Confucianism in 6th-5th century BC China. Throughout China’s

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Last updated: May 22, 2019

Confucianism is a system of ethical and philosophical teachings establishedby the Chinese philosopher Confucius in 6th-5th century BC China. ThroughoutChina’s history Confucianism played in important role of a social and politicalauthority, whilst simultaneously orienting the collective identity in agreementwith a fundamentally moral ground, it has been a guide for the Chinese peoplefor over  two millennia. ConsequentlyConfucianism has become somewhat recognised as a system of social and ethicalphilosophy by many. However one cannot overlook many of Confucianism’sreligious dimensions, which in turn ensues with the main issue in definingConfucianism- its religious ambiguity. Additionally, it is difficult to defineConfucianism as it does not easily fit into the Western theological categoriesand beliefs of what a religious system should consist of. In the field ofsociology, religion can often be defined in three main ways: substantive- whichfocuses on the religious belief in God or the supernatural; functional-focusing on the social or psychological functions it performs; or the socialconstructionist- interpreting how the members of society define religion.

Thusin this essay I will explore and analyse aspects and functions of Confucianism;and how they apply to Weber, Durkheim, and Marx’s theories of religion. Basedon this analysis I will examine whether it is more appropriate to considerConfucianism a religion or a philosophy.We can explore the reasons behind Confucianism being viewed as areligion in the first place by looking at the Christian presence in China fromthe 16th through the 18th centuries.

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Christian missionaries understood that inorder for the Chinese to accept Christianity and vice versa, it was necessaryto accommodate to the thought, tradition, and the ways of the local people, and”demonstrate that the new religious doctrines are compatible with the wisdomsof the ancestors as well as the original culture” (Fang, 1969). Thus Confucianvalues, and rites were interpreted to fit in with Christianity, even thoughthey might have completely differed in beliefs. The Western missionaries incorporated Confucianism into their teachingabout Christianity through studying the Chinese classics and making them a”Western Bible.” It was reasoned that the notions such as God hitherto existedin the notions of tian and shangdi (supreme deity). It was hence a regularcustom for the missionaries to interpret or misinterpret the Confucian teachingfrom the framework of Christianity, with intent of building an affinity betweenthe two. Consequently the belief, that Confucianism in Medieval Chinese societyserved a very alike function as Christianity in Medieval Europe, was created. One of the main aspects of Confucianism is the pursuit of the unity ofthe self and Ti?n (Heaven), and the relationship of humanity to the Heaven. The notionof heaven can refer to either a personified supreme force or an impersonalnatural force.

 However, the idea of aConfucian Heaven differs from that of the Western beliefs as one become ‘onewith heaven’ through realising their humanity ( Tay, 2010). Ti?n is not apersonal God comparable to the God of the Abrahamic faiths in the sense of an autonomouscreator or divine being, on the contrary, it can be described as a more of a guidingforce of the universe and judge of right and wrong. Therefore the notion of godand spirit has negligible presence in Confucian metaphysics. Moreover,Confucianism even goes as far as to shunning any discussion of the supernatural.This can be seen in the writings of Confucian scholar Hu Yin who discusses theshortcoming of Buddhism and suggests that “What determines how we should livean ordinary life is moral principal; the Buddhists speak not of moral principalbut of illusoriness and sense-perception”, which shows that instead of focusingon the unachievable supernatural ideas, it is encouraged that one should ratherfocus on the inner qualities of themselves.

Hence this aspect of Confucianismgoes against the substantive definition of religion which in its early days wasdefined by E.B. Tylor simply as ‘the belief in supernatural beings’ (Taylor,1958). By looking only at the substantive definition of religion, one couldtherefore argue that Confucianism cannot be considered one, as it lacks the’content’ and ‘essence’ that characterises other religions.

