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!

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