Lately, the Chinese government has embraced the religion known as Confucianism for its own political purposes.

Though listed as a religion, many scholars in religious studies consider Confucianism more as a philosophy of life, rather than as a religion. I surmise that a lot depends on one’s understanding of what qualifies as a religion.

There are many definitions of religion. The Protestant scholar, Paul Tillich, defines religion as “ultimate concern.” In my estimation, that definition is too extensive in scope. For many Chinese, their ultimate concern might mean their loyalty to the Communist Party.

In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas stated that “religion implies an orientation toward God.” In my view such a definition may be too narrow in extension. Why so? Some religions like Theravada Buddhism, found in Thailand and Cambodia, or Jainism, a religion in India, do not believe in a God, yet scholars in religious studies consider them religions.

Another scholar, Paul Knitter, understands religion as “dealing with what counts most” in a person’s life. However, that understanding of religion might also be too wide. Why so?

Some Americans might have “making money” as their major goal in life, yet we in the West would not consider them on this basis as “religious” by any stretch of the imagination.

Another scholar, Roger Schmidt, gives this definition of religion: Religion means “seeking and responding to what is experienced as sacred.” The key term in this definition is the word “sacred.” For example, Christians see the cross as a sacred object related to Christ’s death on the cross, yet a member of Jainism or an agnostic might see a cross as merely a piece of wood in a particular shape.

The bottom-line is this: there’s no consensus among scholars in religious studies about how the term, religion, should be defined. Furthermore, Confucius himself might roll over in his grave if he knew, while alive, that millions of people would one day consider him the founder of a world religion, since he did not consider himself a religious person, as far as we know.

Kung Fu Tzu, known in the West as Confucius, considered himself an educator and teacher, though he started out in life as a rather poor student, since he flunked the state exams several times before he qualified as a teacher. The teachings of Confucius are found in a book called the "Analects," which has a huge influence on China to this day. Confucius did not write the "Analects" himself, but edited this book based on wise sayings that were current at the time he lived. 

The "Analects" (or things gathered together) consist of aphorisms dealing with ethics, etiquette, education and public life. Over the course of the centuries, Confucianism attained the status of imperial philosophy (in part, since it spoke of respect for those in authority); however, at other times the teachings of Confucius were suppressed by the Chinese government in power at the time.

Confucianism extols certain values, such as ren (meaning love, benevolence or humanness), piety toward one’s ancestors summed up in the word, xiao, and the word yi meaning justice. Though there are roughly six million members of Confucianism globally, most of them reside in China.

There are two other major religions found in China, namely, Chinese Buddhism and Taoism. However, most of the people in China subscribe to the religious practices of all three religions, viz., Confucianism, Chinese Buddhism and Taoism. For this reason, it’s simply impossible to give an exact count of the number of people who belong to each of these three religions. (See Edmund Kee-Fook Chia, World Christianity encounters World Religions, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press Academic, 2018).

Today, the President of China, Xi Jinping, and the entire Chinese government have come out in support of Confucianism in order to ensure the primacy of age-old Chinese values. However, this focus on traditional Confucian values has a dark side to it. 

President Xi has recently ordered a crackdown on “foreign religions,” such as Islam and Christianity. Presently, the Chinese government uses Confucianism in order to encourage patriotism and to counter the influence of “foreign religions.” (See “China deploys Confucius in a bid to boost religion controls,” by Associated Press, June 1, 2019). 

However, the Chinese government has gone too far in opposing non-native religions, thus incurring the wrath of other countries around the globe. It has destroyed mosques and locked roughly a million Muslims in camps, (that are virtually prison camps), until they give up their Islamic faith, which they refuse to do.

Moreover, Christians are now persecuted in China. For instance, Christian churches have been bulldozed, and both the Bible and the Qur’an have been interpreted by government officials in such a way as to ensure that they conform with traditional Chinese values and culture. Apparently, the Chinese government never heard of the separation of church and state.

Surprisingly, despite these attacks on foreign religions, government officials still argue that there’s freedom of religion in China. Go figure!


Richard Penaskovic is an emeritus professor at Auburn University, who taught religious studies for 30 years.

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