brown. What’s not as well recognized is that the science-religion divide among whites is also entangled with racial hierarchy.

Enabling Colonialism

In the early 20th century, many evolutionists (including scientists who testified at the Scopes trial) supported racist eugenics, while many white creationists rejected evolution because it implied the equality and unity of humans as a single species. The imagery of monkeys, recurrent on both sides of the conflict, has always encoded the racialized dimension of this conflict.

Evolutionists like journalist H.L. Mencken called white creationists “primates” and “Neanderthals;” creationists like William Jennings Bryan derided evolutionists as monkeys. The Anglo-American conflict about science became a battle over who was more civilized, moral, intelligent, human – in other words, more “white.” And every subsequent battle between religion and science has been imprinted with the racial hierarchy that enables colonialism abroad and structural racism at home.

The fact that the religion versus science trope is so embedded in Anglo-America tells us that the conflict somehow benefits whites on both sides. It benefits white fundamentalist Christians, who claim to be the only American religion worthy of the name and have no interest in acknowledging that most Americans are not Christian fundamentalists and are not opposed to science.

“For centuries, Euro-Christians have told themselves that indigenous people are primitive and backward.”

It also benefits those scientists who authorize their own expertise precisely in opposition to religion. Religion, supposedly, is subjective, emotional, and local, while science is objective and universal.

If there is no such thing as religion that can dialogue with science, then science can dismiss religion and religious people. And religion can return the favor by disregarding scientific evidence — for example, evidence that the Earth is far more than 6,000 years and that humans are indeed related to each other and to all forms of life.

The historic events at Mauna Kea challenge, all at once, colonial power, racial hierarchy, and the fracturing of knowledge into weaponized bits. It is the resurgence both of an ancient nation and of ancient way of knowing that blends mind and heart, land and ocean, learning and love.

Non-indigenous people, for whatever progress we have made, have plainly brought more of catastrophe to our world. It’s time to listen and learn from our indigenous sisters and brothers, who may know more about knowing than we do.

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