Confucianism and the definition of religion

Ru_characterI’ve noted before that defining religion is difficult.  Simple definitions (such as belief in gods) tend to either exclude some religions (such as Buddhism), or include things that most people don’t consider to be a religion (such as constitutional law or science).  Definitions that get the scope about right tend to be hopelessly vague or unwieldy.  This had led some anthropologists to declare that religion as a coherent concept doesn’t really exist.

Given these difficulties, I find areas of thought on the borderlines, on which people debate whether or not it is a religion, to be interesting.  Confucianism is one of those grey areas.  Everyone agrees that it is a philosophy, but the religion part remains controversial.  Examining why some consider Confucianism a religion might be somewhat instructive on what religion intuitively means to us.

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who live around 500 BC, during a time when the current governing Zhou dynasty was in decline.  (It’s called the Spring and Autumn period, and conditions seem roughly similar to the 5th century in the Roman Empire’s decline.)  Concerned about how much society had deteriorated in his time, Confucius studied history to see what social, ethical, and governmental practices had worked well, and which hadn’t.  The history available to him at the time included the earlier Zhou dynasty period, and the late history of the preceding Shang dynasty.  He distilled what he learned into the the core of the system we now called Confucianism.

Notice what’s absent here.  Confucius didn’t claim that he had a revelation from any deity.  He didn’t claim to be a prophet.  In fact, he was careful to clarify that he wasn’t adding anything original, that all of his precepts came from studying history.  And he urged his followers to study the same sources that he himself had used.  In other words, his philosophy was developed through reason, and he urged others to go through the same reasoning he had as part of an ongoing process of self cultivation and improvement.

It’s hard to argue with Confucius’s approach.  Many modern day moral philosophers might find a lot to agree with in that approach.  However, before you start thinking of Confucius as a modern Humanist transplanted into ancient China, you should know that Confucianism is very conservative, hierarchical, patriarchal, and relentlessly ritualistic.  Given that it was formulated around 500 BC, during a time of societal hardships and uncertainty, I don’t find these aspects of it too surprising.

Confucianism has a great deal to say about family relations, social norms, and governing philosophy.  On family relations, it often defines the hierarchy between various relationships, usually with those on the inferior side of the relationship urged to be subservient and those on the superior side to be fair.  Fathers are superior to sons, older brothers to younger brothers, brothers to sisters, husbands to wives, etc.  On governing, Confucius calls for rulers to be just and virtuous, and to demonstrate that virtuosity to their people.  (He saw few examples of this in his time.)

Confucianism in its original form didn’t have a metaphysics.  It didn’t posit the idea of any gods or spiritual realm, although it did pay deference to the ideas of China’s state religion.  Neo-Confucianism did introduce a somewhat limited metaphysics in the 12th century, largely in response to the encroachment of Buddhism.  Neo-Confucianism’s metaphysics included the concepts of li (the organizing principles and rules of the world), and qi (roughly analogous to spiritual essence).

Religion in China is interesting.  It seems like each region has its unique folk religion including local gods and ancestor worship.  During the Zhou dynasty, all of these various gods became understood to be subservient to a supreme power, called Tian.  Tian is not regarded in an anthropomorphic manner.  It is often translated as heaven, although sometimes as God, great one, or great all.  For some, this concept is basically what we would call nature, for others it is a pantheistic conception of God and a moral force.

From the Zhou dynasty forward, reverence for heaven was a kind of meta-religion for China.  In many ways, it could be thought of as a type of secularism (in the strict sense of the word) in that it provided a unifying framework for all the disparate folk religions without favoring any particular one.  The Zhou dynasty was the first one to claim a “mandate of heaven” for its rule, which sounds very close to the western concept of “divine right of kings”, but with a few differences.  Only one government at a time can have the mandate, and then only as long as it is virtuous and worthy of that mandate.

(As an aside, I suspect one of the reasons Chinese history is traditionally interpreted as one civilization with different dynasties, rather than successive societies, is this mandate of heaven principle.  If European history were interpreted in this manner, we might talk of the Roman dynasty, the Byzantine dynasty, the Spanish dynasty, the French dynasty, the British dynasty, etc, with periods with no clear dominant power as “warring states” or “intermediate” periods.  Admittedly, the very idea that the mandate of heaven concept has survived in China for three thousand years gives some weight to the continuous civilization claim.)

