Let me equivocate. I’m a huge fan of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese manuscript of uncertain age and authorship. No god appears in the pages of the Tao Te Ching, but it does tell of a mysterious presence or force assigned the incredibly vague appellation “the Tao”. This word can be translated as “way”, “force”, “path”, “road”, “word”, “power” or a bunch of other meanings only a Chinese scholar could tell you. The mysterious narrator of the Tao Te Ching indicates vaguely — always vaguely — that the Tao is not a being, not a knowing entity that creates and subsequently judges its creations. Rather, the Tao is actually presented as the primary Nothing, the empty space which enabled existence to exist in the first place.
“If you mold a cup [...] it is the emptiness within it that makes it useful [...] In a house or room it is the empty spaces — the doors, the windows — that make it usable [...] Without their nothingness they would be nothing.” So explains the narrator, who goes on to say, “I do not know its name. So I call it TAO.”*
This is the closest I’ve come to believing in a religion. Unfortunately, Tao-ism like all -isms is not quite as vague and mysterious as the principle text of its institution. In the end, it all comes back to rules and ceremony.
That’s the problem with religions, and it’s damn hard (and possibly foolish) to disentangle god from religion. Religions are subject to human frailty and fallibility because they are the fruits of human endeavour. But like the fruits of any human endeavour they bear our watermark, and often contained within are nuggets of wisdom that are hard to find elsewhere. Religion deals in the mysterious, an area where it has organised a monopoly that is in desperate need of re-appropriation.
It’s this complicated but fruitful process of extricating value from otherwise destructive, manipulative religious institutions that often gets overlooked in the “for” and “against” arguments. We take what’s useful from every other prevalent institution in history, and discard the rest. Religion should get the same treatment.
Like Nietzsche said, there only ever was one Christian, and he died on the cross. The rest of them have busied themselves imposing the veneer of objectivity upon subjective values. Because organised religion is the primary vehicle for the notion of the existence of god, and given its pretty atrocious track record of violence, manipulation, sexual abuse and repression, it’s important to question, to constantly wonder if religion is the product of a belief in god, or if god is the product of religion. I think it is important to wonder even if there is no end to the wondering. If anything in this world is holy, it is wonder, which is available to us all whether we believe in god or not.
*The Tao Te Ching, translation by Man-Ho Kwok, Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay (Element, 1997)