San Felipe Corn Dance vs. the Atom Bomb – Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 1

San Felipe Corn Dance vs. the Atom Bomb – Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 1

Stephen FribergReligion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone![

`Abdu’l-Bahá

1024px-Flag_of_New_MexicoMay 3, 2015

My daughter and I are traveling in New Mexico, visiting Socorro where I grew up on campus at the New Mexico Institute of Science and Technology (New Mexico Tech). We will be visiting the Jornada del Muerto (the desert plateau where the first atom bomb was detonated), White Sands National Monument, and other places throughout the state. I am doing background research on my family’s genealogy and looking around to try to understand better where my viewpoints come from and what has shaped my worldview – one I share with modern “anglo” culture (which, in New Mexico, means English-speaking American culture and modern northern European culture and its scientific mindset).

On May 1st, we made a pilgrimage to San Felipe Pueblo just north of Albuquerque and attended the corn dance –  a tradition there since its founding, probably 600 or 700 years ago. It was a powerful and unifying experience.  One could feel the strength of a community that was maintaining its cohesive and identity through dance and singing and a recapitulation of sacred stories.

First Atomic Bomb

New Mexico is a unique mix of three cultures (four, if you include the modern Los Alamos scientific culture) living side by side in sometimes fascinating and thought provoking juxtaposition. In this blog I explore some Baha’i themes about science and religion in the context of this juxtaposition.

There are some basic – and difficult – questions to be asked:

  1. Are the Corn Dance ceremonies and other ceremonies of the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico – sacred rites of ancient heritage – an aspect of true religion as described by the Baha’i Faith or not?
  2. Is Los Alamos Weapons Laboratory – creator of the atomic bomb and directly responsible for the death of several hundred thousands of Japanese non-combatant civilians. – an example of true science?

And, what are the lessons are to be drawn from their geographical juxtaposition?

There is No Contradiction between True Religion and Science

corndance

A fundamental teaching of the Baha’i Faith is that there is no contradiction between true religion and science. A full explanation of this principle is given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris Talks. He says:

There is no contradiction between true religion and science. When a religion is opposed to science it becomes mere superstition: that which is contrary to knowledge is ignorance.

How can a man believe to be a fact that which science has proved to be impossible? If he believes in spite of his reason, it is rather ignorant superstition than faith. The true principles of all religions are in conformity with the teachings of science. … All religions teach that we must do good, that we must be generous, sincere, truthful, law-abiding, and faithful; all this is reasonable, and logically the only way in which humanity can progress.

santo-domingo-corn-dancer-210x410Religion, according to `Abdu’l-Bahá, has a spiritual part which never changes and a practical part, which among other things, deals with ceremonies like the corn dance:

The practical part of religion deals with exterior forms and ceremonies, and with modes of punishment for certain offences. This is the material side of the law, and guides the customs and manners of the people. … [T]he practical rules must change their application with the necessities of the time.

The spiritual aspect of religion are, according to `Abdu’l-Bahá, is “the greater, the more important of the two.” And when these are lost – when religion becomes contrary to logic and reason – it ceases to be a religion and becomes a mere tradition. That is what religion often is today, in such a contrast to the warmth and unifying feeling I felt at the San Felipe corn dance.

Further:

All religions of the present day have fallen into superstitious practices, out of harmony alike with the true principles of the teaching they represent and with the scientific discoveries of the time.

Many religious leaders have grown to think that the importance of religion lies mainly in the adherence to a collection of certain dogmas and the practice of rites and ceremonies! Those whose souls they profess to cure are taught to believe likewise, and these cling tenaciously to the outward forms, confusing them with the inward truth. Now, these forms and rituals differ in the various churches and amongst the different sects, and even contradict one another; giving rise to discord, hatred, and disunion.

abdul-baha-paris `Abdu’l-Bahá is very clear as to the effects of “religion which does not walk hand in hand with science is itself in the darkness of superstition and ignorance.” The consequences can be dire indeed:

Much of the discord and disunion of the world is created by these man-made oppositions and contradictions. If religion were in harmony with science and they walked together, much of the hatred and bitterness now bringing misery to the human race would be at an end.

The practical implications are laid out clearly. Use reasoning and intelligence to “weigh carefully:”

Consider what it is that singles man out from among created beings, and makes of him a creature apart. Is it not his reasoning power, his intelligence? Shall he not make use of these in his study of religion?

balanceI say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance!

But don’t forget that both science and religion are part of that weighing process:

God made religion and science to be the measure, as it were, of our understanding. Take heed that you neglect not such a wonderful power. Weigh all things in this balance. … Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one.

