walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 15, 2012
Is Confucianism a Religion?

On February 5, 2012, the New York Times carried a story about a Confucian academy in South Korea. It is one of some 150 such academies (seawon) in the country. Their main program consists of retreats, especially for schoolchildren. The program, apparently quite rigorous, is to provide training in moral behavior and etiquette (the two are closely related in Confucian thought). Park Seok-hong, head of a large academy originally founded in 1543, explained the basic assumption of these programs: “We may have built our economy, but our morality is on the verge of collapse.”

It is not a new lament. It recurs in many countries, including Western ones, wherever modernization has led to economic development, but also to a weakening of traditional patterns of belief and values. Recourse to Confucianism is not new either. The government of Singapore has been worried for a long time that the phenomenal economic success of the city state has left a moral vacuum. To deal with this problem, the government at one point launched a program of moral education in schools, based on the teachings of the major religious traditions present in the country—Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity—adding Confucianism to this ecumenical mix, under the assumption that it would appeal to the ethnic Chinese majority in the state. That turned out to be a mistake: Parents were free to choose the curriculum to which their children were assigned; most Chinese parents chose Christianity. During the Cultural Revolution in China, Confucianism had been savagely attacked as superstitious and reactionary (like all religion). In recent years the (still nominally Marxist) government has rehabilitated Confucius as a great teacher of social virtue. His birthplace has been promoted as a place for pilgrimage and tourism. And the centers for Chinese culture throughout the world were called Confucius Institutes. Like all traditions with a history of many centuries, Confucianism has emphasized different values at different times. Understandably, authoritarian governments like the values of respect for authority and social order (conveniently ignoring other Confucian values, such as the one saying that authority must earn respect by behaving in a just and humane manner).

There can be no doubt that Confucianism has been a powerful cultural influence throughout East Asia, providing social and political values not only in China, but in Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. As a social ethic, it has indeed emphasized discipline and loyalty, exercised within a hierarchical order of society. Under modern conditions, especially in the Chinese diaspora, it morphed into what Robert Bellah has called “bourgeois Confucianism”, evincing a curious similarity with the famous “Protestant ethic”.  The grueling Confucian examination system, which trained the ruling class in imperial China, has survived in the “examination hell” (a Japanese term) which characterizes schools in all the East Asian countries today. As a political ethic, both its proponents and its critics are justified in calling Confucianism a basically conservative ideology.

All these values are secular (Max Weber called them “inner-worldly”), in principle detachable from any religious beliefs or practices. Thus there has been the view of Confucianism as nothing but a secular, perhaps even a secularizing morality. There has also been the view that Confucianism, despite the overwhelmingly secular content of its teachings, is based on a worldview that is ultimately religious—indeed the view that Confucianism is a religion.

I am not a scholar of Chinese culture and religion, and therefore not competent to adjudicate between these two views. It seems to me that there are plausible arguments for each. As far as it goes, I am inclined toward the latter view, mainly due to the influence of Tu Weiming (of Harvard and Peking University), who has been a kind of missionary for an understanding of Confucianism as (at least potentially) a world religion for today. I am also indebted to conversations with two colleagues at Boston University, Robert Neville and John Berthrong, who have been associated with the somewhat nebulous group known as “Boston Confucians” (perhaps best understood as Protestant successors to Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary, who some 400 years ago maintained that Confucianism could be combined with Christianity).

Confucianism is a secular morality: Its teachings are almost exclusively concerned with behavior in the empirical world: ren—“altruism or “human-mindedness”; li—ritual and etiquette; xiao—“filial piety”. These are moral principles that are applied to the so-called “five bonds”—between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife; older and younger brother; friend and friend. The first four “bonds” are explicitly hierarchical; the fifth deals with relations between equals, but the assumption is that they are equal in status within the overall hierarchy. In traditional Confucianism, these were not virtues to which all could aspire; they were to be attained through education and self-cultivation (including music and calligraphy). The ideal was the Confucian gentleman, who looked down on the false comforts of religion and faced life with an attitude of stoicism. It is quite clear that these virtues (including the behaviors they promoted, as in ritual and etiquette) could be divorced from any specific religious beliefs. That conclusion was arrived at by Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the Jesuit missionary to China who believed that Confucian morality could be combined with Catholic faith. Ricci, who was fluent in Mandarin Chinese, dressed and acted like a Confucian gentleman. The Jesuits in China continued his approach for some decades, even arguing that ancestor worship was just an expression of “filial piety”, a secular virtue, which Chinese converts were free to practice. Dominicans and Franciscans also came to China, and they strongly disagreed with the Jesuits. The Pope ruled against the Jesuits and prohibited their more extreme chinoiseries (a term coined in France some years later, to make fun of a briefly fashionable imitation of all things Chinese). One may say that the Pope implicitly defined Confucianism as a religion.

