Fundamentalists Are Not Traditionalists

In my last two years of college I rebelled against the system. I stopped doing homework and instead studied physics by playing with equations (and acing exams). In this I was a “school fundamentalist.” I wanted to cut out what I saw as irrelevant and insincere ritual, so that school could better serve what I saw as its fundamental purpose, which was to help curious people learn. I contrasted myself with “traditionalists” who just unthinkingly continued with previous habits and customs.

One of the big social trends over the last few centuries has been a move toward reforming previous rituals and institutions to become more “sincere,” i.e., to more closely align with stated purposes, especially purposes related to internal feelings. For example, the protestant revolution tried to reform religious rituals and institutions toward a stated purpose of improving personal relations with God. (Christian and Islamic “fundamentalists” continue in this vein today.) The romantic revolution in marriage was to move marriage toward a stated purpose of promoting loving romantic relations. And various revolutions in government have been justified as moving government toward stated purposes of legitimacy, representation, and accountability.

In all of these cases advocates for reform have complained about insincerity and hypocrisy in prior practices and institutions. Similar sincerity concerns can be raised about birthday presents, or dinner table manners. Kids sometimes ask why, if gifts are to show feelings, people shouldn’t wait to give gifts until they most feel the mood. Or wait for when the receiver would most like the gift. Kids also sometimes ask why they must lie and say “thank you” when that is not how they feel. Here kids are being fundamentalists, while parents are traditionalists who mostly just want the kids to do the usual thing, without too much reflection on exactly why.

We economists are deep into this sincerity trend, in that we often analyze institutions according to stated purposes, and propose institutional reforms that seem to better achieve stated purposes. For example, in law & economics, the class I’m teaching this semester, we analyze which legal rules best achieve the stated purpose of creating incentives to increase economic welfare.

I’ve been made aware of this basic sincerity vs. tradition conflict by the sociology book Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. While its sociology theory can make for hard reading at times, I was persuaded by its basic claim that modern intellectuals are too quick to favor the sincerity side of this conflict. For example, even if dinner manners and birthday presents rituals don’t most directly express the sincerest feeling of those involved, they can create an “as if” appearance of good feelings, and this appearance can make people nicer and feel better about each other. We’d get a lot fewer presents if people only gave them when in the mood.

Similarly, while for some kids it seems enough to just support their curiosity, most kids are probably better off in a school system that forces them to act as if they are curious, even when they are not. Also, my wife, who works in hospice, tells me that people today often reject traditional bereavement rituals which don’t seem to reflect their momentary sincere feelings. But such people often then feel adrift, not knowing what to do, and their bereavement process goes worse.

Of course I’m not saying we should always unthinkingly follow tradition. But I do think our efforts to reform often go badly because we focus on the most noble and flattering functions and situations, and neglect many other important ones.

From Ritual and Its Consequences I also got some useful distinctions. In addition to sincerity vs. tradition, there is also play vs. ritual. This is the distinction among less-practical “as-if” behaviors between those (play) that spin out into higher variance and those (ritual) that spin in to high predictability. Ritual in this sense can help one to feel safe when threatened, while play can bring joy when one doesn’t feel threatened. One can also distinguish between kinds of play and ritual where people’s usual roles are preserved vs. reversed, and distinguish between kinds where people are in control vs. out of control of events.

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  • Philip Goetz

    Indeed, Protestant fundamentalists were once radicals. The theoretical justification for conservatism is that existing systems are too complicated to be fully-understood theoretically. It should not be surprising that conservatives don’t realize this, since being a conservative means not believing in theory (except as a weapon).

    We know changes to complex systems always have unintended consequences, so we know conservatives have a point. I think, Robin, you’re familiar with the various arguments that US society suffered various breakdowns around 1970. We could read this as validation of conservatism: Making necessary changes to our society, extending rights and liberties to women and minorities, education to the poor, protection to the environment, and introducing ethics into our global politics, inevitably disrupted the system, as reflected in, e.g., GDP and inflation. We could call this the “change tax”. It would be nice if liberals and conservatives could recognize that they are really fighting about how large the change tax is. Perhaps they could even cooperate to look for ways to make it smaller.

