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Confucianism Term Paper


Philosophers, historians, and religious scholars remain divided on the question of whether Confucianism qualifies as a religion or not. Among those who contest the view that Confucianism is a religion are some who insist that it is nothing more than an ethical and social philosophy that guides its adherents to live in according with certain principles. In their view, Confucianism is not a religion because it lacks the essential characteristics of a religion such as an elaborate belief system, ritual practices, and the element of spirituality. However, a growing number of scholars share the view that Confucianism is a religion like any other except that its approach is exceptional. Confucians live by a creed that enjoins them to exercise utmost faith in the belief system. Overall, Confucianism is a rationalistic religion with a unique belief system that guides its practices basing on a set of ethical practices and philosophies derives from the Chinese cultural worldview.

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What is Confucianism?
The exploration of the religious qualities in Confucianism should begin with the understanding of the nature and purpose of religion. On the surface, the meaning of religion is often construed as the belief and worship of some superhuman power that controls life and the fate of the believer. This definition aptly captures one dimension of religion but does not sufficiently cover the essence of religion in its entire entirety. In fact, the definition appears to limit the definition of religion to the worship of God or gods. Its limitation becomes apparent when used to study Confucianism in the context of religion. An alternative definition of religion regards it as a special interest that adherents follow with exceptional devotion (Rosker 2). This definition is accommodating because it limits its focus on the fundamental factors that underlie the meaning of religion. Confucianism is widely accepted as a tradition that combines religion and philosophy (Oxtoby, Roy, and Amir 16). The religious dimension of Confucianism is best understood in light of this definition.

The History of Confucianism in China
Confucianism developed from the teachings and insights of the renowned Chinese philosopher Confucius who flourished between 551 and 479 BCE (Rosker 3). His philosophies had their origin in the theology and social values that were practiced during the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The two dynasties lasted between c. 1600-1046 BCE and c. 1046-256 BCE respectively. During the Han dynasty, which lasted between 206 BCE and 220 CE, Confucianism supplanted Taoism and became the official ideology although the emperors practiced it along Legalism. China experienced a revival of Confucianism during the late stages of the Tang dynasty, which lasted between 618 and 907 BCE. Many historians and philosophers agree that the Confucian revival was largely a response to the influence of Taoism and Buddhism. In 1905, China abolished the examination system effectively ending the official Confucianism (Rosker 6). Despite its popularity in China, other thinkers who considered it as having a disabling effect on China’s growth resisted Confucianism.

Opposition against Confucianism triggered a determined search for alternative philosophies that could be relied upon to guide the society in all aspects of life. The Three People’s Principles was one of the alternatives that were considered as suitable replacement to Confucianism. The principles are attributable to Sun Yat-sen. His vision was to guide China along the path of freedom, prosperity, and power. Basing on Yat-sen’s writings, the three principles are inferred as democracy, vibrant nationalism, and the promotion of the people’s livelihoods (Rosker 4). These principles culminated into the formation of the Republic of China. The philosophy of Maoism was also favored as a fitting replacement to Confucianism. Maoism advocated a social revolution with the aim of reducing the inequalities in the Chinese society. In particular, the philosophy aimed at dispossessing the rich landowners and redistributing land to the peasants in the spirit of economic reform. Despite the criticism and opposition, Confucianism remains one of the guiding philosophies and religions in China and beyond.

Beliefs and Practices
Confucianism emphasized on the importance of pursuing family values. According to the teachings, the family unit was important for achieving social harmony. Generally, the adherents are less interested in the otherworldly forms of spirituality. At the core, Confucianism is essentially humanistic. Herbert Fingarette argued that Confucianism is a unique type of philosophy that considers the secular as sacred (Rosker 6). This is one of the distinguishing elements of Confucianism. In this religion, the sacred is to be located in the ordinary activities that people undertake in life. Human relationships are also considered as a manifestation of the sacred. This thinking is established on the logic that human relationships express the nature humanity’s morality. Confucianism considers humanity as having a form of anchorage in heaven, which is transcendent in nature.

Development of Heaven, Ancestors, and Rituals
Confucianism perceives of Heaven as having a worldly nature. According to this religion, humans receive guidance and protection from the spirits and gods that live close to them in their worldly heaven (Xu 80). Confucianism requires humans to exercise utmost respect for the spirits and the gods. The teaching of Confucianism considers ancestors as having some limited influence on the living because of their presence in the form of spirits. Their perspective is that the spiritual world exists and has some close resemblance to the world of the living. The harmony between the spiritual realm and the world is achieved through special rituals. The Confucian sages of rites guide the adherents to worship their gods and submit to the spirits. The worshipping happens in the ancestral Chinese temples during special occasions. The Confucian ideals place the followers under the moral disposition to pursue goodness in the society.

