Confucianism - Freedom and Democracy 2.0

Is Confucianism a Religion?

Appendix 6.  Do You Have to Follow Rituals?   No rituals – no civil society

In a word, yes. Rites are the right thing to do – when done for the right reasons. We may say that rituals are part of what makes for a civil society.

Confucian scholar Stephen Angle makes the civil society point in his 2011 article (among others) Neither Morality Nor Law: Ritual Propriety as Confucian Civil Society -

A concern for ritual has been central to the thought and practice of virtually all Confucians. “Ritual” here does not just mean a formal ceremony, but covers all the multifarious social norms that govern how we interact with one another; in the contemporary world, we see rituals in situations as diverse as family meals, greetings between strangers, and committee meetings. According to Confucians, societies that are ritually ordered flourish; individuals whose lives are governed by ritual are humans rather than beasts. The “patterning” (wen) that is distinctive of ritually shaped activities enables culture, community, and civilization.

Rites li礼are important in Confucianism, not for reasons of maintaining hierarchy, but showing respect for history, tradition, and other people. Rites – sometimes we call them customs or even common courtesies - help the individual transform his thinking in times of high emotion. Rites are an important element of civil society in Confucianism, an important element of social capital. As with rituals in the US, rites allow us to transform the intangible into the tangible – an intellectual or emotional or social willingness to help into holding a door open, fellow feeling into please and thank you, trust into a loan or investment. Rituals smooth the way. In Analects 1.12 (Xue Er 12) Confucius tells us –

In practicing the rules of propriety, a natural ease is to be prized. In the ways prescribed by the ancient kings, this is the excellent quality, and in things small and great we follow them.

Rituals are not to be thought of as foolish pomp and circumstance. They are not obsequious deference to loyalty, tradition, or sanctity.  Rituals smooth the way to harmony. In a conflict situation, rituals can give us a moment to think.   

Ritual is not to be forced or fake. Again, in Analects 15.18 (Wei Ling Gong 18) Confucius tells us that ritual is performed in humility -

The superior man in everything considers righteousness to be essential. He performs it according to the rules of propriety. He brings it forth in humility. He completes it with sincerity. This is indeed a superior man.

Ritual is not rigid. Confucius himself was happy to alter ritual in the manner of current practice. Analects 9.3 (Zi Han 3) - The Master said, The hemp ceremonial cap is what is called for in li. Nowadays plain silk is used. That is thrifty. I follow the general trend. To make one’s bows at the base of the steps is what is called for in li. Nowadays people bow after ascending. That is arrogant. Though it goes against the general trend, I make my bows below.

Rites are only necessary because humans fail to self-cultivate, fall from the path of righteousness and fail to follow the Dao. Rites are a reminder. They need not be elaborate or hierarchical.   Xunzi cites “songs and laughter, weeping and lamentation...rice and millet, fish and meat...the wearing of ceremonial caps, embroidered robes, and patterned silks, or of fasting clothes and mourning clothes...unspacious rooms and very nonsecluded halls, hard mats, seats and flooring” as parts of the fabric of li.

In the past, a mindless obedience to ritual was thought to be part of Chinese culture. But that is not what Confucians have said. I cited Confucius above; here, Mencius on saving his sister-in-law from drowning in Mencius 4A.17 (Li Lou I.17)

Chun Yu Kun said, 'Is it the rule that males and females shall not allow their hands to touch in giving or receiving anything?'

Mencius replied, 'It is the rule.'

Kun asked, 'If a man's sister-in-law be drowning, shall he rescue her with his hand?'

Mencius said, 'He who would not so rescue the drowning woman is a wolf. For males and females not to allow their hands to touch in giving and receiving is  the general rule; when a sister-in-law is drowning, to rescue her with the hand is a peculiar exigency.'

Kun said, 'The whole kingdom is drowning. How strange it is that you will not rescue it!'

Mencius answered, 'A drowning kingdom must be rescued with right principles, as a drowning sister-in-law has to be rescued with the hand. Do you wish me to rescue the kingdom with my hand?'

