The decline of religion in western societies

Huffington Post UK has published the results of a survey showing that half of Britain thinks religion does more harm than good, and that you don’t need it to be a good person.  This seems to be a trend in Europe that was started in the Scandinavian countries.  It’s in contrast to the United States, where religion still has substantial influence, although even here that influence is in decline.  (The percentage of people claiming no religion in the US has gone from 8% to 20% in the last couple of decades.)

The decline of religion in the west seems unprecedented in world history.  Religion dates back to at least the Upper Paleolithic and, prior to the 20th century, was pretty much a cultural universal.  But increasingly, people in developed societies are turning away from it.  Or are they?

I’ve noted before that religion historically had three main functions:

  1. Explaining the world.
  2. Supporting the social order.
  3. Soothing existential anxiety.

This is a simplification of function lists I’ve read from anthropologists and other scientists like Jared Diamond.

In the modern world, science has pretty much taken over 1.  And modern societies have built a number of institutions to handle 2.  (Related to 2, amanimal recently called my attention to a fascinating article comparing religion to sports and the social cohesion benefits of rituals and symbols.)  Indeed, its not uncommon here in the US for our constitution, government, courts, etc, to be referred to as our “civil religion“.

3 has been the one that has taken the longest, from a historical perspective, to replace.  But I think that replacement is happening.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the countries with the strongest social safety nets, the ones that protect their citizens from the worst consequences of the vicissitudes of life, are also the ones at the forefront of religion’s decline.  These social safety nets are reducing the existential anxiety that fueled the need for 3.

This raises an interesting question.  Is religion so much in decline, or are the ancient supernatural religions simply in the process of being replaced?  As I’ve written before, religion is a difficult beast to define.  A historian centuries from now looking back may interpret what’s happening as more of a transition from one set of worldviews to a new set.  They may see our modern emerging “religion” as a syncretization, a merging, of science and civil religion, including the social welfare state.

This is a view typically resisted by both religion’s advocates and its opponents.  They see religion as inescapably linked to its traditional supernatural beliefs.  Along those lines, maybe it’s not religion per se that’s in decline but supernatural beliefs.  Except that many people who are not religious, even in Scandinavia, still hold supernatural beliefs, often retaining belief in a hazy “universal spirit” or “higher power”.

Of course, this may all be a matter of semantics.  An argument could be made that words should be defined according to their common meanings.  And by that measure, religion is in decline, and may, in decades to come, be in danger of extinction.

Could something reverse that decline?  Given 3 above, I’d say yes.  If life were to become harsh and unpredictable again in the west, I think we’d see a resurgence in traditional religion.  The only thing separating us from that resurgence would be a devastating war, a natural catastrophe, or some form of economic collapse.  If any of these happened with sufficient magnitude that civic institutions were overwhelmed, I think it would be a boon for religion.

An interesting thought experiment is to consider what might happen if these types of events happened after traditional religion had died out.  Would totally new religions rise up?  Or would people return to the old ones?

What do you think?  Is religion headed for extinction?  Or is it too hardwired into the human psyche and we’re only seeing a temporary lull?  Could we avoid falling back into religion if civilization collapsed or declined?

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44 Responses to The decline of religion in western societies

  1. john zande says:

    The Abrahamic religions are, certainly. The concept of a personal god simply cannot compete in the marketplace of ideas. However, while we’re still trapped on this rock, there will always be some kind of super-agency belief. It helps people cope.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John, you surprise me. I wouldn’t have expected an antitheist (if I’m interpreting your views correctly) to hold that view. Or maybe I’m misinterpreting what you mean by “super-agency”?

      Like

      • john zande says:

        People are inherently lazy, and believing in some kind of agency is an easy way to understand the world. Not talking here about organised religion, rather more a personal notion of a Jane Roberts/Seth like thing. They can ditch the personal god, that just doesn’t work, but adapt a spiritualist outlook to address those existential questions. Well, that’s the way i think the majority of people will go in the West.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Ah, ok. Thanks for clarifying. You led me to lookup Jane Roberts who I’d hadn’t heard of before.

