Religious traditions and the present

In the dialogues “After Ramadan I’ll really let loose” and “I can’t play football on Sunday” Tim and Jami are confronted with the attitudes of their friends, who do not fully understand their religious practices. Given that faith and religion is a very sensitive area, the dialogues are not exactly the most pleasant for our heroes. Let’s look at the topics which relate to their situation.

  • What is...?

Tradition: Tradition (traditio, lat. – transfer), in the general sense of the word, means the transfer of a cultural heritage from generation to generation. It therefore involves the preservation of cultural and religious identity over time. It takes place by means of a dynamic historical process involving the transfer of patterns of behaviour, thinking, artistic production, religion and faith, be these enshrined in institutions or remaining on an informal level. Tradition therefore provides stability for cultural and religious communities, operating as a social binding agent and a symbolic expression of social cohesion, the anchorage of collective and individual identity.

  • Topic

Tradition and society
From the point of view of the sociology of religion, religious tradition is the principle of social cohesion which protects human society against disintegration and chaos, legitimates (and sometimes conserves) the existing organisation of society and operates as a guarantee of social values and ideas. The authority of religious tradition is generally derived from its sacred origins. It does not involve ‘social engineering.’ Instead, the origin of tradition is frequently found in God’s revelation, which provides it with an unimpeachable and guaranteed sacred authority over human lives.

The benign stabilising function of tradition is reinforced and symbolically confirmed by means of regular religious observance and celebrations of religious holidays, which make visible to believers the founding sacred event which occurred at the birth of their religious culture, while at the same time operating as a display and reminder of social ideals (solidarity, love of one’s fellow man, social and civil virtues, etc.).

Tradition and the individual
From the point of view of the psychology of religion, religious tradition performs the benign function of stabilising the spiritual life in relation to the unconscious elements of the inner human life. Religious symbols, sacred stories, legends, and so on which are present in religious ceremonies operate as an important harmonising factor of the spiritual life of a person, they have a preventative function in relation to neurotic states, states of anxiety, and the psychological problems linked with a crisis of identity. The rhythms of regularly repeating ceremonies or worship (in a weekly or annual cycle) operate as an important stabilising factor during the course of individual development, in the same way as ceremonies and festivities held within the family circle (as well as religious activities held within the wider framework of the community of believers). These family or community ceremonies are saved in the “deep memory” and operate as an extremely strong factor in the creation of personal identity, especially during childhood and adolescence.

Tradition, therefore, both in relation to society and in relation to individuals, has above all a stabilising function. This is its greatest strength and also its stumbling block. An exaggerated emphasis on this stabilising function can lead to absolute control of the past over the present, to religiously legitimated regression and authoritarianism in the name of a narrow-minded idea of the timeless sacred order of human life. The arguments of fundamentalist movements for a return to some form of primary purity and serenity are taken from a similarly rampant nostalgia for the golden age of the past. However, these movements represent a completely ahistorical attempt to apply and promote regulations and rules which were formed for a period going back many centuries, and which, from a practical point of view, are these days unrealisable.

Tradition and the present
Attempts at an unconditional and unilateral return to a golden age are, however, sporadic. Most believers understand the stabilising role of tradition in a differentiated way: tradition links the believer with the past, mediates their heritage as a religious community, allows them access to the cultural memory, designates their place in history, and establishes their cultural and religious roots. But tradition is not only a thing of the past, and it is not about looking after museum pieces. A living religious tradition is dynamic, opening up challenges to the present and future. It has the character of a kind of relay race, with each generation contributing to the basis of the tradition by means of an irreplaceable contribution. Each generation, therefore, should offer the tradition its own contributions, thereby enriching it. In practice, this means that traditional doctrines, rules and customs should not simply be passively repeated, but that it is necessary to interpret this wisdom of one’s predecessors anew and creatively, to adapt this legacy of the past in new ways to the changing challenges of the present and future.

A living tradition, therefore, always means a creative dialogue between the past and present (as well as the future). It is not simply a museum of the past, a form of oppressive imprisonment, or a religiously-induced obedience to medieval prohibitions and commands.

Tradition and minorities
The role of tradition in minority communities is very specific: the situation (religious and ethnic) of minority communities is strongly influenced by the fact that they are surrounded by a more or less friendly majority society. Identity (collective and individual) is automatically made problematic by this fact. Each member of a minority community is confronted with the fact that the majority society is “other” and this fact will necessarily play a part in their own creation of identity. This situation is particularly evident in communities of immigrants, where the fact of being a minority is exacerbated by their transplantation from the domestic environment of their country of origin to the culture of the host country. The gradual creation of identity in immigrant communities is, of course, strongly influenced (negatively or positively) by the success of the policy of the host countries towards immigrants, and relates, as is well known, not only to first-generation immigrants (i.e. those who arrived in the host country), but to their children and grandchildren born in the host country. Given that minority groups suffer not only a fast tempo of social changes (we all suffer this), but also the fact that their identity is contingent (on the background of majority society), and in addition, especially in the case of immigrants, they have lost their stabilising background of traditional social links, there is for understandable reasons a reinforcement of the role of tradition (religious, national, cultural) as the anchorage of an identity under threat. For this reason, immigrants are often strongly inclined to the cultural and religious heritage of their native countries, not infrequently those which, even in their own country, were not even practiced by the most zealous believers. This is completely understandable, and a textbook example of the beneficial and stabilising role of culture and religious traditions (the national and religious traditions of Jewish communities within the framework of Christian Europe operate very similarly).