Jesus observed ritual, but was willing to ignore them or modify  them as required by love or benevolence. Jesus refused to stone the woman accused of adultery, even though that was the law. John 8:1-11. And as with Confucius above, Jesus did not mind overturning custom when it was unnecessary or destructive, as with the moneychangers in the temple.

And Mark 3:4–6 - Then Jesus asked the people, “Which is the right thing to do on the Sabbath day: to do good or to do evil? Is it right to save a life or to destroy one?” The people said nothing to answer him. Jesus looked at the people. He was angry, but he felt very sad because they were so stubborn. He said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” The man held out his hand, and it was healed. Then the Pharisees left and made plans with the Herodians about a way to kill Jesus.


Decline of American rituals … and civil society

Every society has rituals. We shake hands, hold doors, say yes or no, sir or ma’m, give up seats on the bus and even alternate passage when two lanes of traffic merge into one. We can and do invent new rituals – fist bumps and high fives and hugs and kisses.

We can think of rituals or rites as ties to some domineering aristocracy of the past. Certainly, American society has not been a respecter of such ties to the past. Rituals do remind us of our past – true. But they also remind us of our obligations to each other now, and do not require uniforms, pageants, or inequality between two people. Rituals are a part of civil society in action.  Mary Bockover –

The li of Confucius’ Analects is unique in the realm of ethics. Roughly translated, li is holy rite, ritual propriety, ceremony; it is the appropriate, civilized, authoritative, even sacred conduct by which people mutually recognize and respond to each other in their distinctively human roles. The human way (rendao) is a way of convention that both expresses and aims to further realize ren, the natural human goodness, benevolence, nobility, authority, or humanity ‘in’ all of us.

Mary I. Bockover. Confucianism and Ethics in the Western Philosophical Tradition I: Foundational Concepts. Philosophy Compass 5/4 (2010).   Available at

Where do we find ritual – the holy rite - most honored now? In those professions where adherence to a code is necessary – military, police, firemen.

Rites are clearly in decline in the US. My entire effort in this work is directed at finding a solution to our declining culture, part of which is decline in civil society. At base, civil society provides a good portion of our modern sense of rites. Civil society is civility in communication and personal behavior. It can be respect for authority, it can be respect for others’ religious and political beliefs, it can be respect for traditions. It is also friendliness on the street, holding doors for others, letting someone else go first – all the manner of non-verbal communication that helps bind us.  We still honor some rituals, particularly those of our “civil religion”- flag, national anthem – but even those get less attention from some parts of our culture now.

In this sense, we do have to follow rituals. Without some rituals, some civil society apart from our local tribe or group or affiliation, we have no society. We become a nation of strangers at a national shopping mall. This problem is similar to the current situation in China as described by Ci Jiwei in Moral China in the Age of Reform. There is little civil society, and the culture is coarse as a result. There are no independent mediating institutions between family and government. We are by no means in that situation now, but we are tending that way.  Particularly on the left, there is a tendency to trust government to provide answers and services at the expense of voluntary organizations.

Wm. T. De Bary analyzes the reason for coarseness in dynastic China in The Trouble with Confucianism - the real lapse lay not in the failure to industrialize and exploit more fully the earths resources, but in the failure of an educational system too opportunistically oriented to career goals .... Even by traditional Confucian standards it had ceased to address fundamental human issues and new needs.   This analysis applies now to American society as well.

De Bary’s prescription is one that we may adopt completely -

Educationally speaking, this focuses attention on the core curriculum, by which I mean a set of basic courses required of all students regardless of their field of specialization - courses that focus on the central problems of human life and society .... and that promote active civil discourse concerning the relevance of these core values to the problems of the contemporary world.  

Western analysts have recognized that ritual involves more than just discipline. In one way or another, ritual involves a kind of expression or communication. It is the way we transmit values. American conservatives know this.



One way in which we might develop these thoughts about “expression” is suggested in an influential essay about civility by the contemporary philosopher Cheshire Calhoun in her 2016 book Moral Aims. She argues that civility is an important moral virtue because it enables the communication of respect, tolerance, and considerateness. It is one thing to be respectful; it is another thing to “display” this in a way that the “target of civility might reasonably interpret as making clear that I recognize some morally considerable fact about her that makes her worth treating with respect.”

