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Is Confucian Thought "Religious"?
Confucius on Heaven and the Cosmos

Robert Oxnam :: The question is often raised as to whether or not Confucian thought should be considered "religious."

Irene Bloom :: As Confucianism is understood in the West, it often seems to come with a little tag attached saying, "This is philosophical and not religious." Which raises some very interesting questions about the nature of religion. What constitutes religion?

Wm. Theodore de Bary :: According to Western conceptions of religion, primarily based upon the prophetic traditions of the Old and New Testament, or the Koran, certainly Confucianism is not a religion.

But nevertheless, Confucius has a very, very strong sense of reverence towards heaven, which is not distinguishable from a reverence towards life. You have a reverence towards life, and heaven is the source of life.

Irene Bloom :: Confucius also draws on the authority of Heaven. The Chinese word, tian, can actually be translated either as heaven or as nature. But it has a sense of a moral order existing in the world, which governs all of human life and all of the processes of the natural world at the same time. Confucius says at one point, "Heaven gave birth to the power that is in me" — the power or the virtue that is in me. He seems to regard heaven as overseeing his life and the lives of others and overseeing, also, the cause of culture, so that there's a certain confidence here.

[Excerpt from the Analects of Confucius]

Confucius said: "I wish I did not have to speak at all."

Zi Gong said: "But if you did not speak, Sir, what should we disciples pass on to others?"

Confucius said: "Look at Heaven there. Does it speak? The four seasons run their course and all things are produced. Does Heaven speak?"


Irene Bloom :: Heaven does not speak, human beings have to discover the ways, the patterns, the order of heaven as it works out in the larger world of society and in their own lives.

Wm. Theodore de Bary :: So what I would say is that Confucius and Confucianism have a very strong religious dimension, but they pretty much assume that the basics of religion are already given in the pre-existing tradition.

Robert Oxnam :: This pre-existing tradition assumed that there is a cosmic order and that it is moral. Furthermore, this moral order was assumed to extend through the cosmos at every level — in heaven, on earth, and in human society.

Myron Cohen :: The point is that these were not distinguished as separate domains, but as interconnected domains. It's this holistic interconnected, cosmic, integrated, entire view that I think is a fundamental characteristic of Chinese thought and Chinese belief in general, such that Confucianism fits into it.

For example, the basic Confucian ideas of filial piety — that children must be loyal and obedient to their parents, show them respect in life and reverence after they have died — these are not simply ethical ideas. These were ethical ideas given, if you will, cosmic validation. That a son should be respectful of his father was seen to be as much a part of nature as the rising and setting of the sun. So that ethical relationships were thought to be natural relationships.

Therefore, violating an ethical relationship would seem to be violating nature itself. The sanctions were natural, not supernatural, because in effect, you were causing disorder in the cosmos by violating ethical relationships. And this notion of the cosmos as containing important human relationships, as well as relationships and phenomena which we in the West might consider to be part of nature and distinct from human relationships, extended to many, many areas of thinking in China.

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The Chinese word for heaven or nature, tian, is pronounced tee-en with stress on the second syllable. In the character, the lower part is a character that by itself means "big." Adding the line on top is said to indicate that nothing is bigger than heaven.


Excerpt from Sources of Chinese Tradition, Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), Analects 17:19.