Rodney Taylor on Confucianism on Huffington Post

Our thanks to fellow blogger, Chris Panza, for the heads up.

Rodney Taylor enlightens the Huff Post readership on what Confucianism really is HERE.

Just to get you interested, here’s something Taylor says in the piece:

By emphasizing the learning of the sages of antiquity, Confucius believed rulers ruled by the Mandate of Heaven. Confucius thus supported the theocratic nature of the Chinese state. More importantly, however, he supported the religious authority associated with T’ien as a principle of “purpose.” Because of T’ien, the universe had a purpose and that purpose was exercised on behalf of the state. For the Confucians, this “purpose” of Heaven was seen as a greater authority than the power of rulership itself. The ruler only ruled because of Heaven’s Mandate, and the Mandate could be taken away. To hold the Mandate, the criterion was the moral conduct of the ruler. In Confucian thought, much is made of the distinction between a ruler, wang, a true ruler of moral worth, and a tyrant, pa, one who exercises power only for his own personal aggrandizement.

I’m not sure I agree with this as a characterization of Confucius — assuming we can characterize Confucius specifically, as opposed to early Confucians or Confucianism more generally, based on the extant text. Taylor’s claims about Heaven’s Mandate (tian ming 天命) do seem accurate about Mencius. But Confucius? I’m not so sure: the only two references to tian ming in the Lunyu are these two:

2.4: 子曰:“吾十有五而志于學,三十而立,四十而不惑,五十而知天命,六十而耳順,七十而從心所欲,不踰矩。” Legge’s translation: The Master said, “At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.”

16.8: 孔子曰:“君子有三畏:畏天命,畏大人,畏聖人之言。小人不知天命而不畏也,狎大人,侮聖人之言。” Legge’s translation: Confucius said, “There are three things of which the superior man stands in awe. He stands in awe of the ordinances of Heaven. He stands in awe of great men. He stands in awe of the words of sages. The mean man does not know the ordinances of Heaven, and consequently does not stand in awe of them. He is disrespectful to great men. He makes sport of the words of sages.”

Though Confucius thought the command of Heaven was important, it’s not at all clear what that entailed. Was the idea that rulers “ruled by the Mandate of Heaven,” and that that constituted some kind of divine, supernatural, or moral stamp of approval on a regime, something that Confucius could have entertained? I’m inclined to think that, believing in the Zhou dynastic practices as he did, Confucius would not have felt the need for justification of the Zhou’s political legitimacy. But maybe it’s okay to extrapolate to the Mencian view and attribute that to Confucius. I’m interested to know what you think.

38 replies on “Rodney Taylor on Confucianism on Huffington Post”

  1. Hi Manyul,

    I find myself agreeing with Taylor’s general theme, though there’s also plenty to question here. Was Zhou China a “theocratic” state? I’m not sure enough exactly what the term means…but I’d say it was certainly a religious state in some sense. So yes, Confucius was both a religious thinker and a political thinker. (The stuff about “minister” seems misleading or wrong, though.)

    On the issue you raise, I think that there’s enough evidence about the existence of tian ming discourse prior to Confucius’s day that something like what Taylor says is reasonable to impute to Confucius (and certainly consistent with the two statements you cite from the Analects, right?).

    Here’s a bit I don’t like very much:

    When Confucius concludes his own autobiographical passage (Analects, II:4) with the statement that his life could be measured by the degree to which he came to accord with T’ien, Heaven, he is pointing in the direction of religion. Such a reference, later described as T’ien Tao, Way of Heaven, identifies a “purpose” brought to bear upon the individual, thus providing a basis for personal religious belief.

    But of course this is NOT the end of Analects 2:4, which actually concludes with a statement concerning the harmony between desire and rules: without denying the possibility of some sort of religious significance, I think the clear emphasis is on a kind of psychological transformation — and one not so obviously related to “personal religious belief.” It may be related to Confucius’s sense of “ultimate significance,” which I think some religious studies scholars would plausibly connect to religious significance. But — maybe because he’s writing for a general, and mostly American (Christian?), audience — Taylor seems to put things here in a way that risks conflating differences among religions.

    (I’m also not thrilled about the implication that political theory and religious advocate are the only two possible job descriptions for Confucius or for later Confucians, but I’m not going to get into the right now.)

  2. Hey Steve,

    Yes, you’re right, the idea that tian ming acts as something like a guiding hand in permitting only good rulers to rule — what we find references to in Mencius, but not in the Analects — is consistent with the Analects passages I quoted.

    All this makes me think — and I’m jumping around a bit here:

    In Mencius, it seems like tian ming works mostly like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market in economic theory, except that it is the ruler’s character and actions and the people’s natural response to them that are the corrective forces in play. Construed this way, tian ming seems very “naturalistic,” based on the forces at work. Tian‘s role seems simply to supervene on the workings of people’s actions and responses.

    For Confucius, if tian ming plays a role in permitting or damning regimes, maybe it would be more “theocratic.” As you say, that depends on what we mean. But I can see one way in which tian ming could be so construed: if Confucius thinks of tian much more like a deity or divine power that directly intervenes as an agent of change, then that would make tian ming part of a theocratic structure of legitimizing and guiding regimes. That would be theocracy in a pretty strong sense — and it would be quite a different view of regarding legitimacy than for Mencius.

    I’m not sure who would want to attribute as strong a theocratic theory as that to Confucius. Is there evidence for that? I wonder. Or maybe there are more possibilities in between strong theocracy and Mencian naturalism where Confucius would rest more comfortably.

