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…the root cause of prejudice is blind imitation of the past — imitation in religion, in racial attitudes, in national bias, in politics. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 247.
People tend to rely heavily on tradition.
My new friend Mary (whose name I changed here to protect her privacy) feels deeply connected to her family’s Catholic traditions, and experiences the strong pull of those traditions when she contemplates becoming a Baha’i. Many people who take a journey of spiritual discovery feel the same way, finding it hard to contemplate such a transition. When we believe something new, how do we leave the old traditions behind?
Tradition has an important place in our lives. It anchors us to our ancestors, to the past, to the things we think of as deeply important.
But what defines a tradition? The standard Wikipedia definition says that “tradition refers to beliefs, objects or customs performed or believed in the past, originating in it, transmitted through time by being taught by one generation to the next, and are performed or believed in the present.”
Just for fun, let’s consider and examine a few venerable traditions.
Western cultures teach their children about Santa Claus, who historians say came originally from the Dutch mythical figure Sinterklaas, and even earlier from the historical Greek bishop Saint Nicholas, the 4th century bishop known for his gift-giving–and as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, pawnbrokers and repentant thieves. However, we get our traditional jolly, rotund Santa image from two sources: the bearded depiction of the Norse god Odin and his pagan midwinter celebration called Yule; which Christianity incorporated into its traditions when Germanic and Scandanavian people began to become Christians; and a 19th century political cartoonist and caricaturist named Thomas Nast, who first drew his version of the modern Santa Claus in 1881.
In many of the world’s societies, the white wedding dress has long been thought of as not only the traditional symbol of the bride’s purity, but of the new, fresh beginning every wedding celebrates. People tend to think of white wedding dresses as an ancient tradition, but do you know when they got their start? It all began when Queen Victoria wore white to her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840, and her Victorian fashion choice created an industry.
And what about Mother’s Day? That “traditional” holiday started in 1908, when a West Virginia woman named Anna Jarvis decided to hold a memorial for her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis—who had been a peace activist during and after the American Civil War, and who created women’s “work clubs” to promote public health and fight the spread of disease.
Because we learn our own cultural and familial traditions from our parents and grandparents, we may think of them as ancient and everlasting—but that usually isn’t true. In fact, many so-called traditions are invented on purpose and come from the recent and not the distant past.
The same dynamic holds true in religion. Religious traditions primarily originate from the activities of the faithful themselves, from the clergy, or from ceremonial practices that have little or no basis in the original message of the Faith. These traditions can gradually overwhelm or even contradict the Faith’s teachings, leading to a tradition-bound, ritualistic brand of religion that loses its spiritual foundation.
Baha’is, who believe that each person should independently investigate the truth, do not reject all tradition—instead, the Baha’i writings ask us to simply question the origins of tradition, and avoid blindly imitating them without first doing that questioning:
…every man must be an investigator for himself. Ideas and beliefs left by his fathers and ancestors as a heritage will not suffice, for adherence to these are but imitations and imitations have ever been a cause of disappointment and misguidance. Be investigators of reality, that you may attain the verity of truth and life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 76.
We must discover for ourselves where and what reality is. In religious beliefs nations and peoples today are imitators of ancestors and forefathers. If a man’s father was a Christian, he himself is a Christian; a Buddhist is the son of a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian of a Zoroastrian… This is absolute imitation. The requirement in this day is that man must independently and impartially investigate every form of reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 327.
Common religious superstitions, traditions and imitations, Baha’is believe, have done tremendous damage to the human race. They can foster ignorance, oppose science, allow people to justify intellectual laziness and contribute to prejudice, hatred and violence:
The greatest cause of bereavement and disheartening in the world of humanity is ignorance based upon blind imitation. It is due to this that wars and battles prevail; from this cause hatred and animosity arise continually among mankind. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 73.
This revolutionary Baha’i teaching—that every human being should endeavor to avoid blind imitation of the past—doesn’t reject the ancient Faiths. Instead, it embraces them:
Baha’u’llah teaches that the foundations of the divine religion are one reality which does not admit of multiplicity or division. Therefore, the commandments and teachings of God are one. The religious differences and divisions which exist in the world are due to blind imitations of forms without knowledge or investigation of the fundamental divine reality which underlies all the religions. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 289.
Baha’is believe that blind imitation of the past closes off the vast potential of the future.