I think I got the original post slightly off.

I was critiquing Sam Kriss’ claim that the best traditions come from “just doing stuff”, without trying to tie things back to anything in the past.

The counterexample I was thinking of was all the 2010s New Atheist attempts to reinvent “church, but secular”. These were well-intentioned. Christians get lots of benefits from going to church, like a good community. These benefits don’t seem obviously dependent on the religious nature. So instead of tying your weekly meeting back to what Jesus and St. Peter and so on said two thousand years ago, why not “just do stuff” and have a secular weekly meeting?

Most of these attempts fell apart. One of them, the Sunday Assembly, clings to existence but doesn’t seem too successful. People with ancient traditions 1, people who just do stuff 0.

But after thinking about it more, maybe this isn’t what Sam means. Arches and columns are iconic architectural features. But they were originally invented by people just trying to figure out how to efficiently support buildings (columns might have started as tree trunks, and only later been translated into stone). Likewise, gargoyles are whimsical and exciting, but they started life as utilitarian rainspouts that gradually became more ornamented and fanciful.

Moving from objects to observances - Jews break a glass at weddings because some ancient rabbi broke a glass at a wedding to get people’s attention and tell them to stop being so loud and rowdy. Even very weird supernatural traditions are in some sense “utilitarian” - some theories trace Halloween costumes back to people who genuinely believed vengeful ghosts might be out for revenge that night, and very practically disguised themselves from potential unfriendly spirits.

So instead of the original post’s two opposed things, it might make more sense to think of three things:

  1. Doing something for completely practical reasons, without intending for it to form an aesthetic/ritual/community.

  2. Doing something for aesthetic/ritual/community-building reasons, with no reference to sacredness or tradition.

  3. Doing something for aesthetic/ritual/community-building reasons, with a story of how it relates to sacredness and tradition.

My claim is that both (1) and (3) work well and can potentially be the origin of valuable aesthetics/rituals/communities, but (2) works less well.

But if you need an aesthetic/ritual/community in a hurry, you can’t just do random utilitarian things that make sense for your practical problems and expect them to turn into beloved traditions in a reasonable amount of time - the whole point of the utilitarian route is that you’re not thinking about aesthetic/ritual/community while you do it. At that point, (3) is your best bet.