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Religion Library: Confucianism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Those who have rejected the categorization of Confucianism as "religious" include 16th-century Christian missionaries (who sought thereby to minimize conflicts between Chinese culture and Christian faith), 20th-century Chinese Communist bureaucrats (who did not wish to enfranchise Confucians politically, which official recognition of their tradition as a "religion" regulated by the government and represented at People's Political Consultative Congresses would have entailed), and many contemporary East Asians (for whom "religion" often connotes dogmatic narrow-mindedness, superstition, the West, or anti-modern sentiments). Confucianism's status as a "religion" remains a contested one, although most scholars of religion are willing to see it as such.

Contemporary rite in honor of Confucius, Qufu, China: Public DomainMost scholars now agree that Confucianism is best understood as a loose network of traditions that share a common reverence for an idealized view of Chinese antiquity, a common commitment to social hierarchy (and its associated rituals, such as ancestor worship) as crucial for human development, and a common veneration of texts associated with Kongzi and his successors. Despite these commonalities, there are many profound conflicts across Confucian traditions, including disagreements about human nature, the role of book learning, and the proper relationship of Confucianism to other religious traditions. Of course, it has been said that a tradition is constituted by arguments about common concerns, and this certainly is true of Confucianism.

Study Questions:
     1.     Why is "Confucianism" a controversial term?
     2.     Why do some see Confucianism as a religion?
     3.     Why do some claim that Confucianism is not a religion?



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