R. Dawkins: The God Delusion, ch. 5



In The Life of Brian, one of the many things the Monty Python team got right was the extreme rapidity with which a new religious cult can get started. It can spring up almost overnight and then become incorporated into a culture, where it plays a disquietingly dominant role. The 'cargo cults' of Pacific Melanesia and New Guinea provide the most famous real life example. The entire history of some of these cults, from initiation to expiry, is wrapped up within living memory. Unlike the cult of Jesus, the origins of which are not reliably attested, we can see the whole course of events laid out before our eyes (and even here, as we shall see, some details are now lost). It is fascinating to guess that the cult of Christianity almost certainly began in very much the same way, and spread initially at the same high speed.

My main authority for the cargo cults is David Attenborough's Quest in Paradise, which he very kindly presented to me. The pattern is the same for all of them, from the earliest cults in the nineteenth century to the more famous ones that grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War. It seems that in every case the islanders were bowled over by the wondrous possessions of the white immigrants to their islands, including administrators, soldiers and missionaries. They were perhaps the victims of (Arthur C.) Clarke's Third Law, which I quoted in Chapter 2: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'

The islanders noticed that the white people who enjoyed these wonders never made them themselves. When articles needed repairing they were sent away, and new ones kept arriving as 'cargo' in ships or, later, planes. No white man was ever seen to make or repair anything, nor indeed did they do anything that could be recognized as useful work of any kind (sitting behind a desk shuffling papers was obviously some kind of religious devotion). Evidently, then, the 'cargo' must be of supernatural origin. As if in corroboration of this, the white men did do certain things that could only have been ritual ceremonies:

They build tall masts with wires attached to them; they sit listening to small boxes that glow with light and emit curious noises and strangled voices; they persuade the local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march them up and down - and it would hardly be possible to devise a more useless occupation than that. And then the native realizes that he has stumbled on the answer to the mystery. It is these incomprehensible actions that are the rituals employed by the white man to persuade the gods to send the cargo. If the native wants the cargo, then he too must do these things.

It is striking that similar cargo cults sprang up independently on islands that were widely separated both geographically and culturally. David Attenborough tells us that

Anthropologists have noted two separate outbreaks in New Caledonia, four in the Solomons, four in Fiji, seven in the New Hebrides, and over fifty in New Guinea, most of them being quite independent and unconnected with one another. The majority of these religions claim that one particular messiah will bring the cargo when the day of the apocalypse arrives.

The independent flowering of so many independent but similar cults suggests some unifying features of human psychology in general.

One famous cult on the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides (known as Vanuatu since 1980) is still extant. It is centred on a messianic figure called John Frum. References to John Frum in official government records go back only as far as 1940 but, even for so recent a myth, it is not known for certain whether he ever existed as a real man. One legend described him as a little man with a high-pitched voice and bleached hair, wearing a coat with shining buttons. He made strange prophecies, and he went out of his way to turn the people against the missionaries. Eventually he returned to the ancestors, after promising a triumphal second coming, bearing bountiful cargo. His apocalyptic vision included a 'great cataclysm; the mountains would fall flat and the valleys would be filled;* old people would regain their youth and sickness would vanish; the white people would be expelled from the island never to return; and cargo would arrive in great quantity so that everybody would have as much as he wanted'.

* Compare Isaiah 40: 4: 'Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.' This similarity doesn't necessarily indicate any fundamental feature of the human psyche, or Jungian 'collective unconscious'. These islands had long been infested with missionaries.

Most worryingly for the government, John Frum also prophesied that, on his second coming, he would bring a new coinage, stamped with the image of a coconut. The people must therefore get rid of all their money of the white man's currency. In 1941 this led to a wild spending spree; the people stopped working and the island's economy was seriously damaged. The colonial administrators arrested the ringleaders but nothing that they could do would kill the cult, and the mission churches and schools became deserted.

A little later, a new doctrine grew up that John Frum was King of America. Providentially, American troops arrived in the New Hebrides around this time and, wonder of wonders, they included black men who were not poor like the islanders but

as richly endowed with cargo as the white soldiers. Wild excitement overwhelmed Tanna. The day of the apocalypse was imminent. It seemed that everyone was preparing for the arrival of John Frum. One of the leaders said that John Frum would be coming from America by aeroplane and hundreds of men began to clear the bush in the centre of the island so that the plane might have an airstrip on which to land.

