“Atheism” or religion? 3. For Heaven’s Sake

Confucius’ notion of “heaven” (Tian) was not necessarily religious. Rather than a “religion”, traditional Confucianism can be considered a “religious tradition”.

by Massimo Introvigné

Article 3 of 5. Read article 1 and article 2.

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing. Credits.

Confucius presented himself as the one who “transmits but does not innovate”. He claimed to transmit “the way of the Ru”, the first sages who knew their classic books. Among the Ru, he greatly revered the Duke of Zhou, who may (or may not) have lived in the century before 1000 BCE. As well as being considered the primary author of the I Ching, the Duke is said to have created the Mandate of Heaven theory. It is heaven that grants the right to rule China to a dynasty. He can also withdraw this right if the dynasty is no longer virtuous.

By the Mandate of Heaven, the Duke of Zhou – or whoever wrote the texts attributed to him – wanted to justify the fact that the Zhou dynasty, whose founder happened to be his brother, had defeated and replaced the previous dynasty, Shang . Confucius, however, interpreted the Mandate of Heaven in a much broader sense. How can we be sure that what the Duke of Zhou taught about the Mandate of Heaven is correct? Confucius replied that the Duke’s teachings were guaranteed by the fact that he himself had received a mandate from Heaven. Heaven also confers its mandate on authorized scholars.

But what exactly is Heaven (Tian)? Of course, the question is crucial to any assessment of “Confucianism” as a religion or otherwise. What is certain is that for Confucius Heaven is not a personal god. According to the Analects, the canonical record of his teachings, Confucius taught both that Heaven is silent and that he preferred to keep silent about Heaven. Texts attributed to the Duke of Zhou took a similar position. Wasn’t this contradictory with the assertions of the duke and Confucius that they spoke in the name of Heaven? They were, but they didn’t pretend Heaven was talking to them. That is, not personally. Heaven speaks through the history of the world (which for Confucius meant the history of China) to those who are able to interpret it.

The Duke of Zhou represented by Wang Qi (1529-1612).
The Duke of Zhou represented by Wang Qi (1529-1612). Credits.

When Jesuit Catholic missionaries met Confucius in the 17and century, they translated “Tian” (Heaven) as “God” and used it as an alternative to “Shangdi” (Supreme God). The current Chinese campaign proclaiming Confucius the father of Chinese, if not global, atheism is aware of this tradition, but claims it to be false. He relies on Mozi (470-391 BCE), an influential Chinese philosopher who was born a few years after Confucius died. Mozi, who was undoubtedly a religious spirit, believed that Heaven is a force separate from the physical universe and with its own independent will, which rules through ghosts and spirits, who act as Heaven’s enforcers. He accused Confucius and the entire Ru tradition of denying the existence of spirits and ghosts and of rendering Tian indistinguishable from the physical universe. What for Mozi was an indictment of Confucius, for contemporary Chinese propagandists of atheism becomes a compliment he paid to the sage.

It is true that, while claiming to speak on behalf of Tian, ​​Confucius did not say much about Tian himself. But something he said, that Tian reveals himself through human nature (Xing). So knowing Xing is a valid way to know Tian. Those who truly know human nature find benevolence or humanity (Ren) in it. Not that all humans are benevolent: Ren must be cultured. It is also true that humans can be misled by false teachings.

While we are accustomed to defining Chinese culture by the “Three Teachings” – Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism – the respective teachers and practitioners have rarely cooperated harmoniously. Sometimes they hated each other and asked the emperors to eradicate rivals. Confucians, in particular, accused Buddhism and Taoism of teaching ascetic withdrawal from society as the preferred path to enlightenment. This is not the case, they retorted. Ren is achieved by cherishing and cultivating the relationships between parents and children, husband and wives, emperor and his subjects – and all of these relationships were hierarchical, making Confucianism a mainstay of the status quo.

Another of the teachings of Confucius, perhaps the main one, which Father Joseph Shih, who introduced me to Confucianism in the 1970s, never failed to emphasize is that respect for heaven and human nature must expressing oneself through rituals (Li). Shih was a Jesuit and Jesuits had been fascinated by Confucian rituals since the time of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) – so much so that Ricci and his fellow missionaries actively participated in these rites. They were denounced to the Vatican by rival religious orders, who claimed they had fallen into apostasy and the worship of pagan gods. Although the Jesuits lost the controversy over Chinese rites in the 18and century, while the Popes repeatedly prohibited their participation in Confucian rituals, today they are somewhat rehabilitated as precursors of a clever “sinicization” of Catholicism, not to be confused with its adaptation to the principles of the CCP.

“Sinicized” Jesuit Catholicism: Matteo Ricci (left) and the Chinese convert Paul Xu Guangqi (1562-1633).
“Sinicized” Jesuit Catholicism: Matteo Ricci (left) and the Chinese convert Paul Xu Guangqi (1562-1633). Credits.

Enemies of the Jesuits pointed out that Confucian rituals ostensibly worshiped ancestors and spirits, which was not permissible for a Catholic. The Jesuits retorted that these were not religious ceremonies. They were much more like civil events, they said, where people can honor flags or symbols of the state and the king, or commemorate heroes or deceased sages, which have also taken place in Christian countries. without being seen as usurping the role of religion.

Most Western scholars in the 20and century tended to side with the Jesuits. Offering sacrifices to heaven and earth, some of them quite spectacular, and honoring kings and sages, including Confucius himself, did not construct the object of honor as divine. Confucian “spirits” were at best symbolic representations of impersonal forces.

around 21st century, scholars were no longer so sure. Joseph Adler, a prominent scholar of East Asian religions, was among those who warned that Confucianism or, more specifically, the Way of Ru is not a monolithic phenomenon. There is a rich variety of Ru or “Confucianist” schools and scholars, who have expressed different ideas on several topics throughout some 2,500 years of “Confucianism” history. Some obviously did not believe that spirits existed. They taught that it didn’t really matter. The rituals that honored them were intended for the self-cultivation of the living. Whether or not the spirits of ancestors or sages existed in a separate dimension was not important. The living benefited from rituals, and that was reason enough to perform them.

Other prominent Confucian masters have clearly taught that spirits have an independent existence, not just a symbolic one. However, they were careful to add that the matter was difficult, was after all of secondary importance, and was not a respectable Ru who should quarrel among themselves.

Confucianism: Confucius Temple in Liuzhou, Guangxi.
Confucius Temple in Liuzhou, Guangxi. Credits.

And yet, that was always only part of the story. Those who have visited the temples of Confucius, the Jesuits in the 20and travelers and scholars of the century, could not help noticing that they had several characteristics in common with Buddhist and Taoist places of worship, and that devotees prayed to Confucius in the full belief that he was able to help them. Popular Confucian religious movements and a “popular Confucianism” where the worship of Confucius coexisted with occult practices have always existed, and continue to this day.

As we will see in the next article, throughout the centuries debates were introduced about the “Principle”, which some interpreted as an immanent divine reality. The history of “Confucianism” will allow us to introduce additional elements. However, we can already tentatively conclude that when talking about “Confucianism”, the alternative between being a religion and an early form of atheism creates insoluble dilemmas. Maybe the question itself is not worded correctly. Contemporary scholars believe there is a third possibility, namely that while not being a religion in the sense we give to Christianity or Islam, “Confucianism” is nevertheless what Adler and Swain call a “religious tradition.” : not an organized religion, but a tradition with deep religious concerns – which is certainly different from atheism. And a living tradition, which is perhaps in the process of evolving into a religion in its own right, a question that we will ask ourselves in the next articles of the series.

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