          So, if people moved to that type of belief, as opposed to traditional religious ones, would you see that as improvement? Or would it probably be more accurate to say you’re resigned to it? That while we might be able to stamp out organized religion, this sort of belief is just too embedded? Just curious.

          Liked by 1 person

          • john zande says:

            The realist in me says people will always believe in some kind of nonsense, until perhaps singularity. Without dogma to justify violence, or interference in the running of our societies, something like spiritualism is pretty innocuous, and if it helps people then so be it. Freud said, pretty accurately I think, “Life, as we find it is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks.” To bear it, he said man deploys three principle solutions, or what he called “palliative measures:” powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it. A supernal belief can cross all three, and that’s why it’s so pervasive.

            Do you think we can extradite ourselves from all forms of belief?

            Liked by 3 people

    • Well said. I agree with much of it.

      “Do you think we can extradite ourselves from all forms of belief?”

      Good question. I used to, but I’ve become far less optimistic. In a prosperous and secure society, we could probably get it down to a minority (< 30%), but many people are simply anxious by nature and will gravitate toward those beliefs, regardless of how secure their life is.

      In the last year or two, after observing that there's plenty of irrationality among the non-religious, I've decided that fundamentalism is the real problem. I'm satisfied if someone can graduate from that to more moderate doctrines.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. jmeqvist says:

    Interesting post, but I think you are missing one element in your analysis, and that is the role of history in a society’s relationship to religion.

    You are right that the countries with the strongest social safety nets tend to be seeing the broadest decline in terms of traditional religion. But these countries are also one in which religion is associated with the state and authority, as in these countries there have been either a state religion as with Scandinavia and the UK, or religion has been an institutionalized source of authority or power as with Catholic nations in western Europe.

    To be a little more concrete if we look at France for example religion was heavily institutionalized and strongly associated with state authority that constrains individual freedom. Consequently, anticlericalism is quite strong, as standing up for freedom seems to require opposing religion. Whereas in the US while many leaders have been religious and appealed to religious imagery, religion historically has not been associated with the power of the state, but with freedom of conscience. And as a result the US is among the most religious of developed nations. My point here is that attitudes towards religion seem to also be impacted by the role that religion has played historically in a society. In those societies where a single religion was directly involved with state coercion we typically see the strongest anti-clericalism and a clear decline in religion (France, Spain, Italy) and where religion was unrelated to state authority (US, Canada) we tend to see far less of a decline in religion. The decline of religion or lack thereof seems to therefore be partially driven by whether religion by the role of religion in a society’s history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks jmeqvist. I’ve actually heard that analysis before, but had forgotten it when I wrote this post. I do think that’s part of the difference between the US and Europe, but I can’t buy that it’s all of it. People in countries with a state religion could always be rebellious by joining a non-state religion, and that’s what often happened before the rise of the modern welfare state.

      But what leads people to reject religion overall? Many will insist education, and I think that’s a factor, but statistically Scandinavians aren’t appreciably any more educated than Americans.

      I think a bigger factor is that a Norwegian or Swede almost never has to face the prospect of going bankrupt, or losing health insurance because they lost their job, or being the victim of a violent crime, or many of the other anxieties Americans are more likely to have to face. Of course, American prosperity insulates us from these anxieties far more than sub-Saharan Africans, who are consequently far more religious.

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    • Glenn Booth says:

      Excellent points! In Canada, Quebec was different than the rest of English Canada throughout the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century in that the Catholic clergy had an iron grip on public life in Quebec. Consistent with your points above, by the late 20th century the greatest rejection of religion in Canada has taken place in Quebec. Many Quebecois make an instant association between religion and ignorance, authoritarianism, and restraint of freedom – therefore, to support freedom of speech and thought, they automatically oppose religion.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As per the huffington Post article… “Jerome Baggett, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California told The San Francisco Business Times why he thinks people are retreating from religion in the United States.” If diggning into the US surveys, with a long time reputable firm, find:
    http://religions.pewforum.org/reports#

    Like

  4. Wyrd Smythe says:

    “Atheism is the new Theism!” XD

    Someone recently quoted Nietzsche (I think it was) at me about how various ages of humanity replace old gods with new gods. Combine that with Marx’s famous statement equating “opium” and religion. Your point #3 is right on target, I think. We need some sort of security blanket.