  3. Whether Confucianism is “religious” is a longstanding concern of Taylor’s. Is there some reason for the Huffington Post to be interested in that? It seems that this piece appears there because the HP is interested in Confucianism more generally; this piece is the second in a series Taylor is posting there.

    It seems to me that in Analects 2.4, the line “at 50 I knew the decrees of Heaven” can fairly suggest that the remaining lines (60 and 70) are about degrees of accord with those decrees, so that at least regarding the last years of Confucius’ life, it isn’t unreasonable for Taylor to say that the point was that “his life could measured [at least chronologically] by the degree to which he came to accord with T’ien.” (I wonder, though, whether in “五十而知天命” Confucius might have been referring specifically to his personal vocation only.)

    While there is little in the Analects about 天命, there are various passages that suggest to me that Confucius was sorta religious. I’m thinking especially of 3.9 (“Some one asked the meaning of the great sacrifice. The Master said, “I do not know. He who knew its meaning would find it as easy to govern the kingdom as to look on this” – pointing to his palm.”), 9.9 (…”The Feng bird does not come; the river sends forth no map – it is all over with me!”), 9.12 (“The Master was put in fear in Kuang. He said, “After the death of King Wen, was not the cause of truth lodged here in me? If Heaven had wished to let this cause of truth perish, then I, a future mortal, should not have got such a relation to that cause. While Heaven does not let the cause of truth perish, what can the people of Kuang do to me?”), 11.9 (“When Yan Yuan died, the Master said, ‘Alas! Heaven is destroying me! Heaven is destroying me!’”), 14.35 (… “The Master replied, ‘…But there is Heaven – that knows me!’”) – Legge’s translations.

    But I don’t know how I’d define “religious.” In a paper in PEW 48:1, “The Religious Character of the Confucian Tradition,” Taylor explains what, in his view, it is to be religious, or a religion, or a religious belief. Following Joachim Wach, he holds that religion is when there is a concept of “the Absolute” such that the individual’s relation to the absolute pervades and transforms virtually every aspect of her life. (Metaphysics, by contrast, is a merely intellectual encounter with the Absolute.) I do not understand this account.

  4. I tend to agree with Christian Jochim, Ted Slingerland and others that Confucius was more religious than usually believed. Both of them have commented on the Heavenly decreed mission he felt he was on.

  5. I enjoyed the article.

    One commentator felt that Mencius’s view of Heaven was naturalistic. I disagree with this description.

    Basically, Heaven is the ultimate feudal lord. In the same way the Son of Heaven can depose a minister for incompetence, Heaven can depose the Son of Heaven for incompetence. In effect, the Son of Heaven holds the world in trust for Heaven. Thus, Heaven is the source of political legitimacy.

    Furthermore, contrary to popular opinion, political legitimacy does not originate from the people. Heaven’s will is primary. This will is manifested in two ways – in the people’s response to the ruler and in the response of spiritual beings.

    I believe that my views above are grounded in the Classics and are the most natural way to read Mencius.

    • Hello J&M; I’m not sure we actually disagree. My point was that the will of Heaven supervenes on the people’s response to the ruler. That doesn’t imply that Mencius’s views are not religious.

      On the other hand, I doubt that Mencius would accept the idea of Heaven as an “ultimate feudal lord.” Even the answers/responses by ancestors and other spiritual beings — in response to rituals and sacrifices — don’t clearly have the kind of agency you ascribe to Heaven. For one thing, by the Warring States, the idea of Heaven or other spiritual beings acting directly, or even communicating directly to anyone, seems to be abandoned in the literature. No doubt the idea still existed — this seems evident from Xunzi’s slightly later (later than Mencius, that is) arguments against the personalization and knowability of Heaven. I tend to think of Mencius’s focus on the natural effects of Heaven’s will as an intermediary step toward the full-blown naturalism of Xunzi.

      To return to the main point, and to reference some of the other comments (by Bill and Scott in particular), whether the beliefs/practices of Confucius or Mencius were “religious” doesn’t depend on whether Heaven is construed as an anthropomorphized agent. Even if Heaven’s role is construed more like a natural moral law of actions and effects — something akin to karma — the religious aspects don’t simply evaporate.

    • I will explain why I believe Heaven is the ultimate feudal lord based on the Mencius.

      In the passage of 王之臣有託其妻子於其友, Mencius mentioned that if a leader of knights cannot manage the knights under him, then the king can dismiss him. Then, he suggests that if the king cannot manage the kingdom, then someone can dismiss him. It was not clear who that someone was.

      Now, if we look at 《万章》, there are a number of relevant passages. However, the most important, I believe, is this:


      This really illustrates the mechanism by which one becomes a ruler. Because all under Heaven originally belongs to Heaven, you need the Son of Heaven to recommend a potential ruler to Heaven before he can assume rulership.

      Similar passages include: 天與賢,則與賢;天與子,則與子。

      More explicitly,

      As we can see, the Son of Heaven cannot give away all under Heaven. Only Heaven can entrust all under Heaven to someone. (Basically, Heaven is a settlor. The Son of Heaven is a trustee, with the people as beneficiary.)

      The people originated from Heaven. Heaven needed assistants to look out for them. Therefore, he made rulers and teachers.

      Basically, all of this comes down to feudalism. Heaven is the ultimate feudal lord:

      If in doubt, Heaven did it: 莫之為而為者,天也;莫之致而至者,命也。(This is, of course, like the passage about 臧仓.

      Not only are the responses of the people and the hundred spirits manifestations of Heaven’s will, but even whether a ruler is competent or incompetent is ultimately due to Heaven.


