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Confucianism is a system of philosophical and ethical teachings founded by Confucius in 6th-5th century BC China. Throughout China’s history Confucianism played in important role of a social and political authority, whilst simultaneously orienting the collective identity in agreement with a fundamentally moral ground, it has been followed by the Chinese people for more than two millennia. Consequently Confucianism has become somewhat recognised as a system of social and ethical philosophy by many. However one cannot overlook many of Confucianism’s religious dimensions, which in turn ensues with the main issue in defining Confucianism- its religious ambiguity. Additionally, it is difficult to define Confucianism as it does not easily fit into the Western theological categories and beliefs of what a religious system should consist of. In the field of sociology, religion can often be defined in three main ways: substantive- which focuses on the religious belief in God or the supernatural; functional- focusing on the social or psychological functions it performs; or the social constructionist- interpreting how the members of society define religion. Thus in 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. Based on this analysis I will examine whether it is more appropriate to consider Confucianism a religion or a philosophy.

We can explore the reasons behind Confucianism being viewed as a religion in the first place by looking at the Christian presence in China from the 16th through the 18th centuries. Christian missionaries understood that in order for the Chinese to accept Christianity and vice versa, it was necessary to accommodate to the thought, tradition, and the ways of the local people, and “demonstrate that the new religious doctrines are compatible with the wisdoms of the ancestors as well as the original culture” (Fang, 1969). Thus Confucian values, and rites were interpreted to fit in with Christianity, even though they might have completely differed in beliefs.  The Western missionaries incorporated Confucianism into their teaching about Christianity through studying the Chinese classics and making them a “Western Bible.” It was reasoned that the notions such as God hitherto existed in the notions of tian and shangdi (supreme deity). It was hence a regular custom for the missionaries to interpret or misinterpret the Confucian teaching from the framework of Christianity, with intent of building an affinity between the two. Consequently, the belief that Confucianism in Medieval Chinese identity served a very similar purpose as Christianity in Medieval European identity was created.

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One of the main aspects of Confucianism is the pursuit of the unity of the self and Ti?n (Heaven), and the relationship of humanity to the Heaven. The notion of heaven can refer to either a personified supreme force or an impersonal natural force.  However, the idea of a Confucian Heaven differs from that of the Western beliefs as one become ‘one with heaven’ through realising their humanity ( Tay, 2010). Ti?n is not a personal God equivalent to the God of the Abrahamic faiths in the sense of an independent creator or divine being, on the contrary, it can be described as a more of a guiding force of the universe and judge of right and wrong. Therefore the notion of god and spirit has marginal 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 the shortcoming of Buddhism and suggests that “What determines how we should live an ordinary life is moral principal; the Buddhists speak not of moral principal but of illusoriness and sense-perception”, which shows that instead of focusing on the unachievable supernatural ideas, it is encouraged that one should rather focus on the inner qualities of themselves. Hence this aspect of Confucianism goes against the substantive definition of religion which in its early days was defined by E.B. Tylor simply as ‘the belief in supernatural beings’ (Taylor, 1958). By looking only at the substantive definition of religion, one could therefore argue that Confucianism cannot be considered one, as it lacks the ‘content’ and ‘essence’ that characterises other religions.  Additionally, this view would also be supported by Herbert Spencer who said that “Religion is the recognition that all things are manifestations of a Power which transcends our knowledge”. This would thus suggest that in order for something to be considered a religion, according to the substantive definition, they need draw clear line between religious and non-religious beliefs, which Confucianism ceases to distinguish between. However, there are some criticisms of this definition such as the argument that it is too universal; not all religious systems include spiritual beings and not all people who believe in the supernatural necessarily follow a specific religious system.

Furthermore, the substantive definition of religion also views religion as a type of philosophy to live by that exists separately from our social or psychological lives. However, Confucianism has been characterised by its absence of separation of the religious and social contexts. Consequently it can be referred to as a ‘diffused religion’, meaning that “its institutions were not a separate church, but those of society, family, school, and state; its priests were not separate liturgical specialists, but parents, teachers, and officials,” (Bellah,1975). Confucianism was thus part of the Chinese society and way of life; to Confucians, everyday life was the arena of religion. One could therefore argue that this strengthens the argument against Confucianism as a religion; as according to the substantive definition. Yet we can also further argue against the substantive definitions as they are often establishing boundaries between religion and non-religion that are too rigid, meaning that they identify and limit a certain area of a particular society that fits the definition (Saler, 2000). One can therefore argue that the Western idea of what separates our religious lives from the social or psychological 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, one can explore aspects which the substantive definition does not take into account. The functional definitions put emphasis on what religion does and how it functions ‘in terms of its place in the social/psychological system,’ (Berger, 1974). Functionalist see religion as contributing to meeting societies needs through providing a shared culture, particularly shared moral values, thereby creating harmony and integration. This can also apply to the psychological functions of religion by contributing symbols, rituals and narratives that will help individuals identify with role models, be driven, find comfort, and offer answers to existential questions. Moreover, Durkheim defines religion as a “a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things,…, things set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them,”( Durkheim, 1973). This therefore places more focus on the social aspects of beliefs and practices which accompany religion, rather than its content.

