The religious nature of Confucianism has often been debated. In fact, Confucianism has often been considered as an ethico-political system rather than a religion. For about two thousands years, it played a major role in the shaping of the Chinese civilization. Yet, its influence has mostly been moral, humanistic and pragmatic. It was mainly concerned with questions regarding this world rather than the supernatural world. Confucianism is not clear on matters such as the existence of a personal God or of an after-life. The most recurrent themes in the Analects are humaneness, loyalty, reciprocity and learning. It has been suggested that Confucianism lacks some major elements in order to be considered as a religion. However, it is impossible to deny that Confucianism has featured a strong spiritual dimension. Confucianism has included some religious rituals, practices and beliefs. Confucians have a clear and strong feeling of reverence towards Heaven. In fact, following the Way of Heaven is one of the main duties of Confucians. Confucians also believe in a natural moral order regulating and guiding human affairs. If religion is understood only as the theology of a transcendent Creator, then Confucianism may not be a religion. However, if religion is defined as something involving the sense of the holy, then Confucianism can be considered as a religion (Smith, p13). This paper will attempt to argue that with a broader understanding of religion, Confucianism is definitely a religion as profound as any other known religion.
Confucianism has often been understood as a social, ethical and political system rather than a religion. This can be explained by the fact that Confucianism lacks some of the main elements found in other religions. It puts no reliance on creeds and dogmas for instance. Moreover, it has never had a specific priesthood or any form of clergy (Smith, p13). Confucianism has been rather focusing on moral teachings. When looking at the Analects, it is clear that the main themes are of a pragmatic and ethical nature. One of the main notions appearing in the Analects is the concept of Jên. This word appears more than forty times in the Analects. It has been translated in different ways. In fact, Jên has been translated as love, benevolence and even human-heartedness (Smith, p66). This concept refers to the highest stage of moral attitude. It can be considered as the perfect level of wisdom and goodness (Smith, p66). In order to achieve Jên, one must go through a process of self-cultivation. This process implies that an individual must acquire two main qualities: righteousness and loyalty. It is through education that one can acquire these qualities and consequently reach Jên. Confucianism advocates constant education and highly values knowledge (Smith, p73). Furthermore, Confucianism seems to reject supernatural forces and superstition in general. It is obvious that the world of the Analects is profoundly different from that of Moses, Jesus or even Buddha (Fingarette, p2). There is no clear allusion to the transcendental and the supernatural in the text. When asked about these issues, Confucius said: “Until you know about life, how can you know about death” (Fingarette, p2). These words reflect the pragmatic and humanist nature of Confucianism.
However, Confucianism also involves religious cult. These different rituals were very often dedicated to the Emperor himself as a form of state cult appeared. The performance of these state rituals was believed to ensure happiness and prosperity to the Emperor, the land and the people. It was also believed that sincere prayers and sacrifices would bring the goodwill of Heaven (Smith, p14). These rituals were also performed by the Emperor on behalf of all people and in Confucian temples. Furthermore, worships and sacrifices were also dedicated to Confucius himself thus showing that the religious aspects of Confucianism cannot be ignored (Smith, p14). Moreover, Confucius himself highly respected the existing religion. He expressed profound reverence for the ancestors-spirits. He constantly stressed the importance of knowing and understanding these spirits (Smith, p62).
Despite these religious rituals practices, the religious nature of Confucianism is still debated. This is can be explained by the difficulty to distinguish between religion and philosophy in the Confucian tradition. There is a Western tendency of clearly separating the religious from the philosophical. However, this is not the case in China (Tucker, p13). In fact, in Chinese, there was not a word for religion until the late nineteenth century. The term chiao, meaning teachings, was used instead of religion. The fact that the word religion did not exist does not mean that the Chinese did not understand the many religious questions relevant to the human community (Tucker, p13). They did ask those question but they answered it differently. It does not mean that they were not familiar with these questions. It rather indicates that the notion of religion was understood differently in the Confucian tradition (Tucker, p14).
The main concerns of the monotheistic religions are not the only way to understand religion. The understanding of what it means to be religious can differ greatly from a culture to another. In other words, religion does not have to be institutionalized, canonized and theologized the same way as the West (Tucker, p14). The nature of God and the relation between the natural and the supernatural do not have to be the main preoccupation of every religion. Likewise, concepts such as sin, after-life and salvation should not necessarily be the leading debates of every religious system (Tucker, p14). Religion is a deeper and larger concept. In its broadest definition, it is a “means whereby human beings, recognizing the limitations of phenomenal reality, undertake specific practices to effect self transformation within a cosmological context” (Tucker, p14). Being religious thus implies following some practices while being aware that one is part of a larger cosmological force.