He concludes with an extraordinary promise.  If we carry out – if we implement – what His father urges, the results will be astonishing:

When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles — and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God.

GreenCornDance_72_3x10

Corn Dance at San Felipe Pueblo

Our experience at the San Felipe Pueblo at its corn dance was life-affirming and extraordinarily warm. Here is how Betty Fussell, writing in the New York Times, describes a similar corn dance at Santo Domingo Pueblo:

From the kiva in the distance, you hear first a drumbeat and then a chant of 50 men, halfway between wail and moan. The clowns, or koshari, appear. Some are smeared from head to toe in blue and ocher clay, some in black and white, painted in stripes and circles. … They are licensed jesters who marshal the dancers, joke with the spectators, mediate like harlequins between carnival and shrine. 

Corn Dance at San Felipe Pueblo in New Mexico Corn-Dance-at-San-Felipe-Pueblo-New-Mexico-1915-courtesy-Libary-of-CongressThe men and boys then enter:

The men dance together in double file, big-bellied men and skinny boys, toddlers and elders with gray hair flowing to the waist. Their naked torsos are painted with ocher clay, for these are the Squash People, who lead the dance. The Turquoise People, who follow, will be painted blue gray. On their breasts are bandoleers of seashells and loops of turquoise and silver. High moccasins are on their feet, parrot feathers in their hair. Pine branches are tied to their upper arms. …

The women and girls follow:

A group of women follow, girls to grandmothers. All wear the three-pointed wooden headpieces called tablitas, which look like Spanish church fronts. They have one shoulder bared to display masses of turquoise and coral around their necks. Their dresses are black, with red and green embroidery to symbolize rain. They hold a pine branch in either hand. Their feet are bare.

And they danced the whole day:

For the next seven hours some 500 dancers will lift their feet silently, regrouping in circles and lines, while the singers chant variations of eight basic songs. The dancers will change pattern as the songs direct, now shuffling in double file, a man in front, a woman behind, now facing obliquely to the right, now to the left, now linked together with the women’s hands on the men’s shoulders. They will dance in the central plaza before the arbor of cornstalks and cottonwoods, which houses both an image of the saint and the living elders who sit in its shade.

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Trinity Site Explosion

And now the question ….

Are the Corn Dance ceremonies and other ceremonies of the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico – sacred rites of ancient heritage – an aspect of true religion as described by the Baha’i Faith or not?

Here is my analysis according to `Abdu’l-Baha’i guidelines. He says:

I say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance!

When I look at the corn dances, I see a unifying, community-strengthening event that looks to be a strong contributing factor to the continuing existence of Native American community that has been able to maintain its integrity for more than 500 years in face of tremendous challenges: attacks from native marauders, exploitation, slavery, and attacks on their religion and their land by Spanish, Mexican, and then American colonizers, and the pervasive materialism of modern culture,

From this weighing in the balance of reason and science, it passes the test!

`Abdu’l-Baha also says:

God made religion and science to be the measure, as it were, of our understanding. Take heed that you neglect not such a wonderful power. Weigh all things in this balance.

My reading is that if I look at the religious aspects of what the Pueblos are doing with the corn dances – the honor paid to the rains, to the clouds, to the growth of the corn, to the strength of the community, and the offering of prayers and praise, I see religious truths permeating the ceremony.  And the honor paid to nature is an extraordinarily positive and powerful example to the people who have moved to this continent.

Is it a divisive ceremony? Apparently not, it currently brings everybody together. And it is a ceremony that has widespread currency around the whole of the native peoples of North America.

Next Blog

Next time to explore other things, including the Baha’i teachings about cosmology, the Center for Theology and Natural Science in Berkeley, and other fascinating topics in the Baha’i Faith and the topic of science and religion.

………………………

The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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6 thoughts on “San Felipe Corn Dance vs. the Atom Bomb – Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 1

  1. Stephen, just curious but since you have spent ten years in Japan have you ever visited Hirsoshima and/or Nagasaki? What about Kokura, Yokohama, Niigata, and Kyoto? (You may be wondering why I picked those cities? They were the alternative bombing sites on a list America chose Hiroshima from and at the last second Nagasaki replaced Kyoto on the list.)

  2. Hi Stephen:

    We lived near Yokohama – a bustling port city just south of Tokyo – and visited it often. I also visited Kyoto often – its was not only spared the atom bomb but any bombing whatsover whereas the neighboring city of Osaka was bombed frequently. My mother in law has memories of charred burned human bodies piling up in the canals.

    Several years ago, our family went on a pilgrimage to Hiroshima and its memorials to the bombing, a poignant and necessary visit. Do it if you can.

    Stephen

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