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John Frum

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.

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  1. Braxton
    May 25th, 2012 at 13:10 | #1

    Uri,

    I’m glad you’re still throwing out some English-language posts now and then (as much as I enjoy the chance to practice my Spanish). I’m not sure what you’re saying here, though. As a Christian, I see lots of differences between Jesus and John Frum, but I would think that an atheist would still find them substantially different. Or are you suggesting that Jesus just had access to technology not comprehensible to those of his generation? Was he an alien, perhaps?

  2. May 25th, 2012 at 13:55 | #2

    Hey Braxton, I’m glad you’re following my blog!

    Answering your question: yes, I also see many differences between Jesus and John. And no, I don’t think Jesus had better technology than the rest of its people. Nor I am favoring more scientological believes relating Jesus with the aliens.

    However, what it strikes me the most is the overwhelming similarities that I find between these two figures:

    – They were both nice people who helped others
    – They both started a religion
    – They both give faith and hope to the people who believe in them
    – According to their respective followers, they were both in different places and in different moments in time (e.g. Cargoans believe that John was in many different islands in the 70s at the same time; Mormons believe that Jesus was also in America)
    – They both are Gods for their believers
    – Nobody has ever been able to proof their existence

    My point is to give an example of the origins of religion (the Cargo Cult in this case). And show how sometimes a small and ridiculous thing can ignite a different way of thinking and living that may last for decades or even millennia in some people’s minds.

  3. Braxton
    May 25th, 2012 at 16:18 | #3

    No problem! It’s a good way to stay in contact with people in the faraway wilderness of New England…

    I think your original point about the founding of the Cargo Cult makes sense in light of the fact that the natives had been exposed to a ‘ridiculous’ leap in technology that they couldn’t comprehend, but I don’t think that means that it’s ‘small’. Conversely, if Jesus didn’t have access to such technology, it makes sense that something ‘ridiculous’ (but not ‘small’) must have happened to make his followers (who originally thought he was starting a revolution against Rome) spend the rest of their lives saying he was the son of God even though he’d been brutally killed by those Roman authorities. Most of them also died for their commitment to this statement.

    I agree with many of the other similarities you raise between the two, with a couple of caveats: though I don’t want to dig into all the grimy details, most Christians would not consider Mormonism a form of Christianity; and second, in what sense do we need to ‘prove’ Jesus’s existence? Whether or not they believe in his divinity, Jesus’s existence is attested by all scholars and historians teaching at accredited institutions. That’s the sort of consensus that’s hard to ignore (and I have to argue pretty hard when people are against global warming in the face of similar consensus). See below for some more thoughts on this by atheist thinkers:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/04/review-of-bart-ehrman-did-jesus-exist-part-one.html

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/columnists/all/15182/if-jesus-did-not-exist-the-church-would-not-invent-him.thtml

  4. May 26th, 2012 at 10:56 | #4

    I was pointing out similarities between Jesus and John, not necessarily claiming that proving the existence of any of them would actually matter. In that sense I disagree with Dawkins when he says (in your second link) ‘If the Resurrection is not true, Christianity becomes null and void and [Christians’] life, [Christians think], meaningless’. I completely disagree.

    I believe that if one day someone could actually proof it, the believers would just ignore it, or don’t even trust it, and nothing would really change. I guess, from my limited atheistic way of thinking, that religion goes beyond scientific proof, and it is just a matter of faith and how well it helps you throughout your life, hopefully improving it in some levels I can’t really understand but that I acknowledge.

    By pointing out similarities, both Jesus and John appear in various religions. I know that Mormonism is not considered a form of Christianity, but that doesn’t make it more invalid. Both believe that Jesus did certain things (as the Muslims, and Jewish also believe), and non of them can really proof it unless by the faith, in which they strongly believe, and that is the basis of any religion: faith.

    I believe that Joseph Smith was a clever, talented guy who made up some stories about Jesus living in America, about native americans being white, and about reading the golden tablets off a hat while writing the book of mormons. I think this is surprisingly small and ridiculous enough for having started a religion that now one of candidates to the presidency of the most powerful country in the world practices.

    In this light, I don’t think Jesus or John were so much different than Joseph.

  5. Braxton
    June 1st, 2012 at 11:22 | #5

    I actually agree with Dawkins on this point, and if I were convinced that Christianity was not true, I would not follow it (and I think I would be a pretty evangelical atheist). In the end, I think truth and reason matter, and fooling ourselves leads to a lot of cognitive dissonance that is not healthy, whatever you think about religion.

    When we consider the ‘ridiculous’ things that happen to make a new religion, it’s useful to think about what people had to lose and gain by going along with something (or against it). I’m not that familiar with the Cargo Cult or its founding, and from what I’ve looked into some of it is still not known. But the facts about Joseph Smith are pretty well known: he was a man who had a lot of faith in himself, especially in his own superiority to others. He (probably) also wanted to have multiple wives, so he built that into his ‘religion’. He found a lot of people who went along with this, and he made up a lot of nonsense and called it a holy book. He was persecuted, not “for righteousness’ sake” but because he seemed to be a power-hungry despot. After his death, his followers run away from everyone else so they can continue having multiple wives.

    In the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels, he says many revolutionary things, but none of them seem to have his own gain in mind. In fact he turns away many of his disciples because they’re following him too easily without thinking through the implications of his teaching. He ends up being publicly executed in a humiliating fashion after crying out to a God that has forsaken him. His followers claim that he was raised from the dead, and they go on to spread this message throughout the known world, many giving their lives for attesting this. The incentive structure seems a little different in this case.

    So I still agree that in both cases something ridiculous happened, but I think I just disagree as to what the ridiculous catalyst was in the latter case.

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