I am endlessly fascinated by cargo cults. I think that they’re a really interesting window into how religions emerge, when they are not started by outright frauds or charlatans. “Gods” like John Frum and Tom Navy boggle the mind with their promises of Coca-Cola, chocolate, cargo, and trucks if believers simply pray.
The isolation of many native cultures in the South Pacific, where these religions emerge, engenders such beliefs as those cultures had no understanding or familiarity with the outside world or the process of manufacturing. When American and Japanese forces landed on their shores during the second world war, they looked at these men as prophets and, eventually, gods who brought with them manufactured goods that seemed magical to these isolated natives.
So enamored are cargo cultists with these precious goods that were brought to them by Tom Navy or John Frum, that they try to reconstruct western inventions and treat them as religious relics–not all that different from how many religions fetishize the relics of their own faiths, like selling replicas of the nails used to pierce Christ’s hands, or forging the Shroud of Turin, etc. The difference is that the cargo cultists build air strips and coconut radios, almost as though they were on an episode of Gilligan’s Island.
These differences in culture and understanding are an amazing thing to behold, I love learning about them, and I try very hard to appreciate these cultural disparities… particularly as I believe that they provide us a window into our not-so-distant past and show us the ancient thinking process that allowed the mysticisms that are still accepted by Western society may have gained their initial foothold.
Brian Dunning, of Skeptoid and In-Fact, put together a nice piece on cargo cults a year or two ago and the blog and podcast episode can be found here: Skeptoid.