Cargo Cults: Witnessing the Birth of Religion

'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'
Arthur C. Clarke

Cargo cults are religions based on an interesting interaction: the arrival of technologically advanced people into a primitive tribal society that has no way of understanding the technology of these foreigners, the "cargo", except in terms of divine wealth and magical thinking. These Cargo cults were documented in New Guinea and countries in South West Pacific Ocean, and sprang up independently in islands that were separated both geographically and culturally. The birth of cults was greatly enhanced during the WWII by the movement of soldiers into these areas.

Following are extracts from wikipedia:

"Members, leaders, and prophets of cargo cults maintain that the manufactured goods ("cargo") of the non-native culture have been created by spiritual means, such as through their deities and ancestors, and are intended for the local indigenous people, but that, unfairly, the foreigners have gained control of these objects through attraction of these material goods to themselves by malice or mistake.

Cargo cults thus focus on efforts to overcome what they perceive as the undue influence of the others attracting the goods, by conducting rituals imitating behavior they have observed among the holders of the desired wealth and presuming that their deities and ancestors will, at last, recognize their own people and send the cargo to them instead. Thus, a characteristic feature of cargo cults is the belief that spiritual agents will, at some future time, give much valuable cargo and desirable manufactured products to the cult members. ...

Notable examples of cargo cult activity include the setting up of mock airstrips, airports, offices, and dining rooms, as well as the fetishization and attempted construction of Western goods, such as radios made of coconuts and straw. Believers may stage "drills" and "marches" with sticks for rifles and use military-style insignia and national insignia painted on their bodies to make them look like soldiers, thereby treating the activities of Western military personnel as rituals to be performed for the purpose of attracting the cargo. The cult members built these items and "facilities" in the belief that the structures would attract cargo intended to be sent to them."

The native man sees the white man doing things like talking on a radio, doing marches etc and then he sees the arrival of planes that bring food and other stuff out of nowhere, and in his limited intelligence, he assumes that the actions of white man are the religious rituals required by gods to send the cargo. So, the natives concludes that if he wants the cargo, he has to perform these rituals too.

The John Frum Cult

It is one of the world's last surviving cargo cult, based on the mysterious and perhaps mythical figure of American WWII soldier John Frum, who is seen as something of messiah. He promised to the people of Tanna a glorious second-coming, when he would return with wealth and abundant cargo for everyone. So, the people of Tanna wait for the return of John Frum and their cargo from the gods. Every 15 February, they arrange a religious ceremony to welcome him. So far he has not returned, but then, which religious messiah ever has?

When David Attenborough, the naturalist, asked a cult follower that it has been 19 years (at the time of interview) and Frum hasn't returned, so why does he continue to believe in him. That follower replied: "If you can wait two thousand years for Jesus Christ to come an' 'e no come, then i can wait more than nineteen years for John."

Touche! :)

Richard Dawkins derives four general lessons about the origin of religion from this contemporary model in The God Delusion:

1. A cult can spring up with amazing speed
2. The origination process rapidly covers its track, adding mythical elements to it. John Frum, if he existed, was alive during the last century, and yet it is now impossible for us to determine whether he is a real or fictional person.
3. Human psychology is suspectible to religion, indicated by the independent spread of such similar cults on separate islands.
4. Cargo cults are similar to older religions like Christianity, which also originated from local cults and Prophetic figures surrounded by legends.


Butters said…
Dawkins' analysis is, as usual, vacuous. To understand the origins of religions using the model of cargo cults is like understanding the origin of farming in terms of McDonald's.

There are different types of religion, and they are as different from each other (sometimes more so) than atheism and theism. Even the category 'religion' is problematic, but I wouldn't expect a hairbrained neanderthal like Dawkins to understand that.
Awais said…
There are different types of religion, yes, and that means that there won't be any single correct model of the origins of religion, and neither does this model claim to be. But as far as my understanding goes, it is hard to deny that many religions, especially Abrahamic ones, had cultic origins, and this model makes sense in those instances.
Butters said…
Not really. The explanation is strongly normative, and doesn't help us to understand so much as to judge 'cults' as primitive and reaffirm our (by which I mean the writers') prejudices against religion.

What exactly is a cultic origin? The Abrahamic religions originated from a perceived 'covanent' between Yahweh and the Jewish nation, which was originally pagan like everyone else. How is that any more 'cultic' than paganism?

Admit it, Dawkins has no clue what he's talking about. He never does, except when he's talking about biology.
Awais said…
I don't see it as normative; i rather find it positive. For me, it does help me understand, and there is no mention of cults being 'primitive' in the general lessons. Maybe you are seeing all this through your predefined lens of anti-Dawkinism.

Cultic origins. I don't know what Dawkins says about this, but i can tell what my understanding is. A cultic origin simply means that a religion began as a cult. What is a cult? The term is ambiguous, but lets say a working definition would be: a group, which may have a high degree of tension with the surrounding society combined, with novel religious beliefs; a new religious movement, often headed by a single charismatic leader, on its way to becoming a denomination.

Origin of Judaism is tricky, mostly because we have very little factual historical information. But presumably it began with Abraham becoming a spokesman of monotheism in a polytheistic society, and i find it reasonable to assume that the religion spread by the formation of a cult. The origin of Christianity is much clearer now; Jesus was heading a heretic Jewish sect/cult with devoted disciples as followers, and which later grew into a major religion. Islam began as a cult under the leadership of Muhammad. Mormonism began as a cult headed by Joseph Smith etc etc.

I never contrasted Abrahamic religions with Pagan religions with one being cultic and the other not.
Salman Latif said…
I don't think the hypothesis would be enough to substantiate putting a finger on all Abrahamic religions.
How, then, could the inter-conversions between Abrahamic religions be explained and their near-similar undertones in each emergence, if such cargo cults were to be something new, unique and captivating?