Sunday, February 12, 2012

New Age Cargo Cults

This is part one of a two part series on New Age Cargo Cults and Critical Thinking, both of which I think are quite relevant topics for us to ponder.

I wrote this article a few years ago for an anthology, and it was summarily rejected. It’s not that it was a bad article, but it just didn’t fit into the subject matter very well. Now, I have decided to dust it off and re-work it since it seems appropriate to the line of discussion that I have been engaged in for the last couple of months.

The real issue for anyone practicing magick is to deal with the contrast of rational and critical thinking against the odd and often strange phenomenon of magick. We can go too far and try to make magick fit our expectations and act as if it were a scientifically objective phenomenon, but that often has its own risks. If we approach magick with “tunnel vision” and reject certain approaches or perspectives because they don’t fit our paradigm, then we will have determined a magick that is as artificial and scripted as any religious dogma. Magick, as I have maintained, has an element of mystery and irrationality, and we should be open to allow for many different perspectives, even ones that contradict our own opinions.

That being said, I think that it is unwise to promote an irrational approach to magick, or just to engage in really sloppy and uncritical thinking. Magicians should avoid being too credulous, and they should demand a certain degree of testing and verifying any theory or hypothesis, as well as supposed sacred tenets and enshrined belief systems. To accept any and everything without discrimination is to create what I have fondly called a “cargo cult.” Occultism should never be so blatantly irrational that it becomes ridiculous to outsiders, so critical thinking is important in any spiritual system. 


We live in an age where anything is possible in the popular media, any idea, plausible, and any pretext of spirituality however dubious, seems to be potentially authentic. The internet is the doubtful mechanism that seems to disperse even the oldest urban myths and disproved misinformation everywhere, simultaneously. It manages to serve up stale and moldy ideas as new groundbreaking discoveries, except those who have any degree of critical thinking can pierce the new wrappers covering the old fallacies.

Unfortunately, we don’t correspondingly live in an age of critical thinking or discriminating tastes, so many individuals, blogging pundits, groups and organizations seem to gobble up and spew out much of the obvious (and not so obvious) urban myths and misinformation, furthering its dissemination and so attempting to re-establish its legitimacy. What is true in the secular and politicized worlds of the internet is also true for spiritual organizations, occult groups, blogsphere authors, and various adherents of the New Age. While many have shown caution and restraint, a few others have gone in the opposite direction, losing their credibility in the process.

It’s my opinion that the New Age collectively appears to gleefully gather together all sorts of rubbish along with valid information and promote it all seemingly without any discrimination whatsoever, building trendy new-thought paradigms that have the quality of a superficial fad rather than a revealed truth. Perhaps it wasn’t enough for these aficionados of the trendy and obscure to rob and pilfer from the graveyard of discredited New Thought writings, but now they seem intent on just making stuff up for the sake of their supposedly superior viewpoints. I won’t get into the particulars, but when a poorly written book like the “Celestine Prophecy” becomes a best seller, it is nothing less than sadly incredible.

In our current age of instant information and high speed propagation, we often accept empty spiritual platitudes, meaningless slogans and obvious irrational and illogical beliefs without any desire to corroborate or examine them in a rational and scholarly manner. A person can be forced into the situation of being either a believer and accepting the whole of a New Age fad tradition, or labeled a cynic or an unbeliever, a harbinger of negative “vibes” to be avoided at all costs by the host of pious (but credulous) believers.

What is being confused by the pundits and proponents alike is that in the present age all spiritual paradigms should be subject to testing and validation, and nothing should be taken merely on faith. The age of belief and the quest for social legitimacy has been replaced by one of experience and authenticity. Anyone can make a claim about their spirituality, we just don't have to accept that claim until it is, in some way, operationally verified. However, many New Age groups attempt to circumvent this important measure of validity and instead require its followers to be believers, blindly accepting their doctrine in order to realize the secret truths and powerful underlying teachings behind their newly minted traditions.

While I could write several books about many New Age organizations who seek to short-circuit a proper validation of their doctrines and dogma, this is not the purpose of this article. I have often said that some aspects of the New Age tradition (but not all of them), remind me of a Cargo Cult. Now this comment has earned me a few laughs, a smile or even a knowing nod or two; but only a few probably knew what I was talking about. A couple of my learned friends have actually criticized my use of the term, saying that I am probably misusing it. So I have decided to examine exactly what the term means and clarify what exactly I am saying.