With this understanding of religion, Confucianism can definitely be considered as a religion. Confucians may have been more preoccupied with moral reflection and pragmatic issues. Yet these humanistic considerations are all understood within the changes of cosmological processes (Tucker, p14). Confucians are aware of the imperfections of human beings. However, they believe in a “good” human nature. Humans are endowed with a heaven type of nature. As humans are growing up, a break usually happens between them and their true nature. This loss of the true nature can be conscious or unconscious (Tucker, p15). The self cultivation process is crucial in order to rediscover one’s original nature. It is thus in the Confucian religious quest to put in evidence this goodness. Only a moral and spiritual cultivation of the spirit can stress one’s inherent goodness. Once this individual goodness is express, a Confucian also has the religious duty to reach collective goodness. For this reason, it is essential to work within the political and social sphere. Strengthening one’s cultivation and consequently contributing to the well being of the entire society means to know and follow the Will of Heaven (Tucker, p15).
There is in fact a sacred union between human beings, Earth and Heaven. The connection between these three elements is not done by a divine intervention. It is rather connected by self realization and self transformation. Practicing self cultivation is the way to reach self transformation and to extract one’s good identity. It is the way to reach one’s real and authentic nature. Once this authentic nature is extracted and achieved, one must participate in the socio political order. This is the way to reach the perfect living conditions on Earth. In fact, if everyone reaches self cultivation, it will positively affect the entire society. In other words, one can understand the “ultimate self transformation as a communal act” (Tucker, p15). Finally, Confucians believe that the entire process mentioned above directly affects Heaven. The latter is a direct reflection of human achievements on Earth. Thus, the individual affects the society, which affects Earth which determines the composition of Heaven. This special relation implies that salvation and redemption does not need the intervention of the divine. It is rather reached by human efforts mainly through self cultivation (Tucker, p15).
It was mentioned above that one of the reasons why Confucianism was not considered as a religion was its rejection of magic and the supernatural in general. However, when analyzing the Analects, one can found allusions to magical powers of a profound importance .What is meant by magic here is the ability to perform an act without efforts but rather through gesture and incantation (Fingarette, p3). Confucius believed that the main human powers have a magical nature. This magical power was known as the li. This notion may be translated as “holy ritual” or “sacred ceremony” (Fingarette, p3). The li regulates human behaviors. It dictates human intercourse through different patterns. These patterns, once learned, are common for everybody. Thus, the li determines human patterns of mourning, fighting, marrying, and being a father or a son. During human interaction, each person knows what he is going to do according to these patterns. The gestures are smoothly taking place and are coordinated in a harmonious way (Fingarette, p3).
More concretely, the li operates in basic intercourse such as a handshaking. In fact, if someone meets a friend on the street, he will walk towards him, smile to him and put out his hand to shake his friend’s hands. The friend, on the other hand, will turn towards him, smile to him and shake his hand. This entire process takes place without giving an order, without using force or special tools. The depth of the relationship is also affected by this holy ritual. A student does not shake hands with his teacher the same way he does with a friend. Moreover, the power of the li can be used to achieve physical objectives (Fingarette, p10). If someone wants to bring a book left in another room, he will have to stand up to get it if he does not have any magical power. With the li, he can ask politely to someone to get it. He will not have to use force or to trick him. The success of his request will depend on the way he formulated it. This way to get things done is very specific to humans. The examples of the handshake and the request may appear too simple. However the moral is profound. In fact, these gestures are “characteristics of human relationships at their most human” (Fingarette, p11). This given humanness, which distinguishes the human from any other creature, must be cultivated constantly.
Whether Confucianism is a religion or not depends largely on how religion itself is defined. If religion is only the theology of a transcendent Creator, then Confucianism is not a religion. However, this definition is based on an understanding of religion particular to the West. But religion is perceived in various ways across the globe. Thus, with a broader definition of religion, Confucianism is definitely a religion. Its main power is the cultivation of humanness. This is not only a pragmatic approach. This self cultivation process, so important to Confucians, fits into a cosmological process. Whether Confucianism is a religion or an ethico-political system, it is certain that one can benefit from the teachings of Confucius. Being just, loyal and constantly seeking education is not contradictory with most cultures and religions. Most importantly, Confucius teaches to be simply humans, which is a much needed quality in today’s world.