Confucianism is integrated with, and influenced, many of these ideas.  So, is Confucianism a religion?  Well, it’s complicated.  I’ve discussed before that I think religion has historically met three broad functions.  (These points are my simplification of functions I’ve read from anthropologists and social scientists such as Jared Diamond.)

  1. Explain the world.
  2. Promote the social order.
  3. Provide existential comfort.

Confucianism doesn’t seem to get into 1 very much, although I suppose Neo-Confucianism did to a limited degree, and it’s hard for me to see that it provides too much for 3, but I’m making that judgment as an outsider, so I might be off base.  But Confucianism is definitely involved with 2.  It is intimately concerned with how people should lead their lives, how they should treat each other, and how government should be run.

There’s another aspect I mentioned above.  Confucianism is very pro-ritual.  Indeed, it promotes ritual as a crucial virtue.  And this may be getting at the root of why many people intuitively feel that it is a religion.  The etymology of the word “religion” is thought to be something along the lines of re-connecting, or re-binding.  That can be interpreted to mean reconnecting with an ultimate reality (i.e. a god or gods), reconnecting with doctrine or mantras, reconnecting with your fellow adherents, or all of the above.  And this reconnecting is generally done through ritual.

All of these things involve Confucianism deeply with function 2 above.  Is that enough to make it a religion?  As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, science is deeply involved with 1, but we usually resist calling it a religion.  And most modern religions have a strong connection with 3.  As I mentioned above, I don’t see much of this function in Confucianism.  It seems to defer that function to other aspects of Chinese culture.  Although I suppose if you lived in a society where everyone is following Confucianism, that might be comforting, but that seems true of any cultural system.

One thing that struck me was China’s centuries long history of examinations for entry into its prestigious civil service.  The high stakes examinations were ostensibly to test the applicant’s knowledge of revered Confucian principles, but often amounted to testing their ability to memorize the core Confucian works, word for word.  When I read this, it reminded me of the effort many Muslims put into memorizing the Quran.

What do you think?  Is Confucianism a religion?  Or is religion only that which is concerned with supernatural affairs (whatever ‘supernatural’ means)?  If Confucianism is not a religion, does Neo-Confucianism’s modest metaphysics graduate it to religion status?

This post came from information in ‘Confucianism A Very Short Introduction‘ by Daniel Gardiner, from a Philosophize This podcast on Confucianism, and from numerous Wikipedia articles.  All excellent sources of information if you’re interested in learning more on Confucianism.

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27 Responses to Confucianism and the definition of religion

  1. Steve Morris says:

    If Confucianism is just a system for organizing society, then it isn’t a religion. If it contains rituals and metaphysical concepts such as chi and divine mandates, then it’s probably been turned into a religion by those people who wanted it to be a religion. Different people – different beliefs – different systems – different definitions.

    Sounds rather like yoga – some say its a system of physical exercises; some say it’s a means of achieving spiritual enlightenment; some throw in a bunch of Hindu beliefs and treat it as a religion. The issue here is that each type of practitioner is defining yoga to be something different.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have to admit to not knowing much about yoga, but I do know that there are some Hindu sects that people question whether or not they are a religion. A couple of years ago, I encountered someone on a thread who said that his brand of Hinduism had no supernatural component. (Pointing out that my then definition of religion as the components of culture concerned with the supernatural, was bunk.)

      On the other hand, it could be argued that every scientific theory is metaphysical to some degree, which might make you wonder about rituals like the Nobel prize ceremonies.


  2. For what it’s worth, in science and philosophy there’s a need to rationally justify our truths to ourselves and others, whereas I see less of that in religion. What I’m talking about are methods and goals. That’s not to say religion is antithetical to the first pursuits, but in religion it seems the importance is placed on arriving at the truth rather than arriving by a certain way (indoctrination in some is legitimate, learning through recitation and practice is pretty common, as are many other methods which scientists and philosophers would not approve of). In science it’s not acceptable to be unable to justify one’s findings, but in religion it is.