Tradition and religious radicalisation
Under the pressure of majority society (especially in the case of xenophobic moods in the host countries, poor immigration policy, discrimination on the jobs market, the restriction of social mobility, etc.), the radicalisation of religious attitudes can frequently take place in the form of more or less open hostility to the culture of the host country and in affirmative and ostentatious declarations of one’s own religious and cultural differences (external signs, the ostentatious and provocative wearing of religious symbols, etc.).

Tradition and dialogues in Czechkid

The dialogue “After Ramadan I’ll really let loose”
Jami and his family observe a fast during the month of Ramadan (the fast applies only during the day, after sundown one can eat and drink to satiety, which is what happens). The aim of the fast is not to starve oneself to death, but to remind oneself and those around them of the obedience to God’s laws. It is a sacred tradition, the origins of which are found in God’s revelation (c.f. above). In Muslim families, it is a symbolic reminder and confirmation of a joint religious and cultural identity. Jami wisely links his positive relationship with tradition to the fact that he lives in a foreign country where he never quite fits in (c.f. above, on the relation of minority and immigrant groups to tradition).

At the same time, it is clear from the dialogue that Jami likes to let loose (KFC, Coca-Cola, etc.). His relationship to tradition does not mean that he lives in the middle ages. The family or community, belonging to a living (by no means dead) tradition, does not live in a cage of rules or in a nostalgic daydream of the past. On the contrary, nothing prevents it from facing up to the questions, achievements and problems of the present, albeit not unthinkingly, uncritically, as mere consumers, but in a creative and continual debate with the wisdom of its predecessors (c.f. above, on the relation of tradition and the present).

Dialogue “I can’t play football on Sunday”
Tim goes to church on Sunday, where he plays the organ. Jami finally realises that this is similar to him and Ramadan. And he’s right. Tim, who as a Christian belongs to a religious minority in the Czech Republic, suffers problems and anxieties because of his faith, but at the same time he is happy that he can belong somewhere, that he has an anchorage in space and time mediated by tradition. If, moreover, he has a wise priest and a kind and lenient (i.e. not bigoted and forbidding) parents, it is very probable that he will find his own way to faith, and that he will appropriate the traditions of his family and internalise them. If he manages to do this, a regular trip to church will not be an unpleasant duty for him (c.f. above, on the significance of regular rhythms (worship, holidays, etc.) in relation to the creation of identity in childhood and adolescence). Anchorage in a tradition will become for him a source of value orientation and a direction in life. He will find it slightly easier than Jami to find his own identity, since he does not differ too much from majority society (c.f. above, on the role of tradition in minority and immigrant communities).

  • Stories and examples

Story 1
An old woman, A.K., in an Institution for the Treatment of the Long-Term Ill, likes to remember back to childhood. Her consolation in old age is to recite the entire liturgy of the mass in Latin. Although she has had serious memory loss and gets the names of her relatives wrong, she remembers the Latin mass perfectly because she went to church every Sunday as a child. She says that it calms her and that when she is sad, she thinks back to her childhood and recites the mass.

Story 2
P.K. says he has two very strong memories of childhood. Both relate to family rituals. The first was when his father used to take him by car to nursery school and they would sing folk songs together, taught to his father by his grandmother, and when later he would go mushroom picking in the woods with his father, where they had “their places”, “their methods” of cleaning the mushrooms and cooking them according to a special recipe. P.K. says that to this very day, when he thinks back on these things, tears fill his eyes and that he would not be the same person had he not sung in the car and gone on mushroom-picking expeditions.

Story 3
Mr and Mrs J.F. and V.F. suffered a serious marital crisis because both brought from their childhood a completely different understanding of social dining. For J.F., who is of Jewish origin, joint communal meals took place every weekend or on festivities. The family would meet at the table, the food was carefully prepared (with several courses) and had the symbolic character of a family event. Each member of the family waited for the rest, so that everyone began to eat at the same time. V.F. grew up in a family where food did not have the function of a family celebration; members of her family ate at different times, in different places, and only sometimes in front of the table. They ate in a hurry, and often consumed readymade, frozen or reheated food (the mother of V.F. was a busy woman who rarely cooked at home). Finally, J.F. and V.F. decided that at least at Christmas, Easter and the birthdays of members of the family they would all eat together. Their children, M.F. and H.F., loved these family meals and were strict on observing them.

  • Sources


Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1999). Sociální konstrukce reality. Brno: Centrum pro studium demokracie a kultury.

Eliade, M. (1994). Posvátné a profánní. Praha: Česká křesťanská akademie.

Gennep, A. (1997). Přechodové rituály. Praha: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny.

Říčan, P. (2002). Psychologie náboženství. Praha: Portál.

Weber, M. (1998). Sociologie náboženství. Praha: Vyšehrad.

See this page in Czech