  Additionally, this view would also besupported by Herbert Spencer who said that “Religion is the recognition thatall things are manifestations of a Power which transcends our knowledge”. Thiswould thus suggest that in order for something to be considered a religion,according to the substantive definition, they need draw clear line between religiousand non-religious beliefs, which Confucianism ceases to distinguish between.However, there are some criticisms of this definition such as the argument thatit is too universal; not all religious systems include spiritual beings and notall people who believe in the supernatural necessarily follow a specificreligious system.Furthermore, the substantive definition of religion also views religionas a type of philosophy to live by that exists independently from our social andpsychological lives. However, Confucianism has been characterised by itsabsence of separation of the religious and social contexts. Consequently it canbe referred to as a ‘diffused religion’, meaning that “its institutions werenot a separate church, but those of society, family, school, and state; itspriests were not separate liturgical specialists, but parents, teachers, andofficials,” (Bellah,1975). Confucianism was thus part of the Chinese societyand way of life; to Confucians, everyday life was the arena of religion.

Onecould therefore argue that this strengthens the argument against Confucianismas a religion; as according to the substantive definition. Yet we can alsofurther argue against the substantive definitions as they are oftenestablishing boundaries between religion and non-religion that are too rigid,meaning that they identify and limit a certain area of a particular societythat fits the definition (Saler, 2000). One can therefore argue that theWestern idea of what separates our religious lives from the social orpsychological aspects may not be the same in a different culture, for example,the collectivist culture of China.Consequently, by looking at the functional definition of religion, onecan explore aspects which the substantive definition does not take intoaccount. The functional definitions put emphasis on what religion does and howit functions ‘in terms of its place in the social/psychological system,'(Berger, 1974). Functionalist see religion as contributing to meeting societiesneeds through providing a shared culture, particularly shared moral values,thereby creating harmony and integration.

This can also apply to thepsychological functions of religion by contributing symbols, rituals andnarratives that will help individuals identify with role models, be driven,find comfort, and offer answers to existential questions. Moreover, Durkheim definesreligion as a “a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacredthings,…, things set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite intoone single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them,”(Durkheim, 1973). This therefore places more focus on the social aspects ofbeliefs and practices which accompany religion, rather than its content.

Durkheim argues that rituals are vital in uniting together the followersof a religious group, and through them the individuals are able to distract themselvesand escape from the mundane features of daily life into higher realms ofexperience. In the case of Confucianism, Confucius stressed on the importanceof rituals. However, they were not understood as sacrifices inquiring forblessings from the gods, but as ceremonies performed by human agents andsymbolizing the sophisticated and cultured patterns of behaviour establishedthrough generations of human wisdom.  Confuciusbelieved that divine realms are beyond human grasp, so there is no Confucianconcept of a sacred space outside of the realm of life on earth. The focus ofConfucianism is on everyday human relations, and thus, in a way, the ordinaryspace of daily life becomes sacred space. Therefore the most sacred space wasconsidered the family home; and the importance of ancestral wisdom and worshipwas hence emphasised. One can therefore suggest that this reflects onDurkheim’s theory that people view religion as contributing to the health andcontinuation of society, as ancestral wisdom is passed on in the form ofrituals which were applied to actions beyond the formal sacrifices andreligious ceremonies to include social rituals: courtesies and acceptedstandards of behaviour.

However, one also has to consider that there are somecriticisms regarding Durkheim’s functional definition of religion as it can beconsidered too inclusive, meaning that it prevents from distinguishing betweenreligion and other phenomena.On the other hand, the social constructionist definitions of religiontake an interpretivist approach that focuses on how members of societythemselves define religion and also the meanings people give to religion. Theyare interested in how religion is constructed, rather than what it consists of,thus we cannot assume that a religion has to include a belief in God or thesupernatural, which is a contrast to the substantive definition. Thus if weinterpret Confucianism by looking at this definition, we can argue that throughits teachings on based on filial piety, kinship, loyalty and righteousness,although without any abstract principles of “good” and “evil”,  it provided a moral compass for itsfollowers,  similarly to many othermainstream religions such as Christianity. Consequently, it was given themeaning similar to that of a religious system by the people who followed it.On the contrary, Marxists view religion as a means used to promote theinterests of the ruling class by using it to support ruling class ideology.

