I’ve been thinking about China lately and to me one of the most singular aspects of Chinese civilization compared with other developed civilizations is the relative unimportance of religion throughout its history. In fact, if you take the broad sweep of Chinese history the must influential system of belief is without a doubt Confucianism. There are some Westerners/history teachers who consider Confucianism a religion, but it seems a misrepresentation and a broad use of the term “religion”. I don’t have much new to say on this debate so I’ll just quote the wiki on Confucianism.
Confucianism is definitively non-theistic. Confucianism is humanistic, and does not involve a belief in the supernatural or in a personal god. On spirituality, Confucius said to Chi Lu, one of his students, that “You are not yet able to serve men, how can you serve spirits?” Attributes that are seen as religious—such as ancestor worship, ritual, and sacrifice—were advocated by Confucius as necessary for social harmony; however, these attributes can be traced to the traditional non-Confucian Chinese beliefs of Chinese folk religion, and are also practiced by Daoists and Chinese Buddhists. Scholars recognize that classification ultimately depends on how one defines religion. Using stricter definitions of religion, Confucianism has been described as a moral science or philosophy.
I think about the circumstances of pre-modern China which consisted of a mostly illiterate population, largely agrarian, extreme poverty, wanton violence, and a semi-Malthusian state of affairs with not much growth on the horizon. If societies must have organized religion because people are credulous, uneducated, and do truly live awful lives where even a story that it will all be better when you die gives solace then I argue Buddhism is a great choice. It is the best choice if most of the ruling class/educated are pretty much atheists already. My thesis is basically if you had a society full of atheists and they were forced to choose a religion for the rest of their people or “co-sign” then that religion would be something like Buddhism.
Some pros of Buddhism are its innate non-violence and a non-proselytizing nature. Perhaps sects of Buddhism have been adapted for semi-violent goals such as Shaolin Monks or Zen Buddhism by Samurai warriors. I must say I am ignorant of some Buddhist history, but I do not recall any war ever being fought because of Buddhism. I also do not recall any religions being persecuted by Buddhists for adhering to that religion (Religions were persecuted by “Buddhists”; use nuance here.). Also, when I think of Buddhism’s spread to other countries in East Asia; the story is always that someone from Japan visited China and brought Buddhism back. It’s never that Buddhist emissaries from China spread Buddhism to Korea. It also seems to me that Buddhism was relatively less influential in the politics of China than the Catholic Church was in Europe. Buddhism just does not hold as large or as important part of Chinese history as other religions did to their respective countries. To me this stems from the tenets of the religion. It is not really a religion about worshipping a god or about salvation/sin. It is more internal and is not concerned with others; perhaps libertarian in a sense. It is also very adaptable/amenable to other systems of thought such as Confucianism, folk religions, and even Christianity.
Now the reason why I say the Chinese rulers or people chose Buddhism is because of the many religions that have passed through China with very little impact. Almost all of the world’s large religions have passed through and none have taken hold the way Buddhism has (especially during the Yuan dynasty); maybe it’s just cultural. I’d like to think it’s because the Chinese people knew better. There have also been multiple folk religions in Chinese history; I would include Daoism in here, but these were smaller or local and have always taken a backseat to Buddhism. Now, it is true some parts of China are muslim and some parts would later become Christian (this is much later in Chinese history), but these were relatively small compared with Buddhism. And Buddhism had perhaps a first mover advantage (I find this a weak argument as Daoism predates Buddhism and Korea is a counterexample of Buddhism losing ground to Christianity/Catholicism). If there is such a thing as a marketplace of religion; I argue the Chinese people chose Buddhism.
When I was growing up with relatives that were in some sense Buddhist; I noticed that when they did all the ritualistic things like burning incense, praying, burning money, or going to temple it was drastically different than Americans. The main difference is that most of my relatives or other people I saw didn’t really believe in what they were doing. They did those things ritualistically, but they never believed that when they burned money for their relatives that actual money was going to go to them in the after life. At least not in the same way that a Christian actually believes that Jesus Christ was resurrected. When I talked to regular “Buddhists” I found that almost none of them really believed in the supernatural aspects of it. Perhaps it is similar to secular Jews. The most striking example of the Buddhists not really believing aspect to me is how I can’t think of a single child of these Buddhists being a Buddhist themselves. In America, in my personal experience I have barely met any Chinese/Japanese/Korean second-generation Buddhists if not zero (I think this is also true for a few other religions, Hinduism). When Buddhists leave China, their children are inevitably not Buddhist or at least just perform ritualistic things. I read a post online awhile back that I can’t find anymore, but it said that in America the majority of Buddhists are non-Asian and I think the percentage of Chinese Buddhists was shockingly low because of the following generations being almost entirely non-Buddhist.
So to sum it all up; the two systems of thought that dominated Chinese history were Confucianism and Buddhism and both lacked religious fervor. China seems like the place in the world where religion had the least impact of any society. Am I wrong?
If not, I’d like to give a high five to my Chinese ancestors; you were the only ones.