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The Cargo Cults: Religion based on old-world representations of modern technology

The Cargo Cults: Religion based on old-world representations of modern technology

250px-John_Frum_flag_raisingImagine a religion based completely on the legend of a man who came dressed in a Western style coat, making all sorts of promises? Imagine this religion to be worshiped with idols crafted to represent air-dropped military supplies? Imagine that this man and these supplies were believed to have originated from the ancestors of tribesmen?

If you can imagine this, then you are on your way to understanding the Cargo Cult. First, one must know what a cargo cult is. Wikipedia defines cargo cults as phenomenons that 'develop during a combination of crises' and often involve conditions of social stress, combined with a charismatic figure.

One such cult began in earnest in the early 1940s in the South Pacific islands. According to their beliefs, if the right ceremonies were observed, cargo full of riches will show up. Their beliefs were not based, though, on some mystical writing, but on their own observations that while they toil endlessly in their fields and on their boats, they remained poor.

However, when Westerners show up, all they did was scribble on some paper and eventually crates would show up.

cargo_cultTheir beliefs became so strong, their members so devout, that they eventually began to build shrines and idols in the form of replicated airplanes and sometimes entire airports and duly performed rituals that included making the sounds of airplanes in an effort to instigate the delivery of cargo.

One particular cargo cult is centered on a figure named John Frum, of which it's beginnings can be traced back to the late 1930s in the Sulphur Bay are of Tanna.

In place already was an existing religion that worshiped Keraperamum, a mountain god associated with Mt. Tukosmera, which is the highest mountain on the island.

There are several versions of the legend, one being a native going under the alias of John Frum, dressed like a Westerner, who made promises of many things, including not just wealth, but houses, clothing and food. Another version has John Frum coming in the form of a vision that represented Keraperamim, but with similar promises. In either legend, the natives were commanded to rid themselves of whatever vestiges of modern society they had, to flee into the mountains and get back to their native traditions.

cargo_cultIn the early 1940s, roughly 300,000 American troops utilized the island as a transfer station, bringing with them huge amounts of supplies (cargo), and after the war was over and the Americans left, the followers of John Frum had another vision.

John Frum was now represented as an African-American soldier, and all black soldiers were believed to be a separate detachment of the US Army, headed by Frum. There are variations to this legend, as well, including John Frum living inside the volcano, which they call 'Yasur,' native word for 'god.'

Then, in the late 1950s, an individual named Nakomaha, who was leading the religion, formed the 'Tanna Army,' which is a pacifist organization that focuses on ritual. This is when they built their compound, their symbolic airports and twig-and-branch airplanes. They organized parades, painted their faces, donned their versions of US military uniforms and painted replicas of US Military signs and insignia on themselves.

In 1974, Dr. Richard Feynman wrote about Cargo Cult science, stating,

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he's the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. 

They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land. 

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. 

It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

marchingThe John Frum Cargo Cult didn't die out, though. In fact, it is still active today and gathers together every 15 February to celebrate, as this is the day they believe John Frum will return to the island, bringing more wealth and prosperity. Officially, 15 February is 'John Frum Day.'

When presented with an opportunity to become an independent nation in the 1970s, the followers of John Frum vehemently opposed it. Their fears? Mainly being subject to modernism and Christianity.

The cult is still active today. The followers believe that John Frum will come back on a February 15, but do not know in which year. Currently, they are led by a Vietnamese woman named Thitam Goiset.

The John Frum Cargo Cult is not the only one still in existence, however. There are, in fact, several of them, including,

  • The Tom Navy cult on Tanna island (Vanuatu)
  • The Prince Philip Movement on the island of Tanna, worships Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
  • Yali's cargo cult on Papua New Guinea (Madang-region)
  • The Paliau movement on Papua New Guinea (Manus island)
  • The Peli association on Papua New Guinea
  • The Pomio Kivung on Papua New Guinea 

There are many resources available to anyone who is interested in the finer points of Cargo Cults, including scientific and religious treatises, articles and videos.

But, what happens when these believers are shown the real-life articles of their worship? Actual planes, airports, etc.

Here is a video, courtesy of iPeteCTorg:

As you can see, whether it be a native in a Cargo Cult, or a modern adherent to a mainstream religion, when faced with the realization that the the things, ideals and beliefs that are part of your core self are unraveled and shown to be false, it can be devastating.

What will become of these natives now that they have been shown these things? Difficult to say, but as is with many others, some will remain living in ignorance, others will modify their beliefs, and a few will move on completely.

About Al Stefanelli

Al is a retired author, writer and journalist. His books include "Free Thoughts - A Collection Of Essays By An American Atheist" and "A Voice Of Reason In An Unreasonable World - The Rise Of Atheism On Planet Earth." Al began writing in 1985, starting with the New York Times. In 1993 he joined a McClatchy newspaper, writing a weekly column for ten years. His writing continues to be widely distributed on the Internet and in print. He also produced and hosted a weekly syndicated radio broadcast from 1995 to 1998, and his work won a North Carolina Journalism award in 1998. Al is the former Georgia State Director for American Atheists, Inc., and served on the Board of Directors for "The Clergy Project." He is also a former Southern Baptist Pastor, having served two churches and as pulpit supply for three counties. Currently, he writes part time for The God Discussion, co-hosts the Internet radio programs, "The God Discussion Show" and "Reap Sow Radio." Al lives in the Atlanta suburb of Peachtree City, GA.
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