Uncommon Sense

March 31, 2021

The Role of Tradition in Culture

Back when I was in college I got my hands on a set of “The Story of Civilization,” then about ten volumes I think, and read them. I then found and read “The Lessons of History” from the same duo. These are brilliant expositions on the “big picture” of human history and, I am sure, full of mistakes and flaws as are all works of history, but glorious nonetheless.

I ran across a quote or summary of a point made in The Lessons of History; here it is:

“It seems arrogant to doubt tradition too much, to think that your supposedly brilliant mind could develop a better solution in 30 or 40 years than humankind has developed over thousands of years of working together. For this reason, it’s quite possible that we discount how useful and powerful religion can be.” (Will and Ariel Durant)

It “seems” arrogant? Hmm. It might if there were tradition minders woven into the scheme of our culture, but traditions happen willy-nilly, especially religiously. (Yes, I am aware of massive convocations held to determine what dogmas and traditions will be in this or that church, but most of these meetings are stage shows for the spectators rather than real working sessions. Most of the decisions of such councils were already made before they convened.)

I often refer to traditions as “the ways we have always done things,” not as a disparagement but as a reminder that traditions are cultural memories. So, that crafts and arts and knowledge not get lost over time, they are made into “traditions,” that is something important to remember. A son learning a traditional craft from his father might be cheeky enough to ask “why” during a training session but was liable to receive a slap for his challenge. A good father reinforced the importance of this knowledge/skill being transmitted and made it “special” in the mind of the son.

So, traditional knowledge was passed from father to son, mother to daughter and from uncles and aunts, too. This was knowledge too important to be left to chance: what plants are poisonous to eat, the hunting grounds for certain animals and the techniques used to hunt them, the techniques used to knap rocks into tools, etc.

Now, these “learnings” were hard to come by and dangerous if lost, but as the pace of change has accelerated, are lost at an ever increasing rate. Why? Because the traditional knowledge became irrelevant. For example, when tools made of metal became commonplace, being able to make cruder versions out of stone became less valuable. The convenience of email and texting has made letter writing a less important skill.

Tradition yields to change over time and that is normal. So, in the phrase “It seems arrogant to doubt tradition too much” the key words are “too much.” So what constitutes “too much?” Discarding useful things has consequences, but sometimes it spurs rediscovery or even invention that betters the whole situation. I suggest that possibly what is being said is that tradition is not something to discard casually.

And that brings me to “it’s quite possible that we discount how useful and powerful religion can be.” I wish they would have said “religion is” because there is a large gap between “can be” and “is.” In any case, religion is the embodiment of tradition. Although these traditions seem to be far much less pragmatic than flintknapping, or basket weaving, or growing the Three Sisters. (Which is why religions horned in on other, more useful, traditions (Blessing the crops, blessing the harvest. marking the changes of season).The Durants (both dead now) were on the whole religious positivists, that is, all in all, religion has been a positive force in human society. I, on the other hand, see religion as a control mechanism to coerce the labor of the masses to serve the interests of the elites, both religious and secular.

In the context of religious tradition, therefore, do we ask: “Has this or that religion become a tradition passed over? Is it time to discard it?” This question is being acted out in American culture right now. The rise of the “Nones,” people who participate in no religion has been accelerating and now the Nones outnumber the most popular religious sect in the U.S. (We’re No. 1!; we’re No. 1!) What few people know is that a majority of the Nones still harbor some sort of belief in a “higher power.” They have not thrown off the shackles of supernatural nonsense, they have just thrown off the shackles of “houses of worship.”

I am one who thinks that superstitious nonsense is not at all helpful as it is all make believe. The comfort religion supplies is based upon being familiar, for example. To get to the place where we can discard the tradition of believing superstitious nonsense, we have to discard religion, a reinforcer of superstition nonsense first, so I guess progress is being made . . . cautiously, as the Durants would advocate. Instead of Shakespeare’s “First, kill all of the lawyers,” we are at the “First, defund all of the priests” stage.

Progress marches on!

August 14, 2018

More on Social Control of Society

Filed under: Culture — Steve Ruis @ 9:36 am
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I commented recently that “Societies that do not control their own member’s behavior do not survive.” Obviously I am no expert but it is clear that certain memes are fed to us with our mother’s milk that are used as levers later to control what ether happens or can happen.

One of these is tradition. We do things traditionally or because of a tradition. This is basically a brake upon change. A tradition is simply a different way to say “the way we have always done this.” In a culture, this is a way to not forget important things, but how are these traditions created? They are created by people creating them … out of any sort of motivation they want. This is how an annual golf tournament is first staged. How a memorial service is begun (just do it and talk about doing it again next year). Many things are just done in the course of events and become “the way we have always done it.” Coming to my mind are things like harvest festivals and mid-winter fests. As a tradition Christmas, which seems so entrenched now, had a very tough row to hoe (look up the history of Christmas and you will see how many ups and downs it has had).

