Why I celebrate John Frum Day

Nov 6, 2012

Discussion by: This Is Not A Meme
Every February 15th, the villagers of Tanna gather to summon John Frum by forming marching lines and hoisting an American flag.

John Frum Day is a cargo-cult ritual, an anthropological anomaly born of culture clash between people of Edenic innocence and those who’s existence rivals that of Greek gods. Richard Dawkins refers to John Frum rituals in The Origins of Faith.


For me John Frum Day is an ironic and humorous holiday, but it also involves the sincere reverence afforded to the faithful on their holidays. I am reminded that people who live as my ancestors, see the marvels science as nothing less than magic. This fills me with appreciation for the technological world I live in, the bountiful synthetic products, the ease with which I travel, and everything from life extending medicines to the simple act of conjuring a flame by rolling my thumb across a machine fashioned flint to ignite finely regulated, pressurized gas. It is also a glib reminder of the disparity of material and intellectual resources amongst our species. The people of Tanna pray for cargo, the medicines and conveniences of the modern world, commodities which I have in ridiculous, unusable abundance. Mindful of this, and fitting with the humorous themes, I distribute band-aids, pencils, lighters, vitamins, and other practical goods.

At first this was just for fun and the chance to popularize the story of John Frum (soft proselytizing for atheism). As my circle of celebrants has grown, so have our resources. Living in an American city where poverty is starkly apparent on each paved block, the obvious thing has occurred to us, give this cargo to those who need it. Socks, rain coats, food, and items for the elderly comprise our John Frum efforts. This is simply something mammals do, care for one another.

It can be said, the John Frum movement began as opposition to the harmful mythology of Christianity. Perhaps the practitioners share in the irony, as did the Bokononists in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. The John Frum movement seeks a return to “kustom”, rejecting the influence of Christian missionaries that descended upon them during colonial rule. Christianity has led to recent violence on the island, as followers of Prophet Fred seek to eliminate the heresy of John Frum. Prophet Fred is a charlatan who won over a village by ‘predicting’ the collapse of a delicate natural structure. He preaches Christ’s return, which is two millennium overdo, while mocking the hopes of John Frum’s return. How I would love to prove him wrong with a grand exhibition of modern generosity, ala cargo!

As Christians made a holiday of the Pagan New Year (April Fools Day), February 15th can become an atheist holiday, recognizing the absurdity of religion while practicing generosity without the hope of heavenly rewards.

Will you be marking your calendar?

10 comments on “Why I celebrate John Frum Day

  • This is a beautiful idea. I will look into it and try to to organize something for next John Frum’s day, here in Portugal. With the economic crisis getting worse, this initiative would have the perfect timing.

    Truly inspiring 🙂

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  • 2
    canadian_right says:

    Personally, I cannot support a cargo cult. As a rational person I don’t want to take over an irrational belief. Why not celebrate the publishing of of Einstein’s theory of relativity?

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  • 5
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    So pleased to see this get posted. It’s a John Frum Day miracle!

    As it is irrational to destroy food when others are hungry, a group of us scour San Francisco where much food is destroyed, and distribute it in Oakland. When restaurants ask us if we are with a group, we say “John Frum Day” and they jot it down with no remark. The following week, they laugh when they see us. Being generous and clever should make us smile.

    Church influence over charity has its harms. For many homeless atheists, going into a church for food is not an option. Dignity is a precious commodity and many draw the line at a church door, making their hunger and pain a silent protest to reaffirm their integrity. I’ve heard this vocalized by homeless atheists in many US cities. Being homeless is isolating, as can be being an atheist. I wonder if in some communities if being an atheist can contribute to being homeless, just as stigma towards gays results in homelessness. It is certainly a factor in their experience. Many churches only feed people after they undergo a sermon or some other psychically abusive ritual.

    The trauma of sexual abuse is also a factor in homelessness. With no government safety-net in the US to guard against homelessness (thanks to Ronald Reagan), the emotional difficulties one can face from abuse can be all it takes to wind up homeless. This is another reason many may avoid churches for food. Not only is the church a statistical hot-spot for such abuse, the message of Christianity is very harmful and insulting to victims of sexual abuse. Teaching assault is “God’s Plan”, the stigma of being tainted (especially if homosexual in nature), and the ribald misogyny taut in ancient myths, is a further injustice against victims made even worse by offering of food for it to be endured.

    When it comes to marching around with bamboo rifles and hoisting an American flag, that’s not my thing but it would certainly get people talking. There’s something about truth that undermines bullshit, even if it is seemingly unrelated. Darwin and Galileo did not make discoveries concerning YHWH, and yet it undermined it. Raising awareness of cargo cults can certainly do the same.

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  • 6
    QuestioningKat says:

    This is so funny.

    It’s unfortunate that it is so close to Valentine’s Day. Perhaps the holiday needs to be hijacked in order to “westernize” the John Frum Day. Perhaps love notes and chocolates could be added to the cargo.

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  • 7
    rationalmind says:

     If that is too close to Valentine’s Day. Then celebrate the birthday of living god and brother of John Frum on  10th June. Who is this living god?  Well some of the islanders worship Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh consort of Queen Elizabeth II.

    No I am not joking. There really are islanders who worship “Phil the Greek”.


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  • 9
    Jimthomsen says:

    I know it’s been awhile since this was posted, but I just found it. Fantastic! Over the past two years I have spent a lot of time on Tanna and with many John Frum followers. I got to know Chief Issac, current leader of the John Frum Movement and his grandson, Moli, most likely the next leader.
    I have read so many reports, articles and research about the movement, but you are the first to point out the Prophet Fred story correctly! Thank you! Prophet Fred and the John Frum Unity Movement is supported by Christian churchs in th US. Not that his followers have really become true Christians..they still consider Yasur the higher god it seems.
    One thing that does bother me is the way the religion is treated. In the Smithsonian article they joke about it. Lonely Planet guide to Vanuatu refers to “they worship a god of their collective imagination.” Can you image a Lonely Planet guide to Rome saying, “visit the Vatican where they worship a god of their collective imagination.” But I guess I would feel OK if they changed the Rome guide to that.

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  • 10
    woodapeapoligistforlife says:

    John Frum Day is coming up. I wanted to play a small part in spreading the word and getting the conversation going. It is fascinating how John Frum is almost a composite character of somebody who may or may not have actually lived a long time ago yet remains seared in the public imagination. Could Christ have been a composite character? There seems to be enough evidence to have a meaningful conversation.

    For what its worth, there is a company that just made a John Frum coffee mug. The ultimate conversation starter. This is not spam.

    I’m looking forward to seeing more chatter on the internet this year about John Frum day. Socially accepted monotheists look upon John Frum followers with shock and disdain while their customs and beliefs are equally bizarre.

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