      These passages (and more) are why I believe that Heaven is the ultimate feudal lord.

    • Thanks! I still think the actions of Heaven in these passages are consistent with the interpretation of Heaven as an impersonal law of cause and effect. But, you’re right, they could just as well be anthropomorphic.

      (Just an aside: calling Heaven “the ultimate feudal lord” probably has more bad connotations than better ones. “Overlord” 霸 ba, comes to mind; and Mencius doesn’t think very highly of them. Perhaps “the ultimate king” 王 or “ultimate lord” 君 works better for Mencius.)

    • Well, let’s just say that I can agree that Heaven is not completely anthropomorphic. While one can personalise him to some extent, he is fundamentally different from a human being.

      I chose the term “ultimate feudal lord”, partly for the reference to feudalism. Even from an academic perspective, e.g. being objective about history, it seems that people tend to conceive of religious things in terms of their social circumstances. It would not be unusual for Mencius to project the idea of feudalism onto Heaven – and in fact I believed that he did so in the passages I cited.

      I also found the term “ultimate feudal lord” in a book I read about Mediaeval Christian theology. It appeared that at least some Mediaeval Christians conceived of God as a feudal lord. Europe at the time, of course, practised feudalism. It seems to me that, especially in terms of religion, different nations often come up with similar ideas independently.

    • I tend to agree with Justice&Mercy that at least in the Mencius, a large part of the role of Heaven is conceived as that of a feudal lord. I think the adjective ‘feudal’ helps because it points to the fact that that lordly role isn’t radically unique. Feudalism is a chain.

      One needn’t conceive the role of a high feudal lord as something that can be performed only by humans. Confucius’ remark might be relevant: “為政以德,譬如北辰,居其所而眾星共之.” Though perhaps the Northern Star is distinguished from Heaven in that it can (and must of necessity) face south.

    • Hi Manyul,

      re: “For one thing, by the Warring States, the idea of Heaven or other spiritual beings acting directly, or even communicating directly to anyone, seems to be abandoned in the literature.”

      I’m not sure what you mean exactly by ‘directly,’ but I think you underestimate the beliefs in spiritual will and agency in the Warring States era. It was certainly doubted by some, but one can easily find passages in the Shangshu (many of these chapters were composed in the WS era), the Chunqiu Zuozhuan and Guoyu, the Mozi, and the Liji (some of which is WS). For Dong Zhongshu in the middle of the Han, spirits and Heaven play an important role. Divination texts like those found at Baoshan and other excavated funerary objects also show a belief in the spirits.

      BTW, I believe, and my view has been held by some, that Heaven began by being, more or less, a short form for “the spirits above.” A number of texts say that King Wen was up there, beside Shangdi, for example. I don’t think the average person’s spirit resided there, but Heaven was a place where worthy (largely royal) ancestors resided. One can obviously see the authority people would believe (those in) Heaven to have.

      I hope this post is relevant. (I haven’t been reading everything.)

    • Thanks, Scott. I agree there’s a large role played by Heaven and the spirits. My idea was to indicate just how much of the communication from Heaven and spirits required special skills of divination and interpretation. In that sense, the communication is not “direct.” The shengren does not directly hear and speak for the gods. With special skills of interpretation involved, understanding Heaven and the will of spirits seems very similar to textual interpretation of odes and histories, the upshot being that Heaven, spirits, odes, and historical records are of a different kind than other people with whom one does communicate directly.

  6. To elaborate on my comment – Also, whether a ruler is competent or not depends on Heaven. This is why Danzhu, for instance, was incompetent.

    Heaven’s will exhibits certain recurrent patterns, such as raising a Sage King every five hundred years. Sometimes, however, Heaven’s will appears arbitrary. For instance, when Mencius was around, seven hundred years have already elapsed since the last Sage King (not counting Confucius as Suwang).

    I agree that Mencius’s economic viewpoints are close to freemarket capitalism. However, Heaven is definitely not a naturalistic metaphor. Conversely, it does have strong parallels with the Judeo-Christian idea of God. The main difference is that in Confucianism, God is less arbitrary. Also, God does not speak in detailed words to deputies.

  7. Oh, another thing – One commentator said that Taylor might be conflating American Christianity with Confucianism. Having read his book on the religious dimensions of Confucianism, I would say that is precisely his point. The Confucian view of Heaven (or God), whether from the perspective of the Classics or the historical tradition(s), does have strong parallels with Christianity.

    I believe that the correct approach to understanding Heaven based on the Classics is not to omit any aspect. Heaven has several aspects, all of which are different facets of the same thing. Some facets include patterns in the way the world works, e.g. the way of Heaven. Other facets include the fact that Heaven can be mysterious – such as when he made Danzhu incompetent. (The Doctrine of the Mean explicitly said that there are depths of which even sages are unaware.)

    Heaven also has a will, such as deliberately putting someone through difficulties. This is yet another theme shared by Confucianism and Christianity.

    (Btw, I’m not Christian.)

  8. I have not commented on The Analects above. The fact is, in historical Confucian traditions, The Analects is never read alone, but always as a supplement to other texts.

    However, I will point out a parallel between The Analects and Mencius:



    Both passages come from The Analects. They illustrate Confucius’s sense of mission, which he obtained by understanding some aspect of Heaven’s purpose.

    The following passage comes from Mencius:


    Once again, Mencius has a strong sense of mission, which he derived from understanding some aspect of Heaven’s purpose.

    The following passage shows that Mencius believes that Heaven is responsible for worldly affairs. Human plans may succeed or fail in accordance with the will of Heaven.


