Cargo Cults

My dad mentioned to me the other day that he had read an article that had used the phrase “cargo cult” metaphorically, so he looked up and then after he told me about it, I looked it up too.

The short summary is really fascinating and should really be kept in mind by anyone who thinks about the nature of religions, society at large, the history of scientific explanation, and also consumer societies.

During WWII, the U.S. and Japan had to fly a lot of materiel to remote locations in the Pacific. It was very common for these two powers to have to set up a base of operations on these islands by building runways and then flying in jeeps, metal, and other machines. The cultures that were already existent on those island then interpreted these results, quite literally, as manna from heaven. They could not see the factories that built the planes and tanks and other machines and so saw them as just dropping out of the sky.

So, cults of worship grew up around appeasing the gods and trying to get them to drop more cargo (wikipedia says it well, as always). These cults involved the priests and religious figures building runways and worshipping by running around with guns at the ready (like soldiers) as well as wearing headphones (like aircraft communications officers). These groups never came to internalize the explanation that the planes were pieces of technology and that other technology exists elsewhere that made them.

In terms of religion, what separates from religions from cults (cargo or otherwise). Cargo cults show that religious practices are deep-seated human activities, but that they can be misguided and may not have a connection with the truth. Now, major religions may be true (not taking a stand on that), but if some of them turn out not to be, would they still, by virtue of their rich practices and historical influence, be anything other than cults? I tried to think of some answers, and one was that maybe true religions occupy themselves with the proper conduct of human beings vis a vis others that take other human beings as basically valuable, whereas cults do not. Suicide cults for example take human conduct to be important, only instrumentally, as a way to attract aliens or to get to another plane of existence (I don’t think that organized religions do the latter, but they could be accused of that if you’re cynical). Cargo cults take action to be important only insofar as it helps you GET THE CARGO. Christianity on the other hand, whatever else you want to say about it, does concern how one should act on the assumption that it matters, in itself, what kind of life you live. I have no idea if this categorization is sustainable, but I throw it out.

In terms of society, I think remote societies, far from our urban, individualistic, technological world, are fascinating insights into the basic building blocks of society writ large. Here’s an analogy. Cognitive psychologists have learned a lot about perception and brain processing from optical illusions. We learn about regular vision from looking at ways it can go haywire. The same thing goes for societies. However, be aware, I don’t think that, by and large, traditional societies are “haywire” societies, or that they are defective as societies. I do think though that it’s very hard to analyze “society” at large without becoming intimately familiar with societies that challenge the assumptions that one’s own society take for granted. For example, the west takes science for granted (or does it/ It’s actually very interesting to think about the ways in which science is ridiculed, sidelined or misunderstood) and so the idea that these peoples would or could not entertain the idea that planes transport things that were MADE elsewhere.

In terms of consumer societies, Marx thought that capitalism obscured the true source of all production: human labor. Goods appear almost as found objects, or as Manna from heaven, when in fact there is an elaborate social web of production and relations of control among various people. In that way, capitalism, according to Marx, is a gigantic cargo cult. However, other philosophers have thought that in fact Communism is a cargo cult, in that the USSR tried to imitate the prosperity of the U.S. by imitating things that are just the surface of the capitalist cornucopia. For example, the USSR tried to make a lot of steel, thinking that because the U.S. made a lot of steel, steel was key to prosperity. When in reality, it was the innovation behind the capitalistic system.

In terms of the way that science evolved, it’s also very interesting, because it shows how much human beings had to FIGHT to make science a reality. Why not just believe that fire is it’s own thing rather than the result of burning fuel of various type. Science taught us to mistrust our instincts about explanations for things and in that way DEMYSTIFIED the world by ridding it of magic. The cargo cult is just a dramatic example of that. We can construct a simple explanation for things landing in foreign countries even though there are people who leap to the belief that such objects come out of NOWHERE.

Just shockingly interesting.


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