A cargo cult is a type of religious practice that may appear in traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced, non-native cultures. The cults are focused on obtaining the material wealth of the advanced culture through magical thinking, religious rituals and practices, believing that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors.
Following contact with people from more technically advanced societies through exploration, colonization, missionary efforts, and international warfare, cargo cults were initially documented in New Guinea and other Micronesian and Melanesian countries in the southwest Pacific Ocean.
From time to time, the term "cargo cult" is invoked as an English language idiom to mean any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance. The error of logic made by the islanders consisted of mistaking a necessary condition (i.e., building airstrips, control towers, etc.) for cargo to come flying in, for a sufficient condition for cargo to come flying in, thereby reversing the causation. On a lower level, they repeated the same error by e.g. mistaking the necessary condition (i.e. build something that looks like a control tower) for building a control tower, for a sufficient condition for building a control tower.
The inception of cargo cults often is defined as being based on a flawed model of causation, being the confusion between the logical concepts of necessary condition and sufficient condition when aiming to obtain a certain result. Based on this definition, the term "cargo cult" also is used in business and science to refer to a particular type of fallacy whereby ill-considered effort and ceremony take place but go unrewarded due to flawed models of causation as described above. For example, Maoism has been referred to as "cargo cult Marxism", and New Zealand's optimistic adoption of liberal economic policies in the 1980s as "cargo cult capitalism".
The religion arose in the 1930s, when Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides. It is not known whether it arose spontaneously or was deliberately created; nor is it clear whether an individual named "John Frum" existed. The name is sometimes considered a corruption of "John from (America)", which the natives heard from US GIs during World War II. The surname Frum is rare in the English-speaking world; it does not appear at all in either the 1851 or 1901 censuses of the United Kingdom, although there may have been a John "Frumm" or "Frumme" or "Fromme," which are common German and Jewish family names (frum ≈ devotional, religious).
Some people living around Sulphur Bay on Tanna revere a god named Kerapenmun associated with the extinct volcano Mount Tukosmeru; the attributes of this god likely influenced the development of the John Frum movement. A native named Manehivi, under the alias of Jon Frum, began the cult by appearing among people and making promises of houses, clothes, food, and transport. He promised the dawn of a new age, in which all white people, including missionaries, would leave the New Hebrides (as they were then known), and that the native Melanesians would gain access to the material wealth which white people enjoyed. For this to happen, the people of Tanna should reject all aspects of European society (money, Western education, Christianity, work on copra plantations) and return to traditional kastom (a word for native Tannese customs).
In 1941, followers of John Frum rid themselves of their money in a frenzy of spending, left the missionary churches, schools, villages and plantations, and moved further inland to celebrate traditional custom through feasts, dances and rituals. The movement gained popularity in the 1940s when some 300,000 American troops established themselves in Vanuatu. The islanders were impressed both by the egalitarianism of the Americans and their obvious wealth and power. This led them to conflate perceived benefactors such as Uncle Sam, Santa Claus and John the Baptist into a mythic figure who would empower the island peoples by giving them cargo wealth...
Application of the term
also used in the context of: cargo cult science, cargo cult programming