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Thursday, 22 December 2011

Are Traditions and Customs Really Worth Keeping?

Map showing the prevalence of Abrahamic (pink)...
Image via Wikipedia

Such a question will inevitably promote discussion, debate and perhaps some outrage at the mere suggestion. But, before I say my piece and invite your comments and contributions, perhaps I should define the terms, so that we all know what we're discussing:

Tradition is defined as belief, custom, etc., passed along from generation to generation by non-written means; those beliefs, collectively; established and accepted practice or custom; principles held and generally followed by a branch of the arts, adopted from and handed down through experience and practice; doctrine regarded as possessing divine authority with no written evidence; the spoken messages of Christ and the apostles, passed on by word of mouth through generations; words and actions of Muhammad not incorporated in the Qur'an but transmitted orally before being recorded.

Custom is held to be habitual or common practice; a usual way of behaving; usage, fashion or habit; established usage which, because it has continued for a long time, has taken on the force of a law or right.

The world is overrun with examples of custom and tradition; many are religious in origin, others stem from early ignorance of certain realities, yet others have developed as responses to threats from outside the boundaries set by those groups practicing them. We, mostly, take such things for granted and promote their continuance without much thought for either their origins or their real social effects. So, is any harm done by such continuation? Is it possible that some customs and traditions are not good things?

Let's look at some of the most popular and widespread. Christmas is almost on us. This celebration of the birth of a notable prophet, a figure responsible for the formation of one of the world's great religions, is touted as a demonstration of love, generosity and general goodwill to all men. Peace and harmony are tied into the very meaning of this tradition. So, can it be seen in any way as other than a good thing?
Well, the timing of the ceremony, as most people are aware, is way off if it is an actual commemoration of the prophet's birth, since it's believed he was actually born in the summer months. So, the first aspect I question is the lack of honesty in the dating. Of course, it's well known that the old Pagan ceremony that was traditionally held at the mid-winter point long before Christianity came on the scene, was hijacked by the church in order to allow the celebrants to more readily accept the new religion. So, the timing of the celebration immediately takes on the nature of a con-trick, something devised to make more palatable a set of beliefs that were at variance with those of the people it was invented to convert. Such trickery is hardly the way to promote a doctrine that purports to have truth at its heart, I think.

In Islam, the position of the woman is traditionally that of subordinate; traditionally, though not according to the holy book of the faith. The Qur'an states quite clearly that men and women are of equal value and worth. However, the later commentaries, supposedly recorded as the words and actions of the prophet, Mohammed, are open to interpretation that women are rightly considered subordinate to men. Such downgrading of the gender would fit in well with the beliefs of a man brought up in a brothel, of course. And they fit in well with the traditions of a culture which has regarded women as goods and chattels since the beginning of recorded history. One has only to look at the ethnic communities where Islam first developed and note the custom of awarding their leaders numerous wives and concubines to see that the male attitude to the position of women in such societies was less than generous. The Islamic belief that men who are martyred in the cause (whatever that cause may be determined to be) will be rewarded by an eternity in paradise served by anything up to 72 virgin maidens, indicates that women are seen as the playthings and servants of men. No such reward awaits those women who sacrifice themselves to the cause, however. And, clearly, the fate of the 72 virgin maidens is hardly something to be relished. So, I question the custom and tradition held so dear by the sects of this religion in this regard.

The tradition of regarding pork as unclean, elevated to quasi-legal status in certain communities, stems from early observations that pig meat can cause many illnesses. Of course, with modern farming techniques and the knowledge that such meat must be well-cooked to avoid the problems, the risk has been reduced to similar proportions as those of eating any other meat. But it's noteworthy that the ban on eating pork remains. It's been enshrined into the culture of those communities and is upheld as something positive simply on the grounds that it is customary, traditional. Another example of the religious authorities being unwilling to accept that the basis for their laws might actually be questionable.

In certain parts of the Middle East and Africa it's customary for young women to be circumcised. This, of course, is a euphemism for brutal damage to the victims genitalia. The custom, carried out without anaesthetic, involves the removal of the clitoris and, frequently, the stitching together of the labia minor to prevent penetration. This tradition, often continued and encouraged by the mothers of the victims, is designed entirely to serve the men of the communities. The thought behind it is that women will not 'stray' if there is little pleasure for them in the sex act. The victim's stitched labia are cut open once the woman marries so that her husband may penetrate her, regardless of any pain she may suffer. This custom is defended by those within the community on the grounds that it is a long held tradition. And, of course, it the combination of the status of tradition with subliminal brain-washing that allows the mothers to continue to perpetrate this violence on their daughters.

I could go on. There are many examples of similar customs and traditions: wife burning at the death of a husband, the disfiguring of women who refuse a suitor's advances, the killing of daughters who 'dishonour' a family by refusing to marry the chosen husband. All, of course, with serious consequences for those affected. There are also lesser customs and traditions that do more subtle harm. The custom of the Abrahamic religions in their elevation of commerce to the level of some sort of divinely inspired activity, for example, has allowed business to proceed without any real concern about its effects on those who are less well off. And the custom of giving at Christmas, whilst producing some very real generosity of spirit as well as actual charity, has caused many millions to put themselves into debt in order to avoid being thought either mean or too poor to give as much as their neighbours.

So, to return to my question: is it possible that some customs and traditions are not good things? I think you'll know my answer, but I'm interested to learn yours. Are you willing to get involved in the discussion here? It's easy enough to make a comment below.

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