Is Confucianism a Religion?
Published on: February 15, 2012
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  • 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

    [email protected], 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.

  • 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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