    Okay, having written four posts in the row, this may start to sound like a rant. I just don’t get it – How can people read The Analects and Mencius, and not see any of this? Amongst the Classics, The Analects has the most worldly character. However, the various facets of Heaven are core doctrines of Mencius. How can anyone miss this and then “ponder” whether Confucianism is a religion? This is kind of like reading The Gospels and then wondering whether Christianity is religious…

    What’s more, most of these “pondering” ends in some debate over The Analects. Now, whether the historical Confucius was religious is perhaps a question for academics. However, the Confucian tradition as a whole has never been about The Analects. Prior to the Neo-Confucians, Confucianism was about the Five Classics. After the Neo-Confucians, it was about the Four Books. (If anything, the Neo-Confucians were the least religious group out of all historical Confucian traditions.)

    I’m just so frustrated…

  9. Hi–A few comments on some of the thoughts offered here by Justice&Mercy.

    I personally find it rather obvious that Confucianism is, among other things, a religious tradition, and that religious beliefs and practices were important to it from rather early on. I say this on the basis of a loose and inclusive sense of “religion,” for which neither supernatural beings nor the “Absolute” seem absolutely necessary. For sure, tian is a religious concept, although it is equally clear that a process of naturalization was underway through the Warring States period. Naturalization need not be in grave tension with religiosity, though. I disagree with the statement that the Neo-Confucians were relatively non-religious. In both the activities they practiced and advocated, and in their orientation toward what can be called spiritual perfection, I think they are clearly religious–probably more thorough-goingly religious, in my opinion, than pre-Qin Confucians. I say “spiritual” perfection because Tianli is such an all-encompassing ideal of personal and universal transformation. (Note that Prof. Taylor started his career working on Neo-Confucians!)

    I think there is reason to be cautious about the analogy between Christianity and Confucianism. One of the important trends within religious studies has been to move away from taking the Abrahamic traditions as paradigm for “religion,” and judging all other traditions with this standard. I certainly find many dramatic differences between Confucianism and these others: while it is true that Tian plays an important role in Mencius, for example, the role ipales in comparison to that played by Allah in the Qur’an (etc.). In the Abrahamic texts, the whole orientation of the practice and of the texts themselves is around the deity. Not so in any Confucian texts. For the most part, Tian lies in the background.

    This is especially true in Mencian political theory. It is crucial that one has no direct access to the will of Tian, but rather reads it off of the reactions of the people. Yes, I agree that political legitimacy does not originate from the people, but by the Warring States (and even earlier), the idea that one could divine Tian‘s will had been abandoned, and an ethical ideal placed in its stead. This has enormous consequences.

    One of the consequences is that it made it somewhat plausible for late-Qing and early Republican thinkers to claim that their tradition was distinctively “secular” and (thus) “modern.” In fact, if you want to look for the origin of the idea that Confucianism is not “religious,” that is where to look (especially since there was no category of “religion” in Chinese before then). Advocates of the New Culture Movement went too far, to be sure, and were reacting against a narrower meaning of “religion” than I would endorse. But I worry a bit that some current advocates of Confucianism-as-religion have gone too far in the other direction, even embracing the idea that Christianity is the paradigm of “religion” and then setting out to remake Confucianism in its image.

  10. I found this self-description from Rodney Taylor’s website at the University of Colorado to nicely summarize his approach:

    My work over the years has focused around the question of the religious nature of the Confucian tradition. Often identified as a tradition known more for its social ethics than a religious perspective, I have sought to bring the discussion of Confucianism into the discourse of history of religions. This pursuit has focused my work around identifying those aspects of the tradition that can best be described as religious, including the cultivation of the goal of sagehood (sheng) as well as the nature of learning (xue). Aspects of this approach have included the study of ideas of scripture, the nature of sagehood, the role of meditation and the exercise of autobiographical writing. I have also looked at comparative issues and what might be called applied questions, examining the nature of modernity, comparative contemplative practice and ideas of suffering.

    Note, in particular, his mention of the goal of sagehood.

  11. Thank you, Steve Angle, for your reply.

    I’m going to sleep right now, and so I will reply to your main points later.

    The idea that the Neo-Confucians were the least religious – I actually got this idea from Jiang Qing in one of the interviews he gave. I might have mistranslated – What he actually said was, the Neo-Confucians had the most disenchanted worldview – e.g. rationalising the concept of spiritual beings, downplaying certain magical ideas, etc.

    He believes that this was because they were reacting to Buddhism, which is in his view a fundamentally atheist ideology. (I personally disagree.)

    I would agree that the Neo-Confucians were religious – They had religious goals such as sagehood. But I would also agree that they downplayed certain aspects of Confucianism which were survivals of a more ancient, mysterious form of spirituality.

    Jiang Qing’s view, so far as I understand, is that one should see all different facets of Confucianism as mutually inclusive. Hence, he is not against Neo-Confucians per se. He just feels that their system is not the entire thing. (I agree for the most part.)

    Below is the relevant excerpt:



    As you can see, he feels that Buddhism is fundamentally atheism. I disagree – The idea that Buddhism is atheist is a modern concept. Historically, Buddhists were not atheists. Even today, the vast majority of Buddhists are not atheists – It’s just certain Buddhist intellectuals who claim to be atheists.

    He also has his own theory about secularisation and religiosity. I must say I don’t really understand his theory.

  12. Before this discussion, I have hardly thought about whether Confucius or Confucianism is/was religious or a religion. I think I don’t understand the question.