    Of course the second I say this I think of counterexamples that would prove me wrong, especially in philosophy where the methods of arriving at truth are themselves disputed. Perhaps I would do better to leave philosophy out of this equation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I actually think that you are at least theoretically required to justify your asserted religious truths. It’s just that many religions have a tendency to recognize revelation, meditation, or similar sources of knowledge, as valid, whereas science, and non-theological philosophy see those sources as unconvincing.


      • Yes, I suppose you’re right. I guess I was thinking of religion in a more general way. In any particular religion, such as Christianity, there are certain ways of arriving at truth that are accepted and others not, and of course these divide Christianity up into subdivisions. On the whole there doesn’t seem to be any particular methodology, but the same could be true of philosophy if we look at it very broadly. (I prefer to think of philosophy as a rational enterprise, but I have to admit that I’m being too narrow by ordinary interpretations.)


        • Definitely agree that logical philosophy based on logic is far preferable to a lot of the other stuff that sometimes gets lumped in with the field. Of course, eastern logic can be different than western at times.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’m not too familiar with eastern philosophy, but on the whole it does seem very different. For some reason I’ve never been really taken by it the way everyone else seems to be. However, my roommate back in college studied Confucianism at the same time I studied Aristotle, and there are some interesting ties there. We would read each other little bits to compare. I don’t remember anything specific, but we were both amused by the parallels.


    • I can’t say that I’m too taken with eastern philosophy either, but I do find reading about it interesting because it shows the range of human thought. As you noted, there are often similarities. Sometimes because logical conclusions converge, but often because western and eastern philosophy influenced each other. I’ve only recently become conscious of how much the ancient Greeks may have been influenced by Indian thinkers. (Although it makes sense if you think about the extent of the Persian and Macedonian empires.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Broad Functions of Religion | Class Warfare Blog

  4. nannus says:

    I think ritual is not enough to make a religion. For example, in communism (e.g. Stalinism) you have a lot of rituals (parades, party congresses with all their hand clapping, singing of the Internationale etc.), you have special priest-like people, service-like meetings etc. You have an orthodoxy, an “inquisition”, heretics and their punishment etc. If you like, you can call that a religion, and with such a broader definition of the term, confucianism might also qualitfy as one, but personally, I would prefer to use the term “religion” in a narrower sense (and it might be asked if it fits China at all). In any case, “religion” is not such a clear category as we may be used to think.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The communist states are an interesting example. I think Sam Harris and one or two of the other New Atheists have pointed out the religious like flavor of those societies, with their dictator cult of personality and strict enforcement of party doctrine. Of course, their goal in pointing those things out was to counter Christian-apologist claims about the evils of atheistic regimes.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. ejwinner says:

    A few notes in comment:

    1. Confucianism has always been primarily an ethical and political philosophy. In its long history, following its establishment as the state ideology, rather than generating a metaphysical ground for itself, rather adopted pre-existing metaphysical claims, some of which were supernatural in nature (like ancestor worship), to increase its explanatory power as a teaching methodology.

    Virtually every pre-modern Chinese philosophy engaged in this, since such explanatory power moved the philosophy closer to the centers of real power in the Imperial courts. But this also meant that in debate it was necessary to weaken the explanatory power of competing philosophies. Thus we find competing philosophies frequently using the tactic of debunking the metaphysics of their opposing philosophies. (here allow me to refer you to my blog post on the efforts of a rationalist Taoist to debunk the belief in ghosts that Confucians of the day were using to justify certain funeral rites:

    It is thus difficult to find a Chinese philosophy without a metaphysics having a supernatural element, but one eventually finds that some competing philosophy of the same era has debunked that supernatural element. Once we sort through all the debunkings, what we find in Chinese philosophy, then, are not religions but political and ethical philosophies, frequently endangered by the temptations of corruption through access to political power. This temptation led to the development of an anti-intellectual strain in Chinese politics that culminated in the anti-modernism of the Manchurian dynasty; but this has been countered by continuing efforts at increasingly effective rationality.

