Confucianism: Religion or Philosophy?

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Confucius was a great personality with a deep quest for knowledge and love for truth. Born in the turbulent times in China when feudal states were constantly in war against each other, he had always sought to restore peach and truth in society. However, he was never recognized in his times. He tried to restore order by taking on the realms of power, but failed. His thoughts and teachings caught on only after his death and, since then, they have had a tremendous influence on people, not just in China, but from all over the world.

Confucianism is pursued as a religion by some and as a philosophy by some. This paper describes Confucianism as the Bible that gives code of conduct for good living with detailed guidelines to men on how to lead virtuous lives. From there the paper derives that Confucianism can be best pursued as a philosophy, rather than religion.

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Confucius’s book, The Analect is a discussion between the teacher and the learner. Written in conversational style, it is simple in form yet profound in theme. The teachings are predominantly moral and philosophical in nature, than religious. The very opening line of the books shows Confucius in the light of a human being, where he describes the pleasure that one gets by constantly pursuing learning in life. The line where the Master says, “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?” (The Analect I:1) doesn’t portray Confucius as the all-knowing God. In fact, he never claimed himself to be God. He always claimed that he was a learner who took pleasure in studying the “past” and the “antiquities” of life. In his own words, “I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there” (Analect VII:27). He conveys a deep understanding of human nature. He also conveys that one should first start by helping himself or herself. This should then be extended to others. This philosophy of his shows him in a more “worldly light,” when compared to most religious heads who preach self-denial.

Confucianism describes individual duties to society, the way governments should be run, and laws for individual behavior. In fact, it has a huge impact in the way the Chinese lead their lives. According to the belief Heaven and earth co-exist and live in harmony with each other and man should strive to emulate the model of Heaven on earth.

Confucius’s philosophy on learning is practical and evergreen in nature and will suit men of all times. “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand,” stresses the importance of practically doing things to understand, rather than learning by merely hearing about them or seeing them. Such teachings also bring him closer to human behavior and nature. They highlight the profound thinking nature of Confucius and show him in the light of a great philosophical “guru.” His growth in life had been progressive and here’s a description of his life in his own words: “At 15 I set my heart on learning; at 30 I firmly took my stand; at 40 I had no delusions; at 50 I knew the Mandate of Heaven; at 60 my ear was attuned; at 70 I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the boundaries of right” (Analect II:4).

On government, Confucius tells that a good government should set an example of virtue and good manners for its people, and not by force or violence. “The way the wind blows, that’s the way the grass bends” (Analect XII:19). There are rules aplenty for political ethics, the ethics of economy, and good government in Confucianism.

Confucius beseeches his disciples to think for themselves and shows them the path to perfection and reflective thinking. His thoughts and teachings are very rational in nature. However, they never compromised on qualities of virtue or restraint that men should pursue. Maybe, that is the reason why for nearly two million years, Confucianism has led many people in their pursuit of virtue and has served as a staunch guide to its followers. Today, there are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Taoists, Buddhists, and Shintoists who, despite following their own religious faiths, still consider themselves followers of Confucianism.

What is interesting about Confucius is that he never spoke about spiritualism or the Gods, as such. On the contrary, Socrates, another famous philosopher, who was born just nine years after the death of Confucius spoke at length about God. Socrates even thought that his tryst with philosophy was the work of the Almighty. But, Confucius “became” considered to be a God later on, and Socrates, is still remembered as a great philosopher. To understand Confucius’s views on religion and the mythics, this quote from The Analect will help. The disciple asks the Master in as to how he can serve the spirits of the dead and gods. For this, the Master replies, “You are not able to serve to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?” (Analect XI:12). According to Confucius every man who is virtuous by nature offers prayers to God all the time. There is no other prayer. Even when Confucius says, “At fifty I understood the Mandate of Heaven” (Analects II:4), he refers to his understanding of what is right and what is wrong as the “mandate” of Heaven. Abstract and impersonal entities such as Heaven, God, and spirits refer to ideal principles for man to follow; there is no physical entity attached to them. In such a background, it is ironical that Confucius has temples built for him in almost every city in China and Confucianism is one of the major religions today.

Confucianism cannot really be considered a religion. It is because, though there are temples for Confucius, there is no clergy and there isn’t any teaching in Confucianism on the way God or Gods should be worshipped. According to Confucius an individual can get closer to God only through his good deeds. His teachings were simple, yet straightforward. This is his golden rule: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others. The injuries done to you by an enemy should be returned with a combination of love and justice” (Analect XV:23).

Work Cited

Confucius, Confucian Analects, Trans. James Legge,, 1893.


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Confucianism: Religion or Philosophy?. (2016, Oct 01). Retrieved from

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