Confucianism is a religion: I don’t think that the Papal ruling against the Jesuits was intended to be infallible, so even conservative Catholics may understand Confucianism as a secular morality. However, there is one classical and rather central Confucian belief that, I think, is unambiguously religious—that of tian, usually translated as “heaven”. It is not theistic, although gods are associated with it. Rather, it is a cosmic order, supernatural in that it transcends the empirical world, over which it presides and with which it interacts. It thus serves as the necessary, ipso facto religious foundation for all the secular virtues propagated by Confucian teachings. It seems to me that this religious character of tian is most clearly expressed in the notion of the “mandate of heaven”: A ruler has this “mandate”, the basis of his legitimacy, if he rules in accordance with the moral rules governing relations between him and his subjects. If he does not so rule, the “mandate of heaven” will be withdrawn, his rule becomes illegitimate and his subjects have a valid reason to disobey or even overthrow him. The distinctively Confucian institution resulting from this idea was that of the “imperial censors”—officials at court with the express duty to reprimand the emperor if he strayed from correct ritual and moral behavior. I take it that this did not happen very often: Emperors, in China or elsewhere, do not take kindly to being reprimanded.

However one comes out on the secular versus religious view of Confucianism, most people in East Asia (with the possible exception of truly self-cultivated gentlemen) have looked on Confucianism as a guide for social and political life—and not as an answer to the metaphysical questions with which religion has always dealt. Confucianism, be it in classical China or in the bustling cities of East Asia today, is not very helpful in the crises of personal life. Some of these crises are endemic to the human condition, notably those evoked by the Buddha’s Sorrowful Three Visions—old age, illness and death. In all East Asian societies traditions other than Confucianism have been available and indeed institutionalized to help people in such crises (as well as with the more mundane problems of ordinary life). In the countries of the region there are the temples and practitioners of folk religion—in China often associated with Daoism, in Japan with Shinto, in Korea with Shamanism. But above all there is Buddhism, with a rich variety of beliefs and practices, designed to meet the religious needs of both sophisticated and uneducated individuals. It is no accident that Buddhist monks have a virtual monopoly in the conducting of funerals: If someone you love has just died, you’d like to hear consoling Buddhist sutras, not Confucian prescriptions on proper relations between magistrates and petitioners.

One can agree with those who maintain that material prosperity does not provide answers to the deeper dilemmas of human life. Neither Marxism (which is pretty obsolete in the region) nor nationalism (which has been tried as a substitute ideology) can replace religion in crises such as bereavement—except, perhaps, when the object of grief has died on the barricades of revolution or on the battlefield. The new Confucianism has the same problem that this tradition has always had. The same alternatives are available today. Folk religion is robustly present. There have been strong Buddhist revival movements in much of the region. And there is one surprising phenomenon not mentioned in the Times story: the explosive growth of Christianity in China and the Chinese diaspora, and especially in South Korea.

Is Park Seok-hong right in his hope that Confucianism can fill the moral and spiritual vacuum that is felt by many people in South Korea and elsewhere in the contemporary world? Probably yes—in providing an eminently sensible (if unduly hierarchical) morality for social and political life. But to the extent that the vacuum has a spiritual dimension—probably not.

show comments
  • Anthony

    “We have built our economy, but our morality is on verge of collaspe”….

    Cunfucianism (Weber’s inner worldly) guide for social and political life yet base for metaphysical questions sought via religion may in modernity of East Asia avail synthesis for those seeking to bridge moral and spiitual dimensions – is it a religion? For me an analysis and question best left to its scholars and practioners.

  • Anthony

    Edit correction @1: Confuncianism.

    • Isaiah Wolfe

      Actually Anthony, Confucianism is the right way to spell it

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    There is historian Lionel Jensen’s thesis in his book Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization(1998) that Catholic missionary to China Matteo Ricci invented Confucianism by selectively weaving together ancient sayings from the Chinese Ru tradition. Jensen’s thesis would fit with Berger’s sociology of knowledge in his book The Social Construction of Reality.

    Ricci’s missionary efforts were mainly with the Mandarin Class and his goal was to convert the Emperor of China to Christianity.

    Was there a real Confucius? I don’t know. Was there an ancient Confucianism before Matteo Ricci? Jensen makes the case there wasn’t.

    Many Christian writers and scribes such as the Apostle Paul provided religious legitimacy for their new religion by tying it to the Torah and Judaic Law; although Paul rejected the Law in favor of Grace and Faith. Perhaps Matteo Ricci was trying to do the equivalent. So perhaps Confucianism was intended to be a precursor religious code to Christianity in the same way.

  • Kris

    Anthony: “Confuncianism.”