Ruling class ideology keeps the upper class in power by discouraging subjectclasses from realising that they are being exploited. It has been famouslydescribed as the “opium of the masses” by Marx as he saw religion as being likea drug that distorts reality and helps individuals of the lower classes dealwith pain (Marx, 1976). Marx therefore saw religion as a mechanism ofsocial control. It created a false class consciousness where the incorrect viewsabout the true nature of social life vindicated the position of the rulingclass. In the case of Confucianism this view could be mirrored in the stress onthe hierarchical relationships between the ruler and the subject, father and theson, husband and the wife, elder and the younger, and friend to friend. InConfucianism, the king or emperor was the highest authority in the land; theman was always above the woman, and the elder above the younger.

This system ofthe hierarchical social relations provided each role with a clearly definedduty:  mutual responsibility betweensubordinate and superior, which was crucial to the Confucian notion of humanrelations; and the virtue of filial piety, or devotion of the child to hisparents, was the foundation for all others. Keeping to one’s place in societywas also crucial. One can thus argue that with these roles in place, there wasthen no room for any type of social upheaving, or opposition against the unfairtreatment of the lower classes.  This cantherefore support Marx’s idea that religion, in this case Confucianism, actedas an instrument of social control which prevented the working class fromdeveloping a class consciousness.

However, many critics argue that Marx’s viewof religion is too narrow, as by concentrating on just one possible role orreligion in society it ignores the much broader range of effects religion mighthave. For example, Confucius teachings and values of unity, morality andrespect brought stability into a country which had been affected in many waysfrom previous changeovers in dynasties, and allowed China to live and governtheir communities more efficiently.Moreover, Marx’s view of religion being almost like a drug that blindedthe people with the promises of an eternal life and hope of supernaturalintervention to end all suffering was not reflected in the Confucian teachings. Confucianism didn’t promise itsfollowers any kind of salvation which would end all their sufferings. Itinstead focused on a lifetime commitment to character building and perfectingthe five virtues of Confucianism: Ren- humaneness; Yi- honesty andrighteousness; Li- propriety and correct behaviour; Zhi- wisdom or knowledge;and Xin -fidelity and sincerity, in order to achieve social harmony.

  Consequently, Confucius himself clarifiedthat his teachings came about not through any kind of a revelation from adeity, but rather studying history. He said that one needs to “study the pastif you would define the future”. Thus by developing his wisdoms through reasonand urging others to go through the same reasoning he had as part of an ongoingprocess of self -cultivation and improvement, one can argue that Confucianismis in fact a philosophy rather than a religion. Moreover, Marx also sawreligion as a form of alienation in which people believed the God to be allpowerful, and having control over them they thus give up their true humanity bydenying themselves the right to make their own decisions. Yet, this is yetagain contrary to the teachings of Confucianism which emphasise the importanceof concerning oneself with humans, not gods; and about life, not death. In conclusion, one can therefore argue that Confucianism has been viewedas a religion by many due to some characteristics it shares with mainstreamreligions, such as rituals, and interpreting Confucian Analects as a Bible. Moreover,it also functions as a tool of reinforcing shared values and moral beliefsamongst the members of the society, which fit in with Durkheim’s beliefs aboutreligion.

However, due to the lack of metaphysical concepts, for many, itremains hard to comprehend it as a religion with the Western experience of whatreligion should comprise of. Consequently, the biggest issue with classifyingConfucianism as a religion or a philosophy is defining religion itself. Thereremains no universal agreement on what religion should be defined as thecategory of ‘religion’ contains so many different types of beings, beliefs, andphilosophies. Critics have argued that all attempts at a universal definitionof religion are destined to fail because religion as a concept is itself the productof a specifically Western modern discourse (Asad, 1993). Asad claims that “suchuniversalistic claims are naïve because they fail to understand thatdefinitions of religion are part of a political struggle designed to imposecertain categories of thought and power relations on a given society”.

 It is also difficult to define its function asit although Durkheim argues that it provided social cohesion and solidarity,there are cases where religion is a source of division or conflict, especiallyin complex modern societies where there is more than one religion. Thus we canargue that Confucianism can be both, a religion, and a philosophy. 

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