Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cargo Cults

Belief systems start up SNAP – just like that!

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

If you sometimes wonder how God came into being, it’s really quite simple. When a primitive culture encounters a more advanced culture (and not necessarily of a different species), engendering godlike status is a natural, if illogical reaction.

Cargo cults have been around for as long as 200 years, and as recently as 30 years ago. Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion writes: “It seems that in every case the islanders were bowled over by the wondrous possessions of the white immigrants [coming] to their islands, including administrators, soldiers and missionaries.”

Rituals that seem at first to be incomprehensible, later make perfect sense. They’re intended ‘to persuade the gods to send cargo.’ Richard Dawkins explores this interesting aberration in human beings from page 202 of his book. He notes that several cargo cults sprang up during the same period all over the world. David Attenborough indicates cults springing up in New Caledonia, Fiji, the Solomon islands, the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and ‘over fifty [cults] in New Guinea’.
Attenborough writes: ‘The majority of these religions claim that one particular messiah will bring the cargo when the day of apocalypse arrives.’

Dawkins ponders whether so many similar cults indicate ‘unifying features of human psychology’. The legend of John Frum, which we’ll examine here in greater detail, is a fascinating example. Whether or not Frum existed as a real man is not known for certain, but in Vanuatu he was treated as a savior, as a figure of messianic significance. Dawkins points out that although this cult is a fairly recent one (dating back to 1940), and although official government records show some (inconclusive) evidence that he existed, it is by no means certain that he did.

Remember that the primitive people who encountered white sailors noticed they never seemed to make anything. If something was needed these ‘gods’ went away and came back with exactly what they needed. Obviously, if you have an ‘island’ psychology, meaning if your world and perception of the world (and the universe) is confined to your and a few neighboring islands, then it simply doesn’t occur to you that these boats are sailing unimaginably long distances into a completely different environment, with vast cities, where sophisticated cultures and economies have developed.

So the natives viewed the cargo as supernatural. After all, the gods seemed to spend all their time in rituals, and none in conventional practice (such as hunting, fishing, or planting crops). Dawkins suggests that shuffling papers behind a desk, to a primitive, might appear to be ‘a kind of religious devotion’.

It’s important to remember that the pattern for cargo cults doesn’t vary. There’s a single blueprint. If you’d like to verify for yourself (something one should always do), refer to David Attenborough’s book Quest in Paradise.
Now, the primitives put together an idea how to procure ‘cargo’. Bear in mind that for them, cargo is a source of magic. Cargo is not merely treasure, it is life enhancing, life transforming. So how do you ‘get’ cargo? What rituals need to be performed? Dawkins writes: ‘Build masts with wires… listen to small boxes that glow with light and emit noises…persuade the locals to dress up in identical clothes and march around…’

The legend goes that a small white haired man with a bird-like voice would come again, wearing a shiny coat glittering with buttons. Frum was something of a revolutionary, prophesying and turning the locals against the visiting missionaries. According to the cult, Frum went to his ancestors (which must mean he was killed), but promised to return, and his return would bring abundance to the people (in the form of cargo). Frum’s prophesies were about cataclysms and natural disasters, his return would heal the sick, and bring youth to the old and infirm. Everyone would have as much cargo as they wanted. Interestingly, Frum also prophesied that on his return he’d bring a new currency, coins with coconuts on them, which led to the local inhabitants spending all their money in 1941. Despite serious damage to the local economy, and numerous arrests, the cult continued.

Then, a few years later, the local religious leaders promoted a new version of the Frum cult, informing the locals that Frum was the King of America, and would arrive out of the sky in an aeroplane. In order to lure him to land, the locals cleared forest and built dummy aeroplanes on the new airstrip. The airstrip even had a dummy tower and dummy air-traffic controllers (made of wood).

In the 1950’s Attenborough visited Vanuatu (specifically an island called Tanna), taking a cameraman with him. After finding evidence of the Frum religion, they finally found the high priest, a man called Nambas. The priest referred to Frum as ‘John’ and claimed to communicate constantly with him by ‘radio’. His exact words: ‘Radio belong John’.
The radio turned out to be a woman with a wire around her waist who would supposedly act as a conduit, and the priest was able to decipher her twaddle. Nambas also claimed to know in advance that Attenborough was coming, since John had told him.

Attenborough asked what Frum looked like.
Nambas: ‘’E look like you. ’E got white face. ‘E tall man…’
Apparently the legend continues to change and evolve, but one thing was certain. Frum would return on February 15 (though of course the exact year is unknown.) When Attenborough observed a ceremony to welcome John Frum on February the 15th, he asked one of the devotees, a fellow called Sam: ‘Isn’t 19 years a long time to wait?’ (It had been 19 years since the ‘real’ Frum had ‘promised’ to return with bountiful cargo).
Sam replied: ‘If you can wait 2000 years for Jesus Christ to come an ‘e no come, then I can wait more than 19 years for John.’

In 1974 Prince Philip visited these selfsame islands, and immediately became deified. Dawkins makes the excellent point that the details of a religion can change very quickly, and spring up suddenly, out of nothing.
And Dawkins provides the following 4 lessons from the above scenario, which are worth considering:
1) The speed at which beliefs come into existence
2) Speed at which the origination process covers its tracks
3) Human psychology is demonstrably susceptible to religion
4) Cargo cults are strikingly similar to other religions

Dawkins also points out that in the modern era charismatic celebrities like Princess Diana, Mother Theresa and Elvis Presley have all but been deified as well. There is also a need to declare people, who seemed particularly good to us, as saints. And people, especially Catholics, routinely pray to saints (as Saint Joan did).

After studying this subject over the past few weeks, I’ve personally had a few conversations on the forbidden subject of Religion, and I have to say, I don’t enjoy the topic at all. I constantly feel I am getting sucked into diseased or contagious thinking, and even when you offer a cogent statement you get a response that is frankly – well, it stops the conversation cold. It’s difficult to share one’s beliefs openly and honestly when one’s beliefs are prescribed as opposed to the natural result of experiencing reality.

But I understand how powerful beliefs are because I held certain beliefs (of faith) very strongly at one time, and regurgitated my responses (as I see so many doing) without having the presence of mind (note the meaning of those words: presence of mind) to reflect on whether these really are our conscious thoughts.

The Cargo Cult phenomenon posits the following: we wouldn’t believe in our beliefs if they weren’t so easy to believe. Sometimes what we believe makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t, but the point is, the belief itself is sticky and efficient, and it works for us in some way. Unfortunately, believing something doesn’t make it true. Belief isn’t a prerequisite for reality, but consciousness is. Being conscious is not in the same boat as having a belief, in fact it’s fair to suggest that beliefs prevent us from accessing the obvious reality in the present moment. Why, because our present paradigm has been overthrown by overarching programming. We are susceptible to throwing away what we know when faced with something that appears magical or simply hard to explain or even hard to imagine (like sophisticated devices, like the coming into being of the universe, like what happens after w edie). It’s fair, from a certain point of view, to intuit a God into a universe that seems to have clockwork beyond our imagination, but if that’s our response then we ought to humbly admit that God is merely our definition of the magic, mystery and majesty of the universe. Few people, including me, would find anything wrong with that.

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