Bokononism is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths. A foundation of Bokononism is that the religion, including its texts, is formed entirely of lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life. The primary tenet of Bokononism is to "Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."
Bokonon, a character in the novel, is the founder of the religion. He was born Lionel Boyd Johnson in 1891 and attended the London School of Economics to study Political Science, only to have his education cut short by World War I. "Bokonon" was the way the natives of San Lorenzo, the fictional Caribbean island-nation where the ship-wrecked Johnson started his religion, pronounced his family name in their unique dialect of English.
Bokonon established Bokononism with Earl McCabe, his partner in ruling the island, when all the duo's efforts to raise the standard of living on the island failed, as a means to help the poor islanders escape their miserable reality by practicing a simple, useful religion. Arranging with McCabe that Bokononism be outlawed and eternally persecuted by the government, he went to live in the jungle, supposedly hiding, thus trying to lure the population into Bokononism as a kind of forbidden fruit.
Bokononism encompasses a number of unique concepts expressed in the San Lorenzan dialect:
- boko-maru – the supreme act of worship of the Bokononists, which is an intimate act consisting of prolonged contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons.
- "Busy, busy, busy" – what a Bokononist whispers whenever he thinks about how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.
- "Calypso" – song from The Books of Bokonon. Eight such songs are cited in Cat's Cradle, some of them are presented with a title (i.e. On Dynamic Tension or The Boko-maru Calypso) and others are presented with a number (i.e. The Hundred-and-nineteenth Calypso). The Calypsos illustrate various aspects of the teachings of Bokonon.
- duffle – the destiny of thousands of people placed on one stuppa
- duprass – a karass that consists of only two people. This is one of the few kinds of karass about which one can have any reliable knowledge. The two members of a duprass live lives that revolve around each other, and are therefore often married. "A true duprass can't be invaded, not even by children born of such a union." The novel cites the example of "Horlick Minton, the New American Ambassador to the Republic of San Lorenzo, and his wife, Claire." The two members of a duprass always die within a week of each other.
- foma – harmless untruths; lies that, if used correctly, can be useful.
- granfalloon – a false karass; i.e., a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example is "Hoosiers"; Hoosiers are people from Indiana, and Hoosiers have no true spiritual destiny in common, so they really share little more than a name. Another example is a Cornellian, a student or graduate of Cornell University.
- kan-kan – the instrument which brings one into one's karass
- karass – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident.
- "Now I will destroy the whole world" – What a Bokononist says before committing suicide.
- pool-pah – wrath of God or "shit storm"
- saroon – to acquiesce to a vin-dit
- sin-wat – a person who wants all of somebody's love for him/herself
- sinookas – the tendrils of one's life
- stuppa – a fogbound child (i.e. an idiot)
- vin-dit – a sudden shove in the direction of Bokononism
- wampeter – the central theme or purpose of a karass. A karass generally has one wampeter that it revolves around, but there can be two if one is shifting out of focus (waning) and a new one is coming in as the central theme (waxing).
- wrang-wrang – someone who steers a Bokononist away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the wrang-wrang's own life, to an absurdity.
- Zah-mah-ki-bo – fate, inevitable destiny
- The title of Vonnegut's collection Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons refers to several Bokononist concepts, and his short book A Man Without a Country uses several illustrated quotes from Bokonon – drawn from Cat's Cradle – to introduce some chapters.
- Bernard Hare's Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew: "I think we should make Bokononism the official religion of Ashtrayland, don't you, Urban?",
- Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction: "In Bokonon, it is written that 'peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.'"
- Norman Spinrad's He Walked Among Us: p395 "I believe in the foma that make you strong and brave and happy..." and "...he had flipped her Vonnegut's line about foma, useful lies that made you strong and brave and happy..."
- Jo Walton's Among Others has references to granfaloons and karass.
- Don Lancaster's Incredible Secret Money Machine books refer to granfaloons.
- The song "Nice, Nice, Very Nice" by Ambrosia set the 53rd Calypso from Cat's Cradle to music.
- The Born Ruffians song "Kurt Vonnegut" quotes a Bokononist saying.
- The Dockmen wrote (and sing) "Mona" based on a beautiful woman Bokonon taught when she was very young. (Source: a tweet from the band, October 2013, to the Vonnegut Library)
- Jack Lancaster fronted a band in the early 1970s named "Karass" which included Chick Web, Percy Jones, John Goodsall and Robin Lumley.
- Dan Mangan, a Canadian folk singer and Vonnegut enthusiast, released his second album Nice, Nice, Very Nice in August 2009, featuring a very Vonnegut tone within the lyrics.
- Minimal Man uses the Calypsos as the lyrics to "jungle song".
- "Foma" is a song and CD title from the rock band The Nixons.
- Dave Soldier's CD Ice-9 Ballads, setting Vonnegut's lyrics to music. Includes "14th Calypso," "119th Calypso," and "Nice Very Nice." Narrated by Kurt Vonnegut.
- James Taylor skats "Bokonon, Bokonon" in his live version of "Steamroller Blues".
- "The Camp of Bokonon" annually attend Burning Man each year, using the language as described within Cat's Cradle to create their own social unit and help spread the foma to all who have ears.