    If I had to guess I’d guess that the meaning of the English word ‘religion’ does in fact center around Christianity and its immediate kin and their historical rivals (“other gods”) as paradigmatic, and hence easily also Hinduism, and anything that takes personal “gods” seriously. Alternately(?), Durkheim’s account centers around ritual separateness, community, and moments of effervescence; Geertz’s account centers around thinking that in some sense the real is the ideal (having “models of” that are “models for”); Rudolf Otto focuses on numinous dread (cf. Kai’s comment today on the Soochow/Academica Sinica conference); Wikipedia suggests that Joachim Wach’s account centers around the idea of a founder who collects disciples and draws them away from their families (as even Confucius seems to have done); and Taylor’s view, also from Wach, centers around the personal importance of the “Absolute.” (I don’t understand that technical term. Taylor says Wach characterizes “the Absolute” as “that which is beyond all else” (PEW 48:1, p.83), but Taylor also insists the Absolute can be regarded as immanent rather than transcendent. It is unclear to me on what grounds Taylor would regard e.g. ancient Greek popular religion as religion.)

    To understand the question about Confucius&Confucianism better, I’d like to know more about what people take to be at stake in the question. Here are a few small thoughts about that, though mainly I’m asking.

    When teaching “World Religions” at the University of Central Arkansas, where most of the students believed that Noah put animals on a boat and biology professors professed uncertainty about evolution, I urged the students at least to take seriously the possibility that one could at the same time be a Christian and a Confucian or Buddhist, toward getting them to take Confucianism and Buddhism seriously.

    I gather much of the philosophical impact of Confucianism on the western enlightenment was based on the point that Confucianism did not depend on direct revelation. That point damaged the prestige of Christian revelation. Someone might look to defend the good name of Christianity and “religion” by arguing that Confucianism is a religion after all.

    Classifying something as a “religion” has legal implications in many countries, as religious practices are accorded special protection.

    Justice&Mercy, back in the discussion of whether a life of Confucian leadership (or a long period of personal searching about that) is compatible with an academic career writing and teaching about Confucianism, you said the discussion had been on the wrong track because the discussants hadn’t been thinking of Confucianism as a religion. I never understood how that point was supposed to show that things we had said were mistaken. I can see that if I had proposed that one can be a full Ru by developing and defending Confucian ideas academically and living like anybody else otherwise, that would be a mistake if Confucianism is a religion, at least on Taylor’s account of religion. But that proposal wasn’t on the table. Another possibility is that you were suggesting that if X is a religion, defending and exploring it intellectually is somehow unimportant; if X is a religion, X doesn’t have to be intellectually defensible. So academic work can’t count as a contribution to spreading X’s values. I asked whether that was what you meant; I’m asking again.

    Steve, what is religious about an emphasis on sagehood? The answer seems easy enough on the Christianity-as-paradigm view: sagehood is reminiscent of sainthood.

    To sum up: What’s at stake in whether Confucianism is “religious”?

    • Hi Bill! As I’m sure you already know, one way to steer away from essentialism about religion, or “the religious,” is to go with some kind of Wittgensteinian family resemblance account. William Alston is someone who follows that. Alston gives an account of religion (back in 1967) with a list of “religion-making characteristics,” in the old Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This list gets trotted out a lot by philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists. Usually the non-essentialist account, using this list, is that none of the listed characteristics is by itself a necessary element, although some cluster of them tends to be found in things that we regard as religious:

      1. Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
      2. A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
      3. Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
      4. A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
      5. Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
      6. Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
      7. A worldview or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an overall purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
      8. A more or less total organization of ones life based on the worldview.
      9. A social group bound together by the above.

      (Note that some of the characteristics trade in circularity — use of “sacred and profane” and “characteristically religious feelings” that seem already to include an understanding of “the religious.” The influence of Quine?)

      I don’t think we have to go all Absolute to have an account on which early Confucianism seems religious. Maybe 1, 2, 5, 7 – 9 will do for early Confucianism?

      (I haven’t really tried to answer your question about what’s at stake, but it seems important to have some agreement about “the religious” aspects of Confucianism prior to trying to answer that.)

    • Maybe that’s the right sort of answer, though I do wonder how people could get excited about that kind of concept.

      I’m curious about your choice of numbers for early Confucianism: 1 but not 4? 2 but not 3? Not 6? Not 8? But that’s too many questions.

    • Well, to begin, I must say I can’t represent anyone. I can only relate the views of some people I know.

      First, to defend Confucianism intellectually – I believe that this is important. However, if you grew up in Chinese culture, you would know that modern Chinese culture has a strong anti-traditionalist component, which developed from May Fourth. The fact is, many scholars of Confucianism do not believe in Confucianism, whether as a religion or as a system of ethics. Instead, they study Confucianism in order to bash it. This is where the distinction between “believing in Confucianism” and “being a scholar of Confucianism” comes it. This actually does not revolve around “Confucianism as a religion.”

      Second, if one does believe in Confucianism, whether as a religion or as a system of ethics, then it would follow that one must live in a certain way – e.g. ethically, according to Confucian principles, being filial, etc.

      So far, this does not touch upon the idea of Confucianism as a religion.

      The idea of Confucianism as a religion has several things at stake – all of which again come back to May Fourth.

      First, after May Fourth, mainstream Chinese thinking has been that traditional culture is part good and part bad. The “bad” part includes anything to do with religion – e.g. ancestor veneration, religious Daoism, etc. The “good” part is anything which conforms with the modern worldview. This is why Mou Zongsan and people talked about Confucianism as a philosophy rather than a religion – This was in part a survival tactic, so to make Confucianism appear to fit in with modernity.

