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Tradition and heritage matter - a lot


By Dr Anthony Lewis, Chair of Windsor Humanists and Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network


In this article, Anthony explores the importance of heritage and tradition. As a humanist he believes that all heritage and traditions belong to the whole of humanity, but they are not sacrosanct or immutable as many of today's 'traditions' are often yesterday's progressive successes. Cultural practices are continually evolving through the normal human processes of adaptation and learning as our societies progress. Anthony concludes that both conservative and liberal political outlooks have a role to play in this process of continual evolution and renewal of our cultures and traditions for the benefit of all.


Pageantry and heritage are big business. We all love sharing images and pictures from a bygone era on social media. Countries spend millions to get their cultural heritage accredited by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. I grew up in Northern Ireland where tradition matters a lot. The Belfast Good Friday Agreement which brought an end to the ‘Troubles’ just twenty-five years ago is explicit in ensuring that the traditions from both sides of the religious sectarian divide can share power in Northern Ireland. Tradition also matters to humanists, as demonstrated by Humanist UK’s excellent ongoing Humanist Heritage Project which is capturing, for posterity, the long history of the non-religious tradition in the UK as summarised by our writer John Coss in our April edition. The world watched in horror when the Taliban in Afghanistan deliberately destroyed the 1700 year old Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, because such artefacts belong to all of us.

What are 'heritage' and 'tradition'?

Heritage is defined by UNESCO as the artefacts, customs and institutions that we inherit from our ancestors by birth or ethnicity. Tradition is defined as the statements, beliefs, legends, and customs that are passed down from generation to generation as part of our culture. These terms are used interchangeably by most people, with heritage usually referring to the physical legacy and tradition referring more to behaviours and culture. Both can be considered as the physical and societal relics of our past that are like ‘cultural vapour trails’ left by the history that we inherit from our ancestors and pass on, with adaptations, to future generations. The story of human progress has been one in which our cultures, heritage and traditions evolve and change over time in step with the march of technology, science, and our improving knowledge of ourselves and of reality itself.

'Cultural appropriation is a normal human process of adaptation and learning that drives human progress.'

As a humanist, I believe that all our heritage and traditions belong to all of us. And having lived and worked on every continent, I have always revelled in experiencing different cultures. We are a truly diverse and amazing species. From language, music, dance and our folk customs, to our daily rituals, we have been stealing and borrowing from each other's traditions and cultures since the dawn of time. Cultural appropriation and sharing is a completely normal human process of adaptation and learning which will continue to drive human progress. In today's globalised world our traditions are crashing up against each other. Without doubt, from this glorious, boiling melting pot of diversity and difference, new ways of behaving will emerge from complex interactions. But as with any mighty change it will be a messy process.

Is bull fighting in Spain morally acceptable?

Cultural Inequality

To avoid things turning nasty and violent it is important to acknowledge some hard truths. First, it has to be recognised that for the majority of people their heritage and cultural traditions form their core identity, and they have a powerful, almost immutable, attachment to their shared heritage. If things move too fast the push back is both powerful and fierce, and can have a dramatic effect on social cohesion as demonstrated for example by Brexit in the UK and the recent rise of populism worldwide. Second, not all cultural practices and traditions are equal, despite what the postmodernists would claim. Many cultural practices are harmful to other humans and most humanists would consider them to be unacceptable in today's world. The burning of heretics, the use of ducking stools, capital punishment, and even slavery, are all part of the UK’s heritage and history but totally unacceptable in the modern era. Likewise, certain traditions that are at odds with modern values persist in various parts of the world include sati in India, child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and whale hunting, among others. Those who defend these practices often claim that they are part of their traditional way of life, implying that traditions are immutable and inviolable. This is a false assertion.

'All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: mercy, freedom, justice, honour, duty, and hope'. Winston Churchill

The continual flux of our cultures and traditions means that many of today's customs and practices are yesterday's progressive successes. As with any process of change it is important that we do not discard the good with the bad. We need to ensure that all proposed changes or improvements are not actually regressive and more harmful than the status quo. There is, therefore, an unavoidable but healthy tension between those advocating change and those advocating the protection and preservation of tradition and heritage.

The difference between conservatives and progressive liberals

The American evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt highlighted in his book The Righteous Mind (2012) that 'preserving tradition' tends to be a strong trait of those with a conservative political outlook. His research demonstrated how conservatives are driven by six moral imperatives - care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. In contrast, ‘progressive liberals' are driven strongly by just two of the six moral imperatives care/harm and liberty/oppression. Interestingly, Haidt’s six moral imperatives are similar to Churchill’s six moral imperatives for leadership mercy, freedom, justice, honour, duty, and hope. It appears, then, that both sides of this social divide have an important role to play. Conservatives are focused on ensuring that any proposed changes are beneficial and that we keep the good stuff enshrined in our traditions. Whilst liberals and progressives are focused on ensuring that we deal with injustices in our traditional ways of doing things and progressively improve society by jettisoning harmful traditions and cultural practices. In this way, we ensure that our traditions and customs are able to evolve and flex to help improve the lives of more and more people continually over time. You can contribute to Haidt’s ongoing research into morals by following this link - https://moralfoundations.org/questionnaires/.

The evolutionary basis of culture

Some evolutionary biologists and anthropologists have recently proposed that evolution operates at the group level for social species such as human beings. So that our languages, group behaviours, and cultures are subject to a process of adaptation and survival that is analogous to that operating at the molecular level on our DNA.


Anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar will present some ideas on the evolutionary basis of religion and belief at this year's Humanists UK Convention in Liverpool. Perhaps these new insights might go some way to explain why ancient religions and other traditional practices such as constitutional monarchies endure, despite appearing to be out of kilter with modern liberal sentiments.

The Monarchy Paradox

Constitutional monarchy is part of the UK’s heritage that clearly matters to many people. As a humanist, I cannot rationally support the concept of hereditary monarchy but, on the other hand, I cannot deny the power that the pageantry of the Coronation and the symbolism of the monarchy itself has in bringing us together as a society. There is a paradox in that many of the most liberal and progressive countries in the world are constitutional monarchies. It is as if being able to accept the ambiguity and obvious tension between tradition and progress helps a society deal with change constructively, without jettisoning its sense of self or sacrificing social cohesion. So although my brain does not support the existence of our monarchy, I will still enthusiastically be declaring ‘Long Live The King’ on the day of the Coronation with all my heart! Because tradition does matter a lot.


Links to some sources

UNESCO World Heritage Convention - https://whc.unesco.org/en/review/103/

Taliban destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001 https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/destroying-cultural-heritage-more-just-material-damage

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt 2012 - review in the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/22/righteous-mind-jonathan-haidt-review and reviewed in Philosophy Now https://philosophynow.org/issues/101/The_Righteous_Mind_by_Jonathan_Haidt

Participate in Haidt’s research by filling in the moral questionnaire https://moralfoundations.org/questionnaires/

There are other moral frameworks - see this summary by Dr Oliver Scott Curry from Oxford https://behavioralscientist.org/whats-wrong-with-moral-foundations-theory-and-how-to-get-moral-psychology-right/

How Religion Evolved (2022) by Robin Dunbar reviewed in the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/apr/10/how-religion-evolved-by-robin-dunbar-review-sharp-history-of-belief


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