    Religion might be defined as the human-made account of existence, meaning and purpose. It’s a story we tell. When the old stories become untenable — when modern facts deny them — we make up new stories. What’s interesting is that a metaphysics seems to persist even once people give up older superstitions. People say, “I’m not religious… I’m spiritual.” There is this abiding belief (or hope) that there is more to it all than just this.

    This almost universal apprehension is either, as you say, deep hard-wiring or … just maybe the true perception of something real.

    It’s easy to point out the successes of science and think it should completely replace ancient superstitious ways of thinking. But one might also look around at all science has wrought and ask if we’re in such a great place after all. A problem for science, for physicalism, is that you have to be sure to also create or discover ethics along the way.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “Is religion so much in decline, or are the ancient supernatural religions simply in the process of being replaced?”

    I would agree with Wyrd Smythe: ancient religion will be replaced by a kind of make-your-own spirituality which incorporates the ancient ones in a new way. A lot of scientifically-minded westerners adopt eastern religious practices and rituals and make them their own. Eastern religion/philosophy is appealing to intellectuals perhaps because it is so far away—it feels worldly and cosmopolitan instead of narrow and limiting. Others find meaning in literature and art and talk about it in religious tones. I think as time goes on, people will be more inclined to call themselves spiritual—not religious, but something else yet to be defined. I think 3. will always need to be supplemented by ‘spirituality’ or whatever you want to call it as it’s perfectly natural to want to find meaning in our lives.

    “This almost universal apprehension is either, as you say, deep hard-wiring or … just maybe the true perception of something real.”—Wyrd Smythe

    The “spiritual” apprehension is something we can dismiss as deep hard-wiring, but I think a great many people will find it difficult if not impossible to do, especially if it isn’t necessary.

    Science seems to be taking over and pushing religion out, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. I think a reconciliation can be done, but that will mean a new kind of religion that doesn’t make claims that fly in the face of scientific evidence, a religion/spirituality that raises important questions and leaves open possibilities when they are, in fact, possible.

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    • Excellent points.

      “I think a great many people will find it difficult if not impossible to do, especially if it isn’t necessary.”
      I think that’s the rub. If people can survive with their beliefs, and they’re fairly harmless, then it seems likely that they will continue. Of course, even if they are harmful (to a point), there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t continue anyway.

      On your last paragraph, I wonder if it’s more likely that this would involve completely new religions, or if the old ones could evolve to fill that role. If a Christian doesn’t hold to Biblical inerrancy or infallibility, only that the Bible is classic theological pondering, is there anything that outright prevents it from morphing into that role?

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      • That’s a really interesting question. Can Christianity evolve to reconcile itself with science?

        I think Christianity is so diversified that the only thing holding all these diverse views together is belief in Jesus as God. But even that is changing. I know people who call themselves Christian, go to church every Sunday, but wouldn’t say that Jesus is God. Maybe just a really great spiritual leader.

        Given this expansion, I don’t see any reason to think that Christianity can’t exist alongside science. But once we’ve pushed the boundaries of the definition of Christianity in such a way, we’re talking about very different things.

        BTW, those same people who go to church every Sunday could easily go to a Buddhist meditation on Monday, and so forth.

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        • I tend to agree.

          Oddly enough, when I was a Christian, I don’t ever recall buying that Jesus was God. Somehow I got through several years of Catholic catechism class before anyone explicitly stated it, by which time, despite believing in God, I found the idea implausible. (Everyone kept saying he was the “son of God”, which never translated to my young self as him being God.) I’m sure my teachers would have been horrified if I’d revealed that. No doubt many would now say that I never really understood the faith I was raised in.

          I think history shows that religions can change far more than most of their orthodoxies would ever admit. A typical Christian in 1500 believed in witches, fairies, curses, astrology, and that lightning strikes were the wrath of God. They’d be shocked by much of modern Christianity, just as a first century Christian would likely have been shocked by Christianity in 500.

