The Validity of Religion and Belief in the Age of Science #16: It Takes a Zuni Pueblo

The Validity of Religion and Belief in the Age of Science #16: It Takes a Zuni Pueblo

Stephen Friberg

“Religion … must go hand-in-hand with science.”

The Baha’i Writings

July 17, 2011.  Last week, I visited two highly-charged spiritual centers in the great American desert – Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico and Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.  Both teach spiritual lessons and raise important questions for our future.

Today, I discuss Zuni spirituality – the role of Zuni religion in maintaining community strength – and lessons from it for the world

Zuni Pueblo

Zuni Sacred Mountain

Zuni Pueblo, about 35 miles south of Gallup in the American state of New Mexico, was the first American Indian pueblo to be visited by a European (in 1539).  Protected by their isolation, their vitally, and the cohesiveness of their ancient beliefs, the Zunis have not only maintained a strong identity, a strong community, and extraordinary artistic output, but are poised for success in the age of science.

Zuni Supernatural (Kachina)

Religious Core of the Zuni Community 

At the core of the Zuni community are sacred rituals and prayers:

“Traditional Zuni life is oriented around a matrilineal clan system and a complex ceremonial system base on a belief in the ancestors (ancient ones). There are six specialized esoteric groups, each with restricted membership and its own priesthood, devoted to the worship of a particular group of supernaturals.”  (Official Website of the Zuni Tribe)

The Zunis rejected the Catholicism thrust on them by the Spanish in their occupation of New Mexico in the 17th to 19th century, and they have carefully protected their traditions from outsiders, especially after detailed descriptions of their sacred rites were published by the prominent anthropologists whom they had befriended in the latter half of the 19th century.

The Zuni Faith

What holds them together is the Zuni faith (see The Zuni Way):

“The Zuni have dwelled in this broad valley of golden buttes and red mesas for thousands of years, farming, hunting, gathering and practicing their communal way of life and ceremony-rich religion.  It’s that religion, the Zuni say, that binds them together.”

“Those who follow the Zuni faith greet the morning sun with a sprinkling of sacred cornmeal and mark the yearly calendar with rituals and dances, all designed to keep not only Zuni but the world at large in balance and at peace. Thus “living at Zuni” means far more than simply being able to pass down artistic traditions … staying at Zuni is almost a sacred obligation.”

Zuni SunFace

This is not to say that there aren’t problems.  Particularly severe are those that pull young people away from the pueblo – where jobs tend to be restricted to government or the arts – and traditional ways.  And there is a tension between tradition and innovation.

But, what shone through clearly in the kindliness and openness of the people at the Tribal Visitor Center and the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center was a wonderful and sharing spirituality that, be it routed in traditional sacred ways and dances or in the great strength of families, was readily evident.  And that spirituality shows through in the extraordinary artistic expression of the Zuni people in jewelry, pottery, and other arts.

Spiritual Community at Zuni / Spiritual Community in the World

As I asked my questions, and listened to the clear and wonderful answers, I realized that Zuni had much to offer.   Here are my further questions:

  • What can we learn from the experiences – both the successful ones and the ones that haven’t turned out so well – from Zuni?
  • How can these be applied to the whole world?  How can the whole world become the sacred homeland of its peoples?

The answer, I realized, is – to put it most boldly – is the science of spirituality.  What I mean by this is using the methods of science to determine what practices lead to increased spirituality.

As an example, consider the Zuni sacred traditions of the rain dance and the prayers for dance.  Clearly, when the whole community comes together to pray for rain, the circle of community, agriculture, the sky, the seasons, and the vitality of the people are brought together in a way where all can feel, absorb, and see.

Our Spiritual Homeland

Could we do this for the whole world?

We could, and it would be done most effectively by proposing and implementing practices designed to increase spirituality, observing the results, reflecting on them, and then changing those implementations to reflect what has been learned.  Repeat many times.

If this were to done by community after community –  hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of communities – spiritual practices and their results could be widely implemented, experienced, improved on, and shared.  Social media – spiritual crowd sourcing, if you will  – could be used to share what was learned.

In short, everything we do for technology, for shopping, and for the arts could be done for community spiritual development and world spiritual development.  And, it could be done better by bringing in science and its systematic ways of doing things.

Science and spirituality – this perspective suggests – are natural partners.  By identifying spiritual ends, science can be used to determine the effective means to attain those ends.

Next Week – Canyon de Chelly and Spiritual Landscape

Canyon de Chelly

Next week, I talk about Canyon de Chelly, a site of extraordinary beauty and spiritual upliftment in the center of the Navajo nation in Arizona.


This is the 16th in a series of blogs on religion in the age of science. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. He did extensive research in quantum optics in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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