Hanging on my refrigerator door is a quote attributed to Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha): “Do not put your faith in traditions only because they have been honored my many generations.” Not being a Buddhist scholar, I am not sure if the words originated with Siddhartha Gautama or not. Whatever their origin, however, these words are worth serious consideration. Do we believe what we do simply because of its age? Are older ideas more difficult to dismiss than more recent ones?
During a recent conversation I was interested to hear a member of the clergy say, “We need to move away from thinking of new religions as cults.” That was like a slap from the Buddha — the proverbial sound of one hand slapping. Do members of an ancient religion feel a kind of entitlement to the status earned with the inexorable passing of time? The idea goes back at least to the Romans. Wanting to stop the endless splintering of religions into new sects and potentially divisive rivals, they tended only to allow outside religions within their empire if they could demonstrate a remote antiquity (Judaism was the textbook example). Age of religion constitutes a kind of seniority; who hasn’t had a run-in with a Roman Catholic who believes their form of Christianity trumps all others on the basis of a supposed apostolic antiquity? If it has survived that long, there must be something to it — right?
I wonder if such a criterion is sound for systems of belief. We readily accept change in perspective in most other aspects of our lives. Religion is where many people draw the line. One of the funny scenes in Religulous is where the imam, in traditional garb, receives a text message on his cell phone in the middle of his interview with Bill Maher. The problem with allowing change in most aspects of life and thinking, but not one fundamental area, should become immediately apparent. Unless religion can be severely circumscribed and kept apart from all other facets of life, it has to fit into an entire system of thought. If one region of thought stops at the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze, or Iron Age without being reinforced by the other areas of human thought and experience that have transpired since then, can the system survive? I’m not suggesting that religions should be rejected because of age, but that they should be allowed to grow up. If that were to happen I would happily remove the Buddhist quote from my refrigerator door.