Problems of the “Evolutionary Tree of Religion”

On social media sites, I have seen the following chart making the rounds:

d8ecc07e906127bf0fd4623504b7eca8(original link: https://a248.e.akamai.net/media.pinterest.com.s3.amazonaws.com/originals/d8/ec/c0/d8ecc07e906127bf0fd4623504b7eca8.jpg)

This is a very pleasing visualization, but I find many, may problems with it. Most importantly, it’s basically the epitome of the genetic fallacy (with a dash of teleological fallacy thrown in).

Let’s look at Taoism (=Daoism). The chart claims it was founded in the 6th century BCE, when Laozi 老子 supposedly lived. Two problems with this: first, it is very likely that Laozi (“the old master”) was not a real person, but the title of a book, something like (Sayings of) the Old Master(s) – classical Chinese doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural nouns. It was only later that this book became attributed to a sage named Laozi who was born with white hair, a beard, and later rode an ox to the West. Second, and more importantly, Taoism as an organized religion didn’t really begin until Zhang Daoling 張道陵 saw visions of a deified Laozi (called Taishang Laojun 太上老君, or “The Most High Lord Lao”) in the 2nd century CE. All later sects of organized Taoism invoke the authority of Zhang Daoling’s revelations, even if many claim to supersede that authority.

Also, the chart doesn’t show any lines connecting Buddhism and Taoism, even though there is very clear evidence of mutual influence in the 3rd-6th centuries in China. Stephen Bokenkamp’s work on Lingbao 靈寶 Taoism describes in detail how many practices, doctrines, and strategies of propagation the Lingbao school derived from Buddhism. Erik Zürcher has also written about Chinese Buddhist borrowings from Taoism.

Another point: Hinduism and Shintō are sort of umbrella terms for “the indigenous religious matrix of India/Japan.” As such, the terms didn’t really exist in periods of relative isolation from the West. These reifications happen only when they’re necessary, when Western missionaries bring their own categories of “religion,” forcing the indigenous people to posit a comparable entity of their own. Basically, Hinduism and Shintō, as we understand them today, didn’t come into being until the colonial era.

This brings me to my main point: this chart is clearly designed with a vision of universalism in mind. Heck, the subtitle is “Faiths, Myths & Mysticism.” The (implicit) argument is that all religions share a common origin, so they’re all, at root, the same. This, of course, ignores the fact that many religions make exclusive claims against each other, and that such a universalistic reconciliation comes at the cost of denying those claims. Harmonization must rob each religion of what made it appealing to its adherents in the first place.

What’s more, such a genetic model of world religions, ironically, assumes a relatively static model of what is a “religion.” A religion is seen as a flower on a tree: ideas, practices, and organizations (the “seeds”) reach a certain point in time, blossoms into a full-fledged “religion,” then remains on the tree. But in fact, religions are constantly changing. New ideas and practices enter the world, existing religions must come into dialogue with them in some way, and thereby change: it will accept, reject, or adapt the new things (either wholly or partially). If nothing else, it will clarify a previously held assumption. Religions aren’t blossoms on a tree, but a collection of ships of Theseus constantly changing and exchanging parts, or animal bodies ingesting new material, converting it to something new, and being changed in the process.

3 thoughts on “Problems of the “Evolutionary Tree of Religion”

  1. Out of the blue, Tom Mazanec — with admiration for your work and a question:

    On my way to Shanghai next month: who among the contemporary “public” poets of China today might give me an interview (in English) about their work?

    I’m a lifelong journalist in many media. My chronic interest in China goes back to a round-the-world trip with the family of the late sinologists Arthur and Mary Wright 50 years ago! Finally, I approach the mainland.

    My radio broadcasts and podcasts on the site cover a wide range. In China I am determined to see and report something below the surface! So — as I’ve done in Pakistan, India, West Africa, the Caribbean, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, I seek out the artists.

    Can you steer me in and around Shanghai, please?

    Yours in the search,

    Chris Lydon
    http://www.radioopensource.org

    617 742 2424 landline in Boston
    617 523 2424 cell

  2. Hi Chris! Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I won’t be in Shanghai until mid-August, so I can’t really steer you around well. I’m also much more familiar with classical Chinese poetry than contemporary stuff. A good person to contact about this would be Lucas Klein (website: http://xichuanpoetry.com), who’s a very talented translator of contemporary Chinese poetry and based in Hong Kong. Your broadcasts/podcasts look very interesting – I’ll be sure to check them out!

  3. I agree that this chart is an overly simple one missing any amount of reasonable explanatory text, and has anumber of errors in it. I am not even sure what the author’s main goal was here, although I have seen this chart come up on many electronic sites, always without any accompanying text from the author. But I like the basic premise and breadth of the attempt. If the chart author had focused more on religious traditions that can be tied together with uniquely derived, shared characteristics, and if he had listed those characteristics, this hypothetical tree would have been much more useful. Trees like this would be much better as explanatory illustrations accompanying a substantial discussion rather than stand alone figures. There are a number of such diagrams out there these days. I am less bothered by the author getting a few dates wrong or attempting to simplify the diagram by leaving out the thousands of interconnecting lines representing cross influences among the branches. I can appreciate the effort to simplify some sort of broad pattern out of an effectively infinite sea of data. You have to start somewhere, and if this was offered up as a first volley open to a series of revisions, that is a reasonable way to move forward. Social scientists attempting to study human culture in a macroevolutionary context have a number of challenges, but then so do biologists studying the macroevolution of organisms. And it takes some courage to tackle the issue of comparative religion these days. And perhaps trying to help people of faith realize that their particular spiritual belief is only a tiny branch on an immense historical tree could help address some of the elements of cultural chauvinism that are so prevalent in human society.

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