Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Is Taoism a Religion?

A couple years ago I found myself in the Religion section of Borders staring at all the various Bibles, Korans, Torahs and Books of the Dead.  I felt that I should really get to know other religions.  (Clearly that is a feeling that hasn't subsided.)  So I figured I would start reading their texts.  But as I stood there, puzzling as to where I should start, I began dreading the thought of actually reading one of them.

I went to a private school for elementary and middle school.  I took Bible classes and went to weekly chapel.  Then there was Sunday school and Sunday sermons.  You would think I would know the Bible inside and out.  But it only continued to confuse me.

And I still haven't read every word.  (I tried to read the entire Bible, front to back, several times.  All it amounted to was reading the first few chapters of Genesis A LOT.)

You might think part of this failure to fully dive into the Bible was due to my age at the time.  But that's not it.  I was a good student almost to a fault (like full-blown geek status, like thought the opposite sex had cooties and didn't know that platform sneakers weren't cool.)  If something was to be understood and applied, I understood it and applied it.  End of story.  I think where the Bible kept catching me was this: it didn't make sense to me that this one book could be constantly, tirelessly studied while my school teachers and pastor admitted to never fully understanding it.  And where did the application come in?

I wanted to read the Bible because I felt I should.  But I never really wanted to.  It seemed to be a discouraging, fruitless task.

And all those feelings came rushing back as I stood in front of all those other daunting texts.

So I pulled out a small one from the bottom shelf.  I'd heard of the "Tao" before but never really knew exactly what was in it.  And its size shocked me.  Its size also invited me.  It screamed simplicity and maybe that's what I really needed after all.

I read a few chapters of it and bought it immediately.  I whisked it home and poured over it, drank it in, read it again.  Read it again.  Gave it to a professor of mine.  Bought another.  Read it again.  Gave it to a friend of mine.  Bought another.  Read it again.  And again.  I loved it.  It WAS simple but there was so much in it.  It was understandable and technically applicable.

And while it was the very definition of ideal and vague, what do we really have to live for if not for the vaguely ideal?

I thought I'd share some snippets here:

Chapter 9:

"Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity."

Chapter 43:

"The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
that is the Master's way."

Chapter 75:

"When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people's benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone."

Read more here.

As I understand it, the "Tao" refers to the way things are meant to be in the world.  It is an all-encompassing representation of the center of things.  And the "Master" is someone who is centered and grounded in the "Tao."  So the Tao is an ideal state of the world.  And a Master is an ideal being in that world.

There is no god.

Which brings me to my question: what exactly IS the definition of religion, if there is one?  Taoism is considered a religion but nowhere in its text is there any mention of a god.  There are only philosophies on the proper way of living, created and written down by one man.  So in this case, the religion of Taoism is simply a recognition of and yearning toward the ideal.

What do you think of this?

Is the Tao a true religion?  In what ways is it comparable to other popular religions?  Are there Christian/Jewish/Muslim ideals present within the Tao?  Did other religions' gods have a Tao-like world in mind?


  1. Taoism is not unique in its recognition and yearning torwards the ideal, nor in the absence of a god. Buddhism is another such religion that shares these same characteristics.

    Also consider religions such as Hinduism and Shintoism that are not monotheistic, but instead polytheistic, with many gods to follow...

    Is it perhaps dangerous to assume that a religion is not a religion if it does not have "a god"? Would you not be discounting millions people around the world who have chosen these faiths?

  2. First, let me reiterate that I love and respect the Tao. I am also aware that there are other "religions" that have no god or have multiple gods. As far as I am concerned, they are all as valid as the next.

    I am not discounting a single person, let alone millions, and I sincerely apologize if it seemed that way. I was simply asking your opinion.

    How would you define "religion"? And what similarities do they share?

    And should there be sub-headings if the definition is to be an umbrella large enough to fit fluid Taoism next to the strict rules of Catholicism?

    Would it not benefit both to use these sub-headings in describing such belief systems rather than calling them all "religions" - a word which has centuries of bad juju attached to it?

  3. I understand what you're saying.

    I don't know that I would consider religion as having bad juju attached to it necessarily... but nonetheless, I agree with you that sub-headings would be beneficial. In fact, I believe that it would be impossible not to use them, as they've already become ingrained into religion already... for example polytheism vs. monotheism, varying sects of Protestantism, or even grouping religions together by region (ie "East Asian Religions" or "Western Religions")

    As far as a blanket definition goes, I would have to go with something along the lines of a fundamental set of beliefs and practices that is followed (whether by millions of people or just one... who is to say that one person can't follow their own "religion"?) Faith is religion.

  4. Devil's Advocate:

    Set of beliefs in what?
    Practices concerning what?
    Faith in what?

    And where does morality come in? Can there be evil religions? Were followers of Charles Manson, who had faith in him, practicing a religion?

    Would political parties be considered religions?

    Does religion necessarily have to deal with the supernatural?