John Frum

Fri, May 25, 2012 3-minute read

One of the contemporary religions that fascinates me the most is the Cargo Cult. I wasn’t aware of this practice until I read it in the chapter of The Origins of Religion in The God Delusion. And it goes like this.

Back in World War II, when americans strategically camped in various islands in the South Pacific, natives of these islands got in touch with the white men for the first time. These natives saw the white men technology: radios, vehicles, guns, clothes; and they realized that all of this equipment materialized every few weeks in the form of cargos. It was not that the white men were building their own technology, but rather acquiring it from a cargo plane or truck. White men, in the eyes of the natives, were summoning the cargos by thoroughly reading papers, talking to radios, or writing letters; pointless things to the natives unless they were a form of adoration to a higher entity: The Cargo.

This new religion started off in these remote islands based on the idea that cargo will arrive someday. There are two main variants of their belief (à la Christian Schism): some think that cargo will mark the day of the apocalypse, others anticipate that the cargo will provide eternal piece and happiness. In any case, the religious totems that the cargoans assemble have the shape of planes, radio stations, trucks, and weapons… made of wood.

Legend tells of a mighty Lord of Cargo called John Frum who once payed a visit to the natives back during WWII. Supposedly, John –if he ever lived at all– was a white american soldier who was exceptionally kind to the natives, thereby his figure remains on their religious folklore. Some natives claim to speak to John on their wooden radios. Some think that on February 15th (of a non specified year), John Frum will return to their islands as part of the prophecy. John himself told them that over the mock-up radios. That is why every year, on February 15th, a parade goes on in Tanna, as an offering to the beloved John Frum.

This all captivates me, and makes me wonder about our limited monkey brains. How fast can a new belief spread across human beings? What would happen if, for any reason (e.g. nuclear), all humans would die except for the followers of the cargo cult? Leaving time frames aside, what are the differences between John Frum and Jesus? Is joining the American Army the closest way of becoming a God nowadays?

I will end this post with a quote by Arthur C. Clarke, pulled out from his popular three laws:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.