Is Confucianism a Religion?

This, of course, is a highly contested question. Google searches on this question bring up a variety of answers. But here, I propose to offer the definitive answer – not really. What I really want to do is ask the questions that are behind the question. Why is this even a question to begin with, and how are the ways this can be answered? In particular, should Christians (Chinese or otherwise) be concerned about this question at all?
ConfuciusFirst, the question itself, if asked in English, is framed around an ‘-ism’ – that is, a comprehensive system of thinking. It assumes that Confucianism is a cohesive whole. But this is not so. If we follow the notion of the three epochs of Confucianism as proposed by scholars such as Tu Weiming 杜维明 and Mou Zongsan 牟宗三, there is ‘classical’ Confucianism (traced back to early thinkers such as Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi), Neo-Confucianism (during the Song and Ming dynasties), and New Confucianism (dating to the 20th century). Classical Confucianism has very few religious sensibilities and is described by many as a humanistic tradition – very much concerned with the here and now.1 Neo-Confucianism grew out of an engagement with Buddhism and Daoism and developed a metaphysical undercurrent which, in fact, moves it much more into the realm of what modern Western thinkers would describe as religiosity. The third current, New Confucianism, is one that arises in a 20th century context of China’s rapid modernisation (what is known as the May Fourth movement) and, on the one hand, engages with certain Western thinkers such as Kant and Hegel and, on the other hand, engages with Buddhism and Daoism to further develop metaphysical understandings from within Confucianism.2 In some ways, the question needs to be better framed: In what era of Confucianism are we speaking of?

Secondly, if this is asked in Chinese, the term used to render ‘Confucianism’ needs to be seriously considered. Is it rujia 儒家, meaning roughly ‘the Confucian school’ (or technically, the ‘school of scholars’)? This would perhaps be best descriptive of the earliest forms of Confucianism. Or is it ruxue 儒学, meaning roughly ‘the Confucian study’ – giving the possibility for a more distant, academic understanding of the subject. Or is it rujiao 儒教, meaning roughly ‘the Confucian religion’. This last term is perhaps often tied to the cult of Confucius – a practice that some have argued originated in a veneration of Confucius in the Kong family, but later, as he became revered for his civil teachings, resulted in veneration practices of local magistrates. In the last few decades, a number of individuals have been trying to resurrect this understanding of Confucianism and assert it as a ‘sixth’ religion in China, promoting it as a teaching to be embraced once again as part of China’s state orthodoxy. So we need to consider both the era and the branch of Confucianism we are speaking of.

Thirdly, I think it is important to consider historically why this question has arisen. This has been hotly debated in the 20th and 21st centuries mainly because Western modernity has developed a dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’ which was beginning to influence the discourse in China. Today, most philosophers consider themselves atheists; but historically, this is not so. Consider how the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle had complex understandings of cosmology and metaphysics. We get this sense even more in the New Testament, where in Colossians 2:8, the Apostle Paul speaks about not being captive by ‘philosophies’ (φιλοσοφία) which are expressed in forms of gnosticism and mystery religions. But in the Chinese context, words for ‘religion’ (zongjiao 宗教) and ‘philosophy’ (zhexue 哲学) were only invented in the late-1800s and early 20th century – precisely the time when China and other parts of East Asia were trying to modernise themselves in order to engage with the West. Afterall, to follow a ‘religion’ is part of the feudal teaching with no scientific background; to follow a ‘philosophy’, such as communism, is noble and acceptable.

Finally, what does this have to do with Christianity? With the ascent of China, we see a growing interest amongst Christians to focus on Confucianism as a philosophy, and one that can be useful to formulate a Christian theology.3 If Christians in the past have been able to engage Plato and Aristotle as handmaidens of theology, then surely Christians today can do the same with other philosophies such as Confucianism. But perhaps more important is the conversation that Chinese Christians have in terms of how one reckons with a cultural background that is largely shaped by Confucianism. In the context of Africa, Andrew Walls put it this way:

Africans ask the same question as the early Greeks: “Do we have to reject our entire history & culture when we become Christians?”

Do we employ theological methods of engaging ‘culture’ or ‘religion’ or ‘philosophy’ to identify whether or not Confucianism can or should be embraced by Chinese Christians? Perhaps an even greater challenge is the reality that most Chinese Christians (or ethnic Chinese in general) do not really consider themselves ‘Confucians’, yet certain Confucian ways of thinking continue to percolate up through their Christian practices. This latter challenge really beckons a more intentional engagement with Confucianism in the variety of its forms. The question should less be whether or not Confucianism should be engaged in theological reflections, but whether it is to be the handmaiden of theology or the mistress of theology.

Perhaps a more balanced approach would be to say that Confucianism, along with Aristotelean and Platonic thought, is a philosophical tradition with religious qualities. Therefore, Chinese (and non-Chinese) Christians need to consciously consider various Confucian teachings and modes of thinking and negotiate those aspects with their Christian faith.


