I’ve thought about this question a bit recently. It has always baffled me. It seemed to me (and still does) a key example of the misunderstandings inevitable in the meeting of different cultures. I constantly see “Confucianism” referred to as a religion, yet never see anyone identify themselves as an adherent of the Confucian religion. When I first encountered the philosophical system of the Analects, Mencius, Xunzi, and the Neo-Confucians, I found nothing that led me to believe this tradition could justifiably be called a religion. Today, having studied Confucius and the Confucian tradition in general for about a decade, I still have not found any justification for taking the Confucian tradition to represent a religion, similar to religious systems such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc.
Assuming that I am right, that Confucianism is not a religion (any more than Platonism, Stoicism, or Epicureanism), then we are confronted with the question: how did the west get things so wrong? How did it become standard to classify Confucianism as a religion?
Perhaps a look at the Christian presence in China from the 16th through the 18th century can give us the beginnings of an answer. I have been reading Jonathan Spence’s wonderful book The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of the encounter between China and west). The Jesuit missionaries of Ricci’s time seem to have been greatly concerned with presenting an opposition between the three Semitic religions of the west: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; and what they saw as the three main “religious” systems of China: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. To a large extent, this tripartite Chinese system of thought may have been an invention of western missionaries, created in order to make the comparison with western thought and its divisions. Perhaps Buddhism and certain facets of Daoism could have been justifiably considered religious systems, but Buddhism and Daoism alone would not give missionaries the desired contrast to the western scheme. Confucianism, then, as an elite philosophical movement of the literati, which included (or rather subsumed or assumed) certain ceremonial and devotional elements, was available to serve as this missing third system.
Initially it seems strange that a society familiar with the work of Plato and the neo-Platonists, whose systems had ceremonial and devotional elements as well, would take Confucianism to be a religious system, while withholding this status from Platonism or neo-Platonism. However, when we consider the motivation of the Christian missionaries, things become a bit clearer. Confucianism, as a foundational doctrine within Chinese society, must have presented itself as a challenge to the missionaries, who saw the doctrine of the Catholic Church as what should ultimately play this role. A Christian Chinese society could not be built on the back of an ideology which assumed no creator God and grounded its ethical system in humanity rather than in the divine. Such a doctrine would, the Church believed, cause problems for the introduction of Christianity, and might well lead even Chinese converts to begin creating new heresies, which would make it easy for the Church to lose doctrinal control of the vast empire. This may have been behind the decision of Pope Clement XI in 1715 to side with the Dominicans over the Jesuits in the controversy over whether Chinese rituals were compatible with Catholicism. The rituals of paying homage to ancestors may have looked suspiciously like worship to the Catholic Church (which stuck us with another misunderstanding of Chinese culture in the term “ancestor worship”), and this would have been incompatible with the worship of the One True God.
The first two sections of Clement XIs decree seem to suggest this:
“I. The West calls Deus [God] the creator of Heaven, Earth, and everything in the universe. Since the word Deus does not sound right in the Chinese language, the Westerners in China and Chinese converts to Catholicism have used the term “Heavenly Lord” for many years. From now on such terms as “Heaven” and “Shang-ti” should not be used: Deus should be addressed as the Lord of Heaven, Earth, and everything in the universe. The tablet that bears the Chinese words “Reverence for Heaven” should not be allowed to hang inside a Catholic church and should be immediately taken down if already there.
II. The spring and autumn worship of Confucius, together with the worship of ancestors, is not allowed among Catholic converts. It is not allowed even though the converts appear in the ritual as bystanders, because to be a bystander in this ritual is as pagan as to participate in it actively.”
from China in Transition, 1517-1911, Dan. J. Li, trans. pp. 22-24
This opposition to Chinese rituals on the part of the Church (fostered by the Dominicans) may be due to the fact that the Chinese terminology and practices named above predate the entrance of Christianity to China, and even the Christian religion itself. Thus, a perceived historical distance from Christianity, even for its practical similarities, may have contributed to the rejection of ritual (an integral part of Confucian ethics) by the Catholic Church.
Such a view was likely fostered by a lack of understanding of Chinese culture, and a rush to impose the principles of the Church which blinded many to the culture of those to be converted. Among the Jesuits, who spent time gaining a foothold in China, a more sophisticated view of philosophical systems in the region grew. We can see this in Ricci’s own case, in his change from a simplistic and misinformed view of Chinese culture at the start of his China mission, to a more nuanced view. Spence writes of this transformation:
“The major shift in Ricci’s perception of relative social status in China was rather slow in coming. In his first assessment, made after he had been in China about one year, he concluded that there were three religions of major significance in China, those of the Confucian literati, the Buddhists, and the Taoists. […] A year later, in October 1585, as he wrote General Acquaviva, he had realized that the question was more complex: in essence, the Chinese literati could be considered as holding a cluster of beliefs similar to those of the Epicureans in the ancient Greek world…”
from The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, p. 116
Perhaps due to the Church’s decision in the rites controversy, the west has retained, down to the present day, the naïve early view of Matteo Ricci. Most non-specialists have thus not gained the benefit of learning from Ricci’s mature view, as we specialists have largely not insisted on forcing the matter, probably because none of us are badly misinformed about the status of Confucianism in Chinese thought or take the early Ricci view seriously.
Perhaps this can help explain why the mistaken view that Confucianism is a religion persists in the west today.