Calhoun emphasizes that in order to make such a display, we are required to “follow whatever the socially established norms are for showing people … respect.”  Civility has both “political” and “polite” realms. Keeping a “civil tongue” in political conversations, as well as an active willingness to listen to others, are examples of the former; avoiding nosiness and self-righteousness, as well as waiting one’s turn are examples of the latter.

Mencius says one should respond initially with civility to outrageous treatment. When one’s initial judgment is that one has been unjustifiably wronged, rather than criticize the other or respond equally “outrageously,” one should respond civilly and review one’s conduct and feelings. Keeping to a ritually proper response gives one space to question oneself, which also has the effect of striving to maintain the possibility of shared values.

It is striking that Calhoun concludes her essay on civility with a similar sentiment. She writes that she finds “something odd, and oddly troubling, about the great confidence one must have in one’s own judgment (and lack of confidence in others’) to be willing to be uncivil to others in the name of a higher moral calling.”  This reminds me of turning the other cheek, but also of Augustine’s tolerance for others, remembering that neither vengeance nor judgment is ours to claim.  


Christian ritual and early Christianity

We can see rituals as sacramental. A sacrament is typically understood as a channel or link to the divine or as a visible sign of an invisible grace. In my terms, a ritual transforms the intangible feeling into a tangible action.

We all remember the powerful use of ritual in the Christian churches, particularly the Roman Catholic church.  Indeed, one of the rationales for falling away from church attendance and observance is the hypocrisy of much modern ritual observance at the cost of Christian practice.

Jesus was not a slavish observer of ritual.  He taught on the Sabbath, he welcomed women into his company (Luke 8.2-3), he preached to and helped those without ritual cleanliness.  Jesus was perhaps the first and greatest egalitarian – not only are all equal before God, but one should remain aware of that and practice that on earth.  In What Jesus Meant Garry Wills refers to Jesus as radically egalitarian -  Jesus was never afraid to speak truth to power even as he renounced violence of all types.

What Jesus taught about ritual and speaking truth is substantially different from Confucian teaching.  Jesus did not ignore or denigrate ritual but he proposed a different means of communicating benevolence. Rites are key in Confucianism. Without rites – which we can interpret as the commonalities of civil society – one cannot be benevolent and humane.  For Jesus, loving god and one’s neighbor as oneself are the heart of the law.

For Jesus, ritual is irrelevant compared with the obligations for care, particularly for those at the bottom of social status. Confucians understand a fundamental human equality, but as with love, it is equality with distinctions.  Mencius did tell us that any human would save a child who fell into a well, regardless of circumstances, but the demand to love one another is there but clearly less emphasized. In the LiJi (Classic of Rites) we see the importance of ritual -

This served as a tribute to the animal soul, and taught the people to love one another, and high and low to cultivate good feeling between them - such was the effect of those ceremonies. (Ji Yi 20)

Confucius also spoke truth to power, but it was a more circumscribed truth, reflecting his audience. Confucianism is applicable to all people, but he spoke to those wishing to lead or advise. Confucius pushed the boundaries of propriety and ritual; Jesus broke those boundaries.

In Mark 9:35Whoever would be first must become the last of all and the servant of all.

Jesus lays out the program in Luke 6:27-38 – turn the other cheek, treat your foes well, judge not that you not be judged yourself, pardon and don’t kill.  In What Jesus Meant Garry Wills reminds us that the program is tough - tremendous ingenuity has been expended to compromise those uncompromising words. Jesus is too much for us. Wills tells us that the churches’ later treatment of the gospels is one long effort to rescue Jesus from his “extremism.”

Garry Wills. What Jesus Meant. Penguin Books, 2007, page 53. Audio discussion at

If one wants to understand how Confucian benevolence is ignored in Chinese society, one must only remember that the demands of Confucianism are tough as well.

Americans have grown accustomed to abandoning social rituals, whether it is church attendance or wearing a tie in a restaurant. For fifty years, we have come to see rituals as a means of control and limitation and class snobbishness. If all men are equal, then we must all conform to the lowest common denominator. To do otherwise is class consciousness – that is the operating principle.

