Problems of the “Evolutionary Tree of Religion”

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

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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.

2 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

    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:, 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!

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