WeiWenDi wrote:But perhaps it might be wise to note that Confucius constructed his ethical system within what would have been then considered a suspended transcendental: healthy human ends and human virtues (道德) were to be determined by their relations to 天地 (heaven and earth), as I believe you note below. I don't think it is necessarily appropriate to collapse the concepts to 'just acknowledging Man's role in the social order', since for Confucius, the social order came out of and was dependent on 天地 (as in, he didn't necessarily treat them as the same thing). Heaven was the ultimate source of the Good, even in exemplary human beings such as Yao (唯天為大，唯堯則之). It isn't the same concept as the Abrahamic God, though, since Confucius is consistently and emphatically silent on issues such as the personhood of 天 - and as far as he is concerned, such things are unimportant.
I think you're right in bringing up the beliefs surrounding 天地 "Heaven and Earth". As far as I'm concerned it's the only grey area in which one may argue that Confucianism appealed to something beyond the mortal realm.
My interpretation is that Confucius' 天地 is a part of natural order and not a supernatural order. That is, the functions of 天地 are bound to the mortal realm and do not extend beyond it; neither do they have independent consciousness (as in animistic belief systems) nor are they related to a transcended realm (a Heaven beyond this world, Hell, Nirvana, etc.). Honestly I think 天地 is really more of a postulate than a belief in a supernatural entity. Saying that there is some independent definition of goodness is different from believing in that independent definition as a transcendental entity, or that will be equivalent to saying that people who believe in an absolute and immutable set of human rights are necessarily religious.
Also, consider the classical Greek theory of the elements. The Greeks believed that the properties and interactions of certain fundamental elements give rise to the phenomena seen in the physical world. But that was not their religion. Similarly, the Confucianists believed that properties and interactions of heaven and earth give rise to the social order, but it doesn't necessarily mean this was their religion.
I think you're both right to the extent that it would be a cheat to ascribe the rites venerating 媽祖、財神、福神、土地公、關公 or any of the various other Chinese folk deities to Confucianism (even ancestral folk heroes like 黃帝 or 堯、舜、大禹), even though Confucian philosophy has undoubtedly had influence on the way the rites for these traditional gods were carried out. But there are Temples to Confucius and to his students, as well as particular rites which are performed at each, which I think it would not be a cheat to describe as particularly Confucian. I also admit difficulty in imagining a Confucianism in good faith stripped completely of considerations of 禮樂 (rites and music), given how much importance Confucius himself attached to these as formative elements of being a humane person (克已復禮為仁, for example, or 先進於禮樂，野人也，後進於禮樂，君子也。如用之，則吾從先進。). I also don't think Confucius was just about following traditions whilst making no reference to the content of the tradition - he was primarily concerned with whether the tradition was in following with humaneness. He was a great fan of the rites of Zhou (周監於二代，郁郁乎文哉。吾從周。), but apparently had little use for those of Zheng, for example (放鄭聲，遠佞人：鄭聲淫，佞人殆。).
Rites do not a religion make. We have a whole lot of rites in our secular world--etiquette and procedures for formal business meetings, rituals for university convocation (professors dressed up in ritual garb and carrying ritual items like maces; students dressed in special gowns), formalities for opening a parliamentary session, diplomatic addresses and communications, singing of the national anthems at the beginning of an NHL game... Confucius emphasized rites and music, but saw them as a way of self-improvement (as well as maintaining good social order), rather than something one must do to go to Heaven, be reincarnated into something good, have good luck in the future, etc.
From what I have observed amongst overseas Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers (and feel free to call me out on this one if you feel my understanding is lacking), ancestor worship, even if it makes no knowledge-claims on the supernatural, nonetheless assumes a continuity beyond life and transcending time and space in ways which would make a 'complete atheist' (in modern Western terms, at least) rather uncomfortable.
I refer you to my answer to agga above. I don't mean Confucians are necessarily atheists. I mean Confucianism on its own does not affirm or dis-affirm the supernatural; it simply doesn't care whether you prayed to your ancestors for blessings or not. Confucius and his disciples did not teach about what happened to people after the die. They taught that you ought to honour your parents and your forebears, so at least you should go pay respect to them somehow. That happened to coincide with the traditional religion of praying to one's ancestors for help (something that had been part of Chinese culture since at least the Shang dynasty). If, somehow, one day it is proven scientifically that there is no continuity beyond this life, Confucius' teachings are not invalidated.
in relation to what may be a transcendent experience
What is this transcendent experience you speak of? Confucius dreaming (or not dreaming) of the Duke of Zhou?