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          • So funny you say that, I was the same way growing up. The Jesus-as-God concept just sounded like the usual nonsense that adults say to move air with their mouths; “Jesus is your Lord and Savior” meant nothing to me. I don’t think I took it as seriously until I was older, sometime in middle school, at which point I had rejected the idea of God altogether, so the Jesus thing no longer mattered. Otherwise I’m sure it would have really upset me. I would have had a few sleepless nights over it.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. ejwinner says:

    After thinking through your post carefully – and in keeping with thinking I’ve been doing on this topic the past few months – I think that digging at the foundations of personal religious belief (and here I mean specifically Judaism and Christianity) is made difficult because oi\f the emotional satisfactions involved. I don’t mean the ‘fear of death’/ desire for an afterlife, non-theists have convincing arguments and persuasive tactics to deal with these. I mean the warm sensation of being ‘loved’ by the cosmic ‘other.’ This sensation is impervious to logic and highly resistant to persuasion. The psychology of it is fairly easy to analyze, but the analysis does little good – ‘god loves me, what are you talking about?’ ‘If only you could get to know this cosmic guy, you would feel it’ – etc

    I think in cultures that lose their religion, many people come to realize that this ‘cosmic-love’ is just unnecessary, that satisfactions of equal worth can be found in the arts, in personal relationships, in the wonder we have that there is any universe at all. But this decompression out of ‘god-love’ takes a long time, and I suspect must be accomplished from the inside out.

    Like

    • Those are insightful comments. I think you’re right that the idea that existence has some purpose, that we’re all here accomplishing something big, that there’s something behind reality and that that something cares about us, is an immensely appealing notion.

      By comparison, skepticism is a pretty hard sell. I sometimes wonder why I accept it. I tend to think because my life is relatively comfortable. Some believers may prefer the word ‘decadent’. Whichever, a comfortable life appears to be a prerequisite for most people to accept a universe where only we provide the meaning.

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  7. Sable Aradia says:

    Heh. Did I put you in mind of this topic when I said I was a “scientifically-minded Wiccan theist?” ;P

    I think that religion must adapt to include and accept science, or it will die. However, I think that in many places it’s in the process of doing that, or new religions are developing (like Wicca, which is a modern-day syncretic faith, contrary to popular belief) for whom science is part of the faith and not a challenge.

    For me, there is a divine *something*, that I do not understand but I (and others) communicate with in metaphors (and therefore, their metaphors are every bit as valid as mine, because it only represents a partial understanding anyway) for whom science is the mechanism of Creation. And perhaps I’m in a little silo in my interactions, but regardless of faith, most of the people I know share variations of those views.

    I realize that atheists disagree with me. Many (not all, some you can debate with) would like to dismiss religion as “superstitious nonsense” and “quantum woo.” I say it depends on your religion. The humanist religions, or humanistic religious sects, are still doing quite well, and even growing.

    I think there’s still a lot of things out there that we cannot explain. And I think that science is well on its way to explaining them. I think that quantum physics is particularly exciting in this regard, though the science is still so new that it’s basically like Persian astronomy. We’re going to get some things horribly wrong and we barely have the beginnings of understanding yet. But we’ll get there.

    My two cents.

    Like

  8. Sable Aradia says:

    Reblogged this on Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch and commented:
    I commented on this article: “Heh. Did I put you in mind of this topic when I said I was a “scientifically-minded Wiccan theist?” ;P

    I think that religion must adapt to include and accept science, or it will die. However, I think that in many places it’s in the process of doing that, or new religions are developing (like Wicca, which is a modern-day syncretic faith, contrary to popular belief) for whom science is part of the faith and not a challenge.

    For me, there is a divine *something*, that I do not understand but I (and others) communicate with in metaphors (and therefore, their metaphors are every bit as valid as mine, because it only represents a partial understanding anyway) for whom science is the mechanism of Creation. And perhaps I’m in a little silo in my interactions, but regardless of faith, most of the people I know share variations of those views.

