Confucianism: A Religion or Way of Life?
Is Confucianism a religion?
When studying another culture as an outsider, it is very important to keep in mind the concept that different societies have different definitions of certain concepts although categories such as ‘religion’ may seem universally-acknowledged on the surface. In many non-Western contexts, the concept of religion cannot be separated from social norms and obligations. This can be seen in Confucianism, which embodies a system of ethical ideals in the collective consciousness of the ancient Chinese society which produced it. Although it is linked to certain concepts of otherworldliness such as ancestor worship, it is primarily concerned with governing human behavior. The sacred is not conceptualized as otherworldly.
Postmodernity urges us to detach ourselves from assuming the universality of categories such as religion and to instead see them as constructs produced in a culturally-specific manner. Confucianism offers a different concept of religion as an ethical system which values propriety, tradition, education, and filial piety (Prothero 102). Confucianism is known as one of the ‘Three Teachings’ which, according to Prothero, are not seen as mutually exclusive but are woven together in various degrees throughout Asian cultures (Prothero 103). Instead of solely focusing on the relationship between the individual human and the divine, Confucianism focuses on the ‘Five Relationships’ or upon the mutually fulfilling obligations between human beings in society (Prothero 112).
In Western culture, there is a tendency to assume that any prioritization of the here and now is tantamount to agnosticism. In Confucianism, the relationship one has with others is viewed as spiritual and the interconnected nature of humanity is infused in a holistic manner with what we might call the sacred or the spiritual. The relationship of mutual obligations a ruler has with his subjects or a parent has with his child parallels the relationship heaven has with humanity. To turn one’s self into an educated person embodying virtues via what we might think as a secular associated (such as honoring the Emperor or raising one’s children well) is not dissociated from connecting with the divine. The concept of ‘animism’ or non-living beings having a spiritual life is also present in many of the East Asian traditions: rather than idolatry, this is actually a way of conceptualizing the cycle of life, as one’s ancestors or a spiritual, non-rational mode of existence are manifest in aspects of nature in a hidden form.
This suggests that rather than viewing Confucianism as a non-religion in an ethnocentric fashion, we must accept that ‘religion’ takes on a different meaning in different social contexts. Confucianism is not simply an ethical system such as utilitarianism in the West as it is tied to higher moral values, familial relationships and traditions, and permeates all of society in terms of its rituals and moral ethos. However, it cannot be confined by the definitions of religion we are won’t to make in the west. The ‘problem’ of understanding Confucianism for Westerners really highlights the need to define what is a religion in a society only after studying the culture that produced it on its own terms, not our terms.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One. HarperOne, 2011.
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