      However, the question then arises – How successful in fact was this? The complaint from Jiang Qing and people is that this is merely “学院” styled Confucianism. You can’t really go beyond the academia with this approach. Furthermore, Confucianism was never solely about the academia. The idea here is that all China was originally Confucian – Everyone, including people who are illiterate, believed in Confucian ideals and revered the Sages. (You find this theme in both the reformist and conservative camps in late Qing.) However, today, Confucianism is confined to the academia, which is why China has lost her national soul. (I’m not saying I agree or disagree with this. I’m just relating some people’s viewpoints.)

      Second, you must understand that even the “Confucianism as religion” camp has many factions. Not so much factions as perhaps different strands with different ideas on how to revive Confucianism.

      It is perhaps a surprise to some people, but Confucianism as religion began historically as a reaction to Christianity. You find this, again, in the reformist and conservative camps in late Qing. The reformist idea was that Christianity was a mass religion. Confucianism was about the collapse because scholars have not been diligent enough in preaching it to the people. (The conservative camp felt that all China was already Confucian, and that Confucianism will win out eventually because of innate superiority…) Kang Youwei, for instance, believed that we must establish Confucian ministries in every village in China, and then send Confucian preachers overseas to spread the faith. (In fact, Kang Youwei’s efforts resulted in one of the most successful branch of Confucianism today – Confucianism amongst Indonesian Chinese people.)

      (When you come down to it, a basic truth remains – Christianity is successful because it is organised. Confucianism collapsed after the Qing dynasty because all institutional supports were gone.)

      Beginning from the mainland economic reforms, some people have observed that religion has not disappeared as some modernists or secularists predicted. Religion appeared to be a natural part of the human condition. Some of these people believed that the Chinese nation should revive its own national religion. Some of these people also felt that traditional Chinese religion is the true Chinese religion and should be classed as a manifestation of Confucianism.

      This is why you find support for Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Overseas folk religions amongst Confucians in the mainland. It is felt that these are in fact different versions of Confucianism. (And in fact many of these folk religions do have strongly Confucian elements, such as belief in the daotong of the Sages.)

      You may also observe that the government cracked down on a certain folk religion awhile ago. The feeling amongst some Confucians is that this certain folk religion was in fact a very typical Chinese religion. The only reason it was suppressed was because it lacked intellectual backing. Now, the government can hardly suppress the Five Classics and the Four Books. Therefore, any folk religion we start in the future should make abundant references to the Classics.

      I can go on forever with this…If you ask “What is at stakes for Confucianism as a religion”, it is actually a very complicated issue. It ties in to questions such as “What is the proper national religion for Chinese people?”, “How should we protect traditional forms of spirituality such as ancestor veneration and going to temples?”, “How should we defend ourself from the government?”, “Why are some traditions, such as Christianity and Islam, successful?”, “Why did Confucianism collapse after the Qing Dynasty?”, etc.

      If you have questions, feel free to ask. I can only answer to the best of my abilities, however. Also, I do not represent anyone.

    • Oh yeah, another thing which is important to point out…

      In Jiang Qing’s view (I keep quoting Jiang Qing, because he is the most radical of mainland Confucians. I know some of his disciples, but I am not affiliated with him personally)…In his view, there are three components to Confucianism – ruxue, rujia, rujiao. All three are different facets of the same thing. However, at different times, it may be easier to revive one facet rather than another. So far, ruxue has be revived fairly well. However, it is not the “full manifestation” of Confucianism. The full manifestation of Confucianism includes things like venerating Heaven and Earth, Sages and Worthies, and Ancestors. Furthermore, virtually all traditional Chinese festivals include Confucian messages. Therefore, one should not confine Confucianism to ruxue. Instead, one should see ruxue as one component of a larger rujiao.

      I believe this is roughly his view. If I misinterpreted him, then I hope someone will correct me.

    • Another thing to keep in mind, is that in the mainland, both the “Confucianism is not a religion” and the “Confucianism is a religion” camps are far more intolerant of each other than in the West.

      In the West, it is possible to have a discussion about “whether Confucianism is a religion” with give and take.

      In the mainland, people who belong to the “Confucianism is a religion” camp generally view themselves as a persecuted minority. On the other hand, people who belong to the “Confucianism is not a religion” camp are dogmatically intolerant of the “Confucianism is a religion” camp.

      It is ironic, therefore, that the “Confucianism is not a religion” camp is also deep religious in its own way. For instance, they literally believe in Fuxi, Huangdi, Yao, Shun, Yu, and people. They also have deep faith in their lineage, e.g. Mou Zongsan, Xiong Shili, and people. However, they level accusations at the “Confucianism is a religion” camp, which are patently untrue, e.g. the view that people promote Confucianism as a religion for money…(No, there is no money. If there is money, I have never seen it…)

      It seems to me that the “Confucianism is not a religion” camp is more or less under sway of the May Fourth mentality, where anything in the Classics which does not fit with May Fourth is disregarded. The “Confucianism is a religion” camp actually does have some western influence, e.g. Jiang Qing’s original profession was western learning. (I believe Marxism at first, western learning second, and Confucianism third chronologically.)

      Basically, most Chinese traditionalists believe that the Chinese tradition has been or is under siege. They also believe that the Chinese tradition has been compromised by May Fourth. Amongst Chinese traditionalists, Confucians view themselves as the true defenders of the Chinese tradition – They believe that if Confucianism is revived, then all Chinese traditions will be revived.

