Rodney L. Taylor, ‘The Religious Character of the Confucian Traditions’


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Confucianism calls into question the definition of religion.


Confucianism is commonly treated differently from other religious traditions, because it is more about social harmony, ethics, and comportment than about theology.


All religions address ethics, morality, and social codes, and so does Confucianism. Then why is Confucianism not called a religion?


The main reason is that Confucianism “lacks a concept of the transcendent,” (p. 80)


Is a concept of the transcendent a necessary part of the definition of a religion? No.


It is a “western” assumption that a religion is defined by an overt reference to the transcendent.


Buddhism and Taoism lack formal concepts of deities like those in Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity but are nevertheless relatively indisputably considered religious traditions.


Moreover, Confucian writings are not typically referred to as “scripture,” even though they have been utilized as one would utilize other sacred texts (p. 81).


Confucianism’s founder is not ascribed any divinity or ability to perform miracles.


The author makes two main assertions: (1) that Confucianism is poorly understood, and (2) the definition of “religion” is too narrowly focused on issues like theism.


Confucianism can and should be considered a religion in spite of its divergence from other traditions.


Confucianism has no express concept of Absolute, but this does not mean there is no spiritual dimension to the tradition.


Confucianism has:




Practices and Rituals


Institutional History




Religiosity is only one aspect of any tradition, including other religions, all of which have the above features.


Religion vs. Philosophy


Belief in God is typically listed as a prerequisite for a religion, which is why Confucianism is commonly excluded from the religion category.


However, many branches of philosophy like metaphysics address belief in God, and argue either for or against the existence of God. These philosophical traditions are not religious in nature even thought they deal with the Absolute.


Therefore, belief in the Absolute is not a sufficient criteria for determining whether a tradition is a religion or not.


The author also claims that belief in the Absolute is not a necessary criteria for determining whether a tradition is religion or not.


The difference between philosophical approaches to God/Absolute and religious ones is with a religion, the individual or community develops a personal relationship with the Absolute.


In Confucianism, the term ching refers to a religious response or devotion that is deeply personal in nature.


That personal relationship may have at its goal “ultimate transformation,” a goal such as enlightenment or salvation (p. 84)


Ching and other aspects of Confucianism like ritual (li) aim for the ultimate transformation of the self and society


The achievement of “sagehood” is also a transformative spiritual goal in the Confucian tradition.


Religion must identify not only the goal (salvation/enlightenment) but also the means to achieving that goal (faith in )


In the case of Confucianism, the goal is harmony or order, and the means include obedience to social order, law, and ritual.


Primacy of Religion Argument


Religion is “never secondary” because it permeates all aspects of life (p. 85)


Therefore, if any one religious element is present in a tradition, then that tradition must be classified as religious.




Ritual is central to Confucianism


Ritual has deep meaning in the Confucian tradition because it reflects the order and structure of the universe.


The performance of ritual is the means by which the individual attains the end goal of maintaining universal order, structure, and hierarchy.


Not all ritual is religious, of course; there are many secular rituals. However, the meaning or intent underlying the performance of the ritual can qualify it as having a religious character and goal.


In Confucianism, ritual is undertaken for religious purposes (to uphold cosmic order).


There is also an attitude of ching, or “seriousness and reverence” accompanying ritual that reveals the religious character of Confucian practice (p. 87).


However much ritual is a dimension of Confucianism, more is needed to clearly define Confucianism as religion. That “more” is the Confucian concept of the Absolute.


Confucianism and the Absolute


In Confucianism, the Absolute is T’ien, or heaven. Alternatively the term is T’ien-li, Principle of Heaven.


T’ien is central to Confucianism.


The meaning of T’ien may have changed over centuries, but its primacy has not changed.


Confucius the philosopher is regarded as “transmitting” knowledge, similar to the role a prophet would play.


By focusing on T’ien, Confucius rejects or breaks from previous religious doctrine to present a humanistic religious perspective. T’ien is a principle, but it is not an “authority,” (p. 88).


The concept of T’ien is itself regarded as liberating and transformative for humanity, and thus has a spiritual underpinning as well as an obviously transcendent quality.


T’ien is incorrectly presented as being only about social relations and law and not about transcendence. In fact, T’ien is the “inner structure of the universe, both microcosm and macrocosm. It is both the beginning point and the end point. As such it is an Absolute,” (p. 89).


