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June 24, 2017

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Chinese intellectual agnosticism?

In "The Analects of Confucius," disciples of China's great sage wrote, "The master did not talk about prodigies, force, disorders and gods." He never attested to, asserted or debated claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, as well as other religious and metaphysical claims. That is why Confucius was once condemned in the Christian West as an atheist and the debate is still going on about whether or not Confucianism is a religion. Nonetheless, Confucianism is the religion of Chinese intellectuals.

The fact is that Confucius was an agnostic, the word Thomas Huxley coined in the 19th century for someone like himself who rejects all claims of spiritual or mystical knowledge. In the popular sense, an agnostic is one who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of a god or deities, whereas a theist and an atheist believe and disbelieve, respectively.

All Confucian scholar-officials of yore were agnostics. But Confucian agnosticism tends to be agnostic theism. They knew there was no proof of either the existence or non-existence of any deity but still believed in such an existence. For that reason, the scholar-officials never failed to try to get the country back into Confucian order when they started their careers, but turned to equally agnostic Taoism in their mid-career after they had found what they were trying to do was of little use and resigned themselves to let things take their own course, and espoused Buddhism while they were aging and thinking seriously of what would happen after death. This Chinese intellectual tradition has been adhered to in modern China. Incidentally, Buddhism is, like Confucianism, a religion not based on revelations but an existentialist one, and the Buddha himself set an important trend in non-theism in the sense of dismissing the notion of an omnipotent god such as Yahweh in Judaism, Jehovah in Christianity and Allah in Islam.

Intellectuals of modern Taiwan, however, are cutting loose from that age-old agnostic Confucian tradition. Signs abound. Terry Gou, the founder and chairman of Foxconn which is the world's largest electronics manufacturing services company, had the life-size image of General Guan Yu enshrined at Xiezhou in Shanxi province come to Taiwan on last Friday for a 12-day tour of its 14 counties and cities to give divine assistance in its struggle for economic progress. Politicians, including Legislative Yuan speaker Wang Jyn-ping, were at hand at Xiaogang Airport in Kaohsiung to welcome the image of the loyal general of the Epoch of the Three Kingdoms to Taiwan. President Chen Shui-bian, while in office, visited Longshan Temple in Taipei to twirl his amulet over an incense pot to renew its potency, and presented its replicas to the faithful so that they would receive divine help in fulfilling their wishes ranging from passing college entrance examinations to living to 100 years old to growing up pretty enough to marry good husbands. President Ma Ying-jeou was not to be outdone. He went to Tajia to take part in the launch of an annual tour inspection by Mazu, or Goddess of the Seas, of her ever-growing domain in Central and South Taiwan. A recent poll shows over 75 percent of college students fear being possessed by supernatural beings. Top government officials and politicians are becoming adherents to geomancy. All of them are intellectuals, of course.

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