    • Dafydd

      To quote Samuel Johnson (himself quoting the sixteenth century theologian, Richard Hooker), “Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.”

    • Tige Gibson

      There seems to be a disconnect between “extending rights and liberties” and the behavior of conservative/traditional/fundamentalist Christians who universally oppose such change and use the “change tax” to justify their position. The fact that modern civil rights are still new enough in their conscience that they don’t view them as “traditional”, making the article’s thesis irrelevant.

    • The theoretical justification for conservatism is that existing systems are too complicated to be fully-understood theoretically.

      The hair I’d split here is that the conservative need not believe that systems are hard to understand; only that they’re hard to coordinate. (Which absolves them of the particular contradiction you accuse.) Coordination is hard is the conservative motto. (What RH terms “fundamentalists” include both radicals and reactionaries–far-mode thinkers in either temporal direction.)

      The kernel of wisdom in conservatism is the recognition that it’s much easier to make things worse than better, but the conservative’s apology for tradition is tied to a discredited functionalist dogma (functionalist in the sense used by theoretical anthropologists and sociologists). RH assumes that traditions have important functions for society whereas they at best are local equilibria for a (small) group of individuals.

      If the explicit justifications for traditions are wanting, RH will have recourse to their hidden benefits. Implicit is that the benefits are greater than the (sometimes obvious) harms (e.g., attending time-consuming lectures when you can assimilate the material 4 X as fast studying it from text.) A sublime functionalist faith.

  • Don’t leave us hanging, RH: what dire consequences ensued from your refusal to follow tradition and indulge in ritual?

  • Scott H.

    Well, to be honest, most Americans are now being raised without any normal social traditions. Knowing only ignorance they are unable to judge how much poorer off they really are. I wonder how many times your wife witnessed some who had rejected traditional bereavement rituals versus how many times she witnessed someone who simply had no idea how one is expected to go through such rituals.

    • The Venkat piece (referenced by Kenny, above) depicts a trade-off between beauty (ritual) and experimentation (innovation). It (implicitly) prescribes a golden mean.

      If Venkat’s correct (his position reminds me of a semi-popular recent book relating left/right brain to culture–left would correspond to experimentation and right to beauty) then those who overvalue ritual are stuck in a “loser” culture, those who overvalue innovation in a sociopathic culture.

      But I suspect that the same folks who bemoan the loss of comforting rituals also hope for more rapid innovation. Well, folks, you can’t eat your cake and have it too.


    Robin, I think that what you describe is a symptom of being so preoccupied with reaching goals that it’s easy to remember why we set goals in the first place. Goals aren’t universally good, they only make sense as long as we have a certain “joie de vivre”, people who lose that find that they no longer understand why goals have to be set, we call that depression and compare it to a physical disease but it’s really no less rational than “normal” behavior. We create the meaning of life. Rituals and other social acitivities that seem irrelevant in (extreme) far mode actually help us maintain that joie de vivre and thus help us to feel like our lives and the things we do have some kind of purpose. People often forget about that part of human nature, partly because forgetting about it makes abstract thinking easier and partly it goes against the way some people like to think off themselves (especially “rationalists”).

    Other abstract fields have similar phenomena: a string theorist might forget about basic probability theory when chasing ever more complicated ideas, an economist chasing after ways to grow the economy might forget about the fact that growth is only a tool to improve people’s lives (so stellar growth that only benefits 0.01% of the population doesn’t fit the bill).

    • arch1

      In your first sentence I think you meant “…easy to *forget*…”

      • IMASBA

        Indeed, thanks for catching that.

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  • Kenny

    Venkat at Ribbonfarm just posted a sequence of tweet-sized summaries of his previous writing that seems weirdly related. [‘Weirdly’ because I suspect there was no direct coordination.]

  • I’m intrigued by this passion for ritual among the Aspiscenti.

    The vast majority of the world’s rituals have odious consequences.

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