    1. The ‘mandate of heaven’ continues to be understood in the west as similar to the European theory of ‘divine right,’ but I think this untrue. For one thing, ‘divine right’ theory is deeply entangled with the presumption of a birth-right aristocracy – god chose this family to rule, and thus smiles on the prince royal, etc. But in China, more than one emperor rose to power from the lower classes. (See:, and: In fact, ‘mandate of heaven’ should be read more like the American theory of ‘manifest destiny,’ the presumption that something – possibly god, but also possibly just historic forces – impels the assumption of power and authority for a person or a people. It is simply ‘fated’ that the ‘best’ will rise to power – a notion Americans still hold onto in their claims to American exceptionalism.
    2. One of the problems with attempting to read Chinese philosophy – and its history – in the West is that dissemination of the texts in our languages has always been profoundly polluted by Western expectations. In the 18th century, scholars could not believe that there could be philosophies without religion, or religions without god. Confucius was a god, Confucianism was a religion, bla bla. This continues into the present day, with New Age interpretations of Chinese texts that have them reading like mystical manuals to out-of-body experiences.

    Furthermore, for a long time, older Chinese historical records were simply dismissed as collections of legends. Thus we have only recently begun reading Chinese history on its own terms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the informative post. I sometimes wonder if the word “religion” is too western bound to even make much sense for non-western societies, or at least non-Abrahamic ones. Asian societies have a tendency to syncretize various outlooks into unique regional cultural profiles, something that is often inconceivable to people from Abrahamic faiths. (Despite the fact that our society could itself be considered a syncretization of Christianity, science, and our ” civil religion”.)


  6. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I agree with what’s already been said and can’t really add much. This may be a good exercise in the futility of labels — they are usually reductive and often there are major classification problems. (As a programmer you know how hard it is to create perfect object hierarchies — same problem.)

    FWIW, I do tend to align the concepts of religion with concepts of ‘supernatural’ (“meta-natural” is a less freighted word) worlds. Further, I see religion as a human invention that is part of the search for spirituality, so I tend to think more in terms of spiritual than religious.


    • Thanks Wyrd. Is it that labels are reductive, or is it that trying to use too few of them is reductive? Maybe the problem is us in the west attempting to shoehorn everything into categories that work for our society.

      “Supernatural” and “meta-natural”, it seems to me, both suffer from their own definitional issues. What is the supernatural? If it’s that which is not natural or beyond nature? If so, then what is “nature”?


      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Good points, all. I meant that single labels are (almost always) reductive, but too few would also be. (On some level, almost any attempt to categorize something is necessarily reductive — one has to balance the tradeoff between abstraction and description.)

        Yeah, defining ‘natural’ is tricky. I mostly meant that ‘supernatural’ is freighted with ghosts and witches and such, so it’s really hard to use in the strict sense of “above or beyond natural.”

        Might be an interesting idea for a reference post: defining what I mean by “naturalism” vs “physicalism” vs “materialism.” They’re close to being synonymous, and it seems people have different definitions of precisely what they mean.


        • That would be a good post. I think I’d enjoy reading it. I’ve contemplated a post myself on the definition problem of the supernatural, although it’s always possible that your post could make it unnecessary.


  7. Howie says:

    Maybe it’s kind of like dogs. Is a labradoodle a poodle? Well partially. Is Confucianism a religion. Perhaps partially.

    I totally agree that defining the word religion is much more complex than the standard dictionary definition, but I get a little confused when some suggest that religion doesn’t exist at all as a coherent concept. There are philosophers of religion and many books on the “world’s religions”. I would imagine many of those people have at least some definition for religion even though the definitions may vary from one expert to another. And there are things that clearly aren’t a religion. Like my Honda Pilot is not a religion. The guidelines for basket weaving is not a religion. I think there are likely a lot of “fuzzy” words in all languages but that doesn’t mean we try and delete the words. Given what you’ve written here I’m assuming you pretty much agree that there is some use for the word, even though it may be tricky to agree on a definition.


