Saturday, December 11, 2010
It is inevitable that any blog that talks about Taoism must deal with this question at some point.
Is Taoism a religion? Is it a philosophy? Is it something else?
Here is my problem with the arguments against Taoism as a religion. My problem comes when people misunderstand what a religion is and what the Tao is. Most of the arguments I've heard about Taoism not being a religion stem from people clearly raised in a Christian culture. They site the lack of a deity (although this brings me back to the issue with a misunderstanding of the Tao), the lack of a creation story, and things of that nature.
First of all, I will point out that religions are not solely monotheistic or polytheistic. There are a multitude of different theisms that can be present in a religion, and there are certainly religions that can exist with the lack of a god. The Tao is an example of a pantheistic god (though some sects have included incarnations of the Tao and various other god figures), which does not have a true personality or will. It simply... is.
Second comes the issue of a misinterpretation of religion. As I've said before, religions can exist in the absence of a god. As one of my professors explained, a religion is most accurately defined (putting aside cultural bias) as a set of beliefs about how we can best live and the purpose of existence. Taoism has both of these things.
An interesting point is that many schools of Atheistic thought have them as well. If you are an Atheist and have a problem with Atheism being defined as a religion, perhaps you should consider what your motives are for being an Atheist.
So, then, is Taoism a religion and not a philosophy? Well, here is my issue with that: What is a philosophy? A religion, by definition, must ALSO be a philosophy. One of the interesting aspects of Taoism is that you can be, for example, a Christian and still apply Taoist principles to your life (in fact, anyone who has studied Tai Chi Chuan has been introduced to many Taoist principles). But so, too, can a Taoist apply Christian principles to their life.
Moreover, many sects of various religions can be considered to be a combination of a religion and a philosophy that contemplates how that particular religion should define itself. For example, I was raised a Methodist, which is Christianity with a Wesleyan philosophy of Christianity.
The main advantage Taoism (though this also applies to Confucianism and Buddhism) has, as a philosophy, is that its greatest thinkers have not claimed a direct line to the Tao. Rather, they present arguments for why a certain action or view in a particular situation is beneficial. The laws do not come from a god figure, but rather from turning the issue over and considering the best path.
So what is Taoism? Is it religion? Is it philosophy?
Taoism is highly individualized. The way you go about applying Taoist principles to your life will, without a doubt, be different from the way I apply Taoist principles to my life. I am a religious non-denominational Taoist, but that doesn't mean that I think you must have Taoism as your religion in order to be Taoist.
Edit: Allow me to restate the point I had here. Taoism is not limited by restrictions or limitations of people and definitions because the Tao is not restricted or limited by people and definitions. Instead of arguing about whether Taoism is a religion or a philosophy or whatever, perhaps it would be best to simply apply the wisdom of it to your life (or not, as your choice may be).