    I realize that atheists disagree with me. Many (not all, some you can debate with) would like to dismiss religion as “superstitious nonsense” and “quantum woo.” I say it depends on your religion. The humanist religions, or humanistic religious sects, are still doing quite well, and even growing.

    I think there’s still a lot of things out there that we cannot explain. And I think that science is well on its way to explaining them. I think that quantum physics is particularly exciting in this regard, though the science is still so new that it’s basically like Persian astronomy. We’re going to get some things horribly wrong and we barely have the beginnings of understanding yet. But we’ll get there.

    My two cents.”

    What do you think?

    Like

    • Hey Sable,
      Thanks for your thoughts! I wasn’t responding to your comment the other day, but I did think about you and my other religious readers when writing this post, and hoped some would weigh in on it. (I hope you weren’t offended by it.) It was precipitated by the Huffington Post piece.

      Wicca, which I’ll admit I know little more about other than what’s in the Wikipedia entry, appears to be a growing thriving faith. If it’s science friendly (my understanding is that it’s definitely nature friendly), that’s great! In a metaphorical sense, I think some of the neo-pagan faiths have a better handle on reality than the monotheistic ones.

      That said, I have to admit that, for me personally, religion holds little appeal. I don’t have a problem with others partaking in them, as long as they’re okay with me not partaking, or that doing so doesn’t lead to unnecessary suffering. But I do remain interested in religions from a sociological, anthropological, and psychological perspective.

      I definitely agree that there’s a lot that science doesn’t know yet. I suspect that people looking back 200 years from now will find our notions of reality as quaint as we now find the notions from 1814. Who knows where that new knowledge will lead, how it will change our understanding of reality, or our philosophy of life?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. amanimal says:

    Thanks ‘SAP’, interesting questions all and the comments too. The NYTimes article you linked to led me to:

    ‘Why Are Danes and Swedes So Irreligious?’ Zuckerman 2009 http://tapir.pdc.no/pdf/NJRS/2009/2009-01-4.pdf

    (this is something of a test to see if I can eliminate the extra ‘LF’/’CR’ between a title and its link)

    Like

    • Thanks amanimal. That was an interesting article. It covers many of the possible sources of secularization that we discussed here, plus some additional ones (like women in the work force).

      I still tend to favor the security explanation. It seems to me that the others conditions all happened in other countries without the same degree of secularization. What sets the Scandinavian countries apart are their social safety nets, their welfare states, the most generous and robust in the world.

      Of course, these social safety nets don’t exist in isolation. Scandinavia turned out to be rich in many of the natural resources that the modern world needs. But those countries have capitalized extremely well on them, using their welfare state to distribute that wealth in a far more egalitarian manner than many other resource rich countries.

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      • amanimal says:

        I thought the Lutheran hedgemony and lack of competition aspect interesting, but overall, I agree that existential security likely plays the large part in the secularization of the Scandinavian nations. I wonder, though, if the psychological benefits of religious practice don’t also translate into real physiological benefits as well however slight though they may be. That would, I think, go quite a ways in explaining the persistence of human religiosity evolutionarily.

        There’s a growing body of literature that suggests the real possibility of, albeit modest, physiological health benefits. Matt Rossano makes a pretty good argument in a chapter for ‘The Nature of God – Evolution and Religion’, Frey (editor) 2010:

        ‘Harnessing the Placebo Effect – Religion as a Cultural Adaptation’ http://www2.southeastern.edu/Academics/Faculty/mrossano/recentpubs/religion%20and%20placebo.pdf

        … and potentially elaborated on by Nicholas Humphrey’s Health management system theory:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_management_system

        A NewScience article brought it to my attention recently though it’s no longer available unless you subscribe(I have the text if you’re interested). Robert Kurzban also did a writeup:

        ‘The “Health Governor”’ http://www.epjournal.net/blog/2012/09/the-health-governor/

        So I wonder if universal health care, common throughout social democracies, might play a substantial role as a part of the existential security that seems to be a major factor in their secularization. Humphrey also further elaborates his theory at:

