XIX. Diversity among Religions: Polytheism

From the foregoing examples of religious belief systems, it is apparent that belief in a supreme being is an inadequate criterion of religion. Despite the lingering, out-dated prejudice of some Christian commentators, this point would generally be immediately endorsed by comparative religionists and sociologists of religion. Status as a religion would not be denied to Buddhism, Jainism or Hinduism, the absence of any conception of a supreme being or creator-god notwithstanding. If these examples of pantheistic and atheistic, but none the less indisputably religious, belief-systems present a contrast to Christian ideas of what a religion should resemble, so too do polytheistic beliefs, even though these are less easily presented in organized or coherent form. Taoism, now generally regarded as a religion in the textbooks of comparative religion, provides such a case. In contrast to revealed religions, Taoism draws on nature worship, mysticism, fatalism, political quietism, magic, and ancestor worship. For centuries it was officially recognized in China as an organized religion, with temples, worship, and clergy. It entertained conceptions of supernatural beings, including the Jade Emperor, Lao-Tzu, Ling Po (marshal of supernatural beings) and the Eight Immortals of Chinese folklore, the City God, the God of the Hearth, among others, together with innumerable spirits. Taoism lacks, however, a supreme creator, a saviour-god of the Christian kind and an articulated theology and cosmology. The case of Taoism illustrates the fact that religions do not arise fully-fledged as systems of belief, practice, and organization. They undergo processes of evolution in all these aspects, sometimes coming to embrace elements entirely at variance with earlier conceptions. Accretions of myth and ritual and changes in organization have been normal in the history of religion, and some of these new elements are at times only partially assimilated and are by no means always rendered compatible one with another.

XIXa. Diversity among Religions: A Modern Example