Tradition, Theology & Religion

by R.J. Forman

Today, let’s talk Tradition.

Let’s start with part of tradition’s definition from the dictionary:

Tradition: Theology.
a. (among Jews) body of laws and doctrines, or any one of them, held to have been received from Moses and originally handed down orally from generation to generation.
b. (among Christians) a body of teachings, or any one of them, held to have been delivered by Christ and His apostles but not originally committed to writing.
c. (among Muslims) a hadith — a traditional account of things said or done by Muhammad or his companions.

I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that I feel that the word “tradition” protects a lot of really archaic and barbaric things.

Religion is one of those institutions that uses the word "tradition" like the U.S. uses oil: Too much, too often, and at too much cost to human rights and natural life.

Tradition in these three major religions protects ideas like woman are lesser beings, homosexuality is an abomination, and people who don’t believe what you believe are wrong and will suffer either now or in the afterlife.

Islam, in extreme cases, goes far enough to think that people who aren’t like you should be killed. We’ve seen at least one female victim of gang rape punished by Islamic law. She was sentenced to lashings and prison time by Saudi Arabian law which is based on Islamic law.

In Judaism, tradition says that a woman’s menstrual cycle is so dirty that a man may not even share a bed with his menstruating wife. And after her cycle she’s still must wait seven days and have a ritual bath before she can share a bed with him again. In Jewish tradition, homosexuality is punishable by death. This tradition may have influenced both Christianity and Islam to adopt similar stands during various eras.

In most sects of Christianity, sex is strictly for procreation. And then there's the power of Christian prayer. Now, I’m no fan of the pharmaceutical companies, but to go as far as the belief that only prayer and the understanding of God’s greatness can save you from illness is one of many traditions you’ll never get my vote on.

Rarely does popular entertainment take on religion and tradition. However, in Season Two of The West Wing there is an episode about the aftermath of a gunman’s racist attack on one President Jed Bartlet’s men. Bartlet (played by the presidential Martin Sheen) goes after a very Christian, uber-conservative AM radio talk show host:
“I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?...My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death… Here’s one that’s really important ‘cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football?”

He goes on in this manner and these archaic ideas are eloquently chewed up and spit out.

Now, to be fair, most of these religions also protect the idea of charity and being kind and good. But it seems that the crazier this world gets and the faster it gets in that hand basket to hell, the more people cling to the negative traditions. They seem to especially like the ones that exclude people of different faiths from a good life or afterlife.

It seems to me that if this God/Allah/Yaweh that everyone’s so fond of is so great he/she/it’d be a little more accepting of people. You know, after he/she/it theoretically gave people the gift of free will seems pretty stupid that people would be punished for its use.

(For another commentary in this vein, please see: "God is Good; Religion, Not So Much.")

(Cartoon by Hugh MacLeod of Alpine, TX from gapingvoid and used through a Creative Commons

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Anne said...

I very much enjoyed reading your article about religion and the use, or rather misuse, of tradition. You bring up issues I think both religious and non-religious people have.

A year ago I would not have considered myself a religious person even though I had been raised Catholic and had gone to Catholic school for 13 years.
However, I have recently reconnected with my faith and find that Religion is similar to many secular institutions such as politics; you get to vote and support that which you believe and don't always have to "follow party lines."

I feel that if religion is to be understood and given a chance it has to be seen as an evolving force much like humans. I don't condemn homosexuals or pre- marital sex but I do try to follow the 10 commandments, pray and do good for the better of myself and those I love.

To add to what your article says I would like to point out that the gospels teach that pride, envy, and selfishness are all sins which hurt us and GOD/YAWEH/ALLAH. When was the last time we saw any "bible thumpers" "radical islamics" or "super jews" point out those faults in people or themselves.

Now this is clearly my own opinion and my beliefs do not reflect those of the majority of religious people you were referring to but I thought I would share my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to read Song of Solomon if you think that Christianity says "sex is only for procreation." Never, in any of the many churches have I attended has this been the message. Sex may be reserved for marriage in Christianity, but sex for pleasure and intimacy within this context is preached as important and necessary to healthy marriage. Please use some more discretion when you make such weighty claims.

Emmy said...

I’m not sure I can determine the argument that is being made here. But it seems that you’re arguing that religion is exclusionary? And that it rains down hate? You don’t say that latter word, but that’s certainly the tone of this article.

As an attempt to illustrate your apparent point, you pick very extreme examples that affect a decidedly small percentage of the religions you identify. If your logic is followed, then the barbarism and exclusion that you so detest exists only in a disproportionately small percentage as well.

For example, a woman’s “on-the-rag” avoidance process is not simply characteristic of Judaism; it’s characteristic of *Orthodox* Judaism, and even then not necessarily by everyone that claims that title. By the same token, the “wearing-of-the-rag” is a practice among many Muslim women, but there are also many female members of this faith who either don’t wear any headgear, or do so completely by choice.

As for Christianity, you’re wrong about both the sex and the sects. Firstly, I assure you, sex ain’t happening just for procreation. It be happening for fun. And that’s totally condoned by most denominations. So is birth control.

As for the sects, in this faith, there is no such thing as a sect. In fact, there is much diversity in Christianity, as there is in Judaism and Islam.

And, you may find this hard to believe, but there is diversity even within individual denominations. Have you so easily forgotten the split that happened in the Episcopal Church when a gay bishop was named in New Hampshire? The split that happened because church members had *divergent* beliefs on the issue? Way before your time, a similar split happened in the Baptist faith on the issue of race. While splits can be unfortunate, they do open up options. Whew…Thank God for options.

Not all religion is oppressive either. It certainly isn’t when it’s your choice. In fact, there’s something to be said for a person of faith who stands for his or her own convictions in the face of anti-religious peer pressure, ridicule, misunderstanding and stereotyping (i.e., the headgear).

(Of course this excepts those countries that impose religious laws on its citizens, and where violence is a means to “absolution” from “sin.” Such force is reprehensible.)

And what you refer to as tradition is not merely tradition. You’re actually describing belief systems. Not only do the aforementioned religious folk have belief systems, you do too. Is your own belief system morally superior to everyone else’s? While you may not agree with others’ belief systems, you’ll never fully understand an issue if you simply dismiss them as hate or “hell in a handbasket.” That, dear, is exclusionary.

To generalize and brand all religion as essentially one and the same, which this article appears to do, is indeed to keep a closed mind. And for any one person or any one institution to keep a closed mind is to manifest the ignorance that breeds the very misunderstanding, discrimination and hatred that you apparently try to tackle, albeit arrogantly and unsuccessfully.

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