Perhaps our fascination with lack of ritual has gone too far. Rituals are not only obscure or oppressive social or religious practices. Every culture has rituals, some which promote civility and benevolence and some which do not.  Rituals tie us to the past, to each other, and remind us of our obligations. American rituals include the Pledge of Allegiance, and singing the anthem before games, perhaps saying ‘sir’ or ‘ma’m’ when addressing a stranger.  These are signs of respect. They also give us a chance to connect and a moment to think before we express frustration or anger or intolerance. It is the decay of ritual, says Emile Durkheim, that leads to excessive individualism.

Alasdair MacIntyre writes in After Virtue about the need for a practice, a body of knowledge and experience that will educate, develop, and constrain the unformed person.  A practice – like carpentry, or collection of seashells, car repair or teaching – has its own standards for excellence and requires thoughtful commitment over time.  The commitment to standards is the definition of what ritual is for – it is a reminder not only of what it past but what we need to do to become excellent. So football players develop personal standards and rituals for training. Football teams have rituals of pregame meals or meetings. Entire high schools, even colleges, develop ritual celebrations of sports teams before the big game. What are these, other than reminders of what is past, and what is needed for success? 


Popular piety and ritual in the Church

In the last few decades past the Catholic Church has taken much deserved scorn for emphasis on rites and rituals over humane and moral behavior. There is a tendency to see ritual now as hypocrisy of the highest order. Pope Francis is attempting to steer a path between those who want a return to the good old days of Latin mass and smoke and incense and the Catholic progressives who would turn the Church to some form of Catholicism-light.

Garry Wills commented in 2015 on The Future of Catholicism with Pope Francis that the impact of Vatican II was blunted not only by church reactionaries, but by liberals too eager to jettison rites and habits that many people loved - devotions, fasting, novenas. Pope Francis, Wills noted, likes folk religion, which he calls popular piety. Rites are an important feature dismissed from Catholicism post Vatican II.  Quoting Francis - Expressions of popular piety have much to teach us. For those who are capable of reading them, they are a locus theologicus which demands our attention, especially at a time when we are looking at the new evangelizations.   


 Rituals in human rights

One can see rituals as communicating not only a necessary “Augustinian uncertainty” about the intentions of others with whom we disagree, but also conveying an important sense of human rights. Rites convey respect for the other as a human being. Americans on the left and the right  who cannot control their vitriol in public or online might consider that as well.

In Confucius' own thinking li was a cardinal virtue which would guide one in the path (dao) of moral truth: "The Master (Confucius) said, `By extensively studying all learning, and keeping himself under the restraint of the rules of propriety (li), one may thus likewise not err from what is right" (The Analects 12:15). Li establishes a person's moral character. Li is required not only of individuals, but for the proper government of a state as well, as Confucius notes in a number of occasions in The Analects.

James T. Bretzke, S.J. Human Rights or Human Rites?  A Confucian Cross-cultural Perspective.  Available at


Asian values

One of the background western assumptions about Confucianism is that it is supportive of totalitarian governments, focused on ritual for the sake of conserving an elite dominance, and outmoded in a more democratic global culture. The focus on respect for ritual is provided as evidence. In 1776, Thomas Paine complained in Common Sense that Asia had long “expelled” freedom. From 1919, Chinese leaders of the May Fourth Movement derided Confucian values, including attention to ritual, as a cause for Chinese backwardness. And from about 1993, Lee Kuan Yew fostered the idea of “ Asian values” as an alternative view to human rights, including freedom of speech and assembly.  Asian values demonstrates outward signs of respect for leaders, government, family and elders – but more than that, a presumption that government always knows best and has a right itself to suppress opposition.

The confounding of Asian values with Confucianism led us to discount Confucianism as a rite-infested ancient swamp, unsuitable for modern times.  Modern Confucians are of course critical of the Asian values concept and oppose it when possible. Tu Weiming declined to lend his  support for the Asian values concept at the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998. In the same article Tu expresses his disappointment with western capitalist liberalism and provides a concise list of six features of a more Confucian-inspired modernism.

