If religion is about the sacred as opposed to the profane, the spirit as opposed to matter, the Creator as opposed to the created, Confucianism plainly does not qualify. But perhaps what we are to learn from this tradition is not that Confucianism is not a religion but that not all religious people parse the sacred and the secular the way Christians do.
There is one element in Christianity which was not borrowed from Paganism — religious intolerance. Referring to Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, a writer on China says: ‘Between the followers of the three national religions there is not only a total absence of persecution and bitter feeling, but a very great indifference as to which of them a man may belong…. Among the politer classes, when strangers meet, the question is asked: ‘To what sublime religion do you belong,’ and each one pronounces a eulogium, not on his own religion, but on that professed by the others, and concludes with the oft-repeated formula ‘Religions are many; reason is one; we are all brothers.
I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race. I see no good in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam — good people, yes, but any religion based on a single, well, frenzied and virulent god, is not as useful to the human race as, say, Confucianism, which is not a religion but an ethical and educational system.
I saw exactly one picture of Marx and one of Lenin in my whole stay, but it’s been a long time since ideology had anything to do with it. Not without cunning, Fat Man and Little Boy gradually mutated the whole state belief system into a debased form of Confucianism, in which traditional ancestor worship and respect for order become blended with extreme nationalism and xenophobia. Near the southernmost city of Kaesong, captured by the North in 1951, I was taken to see the beautifully preserved tombs of King and Queen Kongmin. Their significance in F.M.-L.B. cosmology is that they reigned over a then unified Korea in the 14th century, and that they were Confucian and dynastic and left many lavish memorials to themselves. The tombs are built on one hillside, and legend has it that the king sent one of his courtiers to pick the site. Second-guessing his underling, he then climbed the opposite hill. He gave instructions that if the chosen site did not please him he would wave his white handkerchief. On this signal, the courtier was to be slain. The king actually found that the site was ideal. But it was a warm day and he forgetfully mopped his brow with the white handkerchief. On coming downhill he was confronted with the courtier’s fresh cadaver and exclaimed, ‘Oh dear.’ And ever since, my escorts told me, the opposite peak has been known as ‘Oh Dear Hill.’I thought this was a perfect illustration of the caprice and cruelty of absolute leadership, and began to phrase a little pun about Kim Jong Il being the ‘Oh Dear Leader,’ but it died on my lips.
Confucians, along with Hebrew, Islamic, and Catholic scholastics, as well as Protestant fundamentalists, are like tourists who study guidebooks and maps instead of wandering freely and looking at the view. Speech and writing are undoubtedly marvelous, but for this very reason they have a hypnotic and fascinating quality which can lead to the neglect of nature itself until they become too much of a good thing.