Cargo Cult is the trope when a group of people worship an object as gods or deities. This usually happens either because of its advanced technology, or a coincidental resemblance to figures in the local religion.
The trope name comes from the documented effect that World War II military forces had upon natives of various South Pacific islands. Sixty years after the war, some tribes in Vanuatu are still building elaborate fake airfields and praying to idols shaped like DC-3 cargo planes.
There is a mythical character they call "John Frum", who they believe to be the source or harbinger of their prosperity (some anthropologists think this may have been the result of American soldiers introducing themselves as "John, from [America]"). Interestingly, it has helped prevent many older traditions of the islanders being wiped out by conversion to Christianity.
Many Cargo Cults are distinguished by a mixture of native spiritual systems with elaborate economic rituals, as capitalism has come to replace military power as the force of the developed world that is most heavily felt and appreciated in daily life. Such rituals similarly have the aim of appropriating what the natives perceive as the westerner's "power" from his symbols, such as money or materials in addition to technology.
Nowadays the term "cargo cult" is often used as a metaphor for superficial imitation of a certain process without even basic understanding of its mechanism. Those south pacific natives weren't worshiping cargo for nothing. They observed how military forces were constantly getting food and supplies without doing any actual (by their standards) work. The only explanation that made sense was "military activity is some kind of religious ritual rewarded by spiritual deities with all the goods". So, with the military forces gone, natives have tried to reproduce the rituals - that includes imitation landing strips, wooden radio towers, coconut headphones and body paintings in form of military insignias. The metaphor originally was coined by Richard Feynman, who used it in phrase "cargo cult science".
Compare Mighty Whitey and Insufficiently Advanced Alien. Contrast with Sufficiently Advanced Alien. If the society worshiping the religion is post-apocalyptic, try All Hail The Great God Mickey. If the religion worships technology itself rather than as a means to an end, you have a case of Machine Worship.
Unrelated to Cargo Ship.
Note: This trope is for objects being worshiped. If characters pretend to be, or are just mistaken for gods, the trope is God Guise.
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Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann had an underground village that worshipped a "face-God", a Ganmen that had fallen into the village long ago. At the end of the episode, it was revealed that the high priest knew what it really was, and only used the religion to help enact the harsh rules that were vital for the village to survive.
In one of the episodes of the first season of Vandread, the Nirvana crew descends upon an aquatic planet who mistakes them for their "God". They don't mind when the crew mentioned that they weren't Gods, but they do mind when the aforementioned crew was "hurting their true Gods". The Gods that they refer to? The machinelike Harvesters, the same ones that the Nirvana crew have been fighting for at least 5 episodes, who came there for the people's spinal cords (which they knew and willingly offered as part of the religion).
In Gundam 00, Setsuna takes his devotion to Gundams to almost Ave Machina levels, shown by his complete and utter awe when he first saw the 0 Gundam in action right after he declared there is no God, as well as his repeated declarations of "I am Gundam", meaning the complete submission to Celestial Being's ideals by becoming the very symbol of the eradication of conflict (that is, a Gundam). Based on his reaction to the works of Ali and the Trinity team, using a mobile suit even remotely similar in appearance to a Gundam to shed blood just for the hell of itborders on blasphemy to him - seeing that Setsuna is Kurdish and spent an unknown amount of time as a fanaticalChild Soldier who killed his own parents in the name of God, he's capable of one hell of a devotion.
Captain America was worshiped by a tribe of Eskimos after WWII while he was still frozen in a block of Arctic ice. Part of why he eventually thawed was because Namor, furious at what he perceived to be the Eskimo's idiocy in their choice of religion, hurled Cap's ice block into the ocean, and the currents pulled it into warmer climes.
The Tower King, a strip that ran in the British comic book Eagle, was set on an Earth that had collapsed into anarchy when a malfunctioning solar-powered satellite somehow bathed the Earth in radiation that made the production of electricity in any form impossible. A cult worshiping electricity set itself inside a power station, carefully maintaining the generators and pretending that electricity still existed.