Wm. T. DeBary and others have easily dismantled the Asian values meme as a counter to human rights. To the extent Asian values are about ritual and deference – well, Confucius himself would not agree. He told us that ritual for the sake of ritual is empty, and provided the example of his cap (Analects 9.3 Zi Han 3).

Wm. Theodore DeBary. Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective.  Harvard University Press, 1998.


We can have too much ritual – and too much law

Ritual for the sake of ritual is empty. We undertake some of our rituals out of remembrance of the past and tradition even when we feel the ritual has outlived its usefulness. Think of some Christmas and Thanksgiving rituals. A stilted, ossified ritual event generates little support for its programs.

At the same time, we can see ourselves as bound by too much law – what doctors are allowed to say to patients, what teachers are allowed to discuss in class, what restrictions hamper benefits to the public at large. This is, of course, an enormous and contentious topic, one that cannot be addressed here.

We do need a balance of informal ritual and law. In particular, we need more space for civil society to operate. Joseph Chan’s proposal in his Confucian Perfectionism - A Political Philosophy for Modern Times is to use law as a fall back position when civil society actions – discussion, bargaining, mediation, arbitration, remembrance of the sins that come with pride and the benefits of humility – are insufficient for progress.

Chan and others have proposed a balanced blending of Confucianism (nee civil society) with human rights and positive law. We can see modern law and regulations as one aspect of modern ritual – a set of procedures commonly agreed upon, to provide direction for individual action and appropriate honor for others, in civility and in contract.  Rites are fundamental institutions that are correlated with virtue. How is that not an understanding of law and regulation as well? The concern is for those rituals that have become stilted and ossified, hampering social well-being.

For a bit of perspective, there were civil society institutions of a sort in China from early dynastic times – the community compact, or xiangyue.  This loose sort of partnership, usually led by the most prominent local scholar or wealthiest local personage, was tied to community granaries, public works maintenance, and local schools.  Zhu Xi saw these compacts as a third institution, and promoted their use. The use of the compacts was lost between the Ming and Qing dynasties. DeBary sees an important role for a Confucian communitarianism that resists state domination at the same time as it is compatible with western notions of human rights and civil society.  The community compact is quite clearly an institution focused on ritual support for the people by the wealthiest. 


What should we do now?

My personal feeling is that greater scope for ritual in American life – past the sports rituals and formulaic national anthem recitals – would be good for the American soul. We children of the sixties abandoned rituals as oppressive. Our children didn’t learn them. Without rituals, we lose connection with the past, with culture, with locale, with each other. We now need some ritual to combat libertine culture on the left and an antinomian culture on the right. We don’t need to call it ritual. Civility will do.

The small niceties of daily life between strangers – saying hello, holding a door, giving up a seat – are still found. The place starved for some ritual behavior is in larger civil society, the place that is not family and not friendship and not one-on-one exchanges, but interactions with strangers at scale. It is civility in online media, tolerance for views of others. It is voting as a responsible behavior rather than as an act of pique. It is publicly denying cynicism and seeking to neutralize false news from bots and national enemies. It is holding social media and mass media to account for facts.

More than anything else, ritual demonstrates respect and tolerance for others. Much of today’s public behavior in media is sickly cynical. It would be sophomoric if it weren’t so damaging.

What do we all cherish, beyond immediate gratification and economic values as trump for all other values? Ritual can help bind us together, remind us of the things we do share and love together (remember Augustine) and that is needed now more than ever. Confucians would say that will sufficient respect for ritual, we can dispense with much litigation. We will give ourselves enough time and perspective to find solutions that increase rather than decrease harmony.

We may think of law as ritual codified. But we need more than codified ritual. A reminder from that founder of conservatism Edmund Burke -

The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us …. They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.

Edmund Burke. Thoughts on the prospect of a regicide peace: in a series of letters. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.  Available at;view=fulltext

The Washington Post told us in the Trump era that democracy dies in darkness. True enough, but the darkness is not only in secrecy, lying, and fraud. It is also in stilted relationships and communication failures that result – not from Confucianism – but from people afraid of each other due to guns on the street or personal threats online or in email. Some Confucian – and Christian, for that matter – or civic republican or humanist or social gospel humanism – needs be part of our national light.