    Now there’s an oxymoronic portmanteau! :-)

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    We may have derived our English word “confusion” from “Confucius.”

    “Confuncianism” actually is derived from an obscure sect that was opposed to having “fun”!!!

  • Anthony

    Kris, that nimble mind of yours remains congenitally fertile – but I am unsure of two meanings (yet like analogy @5). Seriously though, the concept “tian” has spiritual dimension and could provide basis in topic’s exploration.

  • R.C.

    Short answer: Yes.

    Longer answer:

    “Religion” can only be usefully defined in terms of the functions it serves in an individual.

    Those functions generally include:

    (a.) An understanding of where the universe came from and why;
    (b.) An understanding of whether nature is all there is or if there’s something beyond nature which is personal or impersonal;
    (c.) An understanding of the nature of humanity and man’s relationship both to the cosmos and its creator (if any);
    (d.) An understanding of how man ought to act;
    (e.) An understanding of the nature and cause of evil and/or suffering, and how it can best be defeated or ameliorated;
    (f.) A set of practices intended to inculcate and reinforce these understandings within oneself;
    (g.) A set of practices intended to inculcate and reinforce these understandings within the next generation or adult newbies.

    Not all popularly-recognized religions even give a strong recommendation, let alone a required single view, in all of these seven areas. But if a worldview or philosophy integrates most of them, it’s fair to say that it’s a religion. At the very least, it serves all the functions of a religion in the person who holds it.

    So, any person who has most or all of these things can be said to have a religion, from a functional standpoint.

    (Which is to say: Any non-shallow human has a religion, so defined.)

    Further Clarification:

    For those who’d object to my assertion that any non-shallow human has a religion, so defined: If you’re frightened of the perfectly respectable term “religion,” feel free to use the term “philosophy of life.” But keep in mind, then, that if you take that view, you must label, say, Roman Catholicism a “philosophy of life” and not treat it as a separate category.

    Think of it this way: Some folk buy a desktop computer from Dell or from Apple. Others buy the components at MicroCenter or someplace like that, and then assemble them. Likewise with religions.

    Your religion may be an off-the-shelf name-brand version. If so, then it has a character associated with that manufacturer. It has probably been checked for internal compatibility during the design phase, with other problems worked out during subsequent beta testing. As a result, any parts that don’t work well with other parts or with popular software are known issues with known workarounds.

    Or, you can custom build your religion. This has advantages: You can piece together your cosmology and your epistemology and your ethics from whatever you happen to like. There are, however, risks: You may leave a part out without knowing it, because of your lack of familiarity with designing a religion. Or you may include two parts that you thought were compatible with one another, but will prove under certain circumstances to be incompatible.

    In short, one of the advantages of a name-brand religion is that they tend to carry with them a long evolution of design with influence from folks who know more about it than you do, and who’ve encountered the problems and worked through them already. If you’re a Christian, reading the history of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Early Church Fathers can help you learn about how certain problems were thrashed out and parts which weren’t compatible with the core motherboard were junked.

    On the other hand, you might not like the existing solutions provided by the manufacturer. In that case, you may opt to buy name-brand and customize, or build from scratch.

    Seen that way, Confucianism is certainly a religion. So is the evangelical materialist atheism of the Dawkins/Harris crowd. Indeed, if you try to define religion in such a way that the latter is excluded, the former is generally also excluded, along with Buddhism.

    And that’s why you really have to define religion in this fashion. If you require it to be supernaturalist, well, you exclude a lot of things that everyone recognizes to be religions (like Buddhism). If you require it to have a formal ethics, you exclude most paganism. The whole attempt to define “religion” in that way is fraught.

    But the functional approach works. Hence my mild admiration for the aforementioned Dawkins/Harris atheists: They are excellent evangelists for their religion, writing good popular apologetics works. They recently lost their Chrysostom (Chris Hitchens) and I don’t think any of them can quite be called atheism’s Augustine, but they’re doing well, and not least because they provide a relatively comprehensive and integrated worldview addressing most or all of (a.) through (g.).

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  • Todd

    Confucianism may have been/become a religion but it was apparently not intended to be so. It assumes the presence of gods and what Westerners would call “providence” but as Ricci discovered so long ago it is quite possible to practice Confucian ethics as an atheist or even in most “deist” religions. On the other hand if you remove Allah, YHWH or Christ from their respective roles as creator/judge/savior the religions based upon them no longer make sense.

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  • Dmc

    “I am inclined toward the latter view, mainly due to the influence of Tu Weiming (of Harvard and Peking University), who has been a kind of missionary for an understanding of Confucianism…”

    Many years ago, way back in the 80s, I studied with Tu Weiming at Harvard, and he was my first instructor in early Chinese history and the foundations of Chinese political and philosophical thought. I was delighted to come across Professor Tu’s name once again after all these years in your article.

