Many things have been written about cargo cults, but you really can only go find out about them if you know about them in the first place. People rarely look something up if they don’t know it exists. This was true for me for the first five decades of my life. I’d never heard of cargo cults before. I thought I would discuss them a bit here.
I’ll rely on Wiki to get the ball rolling here.
A cargo cult is a type of religious practice that has appeared in many traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults are focused on obtaining the material wealth (the "cargo") of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices, believing that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors. Cargo cults developed primarily in remote parts of New Guinea and other Melanesian and Micronesian societies in the southwest Pacific Ocean, beginning with the first significant arrivals of Westerners in the 19th century. Similar behaviors have, however, also appeared elsewhere in the world.
Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when large amounts of manpower and materials were brought in by the Japanese and American combatants, and this was observed by the residents of these regions. When the war ended, the military bases were closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.
I will attempt to expand on that last paragraph a bit.
The natives of many islands in the South Pacific hadn't really been exposed to more advanced civilizations until the combatants in WWII descended upon their islands for staging areas. Many islands were outfitted with runways for cargo planes. The entire place become a beehive of activity involving lots of people and strange and wondrous machines. The natives saw all this activity that had absolutely no meaning to them, and it was no doubt their first exposure to airplanes, trucks and bulldozers.
I am certain that this was all very mysterious to these people. They had no knowledge of the war and had never seen technology like this. What is that old saying? It goes something like, “Technology is indistinguishable from magic when a lesser civilization is exposed to a more advanced civilization.” But the natives were able to observe some very tangible outcomes from all this mysterious activity; crates and crates of food, clothing, durable goods and other gifts delivered to the invaders from airplanes and ships. No doubt, this seemed like manna from heaven to the Pacific Islanders. Here were these people who had been scraping along their entire lives for a rather frugal existence, and then these magicians show up with flying machines that deliver lots and lots of stuff. And what do the invaders do to get all this stuff? They go through some very mysterious activities that involve clipboards, forms and radios. Military protocol is very rigid and very ritualistic to those who don’t have a clue to what is going on.
So, we have set the stage. Now, what do you suppose happens to these natives when the war is over and all these strange invaders with their magic machines and strange rituals leave? The first thing that happens is, of course, the natives start to miss all this great stuff that these invaders were able to obtain from their gods. No more food that wasn’t available directly from the island. No more clothes they didn’t make themselves. No more really magical gifts from the gods.
So, the local priest decides that the best way to reconnect with these mysterious and benevolent gods is to restart the rituals. That is, they started doing what they directly observed what the military personnel on their island had done. They built airstrips, airplanes and radios. This seems very reminiscent of an episode of Gilligan’s Island. They mimicked the actions of the military people who filled out forms and called into other bases, all in the hopes that these gods would once again grace them with their manna. To them, it was the ritual that mattered. The natives had no idea about the huge infrastructure behind that radio and those forms on a clipboard. They tried, best they could with their limited information, to recreate the conditions that led to fleets of airplanes delivering all sorts of good stuff from heaven.
I am somewhat hesitant to try to draw any larger conclusions about religion in general from these cults. Readers would probably scoff at any attempt I might make. “Oh, those were just ignorant savages. They didn’t know any better. Besides, that really wasn’t a religion. It was a cult.”
To me, that isn’t a terribly convincing argument. Pronouncing someone as “ignorant” always comes from a specific cultural point of view. Yeah, we can say these people were ignorant. They had no idea of the military might behind the small part they were able to view with their own eyes. I could also make the point that people in Biblical times were also ignorant. They had no idea of science and how big the universe really is. So, calling someone “ignorant” really only means the person or culture you are insulting really doesn’t have the information that you have.
But that’s not my main point. I was just thinking about how odd cargo cults look to anyone not involved in them. Going through the motions of talking on “radios” that were probably built out of wood and building “airstrips” and “airplanes” in the hope that the gods will favor them with more great stuff seems pretty insane to us these days. After all, we know about manufacturing. We understand that airplanes are very complex machines that actually have to be built and flown by people that have a very substantial technological base. We have the internet, for God’s sake! So, yes, the actions of cargo cults look ridiculous and are something to be laughed at or to shake our collective heads at.
But think for a moment. For people outside of any religious organization, don’t the actions of that organization make just as little sense as those of the people involved in cargo cults? I don’t want to pick on an one religion here, but just to take an example, does dunking someone in the water or putting a few drops of water on someone’s forehead really cleanse the soul? Yes, I am purposely using words that strip the actions of the deeply religious ceremony of being Baptized of all the magic and ritual. But, from an outsider’s point of view, that is exactly what it looks like.
Religions and the rituals that are part of those religions really only make sense to those who are deeply involved. If you believe and if you are part of a larger group of people that also believe, then it really doesn’t matter what outsiders think. Your religion, your actions, make perfect sense in the universe as you understand it. Non-believers are heretics and should be shunned or converted. Christians scoff at the many of the beliefs of Muslims. We always hear, with great distain, about the Muslim and his 72 virgins that he will receive in his afterlife. But to someone (like me) who doesn’t believe in either faith, 72 virgins in the afterlife makes just about as much sense as virgin birth or being resurrected after dying on the cross. Or talking on a radio made of wood in an attempt to get the gods to deliver you more stuff.
It’s all a matter of reference. One man’s ignorant cult is another man’s understanding of the universe.
Photo from here.