Peter van der Veer Is Confucianism a Religion or a Secular Moral System?

Peter van der Veer is Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen (Germany). He previously taught anthropology at universities across the Netherlands and the University of Pennsylvania. Van der Veer has been a visiting professor at cutting edge universities in the field of the social sciences, such as the New School in New York, the University of Chicago, and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales Paris. Van der Veer’s ethnographic interests are nationalism and religion in Asia and Europe. His most recent work focuses on religious nationalism in India and China. Particularly, van der Veer sheds light to the everyday practice of Confucianism in today’s China.

Area of Research

Anthropology, Comparative Religion, Secularism

Peter van der Veer. The Value of Comparison. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.  
Peter van der Veer. Handbook of Religion and the Asian City. Aspiration and Urbanization in the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.  
Peter van der Veer. The Modern Spirit of Asia. The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.  

since 2008


Max Planck Society (more details)

Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity

since 2006

University Ambassador for Asia

University of Utrecht

since 2004


University of Utrecht



Board of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS)



International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM)



Indo-Dutch Programme in Alternatives in Development (IDPAD)



University of Amsterdam



University of Amsterdam

Faculty of Political and Social Sciences


Professor of Comparative Religion

University of Amsterdam

Social Science Faculty



University of Amsterdam

Research Centre Religion and Society


Associate Professor of Anthropology

University of Pennsylvania


Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology

University of Utrecht


Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology

Free University, Amsterdam


PhD in Anthropology

University of Utrecht



University of Groningen

(Indo-Iranian Studies)



University of Groningen

(Indo-Iranian Studies)

- Review Committee of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program at Dartmouth College

- Selection Committee German Science Foundation on Exzellenzinitiative

- Social Science Selection Committee Academy of Finland

- Social Science Research Council of the Dutch Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences

- SSRC Working Group on Secularism

© Maximilian Dörrbecker

Max Planck Society

"The Max Planck Society is Germany's most successful research organization. Since its establishment in 1948, no fewer than 18 Nobel laureates have emerged from the ranks of its scientists, putting it on a par with the best and most prestigious research institutions worldwide. The more than 15,000 publications each year in internationally renowned scientific journals are proof of the outstanding research work conducted at Max Planck Institutes – and many of those articles are among the most-cited publications in the relevant field." (Source)


Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity

"This Max Planck Institute is primarily concerned with research into various forms of diversity. In today’s societies, people of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds often live side by side. The spectrum ranges from peaceful multiculturalism to bloody conflict – but when does the one occur and when the other? Through wide-ranging empirical studies and by developing theoretical concepts, the Göttingen-based Institute seeks to broaden our understanding of these issues of human coexistence. The main focus of this work is on basic research, but in some instances it extends as far as advising on political policy." (Source)


When asked about the place of religion in their culture, many Chinese people will answer that China is a secular country with no major impact of religion. However, as PETER VAN DER VEER explains in this video, the Chinese are more religious than this perspective suggests and perform many rituals in their daily life. His research shows that this interpretation of Confucianism results from the historical influence of imperialism and the translation of the Western understanding of the terms ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ to an Asian context. Confucianism is being seen as a moral system directly connected to politics rather than a religion as it has no notion of 'god' and is in many other aspects very different from Western concepts of religion.

LT Video Publication DOI:

Is Confucianism Secular?

  • Peter van der Veer
  • Beyond the Secular West
  • Published in 2016
Peter van der Veer. "Is Confucianism Secular?" In Beyond the Secular West, edited by Akeel Bilgrami. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016: 117-134.