The airstrip had a bamboo control tower with 'air traffic controllers' wearing dummy headphones made of wood. There were dummy planes on the 'runway' to act as decoys, designed to lure down John Frum's plane.

In the 1950s, the young David Attenborough sailed to Tanna with a cameraman, Geoffrey Mulligan, to investigate the cult of John Frum. They found plenty of evidence of the religion and were eventually introduced to its high priest, a man called Nambas. Nambas referred to his messiah familiarly as John, and claimed to speak regularly to him, by 'radio'. This ('radio belong John') consisted of an old woman with an electric wire around her waist who would fall into a trance and talk gibberish, which Nambas interpreted as the words of John Frum. Nambas claimed to have known in advance that Attenborough was coming to see him, because John Frum had told him on the 'radio'. Attenborough asked to see the 'radio' but was (understandably) refused. He changed the subject and asked whether Nambas had seen John Frum:

Nambas nodded vigorously. 'Me see him plenty time.'

'What does he look like?'

Nambas jabbed his finger at me. "E look like you. 'E got white face. 'E tall man. 'E live 'long South America.'

This detail contradicts the legend referred to above that John Frum was a short man. Such is the way with evolving legends.

It is believed that the day of John Frum's return will be 15 February, but the year is unknown. Every year on 15 February his followers assemble for a religious ceremony to welcome him. So far he has not returned, but they are not downhearted. David Attenborough said to one cult devotee, called Sam:

'But, Sam, it is nineteen years since John say that the cargo will come. He promise and he promise, but still the cargo does not come. Isn't nineteen years a long time to wait?'

Sam lifted his eyes from the ground and looked at me. 'If you can wait two thousand years for Jesus Christ to come an' 'e no come, then I can wait more than nineteen years for John.'

Robert Buckman's book Can We Be Good without God? quotes the same admirable retort by a John Frum disciple, this time to a Canadian journalist some forty years after David Attenborough's encounter.

The Queen and Prince Philip visited the area in 1974, and the Prince subsequently became deified in a rerun of a John-Frum-type cult (once again, note how rapidly the details in religious evolution can change). The Prince is a handsome man who would have cut an imposing figure in his white naval uniform and plumed helmet, and it is perhaps not surprising that he, rather than the Queen, was elevated in this way, quite apart from the fact that the culture of the islanders made it difficult for them to accept a female deity.

I don't want to make too much of the cargo cults of the South Pacific. But they do provide a fascinating contemporary model for the way religions spring up from almost nothing. In particular, they suggest four lessons about the origin of religions generally, and I'll set them out briefly here. First is the amazing speed with which a cult can spring up. Second is the speed with which the origination process covers its tracks. John Frum, if he existed at all, did so within living memory. Yet, even for so recent a possibility, it is not certain whether he lived at all. The third lesson springs from the independent emergence of similar cults on different islands. The systematic study of these similarities can tell us something about human psychology and its susceptibility to religion. Fourth, the cargo cults are similar, not just to each other but to older religions. Christianity and other ancient religions that have spread worldwide presumably began as local cults like that of John Frum. Indeed, scholars such as Geza Vermes, Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, have suggested that Jesus was one of many such charismatic figures who emerged in Palestine around his time, surrounded by similar legends. Most of those cults died away. The one that survived, on this view, is the one that we encounter today. And, as the centuries go by, it has been honed by further evolution (memetic selection, if you like that way of putting it; not if you don't) into the sophisticated system - or rather diverging sets of descendant systems - that dominate large parts of the world today. The deaths of charismatic modern figures such as Haile Selassie, Elvis Presley and Princess Diana offer other opportunities to study the rapid rise of cults and their subsequent memetic evolution.

That is all I want to say about the roots of religion itself, apart from a brief reprise in Chapter 10 when I discuss the 'imaginary friend' phenomenon of childhood under the heading of the psychological 'needs' that religion fulfils.

Morality is often thought to have its roots in religion, and in the next chapter I want to question this view. I shall argue that the origin of morality can itself be the subject of a Darwinian question. Just as we asked: What is the Darwinian survival value of religion?, so we can ask the same question of morality. Morality, indeed, probably predated religion. Just as with religion we drew back from the question and rephrased it, so with morality we shall find that it is best seen as a by-product of something else.