Now, there's an attention-grabbing headline. It seems almost arrogant to so directly claim a clear answer to the rather complex question: is Confucianism a religion? But I put it up there to insert myself into the perennial debate, which has been rekindled in the blogosphere by a well written piece by Peter Berger, sociologist of religion.
Berger comes down on the side of Confucianism as religion. He does not do so rashly. He recognizes that much of Confucianism is essentially secularist: there is little to no explicit invocation of a God or gods as creators or exemplars of moral virtue. Rather, as is so often stated, Confucianism is a "this-worldly" philosophy, a moral theory that seeks to train people in the here and now to do the right thing and become, themselves, the enactors and symbols of propriety. There is little, if any, concern for cosmological origins or after lives. At least this is the case for the pre-Qin texts. A couple of passages from The Analects get at this geist:
The Master never spoke of the supernatural, violence, disorder, or gods and spirits. 7.21
When Adept Liu asked about serving ghosts and spirits, the Master said: "You haven't learned to serve the living, so how could you serve ghosts?
"Might I ask about death?"
"You don't understand life," the Master replied, "so how could you understand death?" 11.12
I know just citing Analects passages does not put the question to rest. There have been impressive analyses over the years contending that Confucianism functioned as a religion in Chinese society, even if it did not fulfill certain definitions of "religion." And there are ways that Confucianism might be made into or used as a religion historically in China. So the larger issue is complex. But, at the end of the day, I find the main body of "Confucianism" to be something other than a religion.
For me the key issue is the de-emphasis on God/gods. While the early texts presume a spirit world, they just don't make very much of it. The spirits of our parents matter, but larger transcendent god-like spirits are not really important. Indeed, in urging us to "serve the living" Confucius seems to be saying that we should not allow propitiation or adulation of spirits get in the way of our immediate earthly duties.
For Berger, the thing that tips the balance in favor of an understanding of Confucianism as a religion is the notion of Heaven - tian, 天 :
....However, there is one classical and rather central Confucian belief that, I think, is unambiguously religious—that of tian, usually translated as “heaven”. It is not theistic, although gods are associated with it. Rather, it is a cosmic order, supernatural in that it transcends the empirical world, over which it presides and with which it interacts. It thus serves as the necessary, ipso facto religious foundation for all the secular virtues propagated by Confucian teachings. It seems to me that this religious character of tian is most clearly expressed in the notion of the “mandate of heaven”: A ruler has this “mandate”, the basis of his legitimacy, if he rules in accordance with the moral rules governing relations between him and his subjects. If he does not so rule, the “mandate of heaven” will be withdrawn, his rule becomes illegitimate and his subjects have a valid reason to disobey or even overthrow him. The distinctively Confucian institution resulting from this idea was that of the “imperial censors”—officials at court with the express duty to reprimand the emperor if he strayed from correct ritual and moral behavior. I take it that this did not happen very often: Emperors, in China or elsewhere, do not take kindly to being reprimanded.
The notion of tian, drawn from early Zhou times, suggests a rather diffuse sense of fate and destiny. Whether it is "transcendent" or not is not really a settled issue - Hall and Ames famously assert that Confucian thinking is more a matter of immanence than transcendence. But even if we accept a kind of transcendence in tian, it is still not at all clear that we can say that tian "presides" over the empirical world. Yes, fate and destiny can shape human lives, but that does not necessarily lead to a kind of predestination or "intelligent design." Tian, and a Confucian sensibility, fit just as well with a secularist, modern, scientific cosmology, as Frederick Mote suggests, citing Carl Jung approvingly:
The ancient Chinese mind contemplates the cosmos in a way comparable to that of the modern physicist, who cannot deny that his model of the world is a decidedly psychophysical structure.
Mote goes on to give the great line from Needham, who describes ancient Chinese cosmology as providing: "an ordered harmony of wills without an ordainer."
So, I guess the question for me is: is it a religion if it has no ordainer? If its secularism is more pronounced than Berger suggests, is it something more of a lived moral theory than a religion? Of course it depends on the definition of religion being used but if Confucianism, with its avoidance of God/gods, is a religion, perhaps we should ask: is socialism a religion? Liberalism?....