A Bit on Tradition

Published December 21, 2020

Last week we talked a bit about Dawkinsian oral tradition. Most people in the social circles that take people like Richard Dawkins seriously like to believe they are beyond living by tradition. But as Tim O’Neill artfully demonstrated, this is rubbish. Humans naturally accept and pass along things said by other humans, and this is particularly true of those they regard as their superiors in knowledge and wisdom. Humans naturally form social hierarchies and they naturally take the word of respected elders and experts. They always have and they always will and that includes atheists.

The process of handing on, not just “information” but ways of thinking, being, and living is what we mean by “tradition” (tradere meaning to hand something over). The legend of Constantine that Dawkins gets wrong is a legend that is enormously popular in atheist circles. It is not a legend Dawkins invented. It is a legend he received from others who have likewise received (and shaped) the tale. It is not utterly without foundation. There was a Constantine. There was a Council of Nicaea. He did help out the Church. He was converted to Christianity, etc. Nobody is so foolish as to declare that Constantine Never Existed as many are foolish enough to declare that Jesus Never Existed. But the tradition that is handed down in Dawkinsian atheism is corrupted in many places, not least by the fact that Dawkinsian atheists are largely oblivious to the fact that they are handing on a tradition. They think they are handing on Scientific Fact while stooping down to correct the ignorant and gullible tradition-minded theist as they pursue the noble work of leading him out of darkness into their marvelous light of rationality that does not trust Tradition.

Me: I don’t have a problem with tradition per se. I’m an English major, not a scientist and I have a healthy respect for tradition and things that are handed down, both textual and non-textual. I think there is something humanizing about Dawkins and his True Believers gathered in a circle–the Rabbi and his disciples–swapping legends of Constantine and parsing non-existent history in an evolving tradition of the follies of theism, all perfectly oblivious to the fact that they illustrating precisely the point that Christians have always known: that you don’t have a choice about whether you will live by tradition. You only have a choice about which tradition you will regard as most reliable.

I continue to think that, on the whole, the Christian tradition is more reliable in explaining the truth about who Jesus is than the legends of guys like Dawkins who doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

Tomorrow, I thought it might be good to take a look at the Tradition surrounding the Virgin Birth and try the gedankenexperiment of supposing the earliest witnesses who report it and believe it are neither liars nor idiots but people reflecting on something that actually happened and which they believe to be charged with meaning.

4 Responses

  1. One way to make traditions is more reliable is the method that God commanded the Israelites to follow: write them down ASAP ( Exodus 34:27) so they don’t get distorted over time (eg, the amusing example in John 21:23-24, where the Bible itself cites one particular game of telephone that ended up departing dramatically from the actual words uttered: “the rumour [that] spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die” could be dated right back to “the days of the Apostles themselves”, but that didn’t make it accurate).
    But humans are wired so we are more comfortable copying what everyone else has been doing for a long time than actually going back to first principles and comparing our actions against our supposed moral precepts.

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