“Koreans never met a religion they didn’t like.” Our tour guide made this pronouncement during my tour of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in November 2014, sponsored by the Academy of Korean Studies. “Well.” I thought “that was an interesting remark.” It certainly was better, in my estimation, than hating all religions except your own. I was a convert to our tour guide’s impression when I began to notice that public spaces were filled with Christian crosses, Daoist symbols, shamanistic stone settings, Buddhist temples, Confucian historic sites, and even a mosque had recently been built. Religion was and is a very important part of Korean society and I thought that it necessitated a separate blog in this series.
First, I will define the term religion using the abbreviated version in my book Waves of Global Change: A Holistic World History. Religion is a system through which people interpret the nonhuman realm as if it were human and seek to influence it through symbolic communication. It often contains a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. I will interpret religion broadly and include the beliefs systems found in Korea such as Buddhism, Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic), and even Confucianism and shamanism. This should give us a broad representation.
Let’s start our conversation about religion with shamanism since it is the oldest tradition and people probably know the least about it. Even though there are practicing Buddhists, Christians, and atheists, about 80% of Koreans adhere to the ancient beliefs of shamanism in some form. Koreans don’t seem to see a contradiction in holding dissimilar religious beliefs. Shamanism is the basic belief that all happiness stems from harmony with nature. It is linked to animism, the belief that everything has a spirit, rather than the idea of a transcendent God. Koreans revere the mountain spirit, since the country is blanketed with mountains. Shamanism can take the form of simple rituals, such as a ceremony to cleanse the evil spirits from a new residence or initiate a new car. Some Koreans, especially women, visit their favorite shaman on a regular basis and ask for guidance in everyday life or have their future told.
There are now 55,000 practicing shamans in Korea more than the clergy of all the other religions put together. Shamanism is not carefully organized, there are no written texts, no established leaders, and most of the followers and practitioners are women. Now that is a recipe for officials to denigrate it. But it is alive and well and continues in Korea today.
In recent decades the biggest enemies of shamanism have been some of Korea’s fervent Christians. Christianity has exploded in South Korea with about 5.4 million of its 50 million people worshiping Roman Catholics and about 9 million more are Protestants of many stripes. There are two divisions in Christianity: the elite and Evangelical. Elite Koreans find the Presbyterian style most appealing but lately charismatic Evangelical churches are growing at a full clip. The Yoido Full Gospel Church’s 1 million members form the largest Pentecostal congregation on Earth! The noisy, emotional, form of worship at the church has led some observers to remark that it is the “shamanization” of Christianity.
Why the sudden popularity of Christianity. Although many reasons are cited, I find the recent explosive economic growth accompanies the rise of Christianity. Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic states that worldly success connotes God’s blessing. The popularity of the Prosperity Gospel, widespread in the U.S. as well, seems to attest to the economic connection.
Buddhism has deep historical roots in Korea, arriving around 372 CE (common era) from China. Buddhism was/is like a great sponge, absorbing native shamanistic religions and blending them into Buddhist beliefs, a practice that continues today. Thus, the mountains that were believed to be the residence of spirits in pre-Buddhist times became the sites of Buddhist temples. As evidenced by the number of Koreans trekking to remote Buddhist mountain top temples, such as the beautiful Haeinsa Temple, the intermingling of mountain spirits and Buddhism continues today. Unfortunately, fundamentalist Protestant antagonism against Korean Buddhists, who make up about 23% of the population, has increased in recent years. Acts of vandalism against Buddhist temples and praying for the destruction of Buddhist temples has amplified the tension between Buddhists and Korean Protestants.
I would like to include Confucianism as an influential tradition that has shaped Korea today, although many do not consider Confucianism a religion per se. Neo-Confucianism, in which the older teachings of Confucius were blended with Daoism and Buddhism, became the official religion of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), offering an alternative to the influence of Buddhism. The legacy of Confucianism remains a fundamental part of Korean society, shaping the moral system, the everyday life, social relations between old and young, and is the basis for much of the legal system. The traditional Confucian respect for education remains a vital part of Korean culture (see Korean Blog Series #2). Our Korean tour guide mentioned that some of the Confucian family traditions were beginning to ebb. One of the reasons she stated is because women do most of the work, such as preparing food, and do not get to participate in the ceremonies. That type of gender inequality is not appealing to most modern Korean women.
Aside from the occasional fundamentalist Protestant attacks against Buddhism, South Koreans seem to respect and accept the diversity of religious beliefs and practices. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Korean ethnic group accounts for approximately 96% of the total population of the country. It may be easier to accept your neighbors’ different religious beliefs if they are practiced by members of your own ethnic group. The increase of foreign laborers, often practicing Muslims, from different ethnic groups and countries may tell a different and less tolerant story. But, hopefully, the Republic of Korea can provide an inspirational ideal for the rest of the world to follow, in which a nation’s citizenry embraces and accepts a variety of religious beliefs and practices.
Why have Koreans accepted so many different religious beliefs?