    I have very fond memories of Professor Tu and of his class; moreover, early Chinese thought esp. Confucius, Han Fei and Chuang-tzu have left a lasting critical impression on my own political impressions of the world.

    If you meet Professor Tu again in the near future, please convey the sincere gratitude of a former student.


  • Kris

    Anthony@6, as I’ve been unaccountably detained, it is only now that I can thank you for what I choose to read as a compliment.

  • Tom Richards

    RC – An excellent post, but I think you give the evangelical materialist atheists too much credit: their faith’s development during the period of the brief 20th Century fad for explaining away the Hard Problem of Consciousness instead of addressing it will prove to fatally undermine its ability to credibly serve functions b and c.

  • Ken

    Master Kung: A man may sit for a long time in front of an empty plate, waiting for a roast duck to fall out of the sky.
    Master Ken: A blogger may sit for a long time in front of a computer monitor, waiting for a relevant subject to fall out of the internet.

  • Taeyeong

    “Confucianism, be it in classical China or in the bustling cities of East Asia today, is not very helpful in the crises of personal life. Some of these crises are endemic to the human condition, notably those evoked by the Buddha’s Sorrowful Three Visions—old age, illness and death.”

    Eh? Confucianism not concerned with crises of human life, like old age, illness and death? For modern East Asians, the mourning and funeral rites are almost the *only* circumstance in which the traditional Confucian rites are observed. In Korea, many still observe the lesser and the greater sacrifices (the sosangi and daesangi), essentially the same as the Chou rites set forth in the Classic of Rites and the Classic of Etiquette. Even in Japan, where Confucianism has basically been subsumed into Shinto and Buddhist practices, the Japanese Buddhist mourning rites are in many respects (e.g. observance of the three years mourning) recognisably descended not from any *Buddhist* texts or theology, but the Confucian classics.

    Indeed, ritual and etiquette are a key component of Confucian practice, and they are focused on the key events in human life (“marriage and birth and death and thoughts of these,” as it were). The rites are perhaps largely divorced from any sense of supernatural significance (“ancestor worship” is not necessarily connected with any belief that one’s ancestors are present as ghosts or whatever), but they provide a vessel for the expression of human feeling — joy and grief and all the rest.

  • http://- Ashoka

    Diversity of religions, ethnicity and many cultural aspects held citizens against each other, creating a social block. It is the moral order of loving kindness heart and tolerance that could be agreed upon as beneficial and progressive by all who could understand its merits. Confucius teachings has its basic etiquette level, and a much deeper insight of all humanity as that of Buddhism and Taoism. Thus, the onus is on its merits of how it is being conducted. Too religiously is regarded as religion and too non religiosity is regarded as too shallow for intellectual and scholars to appreciate and gratify it.

  • b

    Check out our video on Confucius!

    Feel free to share and embed!

  • sanm

    so is confucianism a religion or not?

    • Isaiah Wolfe

      I agree with sanm. This really doesnt tell you if it is a religion or not. Can someone answer this question simply and just say “Yes, Confucianism is a religion”, or “no, Confucianism is not a true religion!”.

  • Isaiah Wolfe

    This really doesnt tell you if it is a religion or not. Can someone answer this question simply and just say “Yes, Confucianism is a religion”, or “no, Confucianism is not a true religion!”.

  • ltlee1

    “It seems to me that this religious character of tian is most clearly expressed in the notion of the “mandate of heaven”: A ruler has this “mandate”, the basis of his legitimacy, if he rules in accordance with the moral rules governing relations between him and his subjects. If he does not so rule, the “mandate of heaven” will be withdrawn, his rule becomes illegitimate and his subjects have a valid reason to disobey or even overthrow him.”

    Some Westerners had said “crisis” in Chinese meant “danger + opportunity.” This translation or interpretation is wrong and it reflects a misunderstanding. The “ji” in crisis only means some kind of mechanism. In contrast, “opportunity” is “mechanism + meeting.” Or the chance meeting of events according to a certain mechanism which outcome could be favorable.

    The author’s mistaken notion of “tian” is along the same vein. Tian by itself, in contrast to “tian dao” or “tian xin”, usually conveys the meaning of preordained. It does not carried the meaning of good or moral. Hence a ruler has the mandate of heaven simply means he is preordained to rule. It does not necessarily mean it is good or moral for him to rule. In addition, “the mandate of heaven is trending” is totally interchangeable with “the big picture is trending.” The latter of course reflects mostly people’s preference rather than anything supernatural. Another common everyday phrase in Chinese is “listen heaven follow mandate” means one could or should only follow his preordained life good or bad. Again, heaven does not imply good or moral.

    To the extent that Confucianism lack a supernatural being or force which is always good or moral, it is not a religion.

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