In Men In Black 2 a race of tiny aliens living in a rental locker worship a watch that K left behind. When K retrieves this watch, J replaces it with his own, becoming a new deity for the locker people.
In Rango, the animals treat human artifacts like pipes this way for their 'divine' ability to provide water in a desert. Verges on Humans Are Cthulhu at points.
In the sequel to Planet of the Apes, Taylor uncovers a group of humans survived the apocalypse but had been turned into disfigured mutants. They worship an intact, unexploded bomb which they keep enshrined in St. Patrick's Cathedral.
The Nibiruans in the opening sequence of Star Trek Into Darkness begin worshipping the starship Enterprise after seeing it rise out of the water. In keeping with the Prime Directive, a big deal is made out of keeping the starship out of the view of the primitive Nibiruans who have "barely invented the wheel".
The Store-living Nomes in Terry Pratchett's Nomes Trilogy worship Arnold Bros (Est 1905), who built the Store. The Floridian Nomes in Wings worship Nassa, the god who makes clouds. The Nomes living on the streets of Blackbury seem to have been too busy trying to survive to come up with a religion, although the way they treat the Thing comes close.
Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination has the Scientific People, the descendants of a research team that crashed in the asteroid belt, and whose rituals are built around the scientific paraphernalia of the ship.
One book in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series mentions a temple on a planet built to house one old videotape.
There was that Jules Verne novel where they go across Africa in a hot air balloon and at some point the natives decide it's the moon; the characters escape just as the real moon is about to rise.
One of the early Star Wars Expanded Universe novels (Han Solo and the Lost Legacy) featured a group of cargo cultists who were the descendants of the crew of the treasure-laden starship of an ancient warlord; they lived on a backwater planet for generations, maintaining sacred "landing fields" complete with mock-ups of spaceships and ritualized "communications procedures".
The short story "Assumption" (scroll down) by Desmond Warzel features a literalCargo Cult (in that they worship an actual piece of cargo), but eventually becomes a God Guise — a person becomes an object of religious awe because of her advanced technology (she descends from the sky).
The 1984 book Interstellar Pig by William Sleator featured a small spherical object with a face — referred to as the "Pig" — which was highly sought-after by several species. At least one, an all-consuming Hive Mind ooze called the "lichen", believed it was a god of some sort that would bestow upon them eternal wisdom. Of course it turns out that it's more like the Winslow than anything else — an incredibly annoying embodiment of ADHD that uses its reputation as an object of great power (religious or otherwise) to planet-hop like some kind of obnoxious freeloading tourist.
Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars novel The Master Mind of Mars. In the Martian city of Phundahl, the idol of the god Tur has a system of controls that allow the operator inside to control the idol's eyes and speak through its mouth. The protagonists use this to their advantage by pretending to be Tur and giving the Phundahlians instructions.
Older Than Feudalism: The infamous Golden Calf in The Bible. The Israelites wanted a tangible god, so they melted down some gold and sculpted a calf and worshiped the statue ... and were severely punished.
Harry Harrison has a story where a man is sent to repair an ancient, Ragnarok Proof hyperspace beacon on a distant planet. It turns out the builders failed to notice a few stone age reptiles. Since then, the natives found the beacon (a huge tower), and made it a holy shrine (it produced an endless spring of water as part of its coolant system). One of the priests, while cleaning inside, hit the emergency shutdown switch. The protagonist pretends to be a sentry of heaven, sent to restore the spring. After he finishes the repairs, the reptiles attempt to keep him in as a permanent caretaker — in response, he claims the heaven is angry enough to forbid entry into the tower altogether (reinforced by him welding the door shut).
