Buddhism and Confucianism Are Religions Without a God

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According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, Religion is commonly understood as the service and worship of God or the supernatural, commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance, a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices, a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held with ardor and faith. Additionally, this source emphasizes that religion often provides comfort in times of crisis. The definition of religion sparks ongoing debate over whether it should only include traditions that involve worshiping a god. However, there are cases where other activities such as hockey in Canada are considered religions. This raises the question of how religion is precisely defined—is it limited to worshiping a divinity like Christianity and Islam do? Or does it encompass other belief systems too?

This essay argues that Therevada Buddhism and Confucianism can be considered religious traditions, despite the absence of god or gods and a lack of concern for the afterworld. According to Clifford Geertz, religion is a cultural system that establishes symbols linking humanity to beliefs and values, creating powerful and enduring meaning (Geertz 63). Religions possess symbols, traditions, writings, and sacred histories to give life meaning or explain life’s origins and the afterlife. They also emphasize morality, ethics, laws, or a preferred lifestyle based on their understanding of the universe and human nature. Paul Tillich defines religion as “the state of being grasped by ultimate concern” (Tillich 4), while Jon Bowker views it as a way of breaking through limitations or engaging in route-finding activities (Bowker viii).

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According to Frederick Stregn, religion serves as a means for ultimate transformations. Professor Ninian Smart defines religion as a set of teachings that encompass seven dimensions: practical and ritual, experiential and emotional, narrative and mythic, doctrinal and philosophical, ethical and legal, social and institutional, and material. These criteria do not encompass the concepts of God and the afterlife.

The Chinese perspective on religion is referred to as “zong jiao”, which translates to “source” and “teaching”. When comparing philosophy to religion, it is important to note that religion focuses on the origins of life and the consequences in the afterlife, while philosophy does not. Therefore, both Buddhism and Confucianism can be considered religions.

The term “Religio” signifies relating or connecting natural events with higher meaning. Individuals express this through poetry, music, and dance as they delve into deeper meanings and seek explanations for natural phenomena.

Having a desire to interpret things metaphysically, individuals find fulfillment in religion as it embodies this understanding and provides guidance. Even those who identify as atheists can be considered religious due to their rejection of a higher power. Various criteria exist to determine whether a practice qualifies as a religion. Additionally, religion assists us in navigating the challenges that life presents, considering the numerous temptations and hardships humans encounter.

Religion plays a dual role in our lives, offering hope and support during both prosperous and challenging times. It provides comfort, as Carl Marx famously referred to it as “the opiate of the people,” while also presenting an alternate outlook on life. Religion serves as a source of solace, enabling us to confront hardships with strength and positivity for what lies ahead. In order to comprehend the religious elements of Buddhism and Confucianism, delving into their historical beginnings is imperative.

The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Siddharta, was born in 563 B. C. in Nepal, near the Indian border. His father, a king, surrounded Siddharta with wealth, beauty, and fortune (Smith 83). He wore garments made of silk and his attendants held a white umbrella over him while his unguents always came from Banaras. However, despite having all these luxuries, Siddharta experienced overwhelming discontent in his twenties which ultimately led him to renounce his worldly possessions. The legend of the “Four Passing Sighs” provides an explanation for the origins of his dissatisfaction.

Despite Siddhartha’s father’s efforts to shield him from witnessing suffering, disease, or ugliness, there were instances during several consecutive rides where he was confronted with lessons from the gods. These lessons included encounters with old age, disease, and death, as well as an introduction to the concept of a secluded life away from the world. These experiences led Buddha to realize that life is characterized by age and death, prompting him to question if a realm devoid of these exists (Smith 84). The formation of Buddhism shares several similarities with other religions.

Siddharta embarked on a path of Raja Yoga, dedicating his life to it through intense meditation. In a manner reminiscent of Jesus’s temptation scene before his ministry, Buddha also faced temptation from the Evil One while meditating. Sensing that his adversaries were close to achieving victory, the Evil One attempted to disrupt Siddharta’s meditation by taking the form of Kama, the God of Desire, and Mara, the Lord of Death. However, Siddharta was able to resist temptation and further deepened his meditation, leading him to achieve the “Great Awakening” and become the Buddha. He describes this blissful experience of enlightenment that lasted for forty-nine days as Nirvana.

Rudolph Otto introduced the concept of the “numinous” as a pure reality. The term derives from the Latin word “numen,” which means an ideal in a material form. This ideal is so flawless that it cannot exist in a material form. The entire material world represents an ideal – a perfect blueprint. When we become aware of this absolute, we become sensitive and alert, realizing that we are in the presence of something far greater and mysteriously indescribable, something ineffable. It reminds us of how insignificant we are, as we are mere replicas of that “Real” something. This realization humbles us and instills reverence, causing everything else to pale in comparison.

