Friday, February 16, 2007

Cargo Cults

Yesterday, February 15, was John Frum Day. John Frum is the messiah of one of the last remaining religions known as "cargo cults." Despite my interest in religion, I was somehow unaware of this fascinating phenomenon until just recently.

Cargo cults are religions that sprang up on South Pacific islands during the Second World War, when suddenly hoardes of (mostly) white men appeared. They did nothing the island inhabitants recognized as work, instead spending their time walking into boxes and pushing papers around in offices.

And yet, for some reason, these strangers had all kinds of neat things, like chocolate, exotic foods, clothing, jeeps, etc. The islanders wondered how the white men came to have these things, given they did no work. Where did the stuff -- the "cargo" -- come from?

The islanders eventually realized that the stuff came from the flying machines that had begun visiting coincident with the white men. Ah-ha! That was why the white men built what they called "landing strips" and "control towers" and talked into those boxes: to attract the mysterious "cargo planes" to land and bring them the desired cargo!

The islanders therefore reasoned that if they did the same things the white men did, they too could attract the planes and have their own cargo. To this end, islanders went to lengths such as sewing clothes that mimicked US military uniforms and building "air strips" complete with "control towers" where the villagers wore coconuts like headphones and talked into a box meant to look like a radio, and strung ropes around as if they were telephone lines.

It apparently never occurred to them that these goods could have simply been made by humans and simply transported to the islands. Rather, they seemed to think that cargo was summoned by magic.

Which is a pretty damning indictment of the classic theist Argument from Design, especially as used by the Intelligent Design movement. ID proponents argue that design is "obvious" and that if something appears to be designed, it must be designed. The unstated assumption, therefore, is that humans are good at discriminating between the works of nature and things made by humans. The classic examples being that we would know a watch was made by a watchmaker if we found it on the beach, and that we wouldn't mistake Mount Rushmore for a natural mountain.

Well, guess what?

As demonstrated here, humans pretty much suck at detecting design. The islanders failed to see the obvious marks of human design in the goods they coveted. They did, in fact, find a watch on the beach and yet failed to conclude it must have been made by a watchmaker. By the same token, many people thought a certain rock outrcopping on Mars, which in a particular picture with just the right shadows resembled a human face, must have been constructed by intelligent beings (in this case, Martians).

Anyway, back to our story. Apparently, most of these cults died out after WWII, when the white men left and all the efforts the islanders put forth to attract the cargo planes failed. But on the island of Vanuatu one (or two, if you count the splinter group that split off in 1999) cargo cult remains. This particular cult is based on the legend of John Frum, an American who may or may not also be a god, kind of like Jesus in the first few centuries of Christianity. He is supposed to have told the islanders that if they returned to their own traditions, instead of doing as they were told by Christian missionaries, that he would one day return and bless the islanders with bountiful cargo from America.

And so, yesterday was John Frum Day in Vanuatu. The rituals for John Frum Day include dressing up in faux-American military informs and painting "USA" on the bodies of the men. The islanders also fly an American flag every day and keep American symbols like the bald eagle. Oddities and contradictions are brushed off by the islanders as easily as fundamentalist Christians brush off criticism that the Bible says pi equals three: John Frum is an American, yet he lives in a volcano on Vanuatu; he is a spirit "more powerful than Jesus" and yet to go back and forth from the volcano on Vanuatu to America he has to take an underwater tunnel like a less omnipotent being.

Cargo cults like this one may seem quaint to those of us who know cargo doesn't come from magic, but really how different are they from Christians who think people, the Earth, and the universe itself was created by magic? Is there really any difference between the Christian saying, "You can't prove God doesn't exist! You don't know everything!" and "You can't prove John Frum doesn't exist! You don't know everything!" Is basing a religion on a misunderstanding of where cargo comes from really any different from basing a religion on unlikely claims that a crucified guy rose from the dead?

Not really. The religious leader of the John Frum cult puts it perfectly:

“John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come,” I point out. “So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?”

Chief Isaac shoots me an amused look. “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth,” he says, “and you haven’t given up hope.”

But they should. Get a clue, Christians. Jesus is John Frum. John Frum is Jesus. Both have the same likelihood of returning: None. If you find cargo cults ridiculous and perhaps a bit sad, guess what? Christianity is just a wide-spread cargo cult with 'salvation' instead of 'cargo.'

And I love the logic irrational believers can twist themselves into. You'd think Chief Isaac's saying, basically, that "your religion is just as wacked as mine" would be like holding up a mirror to a drug addict: "Do I really look that crazy? I need to stop using!" you might think upon seeing how bad you look, but instead believers say, "Hey, that guy in the mirror looks just as bad as I do, so I must be okay!"

Being just as healthy as the rest of the patients in the terminal ward doesn't make you okay, and neither should the realization that there's no difference between believing that Jew rose from the dead 2,000 years ago or that white guys summon cargo with magic. Neither is true. Neither actually happened. And there is no more reason to believe Jesus is coming back than John Frum is.


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