In the Doctor Who novel Night of the Humans, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond find themselves on a giant space junkyard in the year 250,339. One of the first pieces found by the doctor is the Pioneer 10 probe launched back in 1972 with the plaque showing naked humans still intact. And no, despite the potential, the plaque is not the object of worship (in fact, the probe is run over by a vehicle in the first chapter). They find a primitive group of humans living in the shadow of the Tower of Gobo, the hulk of a spaceship of the Gobo Corporation (or Gobocorp) that crashed there thousands of years ago. The humans are the descendants of the surviving crewmembers, having regressed into savagery. They worship Gobo, the clown mascot of Gobocorp proudly painted on the side of the ship, as their deity, believing him to have created them on Earth (yes, they believe they're on Earth) and who will eventually take them away to the mythical land of El Paso. The latter they got from a broken projector showing westerns with no sound, or as they call them "Stories". It helps that Westerns usually have clearly-defined good guys and bad guys, allowing the humans to interpret the good guys as Gobo's children/apostles and the bad guys as the Bad, the enemy of Gobo. Anyone who disagrees with the teachings or claiming that the junkyard is not Earth is considered a heretic and put to death, as they must be the servants of the Bad.
Being a holy shrine to them, the Tower is off-limits to all. Only once does the current leader send a "word-slinger" (the only person per generation who knows how to read) inside. The latter quickly loses his faith after discovering the ship logs.
Jack London's short story 'The Red One' is about a terminally ill European explorer who discovers a Melanesian tribe that worships a gigantic and seemingly extraterrestrial red sphere embedded in a hidden crater.
Played with in the science-fiction short story 'Hinterlands' by William Gibson; this time, it's humanity who are on the receiving end, and by the end of the book we're still no wiser as to how the whole thing works or why. The rule is that you must travel to a set point in space and release a radio-flare; if you do, you 'disappear' and come back after a lengthy period of time, either dead or insane, but carrying a random alien object that might be valuable. More than a little unsettling.
Robert Sheckley has a story about an After the End civilization, where all that remains from the past (over five thousand years ago) is a religion based around a system of elaborate rituals which are supposed to be performed for arriving "gods". For the past three thousand years, there has been a debate about whether all the rituals must be performed as always, or perhaps a feast for the gods must be prepared first. The story is centered on the debate continuing in front of two starving "gods". The newer point of "feast first" wins out in the end, and seems to win completely once the "gods'" behavior shows how happy they are with the food and drink offered.
In Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite, the ship that brought the original colonists is still orbiting Geta, a bright light in the sky. The Getans don't know what it is, but they know their ancestors said it brought them to Geta, so they worship it as a God.
In Taylor Anderson's Destroyermen, the Lemurians have Sky Priests who guide their massive home-ships through the sea by using sacred scrolls handed down to them for many generations. The Sky Priests don't let anybody else see the scrolls, as they're the only ones who can read their holy tongue. When the men from the USS Walker arrive on one of the home-ships, they quickly find out that the sacred scrolls are old charts written in Latin, left there by a man who came over centuries ago on an East Indiaman. While the Lemurians accept the truth when told, the Sky Priests still bristle whenever they see a chart openly displayed for anyone to see, especially since those charts are in English.
Live Action TV
The Red Dwarf episode "Waiting For God" reveals that the race of humanoids that evolved from Lister's pet cat discovered his plan to move to Fiji (which they called Fuschal) and open a hot dog and donut stand, and built an entire religion around it. They near-obliterated themselves in a holy war over what color the silly hats for the wait staff would be, and then the survivors left to search for Fuschal using star charts left behind by "Cloister" — the old laundry list used by Lister to line the original cat's bed. (The colors fought over were red and blue. Lister, however, intended them to be green.)
In the novelization, the cats are waiting for "Cloister", who has been frozen in time, but will one day re-emerge to lead them to "Bearth". The other cats believe exactly the same thing, except he was called "Clister". Naturally, they nearly wipe out their own species in religious war, then leave to find the promised land.
An episode of Star Trek: Voyager has Chakotay and Seven crash land on a planet inhabited by primitive humans. Their women begin to wear bones and salvaged electrical equipment on their faces to match Seven's borg implants, while the men begin to copy Chakotay's tribal tattoo.
