Tradition is Underrated

Finding good ideas would be much easier if we could run experiments on societies. Indoctrinate a group with a set of beliefs, isolate them in a small village, observe and record the results for a few generations. Too bad about the ethics, the expense and the duration. We could look for natural experiments but I don’t think there are many around any more.

Natural experiments used to be plentiful, though. Insular tribes with their own customs and traditions have been the norm for most of human existence. A tribe might come up with a new idea and have the consequences play out before its neighbors got around to adopting it. The story would spread and observant people would notice the pattern and share it with their tribe. Over time, the patterns would be added to their oral tradition. Some tribes would go on to write down their traditions in the holy texts of their religions. The most successful of these would spread and develop into the world religions we see today. In other words, old religions are repositories of wisdom accumulated over thousands of years of social experimentation and have proven their worth over centuries of use; we ignore them at our peril.

Why, then, is the West drifting ever further from its Christian roots? I think the answer is twofold. On one hand, circumstances have changed. On the other, we’ve lost our faith.

The case for some change is easy to make: take usury for example. The Bible speaks clearly against lending for profit, but modern economies are based on loans with interest so that restriction had to go. We manage the downsides with regulation and bankruptcy law but it’s not perfect: people still get burned by bad loans. It’s a tradeoff. Other changes don’t seem to have such clear benefits, other than sounding nice. We don’t see the harm so why not do the nice thing. Because God forbids it?

Christianity justifies its rules as given by God. This works well as long as people believe – but what if they don’t? Why take God’s law literally if He is just a metaphor? The change is gradual: people tend to retain the values they were raised with. We change a few pointless seeming things and that becomes the new baseline. Then we change things again. Each iteration drifts further from tradition and the process seems to be accelerating. Is the acceleration due to the changes themselves or something else? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is this: Belief in personal God was a stabilizing influence.

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