Confucianism is a philosophical school of thought that was developed by Chinese philosopher and politician, Kong Qiu (Confucius 551-479 B.C.E.). In founding Confucianism, Confucius sought to codify the religious elements of the Zhou Dynasty. The intention behind codifying these religious elements was to provide a guiding light for those who would practice Confucianism as a way of life. Confucianism relies on spirituality as a core principle – it requires followers to seek to have unity with the heavens. However, it also has other principles, including values and norms, and social harmony. Thus, in attempting to determine whether Confucianism qualifies as a religion, it is imperative to understand the multiple principles underpinned by the school of thought and the how they relate with each other. The purpose of this essay is to discuss Confucianism in the context of religion. It will be observed that: although Confucianism embodies the concept of spirituality (a chief concept in all religions), its principles transcend religion and defining it as such is an injustice to the other concepts it represents.
Before defining Confucianism in the context of religion, it is imperative to have a proper understanding of religion. A religion may be defined as a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to a superior being or a deity (Jensen, 2014). People practice religion based on a belief system that they must strictly adhere to in order to have a fulfilling life, and in some cases, to have a rewarding afterlife (Jensen, 2014). Religion is a core concept in most traditional cultures and it is by adhering to religious doctrines that people could fit well into their respective societies. It is worth mentioning here that different societies approach religion differently. While Christianity and Islam require followers to stay away from sin in order to appease God and Allah respectively, Eastern religions like Buddhism and Taoism place greater importance on oneness with nature as the principle for achieving closeness to God (Jensen, 2014).
As with every other traditional society in other parts of the world, religion played a key role in sustaining Chinese societies. Thus, the various dynasties that governed over the Chinese society relied on religious codes to govern the people and to keep society intact. This explains why delving into the history of the Chinese society reveals that some of the earlier dynasties relied on Buddhism while others favored Taoism (Sun, 2013). It is in this process that Confucianism emerged as a religion. Without a holy book like that the Bible for Christians or Quran for Muslims, the Chinese relied on philosophers like Confucius, who would reinterpret and codify pre-existing religious scripts to fit the context of their contemporary societies (Shih & Chou, 2013). Before the emergence of Confucianism, the people blamed corrupt religious practice for the fall of preceding dynasties (Shih & Chou, 2013). However, Confucius believed that the religion of the Zhou dynasty embodied the ethical principles which defined the Chinese society (Shih & Chou, 2013). By codifying the religious elements of Zhou and to an extent, Shang, Confucius developed a code to govern the way of life of the Chinese. In this regard, Confucianism qualifies as a religion.
Although Confucianism was introduced as a religion, it should be noted that theological principles were just a part of a broader school of thought. Confucianism also incorporated principles of governance, social and moral ethics, and social harmony. As an approach to governance, Confucianism required leaders to be capable of governing themselves in order to qualify to govern others (Hughes & Hughes, 2014). Confucius believed that embracing calm and restraint would help kings to be the center around which the kingdom would operate successfully. The principles of social order, on the other hand, alluded that social harmony could only be attained if every individual understood his/her place in the natural order (Hughes & Hughes, 2014). The principles of social and moral ethics advocated for a humanistic approach to life. The core values were compassion, justice, knowledge, honesty, and proper rite (Hughes & Hughes, 2014; Shih & Chou, 2013). As such, Confucianism provided the Chinese society with a code to live by. Considering that kings were not exempt from following the doctrines, it is arguable that Confucianism was not used as a mere tool for controlling the masses. It was ingrained in the way of life of the Chinese society in its entirety.
The concept of religion denotes a way of life that is dictated by the requirement to appease a deity or superior being. Confucianism, however, does more than this. It provides followers with a code to live by while providing leaders with a system of governance. Confucianism still qualifies as a religion, having been codified from the religious doctrines of previous dynasties. In fact, not only does it rely on spiritual concepts, the motive behind its development was to provide people with a basis for living ethical lives, as with most religions. Nevertheless, defining Confucianism simply as a religion fails to acknowledge its far-reaching nature. Confucianism ought to be understood as a school of thought, a way of life, a system of governance, and an integral part of the culture in which it is practiced.
Hughes, K., & Hughes, E. R. (2014). Religion in China. New York: Routledge.
Jensen, J. S. (2014). What is religion? New York: Routledge.
Shih, H., & Chou, C. P. I. (2013). The establishment of Confucianism as a state religion during the Han dynasty. English Writings of Hu Shih: Chinese Philosophy and Intellectual History (Volume 2), 57-73.
Sun, A. (2013). Confucianism as a world religion: Contested histories and contemporary realities. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.