History of Cargo Cults

As one can easily imagine from just listening to the combination of words, a “cargo cult” is a phenomenon that has been studied and documented as occurring amongst primitive tribes living in the south pacific, most notably in New Guinea and other nearby isolated islands located in an area called Micronesia. This is a part of the south pacific where the islanders have very dark skin and supposedly at one time indulged in head hunting and cannibalism. Comparing an anthropological phenomenon that occurred amongst very primitive peoples to proponents of the New Age may seem whimsical or perhaps even denigrating to either party, yet I feel that there is some justification for it. I have found the following definition of a cargo cult and will use this definition to build my case. (I have consulted the Wikipedia page on Cargo Cults to help research this article, so you can find it here. All quotes are from that article.)

So, exactly what is a cargo cult? The anthropological definition of a cargo cult is that it is a religious movement that appears in tribal societies when they are exposed to technologically advanced non-native cultures. The focus of a cargo cult are the products of the advanced culture, such as the sophisticated supplies of food, clothing, and other manufactured materials, which the more technologically primitive tribal culture seeks to acquire. However, the manner of seeking to acquire this “cargo” relies on a system of magical thinking, religious rituals and practices instead of the more direct and slower route of building up their world to manufacture these items themselves. The natives are typically partitioned and isolated from the technologically dominant culture, so they use the “tools” of their own world to somehow enter into and acquire the wealth of cargo that they have witnessed but not understood. There is also an additional belief that the wondrous materials of the cargo are from the gods or ancestors (not the foreigners who are using it), and that this cargo was actually intended for the tribe, but somehow purloined or stolen from them.

From this definition we can deduce that a cargo cult occurs wherever a primitive culture encounters a superior one, and the equipment of that superior culture, as well as its goods and other material items, become coveted signs of the beneficence of the tribal deities and ancestors. The equipment and goods of the superior culture are perceived as having been created by magic, since the mechanisms for its manufacture and production are not understood. In fact, the vast infrastructure that produces such goods isn’t even conceivable to the members of the primitive society. They believe that the goods and gear come from the gods and ancestors, and that it is somehow either stolen or mistakenly granted to the foreigners. The object of the cargo cult is to find a magical means of restoring the cargo to its rightful owners, the natives themselves.

Using the logic from the perspective of the tribal people, the cargo cult seeks to overcome the dominance of the foreign visitors and their material wealth by performing rituals that imitate key behavior that they observed amongst those who attract and possess the desired goods. Their assumption is that these rituals and practices will somehow influence their ancestors and deities to give the desired cargo to their own people. Thus, members of the cult develop an elaborate religious and magical system, along with specific spiritual intermediaries to help them acquire the valuable materials of the foreign people.

Members of a cargo cult will appropriate the symbols of the superior culture, often out of context, and make primitive facsimiles and use them in ritual and ceremonies as fetishes and instruments to magically acquire the coveted cargo. The driving idea behind this is that a properly performed rite with all of the right symbols and fetishes will produce the desired results. Sometimes even individuals from the superior culture can become a godlike personage, such as the cult personality of “John Frum” on the island of Tanna, of the Vanuatu group. Godhead personages represent the individuals who were responsible for bringing the cargo for the foreigners, so they are invoked as a means of securing cargo for the natives.

Cargo cults began to appear in the late 19th century when explorers, colonizers and missionaries visited the remote islands and jungle villages in the south pacific, but saw a startling increase during the Second World War, when the invading Japanese and the conquering Americans and their allies flooded the area with a huge surplus of manufactured goods, weapons and equipment.

“The earliest recorded cargo cult was the Tuka Movement that began in Fiji in 1885. Cargo cults occurred periodically in many parts of the island of New Guinea, including the Taro Cult in Northern Papua New Guinea, and the Vailala Madness that arose in 1919 and was documented by F. E. Williams..”

