Defining religion has been hard as it elicits mixed reactions from different societies all over the world. What exactly is religion? While westerners describe religion as something that inspires, the easterners have their own definition based on mythical interpretations. Westerners believe there has to be God or gods involved for a specific religion to exist. In their context then, Confucianism cannot be described as a religion. It has core beliefs, rituals, and philosophy that dictate the lives of the people living by it, but there are no aspects of the gods involved. This is still a huge debate since Confucianism is viewed as being an ethical system. According to Poceski (2009), Confucianism has a long history in influencing the lives of the Chinese society dating back to 100BC. Confucius, its founder, created a moral system that placed its emphasis on three concepts: ren (empathy or human compassion), yi (Righteousness), and li (Ideal action).
While Confucianism largely affected the political life of ancient China, there is no doubt that there was a connection between its values and various aspects of religion (Dorothy 2000). It has also affected the spiritual life of the Chinese for some time. The role of religion is evident in Confucianism in the following aspects: morality, doctrine, and duties.
While Confucianism does not tackle the existence of God or the afterlife, it has some aspects of religious beliefs and practices. Firstly, Confucians believe that their main goal here on earth is to become perfectly moral. They hold the view that people have innate traits which make them distinct; however, their positions in the end will be determined by how they went about before attaining their ultimate goal — the Dao. According to Confucius, “Those who are possessed of understanding from birth are the highest type of people”. In addition, “those who learn things from painful experience are yet the next.” “Those who have painful experiences but do not learn from them are the lowest type of people” (The Analects of Confucius, Sommer, p. 42). The fact that Confucians focus on attaining perfect morality makes it a characteristic of religion. Most if not all religions in the world call their followers to pursue morality in its purest form possible. Many view religion as a process that involves transformation from origin to sacred.
The junzi, according to Confucianism, is a title give to an individual with the highest variety of issues. However, only countable exceptional men reach this stage. Just as Christianity, Hindu or Islam, Confucianism also encourages its followers to transform their lives to higher ones through studying rituals (Sommer, 1995). In fact, Confucianism calls people to replace their original sins with good morals learnt from the Sutra or Bible. This shows that even they had an allegiance to a high god. They had to worship the god for them to replace their sins and enter paradise after they die. This transformation is a religious aspect that screams out. While their path to transformation is considered secular by Western view, the fact that Confucians strive to attain the highest level of Sagehood makes Confucianism religious.
Secondly, Confucianism also has religious cult involved in some of its teachings. However, most of their rituals were directed towards the Emperor, which depicted a form of state cult. Performing these rituals, according to Confucianism, ensured the well-being and happiness of the Emperor, the people he led, and the land they ploughed. The same can be seen in other religions such as Hinduism and Christianity. These religions believe in offering sacrifices or offerings to their gods to ensure the prosperity of their religious leaders and humanity in general. Confucianism taught that offering sacrifices or sincere prayers would call for the goodwill of the heavens. The emperor also performed these rituals in Confucian temples on behalf of the people he led. Certainly, this one aspect makes a connection between religion and Confucianism. Notably, Confucius respected his beliefs and acknowledged the importance of expressing heart-felt reverence to ancestors-spirits. He called for people to understand the spirits.
Western definition of religion still finds fault with such offering of sacrifices. They tend to separate philosophy from religion. However, the Chinese did not have a word that defines religion until the late 19th century. They used chiao, which referred to teachings in place of religion. This proves that the definition of religion should be carefully expressed to cover different aspects from different communities all over the world. What appears to be religious to one group may not be religious to another.
Confucianists believe that the entirety of the individual is in spirit and flesh. After the death of an individual, the spirit is released while the body remains in the ground. The belief in the existence of spirits and offering sacrifices to them brings out the religious nature of Confucianism. Confucianists also believe that judgment will befall all the inhabitants of earth in the coming years. This belief resembles that of other religions like Islam and Christianity, which stress the existence of a higher power that would judge man in the end of times.
Confucianism emphasizes the importance of offering sacrifices to sovereigns under strict regulations. According to Sommer (1995), an individual has to make a moderate vigil of seven days as well as three-day full vigil before making any type of sacrifice. In observing the vigils, Confucius ought to clean himself before moving to a lonely place without taking wine or eating fish or meat. There has to be a proper association between the individual offering the sacrifice and the spirit. Those who offered sacrifices had to be qualified, so they had to prepare thoroughly. The host of such a ritual or formal events was usually an honorable individual, who has to be a Confucian. After offering the sacrifices, the sovereigns can then go ahead and seek for blessings for things like rain. All these sacrifices depict the existing connection between the human race and imaginary supernatural beings in the heavens such as spirits. This clearly shows the religious aspect of Confucianism.
Thirdly, Confucianism also has its own doctrines just like the other religions. Its main principle is ren (humaneness), which should reflect exceptional character in accordance with xiao (filial piety), li (ritual norms), shu (reciprocity), and zhong (loyalty to a true nature). All of the above constitute what is called de (virtue). Confucianism bases its faith on the likelihood of normal human beings to attain high sages. It also insists that human beings can be taught and improved through personal or communal endeavor.
According to Sommer, ren is very important as it is one of the parts constituting the Dao. An individual who wants to perform ren with positive externality has to fully develop in order to cultivate ren in his mind. Other religions like Christianity also place emphasis on exclusive doctrinal orthodoxy. Confucianism has religious beliefs that focus on cultivating ethics. The concept of ren implies that people have to possess the determination of doing the righteous. Li refers to a system of norms that stipulate the individual’s proper moral conduct in the community.
Most values in Confucianism teach that an individual can decide to give up his or her own life and pursue cardinal moral values. The same applies to other religious beliefs. Christianity, Muslim and Hinduism also teach on the possibility of an individual forsaking his/her own life to focus on several cardinal moral values. Xiao, filial piety, was seen as one of the greatest virtues which had to be shown towards both the living and the dead. “Filial” means “a son”, which shows the respect that a son should offer to his parents.
According to Confucianism, there exists hopes and lives to humans if they act nicely to the society. This applies to other religions as well; they all demand that human beings extend a compassionate heart to the society and help those in need. According to Confucian philosophy, human nature is always good, and possession of the knowledge will help keep everyone on the right path. The ultimate goal of Confucianists emphasizes that the society is dynamic and change is a part of it. According to Yin and Yang, the spirits of good and bad control the world. This belief in the presence of spirit powers resonates across other religions.
The debate as to whether Confucianism is a religion will go on as long as there is no distinct and universal definition of religion. If religion is, as defined by the West, focused on one awe-inspiring creator or God, then Confucianism does not fit to be a religion. However, a broader definition of religion across the globe would count Confucianism as religion. It focuses on the aspect of cultivating humanness. Notably, the teachings of Confucianism can be beneficial just as other religions are in the interest of the betterment of the society. Just like other religions, Confucianism urges its followers to pursue education and become loyal to the society. It also teaches individuals to be simple humans, which somehow coincides with most teachings of other religions.