Separating the Beneficial From the Barbarous

Separating the Beneficial From the Barbarous July 17, 2023

Header - Separating the Beneficial From the Barbarous
The barbarians on the left and the saints on the right. Two images generated by beta version of Adobe Firefly and then spliced.

The Tradition of Sati

You might be familiar with the historical custom of sati. This traditional religious practice, mostly observed by certain clans of western India, involves a recently-widowed woman sacrificing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

When the British were expanding their rule into India during the early 19th century, they initially tolerated it and its incidence actually increased. (Perhaps a strange form of rebellion?) Between 1815 and 1818 the number of incidents of sati in Bengal doubled from 378 to 839. Perhaps in light of this increase, toleration did not last very long. Despite the claim that it was a traditional religious custom, the opposition from Hindu reformers and Christian missionaries carried the day, and the practice of sati was made illegal by the British.

This arguing for sati on the basis of tradition lead to a memorable quote from British General Charles James Napier

Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

Despite the claims of tradition and the claim that the widows were doing this voluntarily, sati is not a practice anyone would defend today. Clearly this seems to be a tradition that we are well rid of — the relic of a more barbarous past. 

But not all traditions are so obviously benighted. In fact some traditions, like the one General Napier mentioned, that of hanging the men who burn women alive, seem to be just as obviously enlightened. As we examine all of the traditional beliefs which have come down to us over the years, how are we to decide which to keep and which to abandon?

This question becomes yet more important and more fraught when applied to our religious traditions.

Traditions and Religion

The practice of sati by some Hindu sects provides evidence that some religious beliefs are bad and should be eliminated as soon as possible. But given the limited practice of sati perhaps it is unfair to call it a religious belief. This might serve as our first method of evaluation: is it actually a religious tradition?

Moving on to other religions — lest you think I’m picking on Hindus — we could have a similar discussion about the long history of Christians defending the “tradition” of slavery. To their credit it was also Christians who spearheaded its abolition, but they spent more centuries defending it on scriptural grounds than they have condemning it on the same grounds. 

Plainly there are some religious traditions which should be disposed of, but which and what portion of the total do they represent?

For some it’s a matter of differentiating what traditions and beliefs are truly part of their religion and which are just fellow travelers as part of a broader culture — grifters mixed in with the pilgrims. Once this differentiation has been made, it’s just a matter of preserving the “true religion”. 

Others make the argument that most religious traditions are harmful relics and ought to be eliminated. Advocates for this position claim that most religious traditions are similar to sati: benighted relics of a barbarous past that continue to cause harm, albeit in more subtle ways.

Finally, there are still others which believe the opposite, that we have already gotten rid of too many useful and adaptive traditions, and their abandonment has directly led to the dysfunction we’re currently experiencing — rising rates of loneliness, discord, and despair.

In my last couple of posts I made the latter argument, that traditions — religious or otherwise — encoded valuable wisdom. This is the wisdom of our ancestors, gained over hundreds and thousands of years of cultural evolution. Furthermore we should assume, absent clear and compelling evidence of harm, that the traditions passed down to us are a form of that wisdom. 

Religion qua Religion

Believers in a religion, a category I definitely belong to, have faith that the doctrines of their religion are useful and important because they’re divinely inspired. But this brings only a slight shift in the debate, it’s still important to differentiate between true doctrine and accumulated traditions. As sati and slavery show, just because a believer does something doesn’t mean it’s divinely sanctioned.

On the other hand, people can do an enormous amount of good without being commanded to. Just because something a believer does isn’t part of the doctrine doesn’t mean it’s not good.

I, for one, am increasingly convinced that God allows the faithful a significant degree of latitude; that we are empowered to come up with beneficial traditions and expected to do good works without having to be “commanded in all things.” 

I believe that God exists and there is true doctrine. I also believe that men are fallible and not everything done in the name of religion is good. 

The dividing line between these two poles is not a chasm, but a forest shrouded in deep fog, where inspiration and intuition need to guide us. 

Still to the extent that one has faith that there is a God, and He has given us commandments, guidance, and admonitions, this represents a place to start. As we attempt to determine which of the countless accumulated traditions are beneficial and should be kept, and which are harmful and should be discarded, religious faith provides a valuable lodestone.

The Difficult Task of Separation.

As sati and slavery show, we cannot blindly assume that all past traditions are beneficial adaptations, but despite this, it’s still safer to assume that traditions are beneficial than that they’re not. 

One feature that makes the task of separation particularly difficult is the length of the feedback loop. It may take decades for the true benefits of a practice to become obvious (let alone their harms). But people justifiably balk at preserving all traditions regardless of how barbarous they appear because thirty years from now something bad might happen.

How are we to proceed? We cannot freeze civilization in amber because otherwise we might abandon some beneficial tradition, but neither should we blithely abandon everything our ancestors did because it’s difficult to distinguish wisdom from foolishness.

At the end of my last post I promised to provide some concrete recommendations. We’ve already had the first one: use faith to guide you. To the extent that your faith is weak, I would recommend strengthening it. 

Beyond that, during this discussion you may have found yourself thinking of the Amish. I said we can’t freeze things in amber, but to a certain extent they have. As my second recommendation, we should allow more communities to remain traditional. While it may be impossible to slow our entire society, we should certainly allow individual communities and religious denominations to maintain their doctrine and enforce their taboos. This does happen to a certain extent. Many religions still do not allow the ordination of women and refuse to perform same sex marriages. But there’s increasing pressure for those things to be abandoned, and this pressure has only been increasing.

Finally, and this is both the most vague and most challenging of my recommendations, we need to flip what we assume as our default. For a long time the default has been towards allowing people the widest possible latitude to abandon any tradition which wasn’t obviously harmful — in fact not just allowing it, but celebrating them as they did it. I would argue rather that our default should be to assume that traditions are valuable and there for a reason. 

For decades we have been abandoning the old with reckless abandon. During that time we have embraced the new with similar abandon, adopting new technologies without pause or introspection. If we could do it, we did do it.

We are now seeing the negative consequences of that haste. Social media has shattered the mental health of a generation, while at the same time pornography was warping their understanding of healthy relationships. Millions have died from “Deaths of Despair” and out of those that remain tens of millions suffer from loneliness

None of this is to say that progress and technology are without any benefits —there have been many. Or that there are no bad traditions — clearly it’s good that widows are no longer compelled to climb onto the pyres of their husbands. But there should be a way of striking a balance.

Of carefully adopting the new while being aware of the wisdom that came before…

Of not throwing out the baby of beneficial traditions with the bathwater of the outdated and archaic…

Of honoring the religion of our fathers, while also appreciating the inventiveness of our sons…

Of separating the beneficial from the barbarous.

If you would prefer to listen to this post you can find an audio version here.

After doing it for a few weeks I’ve switched the day I’ll be releasing new posts from Friday to Monday. For those of you out there that care.

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