By the time of the Second World War, the phenomenon of cargo cults was already established; but the enormous amounts of equipment and supplies, first deployed by the Japanese and then by the Americans and their allies, were unprecedented. The influence of all these materials had a profound impact on some of the islands and areas of New Guinea. Long after the end of the Second World War, cargo cults were still in evidence, and the phenomenon lasted for seventy years before finally disappearing, with exception of the John Frum cult on the island of Tanna.

Cargo cults typified behavior that imitated what the natives saw the soldiers and sailors do when cargo was either air dropped by parachute, landed by plane or debarked from ships. Natives would carve earphones out of wood and occupy deserted or fabricated radio shacks or control towers; they would build radios out of cocoanuts, bamboo and straw, imitate landing signals at deserted runways, send out light signals to the shipping lanes at night with fabricated signaling devices, and even built planes out of bamboo and straw. All of these efforts that used forms of sympathetic magic were done with the expectation that it would cause the flow of cargo to return.

Unfortunately, not only did the newly developed and practiced magical religion of the cargo cult not produce any of the desired manufactured items, but it also had the terrible effect of erasing all of the older and indigenous religious practices and beliefs, along with much of the original tribal culture. Cargo cults also had the effect of eviscerating the government, systems of exchange and many other traditional beliefs and practices amongst the tribes, making them culturally poorer in the aftermath, when the cult had run its course.

The native cultures that were impacted during the Second World War never recovered, since being powerfully affected by the more sophisticated Japanese and American material cultures had both eradicated and irrevocably changed them in a distorted manner. Although life continued on for these native peoples, they had given up their indigenous religious practices and spiritual beliefs to practices the cargo cult, and afterwards, had then lost whatever cult they had developed to attract cargo.

Anthropologists have shown that this kind of contact between cultures where the differences in technology are vast can have terrible consequences, especially when the technologically inferior culture has been isolated from the rest of the world. The dominant culture often unwittingly causes a great degree of destructive change and suffering to the inferior one, and afterwards, it is impossible to mitigate or rectify the impact of those changes even by the ministrations of the dominant culture.

(To be continued..)

Frater Barrabbas


  1. In my opinion, the credulity of the so called New Age has resulted in perhaps the greatest impediment to spiritual progress in the West. I'm reminded of psy-op techniques, used to discredit political movements, in which so much bad information and rumor in planted within, that everything loses credibility (except to the gullible), including important truths that the movement was trying to expose. It's a very effective technique unfortunately. And even more unfortunately in the case of the New Age, no CIA psy-op is necessary -- the people in the New Age movement do this to themselves.

    Worst of all, New Age websites and bookstores are the first place people naturally go to when they feel the calling and seek to go beyond traditional Western religion. As a result, critically-thinking people usually become disillusioned with mysticism, giving up in the face of the avalanche of garbage before they find truth, while the more gullible remain with the New Age, perpetuating the problem.

    As for the Cargo Cult analogy, I see where you're going with it, and it's an interesting take on this whole matter.

  2. Yes, interesting angle you have going here and eager to read your next installment.

    One reason I left Christianity was that I didn't feel "permission" to think critically. Even though my local congregation was very liberal and encouraging, they would only go so far; they would entertain critical thinking but never really apply it. As I moved into mysticism, however, I discovered that I was guilty of the same uncritical thinking I had once accused others of indulging. and I quickly learned that some in New Age circles were just as unwilling to question their own beliefs as the Christians were. But I think this is true of any group. We all must work to think critically about any belief we hold. And on some level, I wonder if all of our beliefs, no matter how helpful they are, aren't on some level illusions, pointing the way toward something but not being the end in themselves. The key is to hold beliefs loosely. Or, who knows!?

  3. Thank you for replying.

    I am a very positive person by nature, although saddening my condition does not frustrate me one bit.

    The fact of the matter remains: can operations produce expectable changes in the material world ? You're familiar with the Third Book of Abramelin, correct ? Are those operations what you might call "probable instead of likely impossible" ?

  4. perhaps the use of the words "primitive" "superior/inferior" should be reconsidered...
    offer some good perspectives on the issue of cultural imperialism.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    @Andrew - I think that the terms "primitive," or "inferior" and "superior" are referring to technology, not culture. Being too politically correct might also get in the way of what I am trying to communicate, and, I am not a professional anthropologist, this is not an anthropological paper, so I don't need to be so exact with my terminology. I hope you understand.