It does not matter whether T’ien is transcendent or immanent, because either way, it is Absolute. Animism is an immanent tradition and is also religious.


Sagehood as a Religious Goal


In addition to T’ien providing proof for Confucianism’s religious foundations, the Confucian tradition emphasizes a distinctly religious goal: the pursuit of sagehood.


Human beings can move toward T’ien in a process of spiritual transformation.


As in Buddhism, the process is described as working towards becoming an ideal human being, which in Confucian tradition is called Sheng, or Sage.


Being a Sage is not just a scholar who intellectually comprehends a body of teachings. Rather, being a Sage entails Enlightenment.


The term Sheng is related to the process of “passing through” or “penetrating” as in penetrating a veil to gain true understanding, truth, and wisdom.


Also, the term Sheng is related to “ear,” or “hearing,” making it so that the Sage is one who hears the truth.


The term Sheng is also related to “manifestation” or “disclosure” of knowledge.


Taking into account all the etymological elements of the Sage (passing through, hearing, and disclosing), the Sage is like a prophet or a bodhisattva.


The Sage perceives the Way of Heaven, and transmits that understanding with the goal of improving humanity.


There is a goal (Absolute/Heaven) and the means by which to achieve that goal, revealing the pursuit of personal transformation that characterizes all religious traditions.


Religious Texts in Confucianism


The literary records or texts are known as ching, or “classics,” a term that is linguistically related to the “warp” in weaving, which provides the continuity to the entire fabric.


As such, a “provides continuity across time and space,” (p. 91).


Ching is translated commonly as “scripture” throughout the East Asian religious traditions.


Confucian texts do not pretend to be “revealed,” like the Bible, but that does not diminish their status as scripture because they are the “records of the sages,” and Sages are essentially religious figures with prophet-like status (p. 91).


The ching of Confucianism are records of what sages “heard” from Heaven, and “manifested” in writing.


In early Confucian doctrine, sagehood is not presented as an attainable goal for all individuals. The ordinary person can work towards the more modest goal of chun-tzu, or Noble Person.


Mencius changed the concept of Sagehood, to show that all human beings have the same essential nature, which therefore means that all human beings can potentially become sages with proper practice and discipline.


Several Confucian texts outline the means by which an individual can attain sagehood.


Human Condition


As with other religious traditions, Confucianism comments on the human condition.


Confucianism refers to the human condition in terms of selfishness, and selfishness is to be overcome in the pursuit of sagehood.




1. The author makes a concerted effort to reframe Confucianism as a religion by stretching or altering the definition of what religion is. In your view, are these attempts necessary? In other words, why is it important to define Confucianism as a religion?


The author goes to great lengths to defend the role of Confucianism as a religious tradition for several reasons. One, Confucianism deserves to be considered alongside its cultural and historical counterparts, not viewed as a political overlay to other religious traditions. Second, it is critically important to assess the definition of religion and cease viewing world religious traditions solely through the eyes of the “People of the Book.” When the definition of religion is reconsidered as the author does here, it becomes possible to see how religions function differently but also express themselves differently using different symbols. Third, it is important to gain a better understanding of Confucianism instead of the typically shallow understandings usually developed, which focus only on the importance of law, conformity or obedience, patriarchy and social order. Finally, it is helpful to see how Confucianism actually does differ from other religions. Recognizing the similarities and differences between Confucianism and other traditions helps gain a broader understanding of the role of religion in human societies and in the lives of individuals too.


2. There are some marked similarities between Confucianism and other religions. Name several of the characteristics that Confucianism and Buddhism and Christianity share in common, based on this reading.


Confucianism has a concept of Absolute that is akin to Buddhism, but not with Christianity. This is fine, given the fact that Hinduism is polytheistic and Islam is not, but both are considered major world religions. Both Buddhism and Confucianism conceptualize the Absolute less in terms of a creator deity (neither of these traditions have a creator deity) and more in terms of a heavenly ideal. Moreover, both Buddhism and Confucianism have a concept of an ideal person (Sage or Buddha), and show that any person can attain the goal of being an ideal person by following the moral and in the religion. Like Christianity, too, Confucianism has a concept of a Sage that is similar to a Prophet, one who hears a transcendent wisdom and then translates that wisdom so that other people can understand it.