      Both camps, e.g. religionist and non-religionist, view themselves as defenders of the true Chinese way. However, their understanding of the true Chinese way is different, e.g. religionists want a more full-fledged revival, including ancestor veneration, visiting temples, venerating Heaven, etc. Non-religionists have a more May Fourth understanding of the Chinese way, in which some elements are discarded.

    • This is interesting to me, since it’s very surprising to find Mou Zongsan counted as part of the “Confucianism is not a religion” camp. That is certainly not the way he is understood in Taiwan. It’s true that the doesn’t have much to say about rituals (at least as far as I know), but many people here note the importance of a kind of faith in something transcendent in his thought. This actually seems to be why some people in Taiwan, particularly those with a background in Western philosophy, have serious problems with Mou’s philosophy. And some later New Confucians, Liu Shuxian in particular, emphasize the religious aspects of Confucianism. It’s certainly strange to see New Confucians categorized along with May Fourthers, since all of them as far as I know rejected the very strong anti-traditionalism of May Fourth.

      It looks like the mainland has a very different understanding of Mou.

    • Well, first, I can’t represent anyone’s view. Second, I’m only peripherally affiliated with certain mainland Confucians, and so my info might be off.

      However, people of the New Confucian persuasion typically read the religious aspects of Shujing and Shijing as remnants of an earlier religious culture, which was humanised by Confucius. Therefore, they don’t take references to Shangdi as indicating one should believe in God.

      The people I’m affiliated with want to restore things like the ritual veneration of Heaven, Earth, and Ancestors. So there is a difference of view as to what Confucianism should be.

    • Dear Justice&Mercy,

      Thank you so much – I never thought to gain so much from asking a question! You’ve given me a great deal to think about.

      Best regards,

  13. The word on there that makes me most nervous is actually “supernatural.” What if anything makes tian (for example) supernatural? Being really powerful doesn’t do it, and neither does being the object of characteristically religious attitudes. What conception(s) of nature entail(s) that tian is above or outside of nature?

    As for the stakes, my impression is that people now are most interested in two questions: what if any sorts of transcendence get posited (related to Alston’s #1), and the relation of morals to divine beings (Alston’s #4). Maybe also a sort of corollary to the second question, about the relation of philosophy (in whatever sense) to religion (in whatever sense). E.g., belief in souls that outlast the body was very common (all but universal?) in early China, and was caught up in practices and attitudes that we’d probably agree to count as religious. But these souls didn’t get caught up in the stuff we’d call philosophy in any of the familiar ways (relating to personal identity or responsibility or knowledge, for example), and that’s interesting and conceivably important.

    • “Supernatural” is indeed difficult to define. What one person sees as super-natural another will see as natural. That Heaven rewards the good and punishes the wicked can be both natural and supernatural, even in ancient China perhaps.

  14. Natural and supernatural are both hard to define. How about “disembodied spirit”, then? Pre-Qin texts are littered with disembodied spirits. Shangdi, di, tian are three names for one of those disembodied spirits–the highest one. Unlike the other disembodied spirits, tian is the source of moral order and exercises moral providence–by punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. Of course, there are some texts in which tian is probably not a disembodied spirit and is more like a natural/moral force (but even those, including the last sections of the Laozi and portions of the Zhuangzi, are ambiguous to theistic). Confucius claims to be transmitting a tradition in which, at least in the demonstrably pre-Confucius texts (and in many of the post-Confucius texs), tian is synonymous with Shangdi and Di (so, for example, the mandate of shangdi is, in the same breath, the mandate of heaven), and in which Shangdi and di and tian are ascribed personal characteristics–will, morality, knowledge, power, agency, etc.. Why don’t we take him seriously and understand his 14-17 non-metaphorical uses of tian as an anthropomorphic, disembodied spirit? And then take Mencius, who is channeling Confucius, in the same manner?

    There is no case to be made, based on pre-Qin texts, that tian has become more naturalistic before, during, or after the time of Confucius. Tian may be more naturalistic in some texts but not in most others. But I think the most widespread view of tian, in this period, is disembodied spirit, source of morality, punisher and rewarder. I’ve got a paper, with Justin Winslett, forthcoming in the JAAR on just this topic. We did a database search on 30 pre-Qin texts and found only two without tian as a disembodied spirit who punishes and rewards. There are probably countless more texts where tian is an anthropomorphic disembodied spirit, but we were looking only at the intersection of tian, di, shangdi and punishment/reward. I’ve written a couple of other things on this topic, too.

    I think it’s curious that there is a fear of “Christianizing” ancient China but no equal fear of “atheizing” ancient China. It’s as though atheists can see the texts without bias.

    btw: I once firmly believed, based on competent authorities, that Confucius and Mencius were non-theists. I came to disbelieve this based not on my religious views but based on reading the texts in the tradition they claimed to be transmitting. I’ve found further confirmation of their theistic views through the database search which shows how widespread such views were in pre-Qin texts. I’ve transferred my view of competent authorities from philosophers who cannot be named to historians Michael Puett, Edward Slingerland, Edward Shaughnessy, David Keightley.

  15. Hi Kelly,

    I’m not sure why the supernatural has to be disembodied. Thor could drink from a horn and hold a hammer, and the Hindu gods have the occasional set of blue arms; and I suppose those folks are supernatural. When we associate all bodies with a unified abstract concept of “matter” that we also associate closely with the very idea of nature, then I can see the connection. But that’s us. And even we speak sometimes of bodies made of ectoplasm.

    Western physics believes in time and energy and laws, and maybe those are non-embodied things. But by ‘spirit’ I gather you mean something like “person,” so that time and energy and laws don’t count.

