Confucianism is now presented in China as non-religious and an early form of atheism. To address the issue, we should first ask what “religion” in this discussion means.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 5.
Bitter Winter has reported about the new 2022 nation-wide campaign to promote atheism in China, which follows indications by President Xi Jinping himself at the National Conference on Work Related to Religious Affairs of December 2021. A key tool in this campaign is a book by Professor Li Shen, called “The Principles of Scientific Atheism.” One interesting feature of Li’s book is that it presents atheism as a Chinese invention. While he admits that for a “scientific” atheism the world had to wait for Marxism, he claims that Chinese Confucians had already taught an “advanced form of atheism” some 2,300 years before Karl Marx (1818–1883). Li is at the same time the vice-chairperson of the Chinese Atheism Society and an academic committee member of the International Confucian Federation. Obviously, he regards atheism and Confucianism as compatible, if not exactly one and the same.
These claims have led several readers of Bitter Winter to write and inquire about the relationship between Confucianism, atheism, and religion. This is an important topic since it is crucial to Xi Jinping’s claim that the “excellent Chinese culture” is intrinsically non-religious. I was planning to write about it since, on September 2, 2021, Father Joseph Shih (1926–2021) passed away at age 95. Shin, a Jesuit who taught at Rome’s Gregorian University for 35 years, was my first mentor on matter Chinese when I studied there in the 1970s. He taught inter alia a course on Confucianism, where all the essential questions were asked and addressed, although more recent scholarship has provided new material.
As Australian scholar Tony Swain has written in his useful book “Confucianism in China: An Introduction” (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), answering the question whether Confucianism is a religion is “a devilishly tricky business” (p. 11). Canadian scholar of comparative religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916–2000) called it “a question that the West has never been able to answer, and China never able to ask” (“The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind,” New York: Macmillan, 1963, p. 86). Smith wrote these words in 1963. Today, Xi Jinping’s campaigners for atheism believe they have grasped both the question and the answer—but even in Xi’s China, others are allowed to disagree.
The question is so tricky because both “religion” and “Confucianism” are difficult to define. In 1997, the European Union sponsored an interdisciplinary study of the notion of religion in its member states. I was one of the scholars participating in the project, whose results were published in 1999 in a volume edited by Dutch scholars Jan G. Platvoet and Arie L. Molendijk, The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests (Leiden: Brill). While the book received positive reviews, our conclusions were that both scholars and courts of law in the different European Union countries, as well as outside them, used a variety of different definitions of religion.
On the other hand, our study did not leave us, and our European Union sponsors, only with the “I know it when I see it” option, the one Justice Potter Stewart (1915–1985) famously adopted in his approach to pornography. In fact, we came to some shared conclusions or, to be more precise, recognized that there were some general conclusions widely shared within the international community of scholars of religion, notwithstanding their differences.
American historian Jonathan Z. Smith (1938–2017; in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) reminded us that before the 18th century very few people cared about defining religion. According to Saudi anthropologist Talal Asad, this was because before the Enlightenment there was no notion of religion’s “Siamese twin,” secularism (“Reading a Modern Classic: W.C. Smith’s ‘The Meaning and End of Religion,’” in Religion and Media, edited by Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002, 131–48 ). To understand and define a term, humans normally refer to its opposite. To know what “hot” means, we need to have a notion of “cold.” Similarly, J.Z. Smith and Asad argue, Europeans started asking what “religion” was when they were confronted with religion’s antagonist, secularism, which hardly existed before the 18th century.
Those who participated in the European Union 1997 project, and most other scholars who debated the matter, agree that a religion should include three elements: 1) an organized community; 2) practices unique to that community; 3) a notion of a “ultimate reality” (as German-American philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich [1886–1965] called it), or something similar, with which the community engages through is practices. This “ultimate reality” should not be conceived as purely material or as one that can be grasped by purely scientific methods.
The first and the second elements are necessary but not sufficient. Chess players are an organized enough community whose practices may appear arcane to those who do not play chess. However, these practices do not put them in relation with an “ultimate reality.”
The third element is also necessary but not sufficient. History is full of philosophers who wrote books about their own concept of “ultimate reality” or even about God but did not propose any practice to get in touch with these supreme realities, nor did they bother to create a community.
Of course, it is the third element that is most difficult to define. But not impossible. Most Western scholars today would use “ultimate reality,” or similar concepts, rather than “God” or “the gods.” This is a by-product of a long debate about Buddhism, particularly in its earliest Theravada version. Few seriously doubt that Buddhism is a religion, but one can argue with good reasons that in (most schools of) Theravada Buddhism there is no God or gods.
If we regard a purely material-materialistic ultimate reality a community passionately engages with as enough to have a religion, we can easily conclude that Marxist Communism is a religion too. This was seriously debated in the 20th century. However, most scholars concluded that Marxism is not a religion, because a “ultimate reality” that is purely material does not make those who engage with it part of a religion. In a religion, the “ultimate reality” may be immanent rather than transcendent with respect to the visible world, yet it should have features that are not merely material nor perceivable with the tools commonly used by science.
The West itself had no clear notion of religion until the Enlightenment, but in China a corresponding word for “religion” never existed until the late 19th century, when he was created in conversation with Christian missionaries. The word thus coined, “zongjiao” (宗教), or “the teachings of a sect,” never persuaded the majority of the Chinese. The problem thus created is not purely theoretical. It is eminently political since it allows the CCP to claim that the peculiarity of Chinese culture was that, unlike its Western or Indian counterparts, it was always non-religious. This is an intellectual fraud, perpetrated by creating a confusion between the absence of a word for “religion” and an alleged absence of religion.
In surveys, 94% of the Chinese indicate that they do not follow a “zongjiao,” by which they mean that they are not members of an organized religious institution, but this does not mean that they are all atheists. When asked in other surveys, a substantial part of the Chinese answers that they believe in astrology, divination, and other practices a scholar would call “religious,” and many who declare themselves not followers of any “zongjiao” nonetheless visit temples.
As Canadian scholar David Palmer has noted, China was always “religious,” yet several intellectual movements proudly claimed it was not. “What is ‘exceptional,’” Palmer concludes, “is not Chinese religion, but the intellectual discourses that have succeeded in occulting the fact that, like in all human societies, Chinese culture has always included the universal building blocks of religion” (“Is Chinese (Lack of) Religion Exceptional?” in Ryan G. Hornbeck, Justin L. Barrett, and Madeleine Kang, eds., Religious Cognition in China: “Homo Religiosus” and the Dragon, Cham, Switzerland: Springer, p. 17–34).
In addressing the question whether Confucianism is a religion, we should first overcome misunderstandings about an allegedly non-religious Chinese culture and the world “zongjiao.” Our troubles would just start, however. We should also ask whether “Confucianism” exists.