Oftentimes when people ask me about my faith, I usually receive one of two responses: People either ask me what Taoism is, having never heard of it, or they proceed to correct me, claiming that it's more of a philosophy than a religion. Chances are if you inquired about Taoism in any Asian country, people would most likely know what you were referring to, and might even describe it as one of the founding religions of the far East. At the time I announced my own religious denomination, however, I quickly realized that I was knee-deep in a severe minority.
Initially, this really didn't irk me all that much. One of the perks of Taoism is that it functions very smoothly in private practice. In America at least, any sites of worship are states apart from one another, and organized communities are scarce. But Taoism is primarily concerned with the individual and sustains the belief that one can better their community and their connection to the world through betterment to oneself. In close relation to Buddhist precepts, Taoism emphasizes mindful awareness of self, spirit, and nature, and interconnections that form between the three. Regarding deities, their acknowledgment has varied greatly given the different Asian demographics, but original, general census holds a very agnostic posture. We neither deny nor affirm any central divine figures, not because of a sense of correctness, but out a respect for organic ambiguity. The mystery and the connotation of the unknown stirs a great reverence in us, and although I myself have a measure of confidence in an iteration of higher power, I acknowledge that I cannot know for sure, and perhaps am not meant to. Because of this viewpoint, people often like to write Taoism off as a secular belief system, and although for me it is a spiritual experience, that doesn't mean it has to be for everyone else.
The word "Tao" is merely a placeholder, a title to describe the unique path that each and every one of us walks over the course of our life. There is no overarching umbrella trait that I could think of to describe every single American citizen. We are a very eclectic people, and we are comprised of many distinct facets and interests. There are certainly the few, like myself, who take the ancient Taoist scripts and find religious significance therein, but another person might seek them out for purely philosophical or scholarly endeavors. I take great pride in my faith's ability to be open and accepting of individual perspectives, and therefore any religious snobbery would be counterintuitive to the belief system.
Truly, when any religion or philosophy travels from one country to another, permutation and evolution of that doctrine is all but inevitable. There is no crime in tradition, but as the societies of the world continue to reshape and grow, so too do our beliefs. 50 years from now, the paradigm for what we would consider an American Taoist may be entirely different than it is now, and that's alright. We needn't concern ourselves with keeping strict scrutiny on labels, so long as we remain open to possibilities and understanding of each person's unique take on things.
And so, if I correct someone who calls my own American Taoism a philosophy, I do so to assert my connection to it, not to detract from someone else's. Such questions no longer give me insult; rather, they serve to reaffirm my own values.