In the Doctor Who episode The Face of Evil both the Tesh and the Sevateem do this, to different extents. Played with a bit in that they're worshiping their own technology, just from a different point in time.
Stand Up Comedy
During his Dandelion Mind tour, comedian Bill Bailey gets the crowd worshiping an oud.
Call Of Cthulhu adventure Glozel Est Authentique! by Theater of the Mind Enterprises. In the distant past the people who lived in Glozel, France interacted with Phoenician traders. When the traders stopped coming the people created tablets with Phoenician characters on them to try to bring them back.
Sufficiently Advanced includes Cargo Cults as one of the types of civilizations PCs can come from. Due to the hectic far flung nature of the diaspora, and the insanely advanced science of most of the cultures cargo cults are incredibly common, and the PCs can end up dealing with them fairly often.
Interestingly, the original premise for the game was entirely based around cargo cults, until the creator had a better idea.
A variation occurs in Exalted; before the rise of the Guild, there were many people who worshiped the Order Conferring Trade Pattern (an ancient series of magical financial networks) based on the mistaken view that the Pattern functioned by directly converting prayer into fiscal prosperity. Most of those cults are long since defunct, having proven easy marks for Brem Marst when he needed the funds to start the Guild.
In Warhammer 40 K, man's comprehension of technology has fallen so sharply that humans believe that all technological devices have spirits that have to be appeased through prayer and worship before they will work properly.
In Fallout 3, the town of Megaton has an undetonated atomic bomb in the town square, and much of the early development was done with the help of those who came to worship the bomb. Oddly enough, disarming the bomb seems to have no noticeable effect on the cult (but then again, you can't really tell an armed nuke from the unarmed kind until they blow).
Fallout Tactics also featured a cult of Ghouls worshiping a nuclear weapon as a God, which they named Plutonius.
Project Eden has the earth people, who live on the ground (everybody else lives in a really tall skyscraper) and mentioned they would be scared to live so high up, in case they fell down like the rubbish they collect.
The Covenant from the Halo games and Expanded Universe. In addition to worshipping the Forerunners as literal gods, the Covenant hold all technology created by them as holy, to the point where improving or modifying any technology reverse-engineered from Forerunner ruins is tantamount to heresy.*
In First Strike, Cortana improves the Covenant Assault Carrier Ascendant Justice's slipspace drive and plasma weapons by modifying the settings.
The native Nali in Unreal are a simple, agricultural race with some advanced technology (hinting to an ancient, more violent history) that they believe are sacred relics — for instance, they call the rocket launcher "stick of six fires", which "came from the Nali water god when the star fell from the sky", and put it on a holy pedestal.
In Avernum 3 you encounter a Cargo Cult that seems to worship random junk they've collected or stolen from various places. They do worship some valuable artifacts as well, but that doesn't make them any less deranged.
In The Elder Scrolls, there is a minor race of gorillas called the Imga who worship High Elves and seek to emulate them, to the point of shaving off their fur and powdering their skin.
Done in The Order of the Stick, when Elan visits an island filled with primitive orcs. At first, they treat him like any other human... until he brings out Banjo, when they start bowing in supplication. That's right: the orcs thought that Elan's kooky hand-puppet was a God.
Of course, Elan also thinks Banjo's a God. He's actually pretty stoked that someone else is acknowledging it, although he's not so happy that the orcs won't give Banjo back.
Taz Mania: In "The Bushrats Must Be Crazy", the Bushrats start worshiping Jake's rubber duck.
As mentioned in the description, the John Frum cults. Frum himself is a sort of amalgamation of Uncle Sam, Santa Claus, and John the Baptist; the name is believed to be a corruption of "John from America", though another theory holds that it's based on a letter "from John". They believe he will return on a February 15th, celebrated each year as John Frum day. In some circles, John Frum is considered to be Prince Phillip's brother. A National Geographic reporter asked a John Frum cult leader how he could still keep a cargo cult going despite the modernizations that have come to his island. The leader replied "We've only been waiting for our prophet for 60 years. You've been waiting for2,000."