Since I'm now a regular contributor of essays to the Spiritual Naturalist Society, I've been perusing the posts of other people who share their writings on the group's web site.
Thomas Schenk's "Fertile Ground Between Theism and Atheism" is an interesting take on Taoism. Here's how the piece starts out.
The two concepts, “God” and “Tao,” have much in common and significant differences. The concepts “Tao” and “Atheism” also have much in common and significant differences. By examining these commonalities and differences I hope to show that there is a fertile ground between theism and atheism.
In this fertile ground, there are forms of spirituality of great depth that are free from untenable, supernatural beliefs and the mindsets such beliefs engender. Here we highlight one of those forms, philosophical Taoism, and compare and contrast it with theism and atheism.
I agree with Schenk that, as usually is the case, a binary division such as "theism" and "atheism" doesn't capture the richness of how things actually are. The Taoism symbol, of course, reflects this.
In yin there is yang; in yang there is yin. Each blends into each other.
On the whole, I'd say that Taoism is closer to atheism than theism, since there is no personal God in Taoism, nor any sense that something external to the universe created, directs, and sustains it.
Schenk probably would agree, but his emphasis is on how Taoism lives in the large middle ground between theism and atheism, without specifying where in that conceptual space philosophical Taoism lies. He writes:
It is around the concept of agency, that the two ideas are most divergent. The theistic concept of “God” generally includes the idea of a being that has agency in much the same way that we think of ourselves as having agency.
If we imagine God as the creator of the world, we imagine him (for convenience I’ll stick with the convention of using the masculine pronoun) creating it in somewhat the same manner as a human architect creates a building.
First he has an idea and from this idea he creates the material world. For the theist, the world is the realization of God’s idea of the world. There is a master plan and purportedly we humans fit into that plan in some way. Specific theist religions specify various ways in which we fit, and how we are to behave in this life based on how we fit.
...Taoism has a diametrically different idea of agency. The Tao is neither an agent nor a plan. Nature arises from the Tao and sustains itself spontaneously. There is no master plan, no governing agent. For Taoism, Nature left to itself tends toward organization.
The celestial orbs follow their path through the sky and the seasons follow each other in due succession. And again, what is true for the great cosmos is true for the microcosm.
I'd never thought of how a Taoist version of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program might operate. Schenk has. He thinks it is possible to turn oneself over to the Tao in somewhat the same way as a theist would surrender to God.
Maybe. I'm not sure about this.
I tend to view the Tao as all-encompassing naturalistic processes rather than as a thing. So if there is nothing other than nature, and we're part and parcel of nature's doings, this portion of Schenk's essay seems a bit off-base to me.
For the purposes of this step both God and Tao can represent a “higher power” to which we can turn over our will and our lives. This is a recognition that there are limits to human agency and beyond the ego’s agency there are “forces” beyond that ego that can lead to spiritual transformation.
The theist sees this “force” as an at least partially external deity. Taoism simply accepts it as part of the mystery. The important thing for the Taoist is the efficacy of this presence, not the how or why of it.
Read the whole essay. I think you'll find it worth your time -- thought-provoking and original.