    • Oh, I definitely think the word has utility, at least in western culture. The problem with applying it to other cultures is often they have no conception of the differences between secular and sectarian institutions or beliefs, or between natural and supernatural phenomena.

      I like your poodle analogy. If poodles were given some kind of special status, then the definition of “poodle” might end up being as debated.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Steve Morris says:

    You might run into the same kinds of problems trying to define anything. What is “food” for example? Does it have to contain calories? Does it have to be nutritious? Is it simply something you eat? Something you can drink? Something ingested intravenously? Something toxic?

    What you have here with religion is an example of the limitations in trying to map “things” to “categories”.


    • The food analogy is interesting. Food is generally what animals eat for sustenance, but at times, starving people have eaten things that provided no sustenance (such as tree roots, grass, or dirt), just to fulfill the physiological need to have something in their stomach. And many people in the developed world eat for emotional comfort or entertainment. Many diet foods are designed to provide that comfort and enjoyment of eating while providing as little energy as possible.

      It’s safe to say that we need food to survive, but that the food-desire isn’t always in alignment with overall survival. Fulfill that desire too much, and we’ll end up leading shorter life spans due to obesity and other health issues.

      So, again, food is what animals eat for sustenance, but due to our relentless evolved need for food, we call a lot of things “food” that might not meet the original definition. I’m not sure of the exact correlation to what happens with religion, but it feels like there may be a similar mechanism at work with it. Maybe.


  9. jmeqvist says:

    Interesting post as always.

    According to the three point functional definition of religion that you outline in the entry it seems that Confucianism, at least in its original form, does not seem to be a religion as it does not really explain the world, or provide existential comfort. At most it would be a “public philosophy.”

    That said your point about ritual as being integral to religion strikes me as pointing to the inadequacy of understanding religion strictly in terms of social functions. Ritual does not necessarily relate to a particular social function, but still seems to be integral to religion. In this context, a good contrast with Confucianism might be Stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy that explains the world, promotes the social order (calling everyone to meet the responsibilities that come with their role in society), and provides existential comfort. Yet, I have a hard time seeing Stoicism as a religion because it does not prescribe any ritualistic activities. It is a systematic philosophy that tells one how to live, but it does not focus on ritual re-connection with the cosmos, God or nature. Consequently, I am inclined to say whether Confucianism is a religion or not, it seems that an integral part of any religion is ritualistic activity.


    • Thanks, and good points all. Interestingly, I read something the other day that listed Stoicism as a religion and it made me do a double take. (I think I linked to it in a recent post but can’t find it at just this moment.) I’m not sure, but I think ancient Stoicism might have had a metaphysical component, which might have been where they were coming from, and perhaps some of the stoic exercises might be considered rituals.

      I’m currently reading Robert Bellah’s ‘Religion in Human Evolution’, which spends a good amount of time discussing ritual. Bellah asserts that ritual probably predates theology, and often survives intact through theological revolutions. It’s an interesting, albeit at times tedious, book.


  10. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong says:

    SAP: “Confucianism is integrated with, and influenced, many of these ideas. So, is Confucianism a religion? Well, it’s complicated. I’ve discussed before that I think religion has historically met three broad functions. (These points are my simplification of functions I’ve read from anthropologists and social scientists such as Jared Diamond.)

    Explain the world.
    Promote the social order.
    Provide existential comfort.

    Confucianism doesn’t seem to get into 1 very much, although I suppose Neo-Confucianism did to a limited degree, and it’s hard for me to see that it provides too much for 3, but I’m making that judgment as an outsider, so I might be off base.”

    Yes, you are totally off base (see ).


    • Thanks Tienzen. Interesting article. A perspective from an insider is always helpful. You covered a lot of ground and I suspect a lot of it went over my head. I perceive that maybe you are equating Confucianism with Chinese culture including Taoism, Buddhism, and folk religion. Although perhaps the (admittedly western) sources I’ve read are artificially isolating Confucianism.

      One thing that struck me is your statement about some of these concepts, such as chi and shu, only being held by the general populace, but not so much by the intelligentsia. The lived culture can often be very different from the scholarly version.

      Thanks again for your insights!


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