Religion and the need for tradition

In today’s culture, things change rapidly. We almost seem to take it for granted that something you know today will be different tomorrow, maybe radically so. But human beings historically haven’t been accustomed to rapid change for very long. It used to be what your father knew, and what his father knew, wouldn’t be different from what you knew too. There were certain ways of doing things, and that’s all that you needed to be aware of. The process isn’t all that different from what happens in the rest of the animal kingdom; the young learn from imitating their parents (at least, that’s true for higher mammals that possess lager brains and more complicated social networks). We’ve been doing it for so long that those who got the most out of it, tended to have more offspring.

In a way, this appeal to tradition isn’t something that originated only in our various cultures; there was a real need to get busy learning from your elders. Naturally, the way most cultures developed centered around the idea that the ancient ways were always better ways of doing things. For a long time, the West was positively mystified by the wisdom and genius of the ancients. Medieval Europe could barely build two story structures, and yet the Roman Empire had built huge temples and palaces. Compared to them, the Romans seemed light years ahead of them – in art, architecture, and governance. The ancient Greeks were looked upon with reverence; their philosophers and thinkers were considered the leading authorities, even though they had been dead for nearly 1000 years.

In the old days, the best place for you to learn anything, to be entertained, and to be saved, was the church. Religion was your news program, your theater, and obviously, your direct line to God. And it wasn’t just yours. It was your father’s, and his father’s too, for as far back as anyone could remember. Even the priests, who knew how to read and had surely read a few books themselves, would have been totally clueless as to whether things had ever been vastly different from the way it was then. Religion was more than just a way of explaining how the world worked; it was a tradition, and like every other aspect of daily life, traditions were something important to keep, if not only for your immediate and long term survival.

Like any tradition, the way religion worked didn’t change very much with time. There was a particular way of preaching the sermons, of listening to confessions, and all the other humdrum of daily theological living. And like any tradition that exists for a very long time, it becomes particularly stylized, and very good at passing itself down. Tradition relies on mindless repetition; the more automated something can be, the better. It’s easier to pass down knowledge if it can be broken down into easy to repeat steps, especially in an age where textbooks on how to do things aren’t very accessible, or even non-existent.

An action repeated a hundred times is something well learned. An action performed a million times, by a million people, is a tradition, and our instinctual need for tradition creates a kind of automated complacency. It’s rare that any of us actually question long standing traditions, no matter how strange they might appear to others. How many of us truly think about the origins and purpose of a Christmas tree, compared with the amount of people who buy one anyway, and put them in their home? Surely, if your neighbor began a new tradition of hanging a dead horse in front of his garage every May 14th, we would be terribly curious as to the reason why he would do such a thing. But if his father, and his grandfather, as well as yours and thousands of others were doing this for countless generations, it wouldn’t be a big deal at all. In fact, you would probably be looking forward to May 14th, having carefully picked your horse well in advance. If you think my example seems strange and barbaric, consider that the Vikings, every nine years, would kill and hang every kind of animal they could upside down in pine trees around the winter solstice. The tradition of Christmas trees is at least partly influenced by this. We must remember as time rolls on, traditions themselves become stylized, and alter themselves according to our new needs and values.

Traditions becoming stylized do not necessarily mean changes happen frequently or quickly for that matter. They require consistency above anything else, or else they run the risk of altering themselves and becoming completely unrecognizable from generation to generation, something akin to a game of telephone. The appeal of religion is rooted in the need for consistency and predictability all traditions offer. It is far safer to go with what has been done before than to try something from scratch. Our ancestors survived for that very reason, and the desirability for such consistency is at least partly due to the major appeal of religion (especially in a world that seems to be constantly changing before out eyes).

If the stability of society lies in the creation of an institution that at least partly enforces moral behavior, religion would seem to be ideal way of ensuring moral traditions. Even though the punishment for immoral behavior may be a hypothetical punishment, the threat of hell felt very real to our ancestors (it still does for people living today). As such, the psychological tool of eternal damnation is an effective and relatively cheap way to ensure order is maintained, particularly if your society is repressive and life is somewhat miserable.

The religions that are popular today are not vastly different from the thousands of other religions that have sprung up and disappeared over the years, except perhaps in the continuity of traditions that have been able to maintain. Although Christianity or Islam may claim their moral guides are superior to others, the relative authoritative manuscripts they refer themselves to are not especially more sophisticated than any other ancient religion. Greek mythology is rich in moral homilies, and in some ways paint a far more accurate picture of human behavior, from vanity (with the story of Narcissus) to curiosity (Pandora’s Box). What is perhaps more unique of the “three great monotheistic religions” is the fact their moral homilies are codified into explicit rules of living, rather then simple storytelling. Christianity became the dominant religion, unsurprisingly, after Constantine reformed the book that was later to be known as the Bible during the Council of Nicaea. His efforts transformed Christianity from cult to bureaucratic institutions, all with specified beliefs and traditions. It would be these traditions that would dictate the fate of the Western world for the next 1800 years.

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