    Western political discourse tends to believe in “the law” as something that can change and grow wiser and rule. I’m not sure whether it’s embodied. Maybe this is an interesting point in connection with Xunzi’s idea that when no person is ruler, there is disorder (see Dan’s June 9 post) . In the West we’re accustomed to thinking of a kind of social organization in terms of the metaphor of the law (or reason or even discussion) as ruler. I think some people trace that idea back to Greek and/or Levantine democracy and to the idea that God relates to us not in the form of an idol but in the form of a book of directly revealed laws that we revere as our neighbors revere idols and images. Confucianism had its scriptures too, though. Maybe the subtle differences are important for political culture somehow?

  16. The supernatural doesn’t have to be disembodied. It just is. And yes, like a person, not like a force.These attributes ascribed in or inferred from the text. Like deceased ancestorsand ghosts are disembodied spirits.

    While Confucius and Mencius don’t say that tian is disembodied, I take it that we have to understand their use of that term within a context. The context seems one of disembodied spirit and person. Confucius and Mencius do ascribe personal terms to tian.

    Moreover, the reason I looked more closely at the pre-Qin texts was because of recent work in the cognitive science of religion. I think we’re disposed to “see” agents not forces. And we’re disposed to ascribe mind and purpose to such agents.
    I don’t think the early Chinese were exceptions to this.

  17. Interesting new issues, Kelly! I’m not sure embodiment is really an issue, Kelly and Bill. Aside from the fact that there isn’t any systematic mind-body dualism, the “material” of the body is just the same in kind as that of spirits, isn’t it? It’s all just heavier or more ethereal “stuff” — qi, as it is later called.

    The issue about the “supernatural,” however, really is difficult I think. But mostly I think that because the natural-nonnatural distinction is itself heavily culture laden. What constitutes nature versus “supernature” in early China? Disembodiment isn’t going to cut it since there’s plenty of disembodied stuff–the air, water, pretty much anything that doesn’t come in discrete packaging–that isn’t going to fit the (Western) category. Maybe it would be worth replacing “supernatural” in Alston’s account with something else. Maybe “belief in purposeful agents that are much more powerful than humans or other animals”?

    • Manyul, I agree about disembodiment—the sky is also disembodied, I guess, or anyway unembodied. And that’s more or less the worry I have about “supernatural,” especially since the most relevant nature concept was tiandi 天地 (which by the time of Xunzi at least could be called simply tian). As for what to replace it with, my first thought was “belief in non-human agents that don’t actually exist.” But more seriously, I’m not sure you can specify the required sort of being without just saying that it’s the object of characteristically religious attitudes, whatever those are (it’s certainly not just belief).

      The contrast between Christianising and atheising seems to me a red herring. There are lots of ways of being religious that aren’t theist, and that don’t place any great weight on belief. And (I’d argue) there are also ways of believing in gods that are in important ways atheist (I’d say that’s true of early Buddhism, for example). Really I’d rather just figure out the beliefs, attitudes, and practices, and leave it up to the lexicographers to decide whether this or that is in whatever sense religious.

      What strikes me as most important is how small a role all the candidate bits of early Chinese religiosity play in the philosophy of the period. You do get tian as a kind of cosmic enforcer, but when philosophers (starting with the Mohists) started articulating and justifying their moral views tian never took on a divine-command role. And you get all sorts of soulish beliefs, but in philosophy they don’t take on significance in any of the ways that are familiar in the western tradition (immortality, personal identity, moral responsibility, epistemology, mind/body dualism…). This doesn’t make the ancient masters atheists, exactly, but they also weren’t god botherers.

  18. Many, many thanks for all the wonderful comments that my humble pieces seem to have created. Perhaps I should position myself a bit for colleagues in the field who are not as old as I am! I am in phased retirement and finally writing the kind of pieces I have hinted at for years. I am very much a product of the early method and theory of the academic study of religion, thus J. Wach and Fred Streng as influences. I am, as I think you all know, a product of Columbia and specifically W.T. deBary. He asked me many years ago as a student in the Religion Department, to look at Neo-Confucianism for its potential capacity to hold religious meaning – thus was born my intense interest and now what seems like a lifetime of work. With that work I have been particularly influenced by the late Okada Takehiko, translating his work Zazen to seiza as well as interviewing him for my book Confucian Way of Contemplation. I served probably far too many years in upper administration on the Boulder campus, what my kids refer to as dad’s applied Confucian period! At this point I spend much time in our totally off-grid mountain retreat at 9,000 feet in central Colorado looking at multiple 14,000 foot peaks at the end ofd a long four-wheel drive road. (I am blessed in such a setting) So I have been accused across the years of a certain practical and applied bent – and I confess it is true – I want to see the humanities address real issues not ivory tower isolationism. Yes I happen to think that the humanities have a great deal to offer a world crying for solutions and one of the areas in greatest need of explication and application is the needs of humanity for a religious dimension – the post-modern tendency to rid the world of essentialisms I happen to think is a mistake – to say there is no such thing as Christianity, but only so many Christianities, only , in my mind, relieves the researcher of a fundamental opportunity (or is it a responsibility?) to be able to speak to the larger population outside of academia and largely permits she/he to have to take no position on anything within academia as well. So, yes, I guess I am a Confucian at heart (and mind) because I think we do have such responsibilities in a rather pathetic world, responsibilities to others and to ourselves – learning for self as Confucius put it. HuffPost came to me because of the very practical and applied sense of my latest book on the Analects – and it is obvious it has generated some interest! Thanks to all of you!!!


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