Confucianism Confucianism’s religious dimensions, which in turn ensues with

Confucianism is a system of philosophical and ethical teachings established
by the Chinese philosopher 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 over  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 comparable to the God of the Abrahamic faiths in the sense of an autonomous
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 concerning oneself with 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.