According to Buddha, encountering the numinous brings about inevitable change, and this is precisely how he described his experience with Nirvana. Consequently, Buddha chose to dedicate the following forty-five years of his life to spreading his enlightenment to others. The sentence that became renowned throughout history was uttered from his death bed: “All compounded things decay, work out your own salvation with diligence” (Smith 88). Theravada Buddhism centers on the individuality of humans and does not depend on other humans or any other forms of life or divinity.

According to the text, humanity is alone in the universe and there are no gods who can provide miraculous assistance. The quote “No one saves us but ourselves, No one can and no one may, We ourselves must tread the Path: Buddhas only show the way” emphasizes this belief (Smith 123). Buddha’s teachings focused on practical solutions for everyday problems, highlighting the usefulness of his teachings. Similar to other religions, his teachings were therapeutic in nature. As Buddha himself said, “One thing I teach: the suffering and the end of suffering. It is just Ill and the ceasing of Ill that I proclaim” (Smith 99).

Buddhism originated from Hinduism and can be seen as a reform movement of the religion. Buddha opposed and criticized six fundamental aspects of religious belief – authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, and mystery. Instead, he preached a religion that focused on personal reliance, without the need for rituals or speculations. According to Buddha, questions about the eternity of the world or existence after death were insignificant. He emphasized intense self-effort and proclaimed that those who relied only on themselves would achieve the highest spiritual attainment. Buddha invited individuals of intelligence to approach him, promising to teach them the supreme religion and goal if they practiced sincerely. Buddhism also includes Scriptural writings and other elements of religious structure.

The Pali Canon or Tipitaka, the ancient canon of Buddhism, shares similarities with Christianity as it includes the Triple Gem: the Buddha (considered a prophet), the Dharma (referring to scriptures), and the Sangha (representing monks) (Fisher 149). Buddhism is classified as a religion because it offers guidance for salvation. Its philosophy begins with understanding the Four Noble Truths, which are applicable to all humans. One of these truths states that life is Dukkha, meaning suffering. This suffering arises from Thrishna, which represents desires for personal fulfillment. Nirvana signifies the end of suffering and achieving it involves following The Eightfold Path. This path serves as Buddhism’s means for attaining salvation by focusing on internal self-improvement rather than relying on divine intervention. According to Buddha’s teachings, individuals have the ability to train themselves in following this Path.

Within Buddhism, Buddha outlines eight prescribed steps to help individuals become rational beings and avoid danger and suffering. These steps consist of right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness (also known as raja yoga). Their purpose is to enable control over our feelings, sensations, and desires that contribute to suffering (Smith 110). The Buddhist version of the Ten Commandments is referred to as right conduct and includes principles like refraining from killing, stealing, lying, being unchaste, and consuming intoxicants. Moreover, the moral message of Buddhism is conveyed through the Four Noble Virtues: loving-kindness, compassion,equality, and joy in the well-being of others.

The Sangha, a Buddhist monastic order, can be likened to Christian monks. Buddhism is often regarded as a non-theistic religion since it rejects the belief in personal deities responsible for creating humanity and providing salvation. During the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, Buddhists felt compelled to clarify their worship practices regarding the Buddha to followers of different faiths. They emphasized that the Buddha, also referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha and the founder of Buddhism, is not considered divine or God-like but rather a human who attained complete Enlightenment through meditation. The role of the Buddha was simply to guide us on the path towards spiritual awakening and liberation.

Buddhists perceive Buddhism as a religion that prioritizes wisdom, enlightenment, and compassion rather than being focused on God. Similar to adherents of faiths centered around God who seek salvation through confession of sin and prayer, Buddhists believe that salvation and enlightenment can be achieved by eliminating impurities and misconceptions and by leading a meditative life. However, unlike those who believe in a specific deity, Buddhists acknowledge the presence of Buddha-nature or Buddha-mind within all individuals. This message was conveyed by Buddhists at the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago in September 1993. While there is a widespread global belief that Buddhism rejects the existence of God, it should be noted that Theravadins primarily have faith in the ultimate wisdom inherent in humans instead of directly worshiping Buddha as a deity. Nevertheless, the veneration exhibited towards Buddha by Buddhists bears similarities to how other religions worship God.

