Is Respect For Tradition Reasonable Or Just Superstitious?

Oct 15, 2020

Logic figures heavily into a classical Christian education and no small portion of informal logic books is concerned with the subject of authority; however, ever since the French Revolution, Christians have been profoundly confused on the nature of authority. While the “appeal to false authority” is a widely recognized logical fallacy, a good number of modern Christians have followed modern secularists in the belief that every claim of authority is false.

In S. Morris Engel’s (PhD, University of Toronto) 1976 book With Good Reason—which, at over 312 pages, is one of the longest books on informal logic available on Amazon— the section entitled “The Authority of Tradition” is less than 300 hundred words long. Here is most of it:

The appeal to authority can take still another form, an appeal to custom or tradition, as in this argument:

q) The institution of marriage is as old as human history and thus must be considered sacred.

To this we might reply that so is prostitution. Is it to be regarded as sacred too?

That’s pretty much it. Marriage is old, so it’s sacred—but wait, prostitution is old, too. Guess marriage isn’t so special after all. As for all the differences between marriage and prostitution, those don’t matter. Never matter that every society the world over has handed down marriage as a tradition from one generation to the next— mothers teaching their daughters about marriage, fathers teaching their sons. Never mind that religious clerics the world over exonerate marriage. Never mind that marriage is the dream of many young girls, a dream furthered by the exhortations of their parents. Never mind that none of these things is true of prostitution. No, for a world-renowned expert on logic, the tradition of marriage is nothing special because prostitution is old, too.

The thing is, prostitution isn’t a tradition. It isn’t an institution passed down as a cherished heirloom from one generation to the next. Mothers don’t teach their daughters how to be hookers. Prostitution is a cancer, a malignant growth on society. No sane person thinks prostitution makes society better. So, why compare marriage with prostitution? For the progressive, the fact marriage and prostitution are old makes them interchangeable. For the progressive, no tradition has authority. Authority and superstition are interchangeable, as well.

Secularists are not alone in their distrust of authority and tradition.

Since becoming a teacher, I have encountered Christians who believe the claim “The Bible is our ultimate authority” implies every lesser claim of authority is arbitrary or unjust. There are also a curious number of Christians who fall prey to materialist prejudices that all authority must be underwritten by purely objective, scientific claims and that no subjective claim can have real authority—hence 8th grade science students telling their parents, “Did you know that tomatoes are actually a fruit?” as though chefs, farmers, gardeners, and poets don’t deserve a say in the matter. Of course, the strength and power of science is that it is constantly open to revision, which means that science simply isn't traditional in the same way philosophy and theology are. If objective, scientific claims are the only kind of claims that have authority, tradition is up a creek. 

And if I had a nickel for every time I've heard a Christian assume every tradition is "a vain tradition of man," I'd be a rich man. 

I recently wrapped up a several week-long discussion with my freshman informal logic students on the subject of false authority and gave them the following assessment as a way of thinking about tradition. This is an assignment that can be easily adapted to nearly any humanities class:

Because we live in a time which is skeptical and cynical about all kinds of authority, there is much confusion about what exactly makes a certain authority “false.” We tend to think of all authorities as false. To help you think through the issue of authority, I have devised a little thought experiment.

Let us imagine two songs.

The first song is called “Pathetique.” It was composed in 1798. “Pathetique” has never been wildly popular, but since the year it was composed, it has never gone away. Last year, in all the radio stations of the world combined, “Pathetique” played ten thousand times. “Pathetique” has played about this many times each year since people started keeping track of such things. This year, it has streamed around two hundred thousand times on Spotify. 

The second song is called “Stay.” It was composed in 2020. So far this year, in all the radio stations of the world combined, “Stay” has already played twelve million times. It has streamed over four hundred million times on Spotify thus far.

1. Knowing only this, which song is more likely to still be played on the radio in the year 2080? Make an argument in favor of your claim.

2. Again, knowing nothing more about “Pathetique” and “Stay” than you do thus far, what words do you suppose the average person would use to describe “Pathetique”? Choose three from below.

Slick                                  

Funny                               

Complicated                   

Inspiring

Thoughtful                      

Spectacular                         

Catchy                              

Pious

Exciting                            

Clever                               

Mature                             

Silly

Boring                              

Sophisticated                  

Stupid                               

Annoying

3. What words do you suppose the average person would use to describe “Stay”? Choose three from below.

Slick                                  

Funny                               

Complicated                   

Inspiring

Thoughtful                      

Spectacular                     

Catchy                              

Pious

Exciting                            

Clever                               

Mature                             

Silly

Boring                              

Sophisticated                  

Stupid                               

Annoying

4. Do you suppose there is a connection between the words the average person would use to describe “Pathetique” and the fact people still listen to the song and play it more than two hundred years after it was composed? Why or why not?

5. Let us suppose that “Stay” ends up being the most popular song of 2020. Why is it not likely to also be the most popular song of 2021?

6. If people have been listening to “Pathetique” for more than two hundred years, why have they not tired of it yet? Why is the popularity of “Pathetique” not declining? Why is the popularity of the song remaining about the same?

7. Some things are easy to like, some things are hard to like. If “Pathetique” is streamed two hundred thousand times this year and “Stay” is streamed four hundred million times, which song is easier to like?

8. If “Stay” is easier to like, why does our interest in the song decline so quickly?

9. Not every kind of authority is the same. The authority of the Bible is different than the authority of your parents. The authority of your parents is different than the authority of the police. Some authorities can punish us for disobedience, while others cannot. In what sense does “Pathetique” have authority? What kind of authority does it have?

10. If someone said, “The song ‘Stay’ has power, but not authority,” what would you suppose they meant?

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at GibbsClassical.com. He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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