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.