World Religions, Vonnegut Style

cats cradleI.

 Siddhartha is the go-to novel for teaching World Religions—just look at some syllabi. The choice makes sense. It’s short. It covers two religions, Buddhism and Hinduism (three if you count Hesse’s Christian subtext). There’s philosophy, history, and a great story.

 But Siddhartha suffers from a debilitating flaw common to many books about religion. In the words of Roald Dahl’s Matilda:


“I think Mr. C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.”

Funny bits are a useful teaching tool at any age. Humor disarms readers and allows an author to smuggle in serious criticism without appearing threatening. This is Vonnegut’s strategy in Cat’s Cradle, a satirical masterpiece that gets you laughing at the invented religion of Bokononism and then, bam, it’s too late, and you realize you’re laughing at every belief system that’s ever existed, atheism included. Siddhartha leaves you feeling inspired; Cat’s Cradle leaves you feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut. Religion classes need more gut-punching and less inspiration. Otherwise it’s easy to forget that religions themselves are usually a combination of both.


(Those familiar with the novel may want to skip to section III, where Cat’s Cradle gets paired with cargo cults for an intense lesson plan.)

Rest assured, gut-punching is perfectly compatible with traditional education. Seriously, Cat’s Cradle might as well be rebranded as a religion textbook. Want to teach critical theory? No problem. The songs of Bokononism cover it all.

Frazer and Tylor on religious belief as explanation of the natural world:

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land,
Man got to tell himself he understand.

Freud on repression; Weber and Marx on the connection between religion and economics:

Oh, a very sorry people, yes,
Did I find here.
Oh, they had no music,
And they had no beer.
And, oh, everywhere
Where they tried to perch
Belonged to Castle Sugar, Incorporated,
Or the Catholic Church.

Durkheim on ritual? Try boko-maru, a Bokononist practice in which two people mingle their awareness by sitting on the floor, extending their legs, and putting together the soles of their feet.

We will touch our feet, yes,
Yes, for all we’re worth,
And we will love each other, yes,
Yes, like we love our Mother Earth.

There’s a Bokononist creation myth. There’s a hagiographical account of Lionel Boyd Johnson’s rebirth as Bokonon, savior of the natives that inhabit a small island called San Lorenzo. Best of all, Vonnegut deploys philosophical and theological themes that cross-cut religious traditions, so the book can serve as a kind of review:

“Which Calypso reinforces the Buddhist ideal of detachment?”

[Answer: See Chapter 119.]

“Can you find a parallel to the Islamic practice of wudu?”

[Answer: Your feet must be clean before performing boko-maru.]

“How are the opening lines of the Books of Bokonon similar to the opening of the Daodejing?”

[Answer: Because they appear to mean pretty much the same thing.]

No wonder the University of Chicago accepted Cat’s Cradle as a thesis, awarding Vonnegut an anthropology M.A. in 1971. Struggling dissertators, take note!


Back to the gut-punching.

My approach is to assign Cat’s Cradle along with Will Bourne’s 1995 Harper’s article, “The gospel according to Prum.” (Purchase required.)

The article describes a small community of believers on a South Pacific island who exemplify what is known as the cargo cult phenomenon. Bourne explains:

[Cargo cults] are strange religious hybrids that result when the baubles of industry are dropped into a place that has never encountered them before. The best-known examples come from the South Pacific at the time of the Second World War. As Douglas MacArthur pincered his way up toward the Japanese, he leapfrogged across islands that had scarcely seen a piece of steel, let alone vast, floating villages vomiting thousands of white men, Jeeps, radios, refrigerators, and hospitals onto the beach. Understandably, the locals were impressed. But they also were confounded: they never saw these things produced; the goods simply appeared. And how do you explain a radio to someone who has no concept of electricity–how it is that talking into a little box can cause a great metal bird to come from a place he didn’t know existed and dump things that float down from the sky? How do you explain a cube of cold air to someone living at the equator? What is glass? What is magnification?

In a world crawling with the spirits of the dead, the answer was “magic.” Local logic ran that if the white man’s magic were copied accurately, the black man’s cargo would come as well. Melanesians are great believers in equality, and it seemed obvious to them that if white folks had all this great stuff, they should get theirs, too. Wooden radios were built with vines running out the back as antennae; airstrips were hacked out of the jungle; lookouts were posted.

John Prum (also spelled Frum) is believed to have been an American military man who visited the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. Through a complicated and contested series of events, the natives eventually founded a religion based on his authority. Like Bokononism, their religion combines Christian elements with other traditions, producing a peculiar hybrid:

“Elizabeth is the keeper of the church, which has two crosses. The first is not so much a cross as a piece of four-by-four set upright in the black gravel floor: this is the ‘custom cross,’ and on it the local people crucified Jesus Christ, a black man from Tanna. Later, during the time of Noah’s Ark, his spirit went with Mary to ‘A-Mary-ka,’ where Mary gave birth again, this time to the white Jesus known to us. The second cross is five feet tall and red: it was given by John Prum as ‘a sign of the white Jesus, who was crucified in Bethlehem.’ When the black Jesus was crucified on the custom cross, ‘all the chiefs of Tanna were decided’; when the white Jesus was crucified, ‘all the flags went red and the governments of the world were decided.’ ”

It is easy to laugh at Bokononism and its practitioners, because Bokononism is fictional. It is harder to laugh at those who believe in the John Prum Movement, because they are real. The uncanny resemblance between Bokononism and the John Prum Movement forces a terrible realization: actual belief systems are founded on falsehoods that we find laughable. There is no recourse to lazy ecumenical tolerance: Maybe all religions are true! Not so for the John Prum Movement. Do we laugh at it? Do we have the courage to say it’s false?

Next question: If the natives of Tanna are capable of such a colossal mistake, what about us? Surely we are not inherently wiser than they. Isn’t it possible that the great religions of the world are also built on laughable falsehoods? Couldn’t all people of faith be worshipping some form of Bokononism? After all, Bokononism resembles established faiths as much as it resembles the John Prum Movement. What if Marx and Freud were right?

I wanted all things
To seem to make sense,
So we all could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world
A par-a-dise.

Too often, World Religions courses serve as tepid, uncritical, pluralistic appreciations of religious diversity, an approach for which Siddhartha is a perfect fit. That’s well and good, but no religious tradition will survive if it doesn’t confront the most powerful arguments against its veracity. I do not teach Cat’s Cradle in order to destroy my students’ faith, should they have any. I teach it, in part, because I want my religious students to have strong faith, not some thoughtless weekend church-going superficiality (of the kind that bothered Kierkegaard so much). Strong faith is born of doubt and self-criticism. No one knows this better than Vonnegut, whose own faith lay somewhere between the sardonic falsehoods of Bokononism and no faith at all. The narrator’s final verdict on Bokononism?

“Such a depressing religion!” I cried.

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