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daoism’s quest for relevance

By: James Miller

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.

The deeper reason, however, for Daoism’s apparent decline lies in the modern concept of religion. Under the influence of Western thinkers, Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century adopted a view of religion as a distinct body of beliefs, practices and institutions that could be formally separated from other cultural practices. The modern Chinese term for religion, zongjiao, is in fact borrowed from a 19th century Japanese word that was expressly created for conveying this modern Western concept. This concept of religion as a portable body of teachings that are disconnected from broader cultural habits was particularly useful for Christian missionaries who wanted Chinese people to convert to their new “religion” without having to forego their cultural identity as Chinese people. It was equally useful for the Chinese republican and communist modernizers who wished to delineate religion as a distinct area of culture, and wean Chinese people off it.

The problem for Daoism, however, is that since the Ming dynasty it has been so closely woven into the fabric of popular Chinese religious practices that it is very difficult to think of it as a “religion” that can be clearly detached from Chinese culture and society. Under the modern Western understanding of religion, Daoism falls into a grey area encompassing spirit mediums, ancestor worship, local folk traditions, Taiji quan, Qigong as well as an elite monastic and priestly core.

So if Daoism is on the decline, the reasons do not solely lie with Daoism itself. They are partly to do with the way our modern culture has framed religion in a way that benefits portable traditions like Christianity and Buddhism, and disadvantages more culturally-embedded religions like Daoism.

However, there is some reason to hope that Daoism will not be forgotten. As sociological studies have shown, the post-modern quest for spirituality is constituted in part by a rejection of the modern way of construing religion as a distinct area of supernatural belief and communal ritual practice. Post-modern spirituality is eclectic, holistic, and this-worldly. In this regard, Daoism has a strong chance of being able to reinvent itself.

In December last year I conducted interviews at two Daoist temples in Brazil that were staffed entirely by converts. When asked what was so attractive about Daoism, interviewees overwhelmingly replied that they were motived by Daoism’s reverence for life, its this-worldly spirituality, and its emphasis on harmony between humanity and the natural world. Health, life and nature are key features of the 21st century zeitgeist. For this reason, Daoism has the possibility of becoming a significant global spirituality. As it declines in Singapore, it is being reinvented in Sao Paulo.

Categories: Blog, Opinion