  1. This is not to say that classical Confucianism is ‘secular’. See Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (Prospect Heights, Il: Waveland Press, 1972). 
  2. As a major proponent of Confucianism as a ‘world tradition’ and advocated of New Confucianism, Tu Weiming argues that Confucianism has at its core a view of transcendence. He calls the anthropocosmic nature of humanity, saying that humans are co-creators of the universe alongside Heaven. This is captured in the Chinese phrase Tian ren he yi 天人合一. 
  3. One recent example of this is the book Gregg Ten Elshof’s Confucianism for Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). 

5 thoughts on “Is Confucianism a Religion?

  1. Thank you very much for your extensive and insightful analysis of Confucianism and its implication for modern Chinese Christians.

    I do not know much on Confucianism in theory. As a modern mainland Chinese, Confucianism to me, functions as the role of Jewish law to pre-Jesus Israel. When Chairman Mao stripped off every semi-religious qualities of Confucianism, it became even more like a wisdom literature or the law governing different categories of human relationships to Chinese??

    When you wrote about religion or philosophy, I wonder how you define “religion”: religion as man seeking to know God or religion as God seeking man throughout human history, the later primarily through the Biblical history? Since Confucian himself seems not to be primarily concerned with knowing who is God, heaven is the word he used often to vaguely refer to the divine ruling. It seems that Confucian was busy dealing with human affairs for its times rather than taking more of transcendental pursuit? This is also reflected in modern Chinese minds – a largely humanistic-oriented pursuit.

    About God’s revelation or the role of prophets in Chinese history, there is virtually none in Chinese ancient classics. Even in Daoism, Lao Zi’s the very first opening statement in Dao De Ching will almost shut off all of natural heavenly curiosity from know more about God as a knowable being. “Dao that is to be known is not Dao,…” However, God seems to choose not to encounter Chinese as a person and being until very later stage in His divine dispensation throughout nations. This leaves a Chinese Confucianism mind as a big blank paper to write something new. It would be a call for Chinese Christians, Confucians transformed by the Gospel, to be creative in formulating the contemporary christian thoughts and theology in order to be instrumental to answer the call of this age. Perhaps Confucianism thinking model can be helpful in responding to this call. The good thing about Confucianism thoughts is that it is a wide open model, loosely defined and ready to absorb and develop.

    1. Thank you, Caroline, for your good question. The shape of Confucianism has really been changed drastically, especially in mainland China over the last century.

      In many ways, it has been wiped away. But in other ways, such as ritual propriety 礼, are very central to how you treat your boss or a person of honour. Herbert Fingarette challenged the conventional understanding of the Confucian Analects as primarily teaching a this-worldly, practical humanism. Instead, Fingarette argues, at the core of the Analects is a ‘magical’ power exercised through ritual propriety which underlies the essence of morality. Holy ritual shapes virtuous living. I think this is very alive still today in China.

      With response to your question, I do not want to define ‘religion’ in terms of worship of a God, because that is clearly a Christian definition. Having said that, you are right about the role of Heaven 天 in Confucian texts as a god-like force. To be honest, I wanted to move away from discussing Confucianism as a ‘religion’ because it really manners what era or branch of Confucianism you are speaking of.

      The most conclusive thing I can say of Confucianism, more broadly, is that it is a ‘philosophical tradition with religious qualities’. What I have said, and as you seem to be saying, is that Christian engagement with Confucianism requires a more careful reflection and analysis.

      1. Thanks for your reply, which clarified some of my questions.

        About “holy ritual shapes virtuous living” according to Herbert Fingarette, I would argue that practicing holy rituals alone (without a dynamic authentic faith) won’t shape virtuous living for long. Instead in long run, it inbreeds hypocrisy, legalism, dogmatism, and self-righteousness, or to the worse, a way to hide away from the Creator. since according to confucianism, the’ highest goal of man is to become a Jun Zi (a virtuous man). Here it seems that the highest goal of man is to live a moral or virtuous life. I wonder what is the definition of virtuous living according to Confucianism?

        In contrast, Biblical ideal of man is a man of faith rather than a man of virtuous living, since no one is good and no one is able to. All fall short of the glory of God.

        “Abraham believed in the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Virtuous living, though, commendable, is not the primarily purpose of man being created. Man may live a virtuous living (in a superficial level at most) but completely independent from the LORD. Confucianism without the core of dynamic faith remains a unrealized ideal.
        Here is perhaps where Christianity comes to rescue.

        True religion starts with encounter (of the divine). I wonder how much divine encounter has been mentioned in Analects of Confucius?

      2. These are major differences in the two traditions – that is, their end goals. Perhaps the question of what is virtuous living can also be asked of Christianity. Both use the same words but have different meanings, one much more transcendent than the other (though New Confucians often speak of a kind of transcendence as well, but perhaps closer to earth).

  2. On biblical definition of virtuous living, St. Paul in Romance from 2 to 8 has once for all done all the ultimate justice on exposing the relationship between the law and the faith. Faith is the primal virtue and God’s way to lead man for a virtuous living . “Whatever is not of faith is sin.”

    “And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.”
    ― Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

    “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8 (Clearly walk humbly with your God is the source to bear the fruits of virtues here.)

    In the same pronunciation “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
    – John 15:5

    In my impression, Lao Zi in his Dao Te Ching has been showing his anticipating more of the coming of Christ than the rest of Chinese sages did. I am just guessing here since i have not done any studies on ancient Chinese classics.

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