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During the European Enlightenment, radical thinkers challenged Christian views on cosmology, morality, and society. As historian Jonathan Israel writes, one way they did this was by pointing to the ideas animating non-Christian civilizations, and, in particular, Chinese Confucianism.

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Israel writes that, in the 1650s, a Dutch Deist named Isaac Vossius introduced fellow early Enlightenment thinkers to the idea that Chinese culture and society represented an admirable model for Europeans. He pointed to China’s development of philosophy, arts, and scientific advances, noting, for example, that the Chinese invented printing 1,500 years before the Gutenberg press. Focusing on Chinese civilization allowed Vossius and other freethinkers to decouple the story of human progress and moral development from Christianity.

Vossius’s English contemporary Sir William Temple particularly praised Confucius for championing the cultivation of “natural reason” for the improvement of the individual and society. These ideas harmonized well with radical Enlightenment thought, particularly the ideas of the influential naturalistic thinker Baruch Spinoza. French philosopher Pierre Bayle explicitly identified Confucianists as atheists and argued that China’s civilization proved that it was possible to build a virtuous, stable, happy society on the ground of “an unknowing nature” rather than a creator God.

Meanwhile, Israel writes, a very different group of European intellectuals was also interested in Confucius. Since their early missions to China in the late sixteenth century, the Jesuits had studied the ancient philosopher’s writings so that they could demonstrate their compatibility with Christian doctrine to potential converts there.

In the face of freethinkers’ adoption of Confucius, a group of Jesuits led by Father Philippe Couplet published their own interpretation of his ideas. While they acknowledged that some Confucianists in contemporary China were atheists, they wrote that this was in conflict with the philosopher’s original teachings, which they held to be deeply concerned with divine Providence. Couplet argued that, long before the birth of Christ, the Chinese were aware of “the true God” and were ahead of the ancient Greeks and Romans in adopting monotheism and correct moral ideas.

On the other hand, Israel writes, some Christian thinkers, such as seventeenth-century French theologian Antoine Arnauld, agreed with the freethinkers that ancient Chinese philosophy had no place for God—but argued that this made it morally bankrupt.

Within the Vatican, a fierce debate over whether the Chinese were amoral atheists or virtuous non-atheists ultimately ended in 1700 with a defeat for the Jesuits. However, this had troubling consequences. First, it undermined missions in China. And second, it undermined the popular argument for the existence of God based on “consent of the peoples,” meaning that all the world’s societies acknowledged God in some way.

The Church attempted to resolve this issue by arguing that, while Chinese intellectuals and leadership class were atheists, the common people were effectively deists—which, despite still being contrary to Catholic teaching, led them to behave virtuously. However, this was far from a fully satisfying solution, and debates about the relative merits of different cosmological views would continue for centuries to come.

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Frontiers of Philosophy in China, Vol. 8, No. 2 (June 2013), pp. 183–198