Another such cultural construct is “honor.” The concept probably stemmed from less experienced hunters being trained by more experienced hunters. It morphed into a code of conduct (actually many such codes) that we applied in militaries, secret societies, etc. In some cultures, honor is prized above many things more real. In a number of countries now there are still honor killings (India?). A young woman gets raped and thus brings dishonor to her family (WTF?) and so her family kills her. Presumably her “reward” will be in whatever afterlife is made available to her.

A third concept is pride. This has both positive and negative connotations. “Have you no pride?” is an admonishment of an underachiever. “You need to take pride in what you have accomplished!” is a compliment. “Pride goeth before a fall” is a warning to not become too prideful. It seems as if there is a pride economy out there in which you can accumulate credits. Could we live without this concept? I suggest, yes, very well.

We are social animals. We have controls on individual behavior to benefit the whole group. Gossip is one such … yes, gossip. By “telling” on everyone, no one in the tribe will be unaware of a miscreant’s misdeeds. Of course, too much of a good thing is always possible and always a mistake. Think of the opinion we have of gossips and scolds. The list above shows others.

So, why do we not educate our people as to these controls and how to function well under them? Is great puzzlement.

Postscript I had a student I was mentoring about what he could get from college. He shared some of his poetry with me. It was not even sophomoric (he was as yet a freshman) but was characterized by lacking any capital letters. I asked about this and he told me it was because of E.E. Cummings (or e.e. cummings as many like to award him) a poet who often used no capitalization. Obviously what was being copied was form and not substance. This is a common mistake of the young (I sure did it a lot). So, since copying is a major source of learning, maybe we need to educate all as to how we control anti-social behavior in our culture. We already teach about the rule of law and law enforcement as a societal control, maybe we need to look into the other founts of such control, including religion.

 

 

August 21, 2017

Yeah But What Does It Mean?

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:19 am
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Today is the big (view one from the U.S. for the first time since the late 1970’s) solar eclipse day, so I might as well blog on it!

Historically…,

  • The Pomo, an indigenous group of people who live in the northwestern United States, tell a story of a bear who started a fight with the Sun and took a bite out of it. In fact, the Pomo name for a solar eclipse is Sun got bit by a bear. After taking a bite of the Sun and resolving their conflict, the bear, as the story goes, went on to meet the Moon and take a bite out of the Moon as well, causing a lunar eclipse.
  • According to the legends of the Batammaliba, who live in Benin and Togo, an eclipse of the Sun meant that the Sun and the Moon were fighting and that the only way to stop them from hurting each other was for people on Earth to resolve all conflicts with each other.
  • The ancient Greeks believed that a solar eclipse was a sign of angry gods and that it was the beginning of disasters and destruction.
  • The Tewa tribe from New Mexico believed that a solar eclipse signaled an angry Sun who had left the skies to go to his house in the underworld.
  • In Vietnam, people believed that a solar eclipse was caused by a giant frog devouring the Sun, while Norse cultures blamed wolves for eating the Sun.
  • In ancient China, a celestial dragon was thought to lunch on the Sun, causing a solar eclipse. In fact, the Chinese word of an eclipse, chih or shih, means to eat.
  • According to ancient Hindu mythology, the deity Rahu is beheaded by the gods for capturing and drinking Amrita, the gods’ nectar. Rahu’s head flies off into the sky and swallows the Sun causing an eclipse.
  • Korean folklore offers another ancient explanation for solar eclipses. It suggests that solar eclipses happen because mythical dogs are trying to steal the Sun. Traditionally, people in many cultures get together to bang pots and pans and make loud noises during a solar eclipse. It is thought that making a noise scares the demon causing the eclipse away.

Look, Mom, the sky has a zit!

And Now?
Many people around the world still see eclipses as evil omens that bring death, destruction, and disasters.

  • A popular misconception is that solar eclipses can be a danger to pregnant women and their unborn children. In many cultures, young children and pregnant women are asked to stay indoors during a solar eclipse.
  • In many parts of India, people fast during a solar eclipse due to the belief that any food cooked while an eclipse happens will be poisonous and unpure.
  • Not all superstitions surrounding solar eclipses are about doom. In Italy, for example, it is believed that flowers planted during a solar eclipse are brighter and more colorful than flowers planted any other time of the year.

But What Does It Really Mean?
Well, it doesn’t mean anything, but it is a sign, a sign that all is right with the solar system. Scientists have calculated the orbits of all of the planets and plantesimals and have determined the times and places solar and lunar eclipses will occur for centuries. It means that the orbits of these objects are dependable. We should only worry when they no longer become dependable.

And We Can Count On?
Some idiot Republican will point out that solar power is just not dependable, as dependable as oil and coal, for instance.

And Need I Say…
That all of these, uh, traditional “beliefs” about eclipses, which are rather mundane astronomical occurrences, have been incorporated into local religions to make sure that these superstitions are preserved: Religion … working to make people’s lives less understandable since the dawn of time!

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