Despite denying the existence of God, Buddhists, like followers of other idolatrous religions, still engage in worship by bowing down to images of the Buddha. This is because there exists an inherent inclination within their hearts to worship something. While not officially considering the Buddha as a god, Buddhists still hold him in high reverence and worship him. Confucianism was founded by Kung Fu-Tzu, also known as Kung the master. The Chinese people greatly respect him and refer to him as The First Teacher. Despite facing various career setbacks and starting from humble beginnings, Kung believed that achieving political success was crucial for effectively spreading his message.

Confucius, despite his political failures, is widely recognized as one of history’s greatest educators. Following his death, he received titles such as “the mentor and model of ten thousand generations” and “the greatest single intellectual force” (Smith 158). In his teachings, Confucius stresses the importance of leading a moral life and achieving success through hard work and virtues. Several well-known quotes serve as guiding principles for many individuals, including “Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself,” and “Do not seek quick results or small advantages…you will never accomplish great things.” Confucius also emphasizes the significance of having role models in life, suggesting that we should strive to imitate those with admirable qualities while reflecting on our own character when encountering those lacking virtue (The Analects IV:17). Through his book The Analects, Confucius aimed to present an ideal Chinese character model (Smith 159). Many scholars argue that ethics constitute the essence of Confucianism.

Confucianism places great emphasis on personal conduct and the moral order. If we consider Religion as a way of life centered around a people’s “ultimate concern,” as Paul Tillich stated, then Confucianism can be seen as a religion. Our decisions at different levels have varying consequences, but ultimately they reflect our sense of value. The ultimate concern is focused on an ideal, and our awareness of it determines our actions, while our values guide our survival. Confucius’s teachings were guided by five principles. He taught about “Jen,” which is goodness and the ideal relationship between human beings, considered to be the most important virtue. “Chun Tzu” represents humanity at its best and is the ideal host. “Li” refers to propriety and Confucius believed it was necessary for people to have models to guide their lives, as mentioned in the Analects.

The Doctrine of the Mean holds significance in highlighting the middle and constant path, promoting harmony and balance. Confucius stressed the importance of the Five Constant Relationships for a thriving society, which include parent and child, husband and wife, older and younger sibling, older and younger friend, and ruler and subject (Smith 176). Additionally, the concept of “Te” emphasizes ruling with virtue and honesty, comparing it to the north pole star that remains steadfast while all other stars revolve around it (Smith 179). Another concept, “Wen,” pertains to the “art of peace” as opposed to the “art of war.” Confucius greatly valued the arts, recognizing their significant role in human existence. He extended this belief to politics as well, stating that in war, victory ultimately belongs to the state that possesses the highest Wen, the most elevated culture (Smith 180).

According to Smith (185), Confucius acknowledged the presence of God or heaven and perceived them as an interconnected entity. He aimed to redirect attention towards Earth while still acknowledging the importance of heaven. In his book, “An Introduction to Confucianism,” Yao (49) explains that Confucianism is based on establishing relationships and harmony between humanity and heaven, as well as between ancestors and descendants, and between the secular and sacred realms. When questioned about the afterlife and death, Confucius consistently emphasized the significance of life and human beings, urging people to prioritize serving others.

In The Analects, Confucius questioned how individuals can serve the spirits without understanding life or death. He emphasized the importance of shifting focus from Heaven to Earth, as exemplified by his transition from spirit worship to filial piety. Confucius believed that the strongest bond was among blood relatives. Moreover, he reassured his followers that his teachings were divinely appointed, stating that Heaven had chosen him to teach this doctrine. He also emphasized the significance of remaining in good terms with the gods, as those who offend them would have no one to pray to.

According to Rodney Leon Taylor in his book, The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism, Confucianism is both an ethical system and a humanistic teaching. However, it also has a deep sense of religiousness that should not be overlooked. Taylor emphasizes the importance of recognizing the religious element within this tradition. This religious aspect revolves around the Confucian belief in “Tien”, or Heaven, which is the traditional god of the Chinese. The religious core can be found in the relationship between humankind and Heaven. As mentioned earlier in this essay, relationships are a fundamental aspect of religion. Taylor introduces the concept of “Transformation”, which involves not only establishing a relationship with what is considered absolute, but also progressing towards that absolute state. This process is referred to as the ultimate transformation.

Confucius offers salvation, an essential element in religious traditions. Theravada Buddhism and Confucianism are considered religious despite lacking a god; god is just one aspect of religion. Both traditions provide principles of “ultimate concern” and guidance for right livelihood, leading to salvation. Unlike other religions, salvation is achieved through one’s own merits rather than divine intervention.

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Buddhism and Confucianism Are Religions Without a God. (2017, Apr 03). Retrieved from


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