Rules Are for Schmucks: Religion Run Amok in Hawaii

Astronomical observatory atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Sometimes it seems that the religious special privilege mania is problematic only in the abstract. Often, the complaint is that a tiny slice of the taxes we pay is diverted to promote the God industry, or that God experts can bend rules the rest of us cannot, or something else that affects a small group far away. But I was just directly whacked by a group of God experts putting themselves above the law, and it hurt.

My wife and I just returned from a twenty-fifth anniversary trip to Hawaii. One of the most exciting things we planned to do there was stargaze from Mauna Kea, which has some of the best conditions for astronomical observation in the world and facilities our tax money helped pay for. It’s high and isolated, the air is dry, and strict rules on the rest of the island keep light pollution to a minimum, making it a “crystal-clear window into the cosmos.” Even without a telescope, we expected to be able to see thousands of stars rather than the handful city-dwellers are accustomed to; with one of the telescopes made available for tour groups, we dreamed of a spectacular look at rare events like the Venus-Jupiter conjunction that occurred on July 1. Religious people get a sense of awe and wonder when a priest proclaims, “OK, I’ve changed that wine into blood”; this was our shot at a little awe and wonder from reality.

Now we’re home. No Mauna Kea, no stars, no moons of Jupiter. Why? Because a group of Hawaiian god experts decided that they’re more important than we are and physically prevented us from traveling up the mountain.

It seems that plans are underway to take advantage of Mauna Kea’s unique conditions by building the largest optical observatory in the world there, with a light-gathering mirror that could revolutionize astronomy. Even China is helping to pay for it—when’s the last time that happened? This is to be the first zero-waste facility on the mountain and will use solar panels and Energy Star-rated appliances to keep fossil fuel usage to a minimum. After seven years of painstaking effort, all of the environmental concerns have been dealt with, all the approvals obtained, and construction work began in April.

Work was immediately halted, though, when a group of protesters stormed the mountain and blocked the access road to the worksite screaming, “Kill the whites! Kill the tourists!” amidst bomb threats, cyberattacks, and the looting of the visitor center gift shop. Shortly before my wife and I arrived, some of them decided that blocking the road in person was too time-consuming, so they piled boulders onto it, wrecking the pavement to make it unsafe for vehicles to pass. The road remained closed until after it was time for us to leave.

Why did they do this? Because they claim the mountain is a “sacred” place. Not just this two-acre spot on the mountain, but the whole thing, which covers a major proportion of the entire surface of the island. It is, they say, where the sky father Wākea married the earth mother Papahānaumoku, who together created the Hawaiian islands, and a place where benevolent water spirits still live today. But the precise spot chosen for the telescope has no archaeological shrines, has not been the site of cultural practices, and isn’t even visible from places with any known religious tradition.

Like most God experts, these guys spend half their time spewing romantic drivel and the other half counting cold, hard cash. While flatly denying that prying boulders loose to damage roads constituted “vandalism,” Kahookahi Kanuha, apparently some sort of Hawaiian pagan pope, boasted, “We’re taking away their time and they’re losing money. One-point-four billion dollars is a lot of money, but it’s still $1.4 billion. It will run out eventually.” Between the lines, this appears to be thinly-veiled blackmail—don’t be shocked if a deal is struck in which the protesters disappear in exchange for some sort of cash payment to salve their wounded religious spirit.

What makes this all the more galling is how much official sympathy is being shown to these scofflaws. A police officer involved in some of the early arrests was said to have tears in his eyes. Worse yet, religion may be dragged into the adjudication process itself: prosecutors are agreeing to rely on some Hawaiian pagan religious scheme called hooponopono (I’m not making this up) which involves extensive use of prayer as an alternative to a trial for at least some of those accused of breaking the law. Imagine a gang of Christian nutjobs who, let’s say, vandalize a family-planning clinic. Would it be OK for them to be dealt with by what they claim is a prayer-based tradition of their sect, instead of by a conventional trial with evidence and a jury? Not in my book it wouldn’t.

Government at many levels in Hawaii grovels before paganism. National and state parks paid for with humanist tax money are replete with descriptions of this or that Hawaiian god or supernatural fairytale. Would it be OK for a taxpayer-funded national park on the mainland to celebrate the hallucinations of Mormon founder Joseph Smith? Or of Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard? Or of an oil stain that Christians believe looks like Jesus? What makes the Hawaiian religion different? Why not let religion pay for its own advertising, rather than having taxpayers pay for it? It’s exactly this kind of official obeisance to Hawaiian paganism that makes some people believe they can get away with anything so long as they provide a religious justification for it.

I’m not asking for tears of sympathy here. When we were thwarted by these protesters from visiting Mauna Kea, we found other things to do. But with all the deference shown to these vandals, maybe tourists should consider going somewhere else where rules are evenly applied. Hawaii is indeed beautiful, but there are other places that are both beautiful and religiously evenhanded. If official Hawaii refuses to do that, then let ‘em eat poi.