That, in essence, is what religious disputants always do: recruit the ancient dead to fight present battles. Thus Stoics made Socrates their hero and example of how a person should live. Zhuang Zi cited "Confucius" to prove the wisdom of Taoist philosophy. Jesus said he came "not to abolish, but to fulfill" the Jewish Law and Prophets.
New Atheists similiarly try to "preserve religious capital" (as sociologist Rodney Stark puts it) by appealing to great figures of the past in their contest with the hosts issuing out of Mordor-of-the-Bible-Belt. This can be done in two ways: by claiming that past villains, like Adolf Hitler, were really closet Christians (thus getting evil ghosts in effect to fight on the right side this time), or by recruiting past heroes like Thomas Jefferson to buckle up those one supposes they would still dislike today.
One hero some Gnus would love to recruit against religion, is the ancient Chinese sage, Lao Zi.
In the case of Lao Zi, though, I think it is more like the evil SPECTRE-like institution NICE in C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, which wants the magician Merlin back from the Dark Ages, not knowing that he was really a Christian and on the side of freedom. If Lao Zi were to visit us from the 5th Century BC, I think he would be (a) a theist, (b) a Christian, and (c) a convervative, Tea-Party Republican, if not a Libertarian.
You can read the Dao De Jing for yourself in an hour or so, and see what I mean. There are many versions on-line. Be careful which one you pick, though, because there are some really bad ones, out there.
I. Was Lao Zi an atheist? Recently, in one of John Loftus' threads, in which John either quotes me in support or disagreement, it's hard to tell, and I was trying to respond, one of the local skeptics tried to disparage Christianity, and "faith" in general, by citing Lao Zi:
Well, what does the Tao Te Ching say? Here: "Religion is the end of love and honesty, the beginning of confusion: Faith is a colorful hope or fear, the origin of folly" Lao Tzu
As a China scholar, that caught my eye.
First of all, I noticed that the skeptic was using the old Wade-Giles phoneticization, which tells you he's probably a bit out of touch. In modern pinyin spelling, the book is the Dao De Jing, and its author, Lao Zi.
And what is this "faith is a colorful hope or fear?" What is that gibberish supposed to mean? They could be tiresome writers in other ways, but the ancient Chinese seem to have been innocent of that kind of bad syntax. And whatever else Lao Zi was, he was a master of language.
Knowing the DDJ pretty well, I knew that "religion" was never critiqued in that manner, and that "faith" () is, as in all classical Chinese texts, thought a good thing, the quality of loyalty and being reliable, not something one rightly scoffs at.
So I googled the phrase, and found that it is not a translation at all, but an "interpretation" by one Peter A. Merel of DDJ 38. I also found that other skeptics had picked up on this version of the DDJ which disrespects "religion."
One web site put it this way:
There are many ways of translating the Dao De Jing. The selections here are drawn from an interpolation of various translations by Peter A. Merel based upon the translations of: Lin Yutang, Ch'u Ta-Kao, Gia-Fu Fen and Jane English, Richard Wilhelm and Aleister Crowley.
What is an "interpolation of various translations?" Is that like Fusion cuisine? Neither one nor the other, I will spew it out of my mouth?
Search "Peter Merel," and you see a lot of the word "interpolation." Most of the people using the word seem to think it is a synonym for "interpret," but actually:
interpolate 1. To introduct (additions, comments, interpretations, etc) into a discourse, process, or series; also, to insert (unacknowledged additions) in order to falsify a text.
So Merel is being honest, sort of.
And it's not enough that it's an "interpolation," this here selection is "drawn from" an "interpolation." What do you get when you "draw a selection" from a falsified text? Unmitigated hooey, if you don't know what the word "interpolation" means. Maybe a satire, if you do.
Indeed, it turns out Merel is author of a book called the Dude De Jing. This book is supposed to interpret the Dao De Jing accoring to the philosophy of the Big Lebowski.
So Merel may not be to blame for the seriousness with which some atheists take his "translation." But the seriousness begins even with Amazon reviews:
I love the movie and am amused to see how "The Dude" has become an archetype of sorts for the "Take it Easy" approach. That aside I am also somewhat familiar with the Tao Te Ching. To see these two thrown together, I thought was going to be at best a cheesy homage to the movie. However, I was astonished to see how well the spirit of the Tao Te Ching is actually captured using the story and the characters from the film. My compliments to the Church of the Latter Day Dude for for doing an absolute bang up job.
But here, let us allow Lao Zi to be Lao Zi, and let us see what he actually says in the passage cited above.
