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new directions in religion and nature

By: James Miller

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.

On the historical front, Kim Sung-hae offered an ecological reading of the life of the Quanzhen patriarch Yin Zhiping (13th century), attempting to read his teachings on non-action (wuwei), and his cosmology from the perspective of environmental ethics. This had the effect of grounding Daoist eco-philosophy in a concrete context of religious practice, something that was lacking in earlier discussions of the subject.

Professor Yang Lizhi, director of research at Wudang shan, gave a vivid historical account of the environmental history of Mt. Wudang, one of the most prominent Daoist sacred sites today. He used historical sources to demonstrate how theimperial government used its patronage of the site to preserve but also enhance the aesthetic of the balance between humans and nature by using a local army to enforce imperial prohibitions against the clear-cutting of bamboo on the site, and but also engaging in environmental engineering works (using the intriguing term xiushan) to prevent soil erosion but also prevent landslide damage to temple buildings.

Moving from history to science, the papers of Shawn Arthur and Jennifer Lundin Ritchie aimed to ground understandings of Daoist philosophy and practice in terms of contemporary evolutionary psychology, arguing that it is possible to explain certain features of Daoist worldview and practice in certain biological terms. Ritchie’s paper concerned the relationship between moral theory and group size, drawing on insights that correlate the types of moral rationales used by humans with the size of the relevant group. Large groups that transcend kin boundaries require ethical norms grounded in concepts that transcend the intuitive moral psychology that works well within kingship systems.

Arthur’s essay was the first attempt that I have seen to understand the complex range of Daoist dietary practices in terms of the biological effects of specific foodstuffs, and also broader the evolutionary factors. The most interesting application of this theory was in an analysis of Daoist abstention from grains and eating small amounts of sesame, pine etc. in order to starve the three “deathbringing worms.”  Contrary to the usual mythological treatment of this phenomenon, Arthur examined this from the perspective of the biological relationship between human hosts and parasitic worms, and also from an evolutionary perspective on human preferences for certain types of foodstuffs.

These papers opened up new fields for understanding the complex relationship between nature and religion, and made a strong case that in order to fully comprehend Daoist religion, it’s necessary also to understand the interaction between human culture and the natural world. I don’t think that biology can explain everything of importance about religion, but it can provide a valuable insight into the basic orientations of human religious behaviour and can be a useful analytic tool for humanities researchers.

Categories: Blog, Conferences, Opinion

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