Yin and Yang in Relation to Confucianism
Ying and Yang is a concept in Chinese philosophy, which represents the idea of dualism. Embedded in this concept is the view that opposite forces may have a complementary connection. According to the concept, the relationship between the two has an element of interdependence, which acts in a manner that establishes stability. The negative-positive forces represented by Yin and Yang are regarded as crucial to the establishment of harmony and order in the universe (Xu 81). The forces manifest as natural dualities as exemplified by light and dark. In the Confucian worldview, the principle of Yin and Yang is regarded as important for explaining the nature of the universe. The principle holds that anything that exists in the universe is either Yin or Yang according to the manner in which it relates to some other corresponding thing. Confucianism considers the Yang or the sun principle as superior to Yin or the dark principle. This position is consistent with its religious perception that perceives light in terms of virtue and darkness in terms of vice.

Women and Confucianism
Confucianism has incurred criticism from a section of philosophers who share the view that Confucianism fosters the patriarchal idea of male privilege. In their view, Confucianism disallows women to undertake any formal roles in the society. Although the religion advocates for respect to the elders, it considers men as worthy of higher levels of respect compared to women. Therefore, wives, mothers, and daughters in Confucianism can only be values in terms of their gendered roles, which limit their opportunities for personal improvement. Mothers were expected to guide their daughters on the proper ways to behave as wives. Some versions of Confucian thought suggest that women are inferior to men. According to such versions, they should be kept separate.

Confucianism holds five relationships as special to the establishment harmony in the society. The five relationships are parent and child, ruler and minister, husband and wife, elder and younger siblings, and friend and friend. According to Confucianism, the relationship between parent and child is governed by affection and entails filial piety. The relationship between the ruler and minister fosters righteousness and is established on loyalty and filial piety.

The relationship between husband and wife depends on the element of differentiation and aims at establishing a sense of harmony. The relationship between the elder and younger siblings is crucial for achieving affection and is built on precedence. Finally, the relationship between friends is established on trust and honesty and replicates the trust and honest if properly managed.

Neo-Confucianism is an outgrowth of Confucianism that attempts to create a distinctively rationalistic and secular brand of Confucianism. One of the defining characteristics of Neo-Confucianism is that it rejects superstitions and mysticism that are present in Buddhism and Taoism. The brand of Confucianism deploys metaphysics towards the development of a rationalistic ethical approach to philosophy. This distinguishes it from the traditional form of Confucianism, which used metaphysics for religious enlightenment and spiritual development.

The Confucian ideal and religion continue to fend off criticism from Buddhists, Taoists, and Leftists because of some of their beliefs and practices, which the other groups consider as inappropriate. Confucianism has often been described as a sexist and patriarchal religion that condemns many women to hopelessness. According to some critics, the religion promotes the cult of chastity, which causes many widows to live in poverty because it disallows remarriage. The Buddhists and the Taoists criticize Confucianism because of its secular approach to religious practice because it does not emphasize the idea of a supernatural being in charge of the universe and the fate of humanity (Xu 84). However, many thinkers insist that Confucianism is one of the major religious traditions in the world (Yao 22).

Taken together, the various perspectives of Confucianism seem to settle on the view that Confucianism is a religion but one with a peculiar approach to religious practice. The distinguishing aspect about this religion is that it lays emphasis on the secular aspects of life and appears to give little attention on metaphysical and spiritual issues. In many ways, the religion is highly practical to an extent that it appears to challenge the conventional understanding of religion. In order to appreciate the religious dimension of Confucianism, it is necessary for the students of philosophy and religion to reconstruct the meaning and purpose of religion. This requires shifting the center from the conventional perceptions on religion to a new way that accommodates the multiple possibilities and alternatives of religious practice. Altogether, Confucianism is a religion in as much as any other except that its style is uncommon.

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Works Cited
Oxtoby, Willard G., Roy C. Amore, and Amir Husain, eds. World Religions: Eastern Traditions. Fourth edition. Don Mills, On: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Rosker, Jana. Is Confucianism a religion? Modern Confucian theories on the ethical nature of classical discourses. Asian Philosophy, 27 (18), pp. 1-13.
Xu, Keqian. Confucianism: The question of its religiousness and its role in constructing Chinese secular ideology. Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies. 17 (50), pp. 79-95.
Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008.


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