daoism’s quest for relevance

Photograph taken during the liturgy at the Templo da Transparência Sublime, Rio de Janeiro, December 2009.

In a Wall Street Journal blog today, Christopher Carothers asks, “Is Daoism is losing its way?” He writes:

Today, Buddhism is regaining its traditional place as the largest religion in Chinese society. Islam is expanding through the growth of Muslim families in the Hui and Uyghur minority ethnic groups. Protestantism and Catholicism are winning new converts all over China and shaking off the old label of “foreign religion.” Daoism, on the other hand, seems to be standing still.

Worse still, he argues, Daoism is often ridiculed by other religions, as was the case in the recent incident in Singapore, in which a Christian pastor was forced to apologize for his anti-Daoist remarks. Singapore has strict rules concerning public speech about religion, so one can only imagine what anti-Daoist sentiments are being expressed in countries without such restrictions on free speech.

Carothers offers a reason for this reported decline, quoting unnamed researchers who say “the main reasons for Daoism’s troubles are its poor social networking and the lack of available information about its teachings.” This reason deserves further explanation. It’s certainly true that Daoism is a lineage-based tradition which prizes knowledge and training that are passed on orally from teacher to student. This gives it a certain disadvantage compared to proselytising and more “democratic” traditions like protestant Christianity, where individual believers work out their own spirituality through the medium of a cheaply-distributed Bible. In a globalized world Daoism also has a disadvantage compared to transnational religions such as Buddhism, which has well-established global networks and a long history of cross-cultural adaptation. (More…)

new directions in religion and nature

I was in LA last weekend to attend the Sixth Annual Conference on Daoist Studies which was organized by my former teacher, Livia Kohn, and LMU Professor Robin Wang. The conference drew the usual mix of academics and practitioners (which was itself the subject of an interesting meta-analysis by Elijah Siegler). My rationale for attending the conference, however, was that one of its focus themes was religion and ecology. I wanted to see how far the field had evolved since I co-edited the first book on this topic, Daoism and Ecology, Ways within a Cosmic Landscape, in 2001, and I’m delighted to report that there has been some excellent progress.

The majority of essays in that volume, nearly a decade old now, focussed on correlations between environmental concepts and philosophical and religious concepts in the Daoist tradition. Some focussed more on cultural practices such as fengshui or meditation, but there was generally a lack of historical detail and also theoretical innovation. But it was the first stab at creating such a field, so one can’t be too critical.

On the other hand, the papers presented at this year’s conference revealed a greater emphasis on historical detail and also a willingness to engage theoretically innovative frameworks and methods coming from cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. (More…)