II. Here's DDJ 38 in Chinese. Don't let it scare you if you don't read Chinese, I'll explain below:
The word "interpolated" as "religion" by Merel, or whomever he was relying on (I'm sure it wasn't Lin Yutang, he was never so clumsy, though he could be a little anachronistic) lies in the middle of the third line, 禮, pronounced li ("lee") in modern Chinese.
Li means ritual. It loosely corresponds, in the dissordered world of the late Zhou, to the developed Pharisaic Law that Jesus criticized, for much the same reason.
The passage is about true virtue, which is not ostentatious, yet establishes its goals through humility and without force. Lao Zi contrasts "higher" virtue, kindness, righteousness, and ritual, which reveal themselves through their own apparent negation. It is only when you no longer pretend to be good that goodness reveals itself. The Dao, the ultimate truth and force behind the cosmos and within the world, by which genuine sages direct their lives, does not exist through ostentatious, noisy virtue. Outward forms of virtue, the trumpets before the almsgiving, in Jesus' parallel teachings, appear when the reality that they pretend to express has disappeared from the scene.
It is generally supposed that Confucian moralists are Lao Zi's target, here. If you read the literature of the period, such as the Book of Rites, you find that Confucian thinkers went overboard in trying to create an ideal society by means of elaborate ritual expressions of virtue: how to wear a hat at a funeral, how to shoot an arrow at a party, how and when to bow to whom.
Lao Zi held Tian, or Heaven (the late Zhou name for God) in high regard. There is one famous passage in which he seemed to accuse Heaven of cruelty, but taken as a whole, like Confucius, he seemed to trust God and assume his goodness. The term he used most often for the Supreme Being (though this is controversial -- more on this in print before long, hopefully) was Dao, The Way. Dao still means "road" in Chinese and Japanese, a meaning it had carried already for many centuries by the time of Lao Zi. But in the earliest classics, it had also attained a metaphysical and moral meaning, which Confucius had also begun to develop: the moral way, the right way to live, the path to civilizational prosperity. In the Dao De Jing, the Dao becomes the ultimate moral force, which is eternal, beyond Nature, unique, desires that we do good, and seeks the well-being and even forgivenesss of humanity. It is how a person lives who becomes a Sage.
This chapter also talks about the Dao, and what happens when people replace God with mere "goodness" or proper action.
It is, therefore, a far more deeply "religious" and even Christian passage than the attitude it criticizes.
The snippet "translated" above is the following:
This actually means something like, "As for ritual, it is how faithfulness is manifest in a superficial manner, and is the source of (political) chaos."
By contrast, the Sage trusts the Dao in a true and deep manner, bringing social harmony, as Lao Zi explains in a variety of ways throughout his great work. So it would be extremely simple-minded to cast Lao Zi as a critic of "religion" or "faith." It would be a lot like thinking Jesus came to abolish rather than perfect Jewish religion, because he criticized the Pharisees.
The other "interpolation" from the skeptic I found citing the "Dude De Jing" is the following strange phrase:
Which our skeptic tells us means:
Faith is a colorful hope or fear, the origin of folly.
Legge, a real translator, in fact one of the great translators, renders this phrase into something close to the opposite sentiment:
Swift apprehension is (only) a flower of the Tao, and is the beginning of stupidity.
Legge has to interpret a bit, here: Lao Zi implies that he is criticizing the one who (pretends to) understand quickly, yet also credits him with the "flower" of the Dao. Given the whole passage, Legge's interpretation seems reasonable. The person who too quickly thinks he has things figured out, has grasped only the gaudy apparent or surface truth, not the mature fruit that humility allows to slowly mature in heart of one who seeks the Way.
Certainly, there is nothing about "faith" in this passage, still less about the colors of emotions.
This passage can actually be read as a critique of "interpolators," and those who cite Lao Zi as a skeptic on atheist web pages.
III. If Lao Zi was not an atheist, was he a God-fearing Republican?
Well yes, he was. Maybe even a libertarian. Certainly, a small-government, Tea Party "don't tread on me" conservative in philosophy, even if in practice rather than protesting, he might have moved to Alaska and bought a small fishing boat.
One with a wry smile, though, and a paradoxical hope for top-down government reform, once the First Dude learned to mellow out and do nothing, like Calvin Coolridge.
Now I'm interpolating, a little.
But read the text for yourself -- in a good translation or two -- and see on which side, in contemporary debates, you perceive this ghost, riding off to war on an old ox with no weapons to hand, may be fighting, or rather in which direction he might be leading us all.