The debate on whether Confucianism and Daoism are religions or philosophies is a complicated one. On one hand, both have central texts, rituals, and codes of ethics that are shared and agreed upon by the people who practice them. Both ways of thinking have people they see as being a central teacher. Further, Daoism in particular does talk about mystical things and supernatural realms, which many other traditions that are labeled “religions” do (Neusner 2009). However, both of these traditions lack the worship of a central divine figure, and this is the key feature in the question of whether these systems can be considered full religions. This is most true for Confucianism, which many argue is “not so much a separate religion as a set of values and a way of life” (Neusner 2009). Further, Confucianism in particular seems to be more focused on honoring one’s family and ancestors, education, and social hierarchy than discussing an afterlife or any other kind of mystical or supernatural concepts.
This is also somewhat true for Daoism, though these things are discussed as being part of the “Dao,” or “the Way,” which is also defined as being the order both of society and the universe in general (Neusner 2009).These features make a strong case for Confucianism and Daoism being philosophies, rather than religions. However, I will argue that they are religions. For Daoism, while it may not have a central divine being or elaborate temples, it is present in the lives of millions of people who understand it. The art in particular is central to Chinese culture, much like Christian icons and Islamic architecture in the West (Neusner 2009). Confucianism not only has temples, but its thought has a great deal of influence on all East Asian cultures, which brings the people together through a common way of thinking (Neusner 2009). Considering that this is, at its core, the function of religion, these philosophies also fall into that category as well.
The simplest answer to the question of why Westerners find the idea of suicide as honorable so foreign is kind of elitist, to say the least. Western academics have, for centuries if not longer, viewed other cultures as primitive, backward, barbaric and otherwise uncivilized, while at the same time viewing their own Western culture as advanced, civilized, and, to put it in common language, better than others (Wolfe 2014). This is also part of the reason that Japanese honor suicides in particular have fascinated us for so long. The Portuguese travelers who first “discovered” the country wrote in their journals that the people were educated and civilized to a huge degree, even if it was in a different way than in the West (Wolfe 2014).
Because suicide was (and still is) considered a crime in Western society, the thought that it could be seen as an honorable thing to do was incredibly hard to grasp (Wolfe 2014). Today, it is frowned upon in Japanese culture, but some argue that this is partly because of the West’s influence (Wolfe 2014). It is a very unusual feature of any religion or culture to consider this act honorable, but the fact that it is an individual decision might make it easier for Western cultures in particular to relate to it. Even though Japanese society as a whole is less individualistic than the West, this is one aspect of it that, even though it is seen as abhorrent, almost made it relatable to early scholars.
- Neusner, J. (2009). Confucianism as a World Religion: World Religions in America, Fourth Edition: An Introduction. Westminster John Knox Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.
- Wolfe, A.S. (2014). Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu. Princeton University Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.