Rational Religion

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The Uses of Tradition


I am not an implacable enemy of Tradition, despite my criticism of the way it is used in most human societies.


Trained as a historian in my youth, I know that Tradition can be charming; even beautiful; often comforting, and sometimes a lifesaver. 


But it must be treated as an aesthetic and a guide; not as the rule of law.


In most of its most pernicious uses, Tradition is wedded to dogma; and Dogma is the enemy.   The blind assertion that "This is the way to do it, because this is the way it has always been done," leads inevitably to "This is true because I have the power to say it is true."


Both assertions are a denial of the First Premise, which is Change, and so they are both foolish.  If they are implemented by law or iron custom, they immediately become evil. 


The Universe changes around us, with disorienting rapidity.  In spite of the fact that our lives are as brief as the Mayflies' on the Universal scale, still our environment is so dynamic that it is the rare individual in even the most isolated society who does not see his world wrenched at least slightly off course within his normal span of years. 


Often it is simply because we are taught nonsense in our youth, and the proscribed course of our world, as we learned it, was always a doomed fiction.  This is a great danger, because as a species we have so little real knowledge and useful information.  It is not even our teachers' fault that we are so poorly grounded, but the fault of what they "knew" to be true. 


And this, of course, most often is the fault of dogma and slavish adherence to Tradition.


Dogma and Tradition are learned by memorization.   In a preliterate society they are passed on from generation to generation as discrete, pretty much immutable packets of information, very often in some kind of metered verse or a chant which helps to maintain their integrity.  A song or poem is easier to learn than dry data, and much easier to recall in something near its original form.


Once a society learns to put down its words in some relatively permanent physical form, the preservation becomes easier.  The society does not have to teach the stuff so thoroughly and so laboriously to so many of the kids just to make sure it gets passed on.


This does two things, both of which bode well for the society's future and are simultaneously inimical to it. 


First, it is now easy to preserve what the society "knows," and its established rules and patterns of behavior.    This is both adaptive and maladaptive because both the wisdom and the idiocies of the culture are now written down in physical form.   In order to have access to the wisdom, succeeding generations will forever have to wade knee-deep through specious shit to retrieve it:   


And have some means to distinguish one from the other. 


Second, having the foundations of the culture preserved in hard copy, it does not become incumbent upon every young person in the society to cram her or his mind with it.  Most of them will have time to learn other stuff; even to make up new stuff as they go along.


The maladaptive element here is that - depending upon the society's physical-social-economic environment - the foundations of the culture are likely to include a lot of good ways to do things, and to have historically, painfully, eliminated a lot of the bad ways. 


Some of the "other stuff" that the young folks are now going to have time for is probably going to be nothing more than old mistakes that the culture had hoped it had done with.  And "new stuff," as we have ample evidence, is overwhelmingly a waste of time, occasionally even dangerous.  Only a few percent of it will ever turn out to be useful, or beautiful, or to enhance our lives.


But that few percent is our salvation in an ever-changing Universe.


It is why I am the enemy of Dogma, and a critic of Tradition.


Remember this, as a precept of education:  Most of what you can memorize is nothing more than a tool kit.   You carry it around with you, handily in reach, within your head, so you can use it if you need it.  


An analogy is your grade school multiplication tables.  As isolated numbers they were hard for most of us (with our childish brains genetically adapted and even trained to prefer verbal skills) to put into our wetware.  As we began to see relationships between the symbols, the memorization became easier (for the true math heads among us, much easier, to the point where the numerical symbols and analogs took precedence over the verbal.)


(For a lot of reluctant young students, trapped in compulsory education, the discovery of mathematics is an epiphany.   "Oh! ! !   That's what the world is about!")


Eventually most of us had enough information in there to actually count change from our purchases and calculate the area of our living room walls so we could buy paint wisely. 


(The math heads all quickly moved on into a parallel universe, happily sufficiently still in contact with ours that they can tell us what they find over there, and let us use the gadgets they invent.  That way we can all use their tools without having to try to put them in our own [less than ideal] toolboxes.)


But neither of us, I think, would regard our memorized tables and formulae as anything but utilitarian.  A true mathematician may see beauty; the aesthetic.  


Like the Mona Lisa, though, it isn't good for anything but inspiration.    "Inspiration" implies you are going to do something, additionally.   It may not be as aesthetically valid as the Mona Lisa, but it will be different; and an extension of the principles. 


Memorized data is just that.  Data.  By definition, it should be unchanging, and so it is of no value unless it is applied.  Like any other tool it must be used to deal with and shape the work at hand; even occasionally incorporated as part of the finished product. 


But it is never, by itself, the finished product.  That is an artifact of the here and now.  The memorized elements are of the past, and the past is lost in the wild gyrations of the Universe behind us.


(What's the point of painting the Mona Lisa again, even from scratch; assuming the unlikely event that you could?  The closer you came to the original the less independent value your work would have, except as practice in technique.)


Even if you have been taught to regard your dogma and traditions as Sacred (which probably means you have a mental prohibition against questioning them)  they are of no use to you unless they help you deal with the here and now.


Fortunately, for most of your circumstances, this will not present any great danger.  You can continue to perform your rituals and preserve your comfortably habitual mental patterns, and the Universe will not have changed enough by the end of your life to render you worse than perhaps a bit uncomfortable and nostalgic.


Were you a Native American living in the Eastern part of the North American continent early in the 19th Century, however, you would have found that much of your tribal dogma ranged from useless to suicidal. 


And when a brilliant Tecumseh arose among you with the rare insight and sufficient leadership skills to have saved your life and even possibly part of your culture, your slavish adherence to the subjective nonsense polluting your particular dogma (spectrum of dogmas; Tecumseh tried to unite the entire Eastern Woodland against the runaway encroachment of  European cultures)  would have rejected his great socio-political vision and turned his magnificent potential into nothing more lasting than the historical memory of a very good  general in a military Lost Cause.   


He died, and his side managed to “draw” the war, but that was a coda.  His people had already lost their chance to follow him into any sort of promising future. 


There are Men of the Ages, like Tecumseh, scattered throughout our world history.  They pop up unpredictably, but most often in periods of great stress and societal flux.  Perhaps as their culture is disintegrating around them the Tradition-maintained scales fall from their eyes. They are able to see more clearly into the secrets of the objective Universe - and into the fundamental nature of their own species -  and to identify a possible successful path out of the confusion; even to thwart peril.


But, in such times of stress, prophets pop up like gophers in a meadow.  The situation calls for change and many people can see that.  Just not many of them are truly smart enough to identify what changes are needed, and a possible method of implementing them.  Therefore, there are always more Potential Leaders than there are Good Plans.  And a lot of the people who are willing to embrace change are led down blind alleys to oblivion.


It is sometimes as difficult to be a wise disciple as it is to be an effective prophet.   The trick, perhaps, is to determine to be not a follower but a participant.  That's more work, but your input may be of value.  In any event, choose your prophets judiciously, and always with a generous corner of reservation; if for no other reason than that the conditions are eventually bound to change, again. 


If we are fortunate, we may have good innovators to follow.


Very occasionally we are smart enough to listen to them.


But not all that often.  Dogma and Tradition are very strong in the individual human mind; especially when they are reinforced by the minds of our trusted neighbors.    Sometimes it is more comforting to die than to change your mind.