        ‘The Evolved Self-Management System’ http://edge.org/conversation/the-evolved-self-management-system

        I apologize for my inability to condense the multiple links into a coherent narrative, but I’m afraid that’s beyond my abilities. Additionally, I don’t know that I have a coherent narrative to relate – all just food for thought 🙂

        Like

    • amanimal,
      Don’t know if you’ve seen this post from Barber yet, but I found it interesting.
      http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201411/why-is-religion-so-weak-in-maine

      Like

    • Thanks amanimal! Interesting articles. I’m reminded of a piece that Chris Mooney did a while back asking whether Obamacare would increase levels of atheism (which probably didn’t help Obamacare’s popularity).

      I think the medical placebo is an interesting theory, but it feels incomplete to me. From what I’ve read, a big part of what Shamans did was health related, but they also tried to affect the weather, influence hunting success, and all manner of uncontrollable factors.

      I think that last is a lot of what religion is about, coping with aspects of reality that are outside of our control. The more control we feel we have, the weaker religion probably is. The more subject we are to uncontrollable and unpredictable aspects of reality, the more we need the coping mechanism religion provides. (A believer might say that these uncontrollable aspects of reality is simply God, or the gods, reminding us who’s boss.)

      Like

      • amanimal says:

        I was thinking more of the placebo health benefits as fitting under the umbrella of existential security rather than it being a complete understanding/explanation in and of itself. As Mooney states in that piece:

        “Again and again in Norenzayan’s research, societies that are existentially secure – meaning that people have access to health care and a strong social safety net …”

        … and Humphrey specifically cites perception of signals of social support as factoring into the cost-benefit calculations of his proposed health management system.

        It may be my possibly faulty interpretation of the phrase “soothing existential anxiety” which might not necessarily exclude the physiological, but struck me as describing the psychological primarily.

        “… coping with aspects of reality that are outside of our control …” – from your post

        Absolutely, we inherently react adversely to ambiguity and uncertainty in the evaluation of our perceptions(on an unconscious level) and the illusion of control is part of an evolved response.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I did find some of the details confusing. The map in particular. Is it a map of current religions (seems unlikely), indigenous religions, or religion just prior to colonial times?

      What I found interesting about it was how many religions there were that had amoral gods.

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  10. Pingback: Religion in Latin America is strong, except in Uruguay | SelfAwarePatterns

  11. Very interesting article.

    This isn’t a western example, but Korea in particular and China/Japan to lesser extents have had much less of what we’d call religion for most of their civilized history. Confucianism says basically nothing about the afterlife or god, but it functions as the (or at least one of several) dominant “religious” paradigm.

    I wonder if that isn’t because Confucianism was so good at defining social orders, prescribing life-purposes (ie, a very paternalistic and conservative type of order) and channeling those looking for explanation into the ubiquitous Confucian scholar’s academies.

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    • Thanks! I have to admit that my knowledge of Confucianism is limited. But I thought China and Japan historically had syncretizations of various religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism for China and Buddhism and Shinto for Japan. Of course, religiosity is currently very low in both countries, and what gets labeled as “religion” can often be a controversial matter.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t have as much knowledge of China or Japan, but I do know that the Joseon Dynasty in Korea (14th century to 1910) pushed Confucianism as a replacement for Buddhism.

        The meaning of religion is very slippery, as you say, but Confucianism would be very light on what most people think of when they express their religious ideas. On the other hand, it is very heavy on providing for needs 1, 2, and 3 that you mentioned above.

        In other words, I think you’re on to something.

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        • Thanks. Very interesting on Confucianism. It’s starting to sound like an ancient version of a type of humanism (albeit with a more conservative bent). I might need to read more on it.

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          • I would recommend you do. It’s a very interesting way to look at the world.

            I wouldn’t call it humanism, actually, I would call it more “institutionalism” in the sense that Confucian societies are built on the idea that enduring institutions are far more important than individuals.

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    • It almost sounds like a sort of Edmund Burke conservatism. Just added Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction to my Kindle account. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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