In the South Sea Islands there is an interesting religious movement known as the Cargo Cult. It arose as a native response to the arrival of Europeans laden with the rich fruits of their culture–tools, furniture, clothing, a dazzling cornucopia of goods. The islanders, seeing the lavish beneficence of the Western gods, abandoned their own religious rituals and began imitating what they thought were those of the newcomers. A frenzy of building ensued: warehouses, docks, and airstrips were constructed in the jungles, accompanied with fervent prayers beseeching the gods of the West to shower them with “Cargo.”
There are two explanations for this behavior. One is the racist interpretation that non-Westerners are just plain stupid. This was, of course, the theory of Adolf Hitler, that champion of evolutionary anthropology, who declared that some races are lower on the biological chain–closer to the monkeys–than others, and hence less intelligent. Hard evidence does not support this theory, however, and aside from an occasional Harvard professor, few today would be willing to espouse it in public.
The only other explanation for Cargo-Cult behavior might be called the Worldview Theory. According to this view, the South Sea islanders are not stupid at all. Rather, their activity is quite logical and intelligent, revealing a remarkable capacity to adapt to fresh challenges. It is consistent with their worldview–the paradigm that orders and explains the phenomena of the world around them. The islanders believe in magic, the manipulation of cosmic powers through religious ritual.
Unfortunately for its practitioners, the Cargo-Cult worldview is mistaken. It’s out of touch with the real world. Goods don’t just appear out of nowhere. There’s no such thing as magic.
Where do goods come from? Why does the West have so much “cargo”? Is it, perhaps, an accident of nature? Is the Western difference primarily one of resources?
Not at all, argues P. T. Bauer of the London School of Economics, author of numerous important studies on less-developed countries. He points out the significant ideological factors that have inhibited growth in many non-Western countries: lack of interest in material advance, combined with resignation in the face of poverty; lack of initiative, self-reliance and a sense of personal responsibility for the economic fortune of oneself and one=s family; high leisure preference, together with a lassitude often found in tropical climates; relatively high prestige of passive or contemplative life compared to active living; the prestige of mysticism and of renunciation of the world compared to acquisition and achievement; acceptance of a preordained, unchanging and unchangeable universe; emphasis on performance of duties and acceptance of obligation, rather than on achievement of results, or assertion or even a recognition of personal rights; lack of sustained curiosity, experimentation and interest in change; belief in the efficacy of supernatural and occult forces and of their influence over one’s destiny; insistence in the unity of the organic universe, and on the need to live with nature rather than conquer it or harness it to man=s needs, an attitude of which reluctance to take animal life is a corollary; belief in perpetual reincarnation, which reduces the significance of effort in the course of the present life; recognized status of beggary, together with a lack of stigma in the acceptance of charity.1
The civilization of the West was born out of a vastly different perspective, an outlook that owes much to the Biblical worldview of the ancient Hebrews and early Christians. This heritage sets forth a particular theory of our relation to the environment. Western Civilization insists that while we are not absolute masters of our environment, we are not slaves to it or immersed in it, either. Instead, we were placed here by our Creator with a mandate to investigate the world, to shape its future, to transform our environment. Another way of putting all this is to say that Western Civilization insists on the right, and even the necessity, of civilization.
The fact is, the West used to be “non-Western” in outlook, until Europe was transformed by adopting the Christian heritage as its own. As renowned mathematician and philosopher A.N. Whitehead observed, it was “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God”–and therefore of the world as well–that created modern science.
Our civilization has indeed been blessed with a worldview that produces an astounding abundance of “cargo”–a belief in causality and linear history, so that the earth can be investigated and developed; and a commitment to the rule of law in a free society, so that men and women may realize their highest potential through free-market exchanges of goods and services, without fear of tyranny or oppression.2
In light of what this worldview has produced, the South Sea islanders’ mistake is understandable. For, while Western Civilization isn’t magic, it may well be a Miracle.
- P. T. Bauer, Dissent on Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 78B79. See also David Chilton, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), Chapter 16: “The Basis for Economic Growth,” 217–228. [↩]
- or comprehensive documentation of this thesis from the Middle Ages until the modern era, see Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell, Jr., How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World (New York: Basic Books, 1986). [↩]