Confucianism - Debate Over Classification

Debate Over Classification

Ever since Europeans first encountered Confucianism, the issue of how Confucianism should be classified has been subject to debate. In the 16th and the 17th centuries, the earliest European arrivals in China, the Christian Jesuits, considered Confucianism to be an ethical system, not a religion, and one that was compatible with Christianity. The Jesuits, including Matteo Ricci, saw Chinese rituals as "civil rituals" that could co-exist alongside the spiritual rituals of Catholicism. By the early 18th century, this initial portrayal was rejected by the Dominicans and Franciscans, creating a dispute among Catholics in East Asia that was known as the "Rites Controversy". The Dominicans and Franciscans argued that ancestral worship was a form of pagan idolatry that was contradictory to the tenets of Christianity. This view was reinforced by Pope Benedict XIV, who ordered a ban on Chinese rituals.

This debate continues into the modern era. There is consensus among scholars that, whether or not it is religious, Confucianism is definitively non-theistic. Confucianism is humanistic, and does not involve a belief in the supernatural or in a personal god. On spirituality, Confucius said to Chi Lu, one of his students, that "You are not yet able to serve men, how can you serve spirits?" Attributes that are seen as religious—such as ancestor worship, ritual, and sacrifice—were advocated by Confucius as necessary for social harmony; however, these attributes can be traced to the traditional non-Confucian Chinese beliefs of Chinese folk religion, and are also practiced by Daoists and Chinese Buddhists. Scholars recognize that classification ultimately depends on how one defines religion. Using stricter definitions of religion, Confucianism has been described as a moral science or philosophy. But using a broader definition, such as Frederick Streng's characterization of religion as "a means of ultimate transformation", Confucianism could be described as a "sociopolitical doctrine having religious qualities." With the latter definition, Confucianism is religious, even if non-theistic, in the sense that it "performs some of the basic psycho-social functions of full-fledged religions", in the same way that non-theistic ideologies like Communism do.

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