Durkheim argues that rituals are vital in uniting together the followers of a religious group, and through them the individuals are able to distract themselves and escape from the mundane features of daily life into higher realms of experience. In the case of Confucianism, Confucius stressed on the importance of rituals. However, they were not understood as sacrifices inquiring for blessings from the gods, but as ceremonies performed by human agents and symbolizing the sophisticated and cultured patterns of behaviour established through generations of human wisdom.  Confucius believed that divine realms are beyond human comprehension, so there is no Confucian concept of a sacred space outside of the realm of life on earth. The focus of Confucianism is ordinary human interactions, and thus, in a sense, the ordinary space of daily life becomes sacred space. Therefore the most sacred space was considered the family home; and the importance of ancestral wisdom and worship was hence emphasised. One can therefore suggest that this reflects on Durkheim’s theory that people view religion as contributing to the health and continuation of society, as ancestral wisdom is passed on in the form of rituals which were applied to actions beyond the formal sacrifices and religious ceremonies to include social rituals: courtesies and accepted standards of behaviour. However, one also has to consider that there are some criticisms regarding Durkheim’s functional definition of religion as it can be considered too inclusive, meaning that it prevents from distinguishing between religion and other phenomena.

On the other hand, the social constructionist definitions of religion take an interpretivist approach that focuses on how members of society themselves define religion and also the meanings people give to religion. They are 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 the supernatural, which is a contrast to the substantive definition. Thus if we interpret Confucianism by looking at this definition, we can argue that through its 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 its followers,  similarly to many other mainstream religions such as Christianity. Consequently, it was given the meaning 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 the interests of the ruling class by using it to support ruling class ideology. Ruling class ideology keeps the upper class in power by discouraging subject classes from realising that they are being exploited. It has been famously described as the “opium of the masses” by Marx as he saw religion as being like a drug that distorts reality and helps individuals of the lower classes deal with pain (Marx, 1976). Marx therefore saw religion as a mechanism of social control. It created a false class consciousness where the incorrect views about the true nature of social life vindicated the position of the ruling class. In the case of Confucianism this view could be mirrored in the stress on the hierarchical relationships between the ruler and the subject, father and the son, husband and the wife, elder and the younger, and friend to friend. In Confucianism, the king or emperor was the highest authority in the land; the man was always above the woman, and the elder above the younger. This system of the hierarchical social relations provided each role with a clearly defined duty:  mutual responsibility between subordinate and superior, which was crucial to the Confucian notion of human relations; and the virtue of filial piety, or devotion of the child to his parents, was the foundation for all others. Keeping to one’s place in society was also crucial. One can thus argue that with these roles in place, there was then no room for any type of social upheaving, or opposition against the unfair treatment of the lower classes.  This can therefore support Marx’s idea that religion, in this case Confucianism, acted as an instrument of social control which prevented the working class from developing a class consciousness. However, many critics argue that Marx’s view of religion is too narrow, as by concentrating on just one possible role or religion in society it ignores the much broader range of effects religion might have. For example, Confucius teachings and values of unity, morality and respect brought stability into a country which had been affected in many ways from previous changeovers in dynasties, and allowed China to live and govern their communities more efficiently.

Moreover, Marx’s view of religion being almost like a drug that blinded the people with the promises of an eternal life and hope of supernatural intervention to end all suffering was not reflected in the Confucian teachings.  Confucianism didn’t promise its followers any kind of salvation which would end all their sufferings. It instead focused on a lifetime commitment to character building and perfecting the five virtues of Confucianism: Ren- humaneness; Yi- honesty and righteousness; Li- propriety and correct behaviour; Zhi- wisdom or knowledge; and Xin -fidelity and sincerity, in order to achieve social harmony.  Consequently, Confucius himself clarified that his teachings came about not through any kind of a revelation from a deity, but rather studying history. He said that one needs to “study the past if you would define the future”. Thus by developing his wisdoms through reason and urging others to go through the same reasoning he had as part of an ongoing process of self -cultivation and improvement, one can argue that Confucianism is in fact a philosophy rather than a religion. Moreover, Marx also saw religion as a form of alienation in which people believed the God to be all powerful, and having control over them they thus give up their true humanity by denying themselves the right to make their own decisions. Yet, this is yet again contrary to the teachings of Confucianism which emphasise the importance of worrying about humans, not gods; and about life, not death.

In conclusion, one can therefore argue that Confucianism has been viewed as a religion by many due to some characteristics it shares with mainstream religions, such as rituals, and interpreting Confucian Analects as a Bible. Moreover, it also functions as a tool of reinforcing shared values and moral beliefs amongst the members of the society, which fit in with Durkheim’s beliefs about religion. However, due to the lack of metaphysical concepts, for many, it remains hard to comprehend it as a religion with the Western experience of what religion should comprise of. Consequently, the biggest issue with classifying Confucianism as a religion or a philosophy is defining religion itself. There remains no universal agreement on what religion should be defined as the category of ‘religion’ contains so many different types of beings, beliefs, and philosophies. Critics have argued that all attempts at a universal definition of religion are destined to fail because religion as a concept is itself the product of a specifically Western modern discourse (Asad, 1993). Asad claims that “such universalistic claims are naïve because they fail to understand that definitions of religion are part of a political struggle designed to impose certain categories of thought and power relations on a given society”.  It is also difficult to define its function as it although Durkheim argues that it provided social cohesion and solidarity, there are cases where religion is a source of division or conflict, especially in complex modern societies where there is more than one religion. Thus we can argue that Confucianism can be both, a religion, and a philosophy. 

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