Religion in Korea

Religion in Korea refers the various religious traditions practiced on the Korean peninsula. The oldest indigenous religion of Korea is the Korean folk religion, which has been passed down from prehistory to the present. Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms era in the 4th century, and the religion flourished until the Joseon Dynasty, when Confucianism became the state religion. During the Late Joseon Dynasty, in the 19th century, Christianity began to gain a foothold in Korea. While both Christianity and Buddhism would play important roles in the resistance to the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century, only about 4% of Koreans were members of a religious organization in 1940.

Since the division of Korea into two sovereign states in 1945—North Korea and South Korea—religious life in the two countries has diverged, shaped by different political structures. Religion in South Korea has been characterized by a rise of Christianity and a revival of Buddhism, though the majority of South Koreans have no religious affiliation or follow folk religions. Religion in North Korea is characterized by state atheism in which freedom of religion is nonexistent. Juche ideology, which promotes the North Korean cult of personality, is regarded by experts as a kind of national religion.



Religion in Korea encompasses Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Daoism and Shamanism as practiced historically in Korea, as well as contemporary North Korea and South Korea. Shamanism represents Korea’s first religion, the religion of Dangun, the mythical founder of Korea in 2333 B.C.E.. Legendary Gija established Gija Joseon in 1222 B.C.E., following in the Shamanistic tradition of Dangun. Shamanism continued as sole religion of Korea until the advent of Buddhism and Confucianism into Korea just prior to the Common Era. Buddhism held the upper hand, creating Korean civilization from 30 B.C.E. until the founding of the Joseon dynasty in 1392, when Confucianism took the lead, continuing as the dynamic force until the fall of the Joseon Dynasty in 1905. Christianity, introduced in the eighteenth century, has been a growing power in the area of the religion of Korea until the present day.

Religion in Korea has a multi-faceted character. Shamanism, a tribal religion practiced by tribal people around the world, usually wanes as world religions gain dominance in an empire. Shamanism in Korea has remained a vital force in Korean civilization from 2333 B.C.E. until the present day. Buddhism, powerfully influenced by India and China, has transformed into Son Buddhism, providing a spiritually powerful teaching for the Korean people, especially through Pure Land Buddhism and Seon Buddhism. Buddhism and Shamanism, along with Daoism, have the capacity to absorb other religions, and be absorbed by other religions, yet retain its character. Confucianism and Christianity absorbed elements of Shamanism, Buddhism, and Daoism, creating a uniquely Korean form of Confucianism (Neo-Confucianism) and Christianity.

Religion in South Korea

Jinju geommu

Jinju geommu

Slightly more than 50 percent of South Korean’s 49 million citizens profess some religious affiliation. That affiliation is spread among a great variety of traditions, including Buddhism (30 percent), Christianity (25 percent), Confucianism (0.2 percent), and shamanism. These numbers should be treated with some caution, however. Unlike Christianity, there are few if any meaningful distinctions between believers and nonbelievers in Confucianism, which is more of a set of ethical values than a religion. In fact, there are a substantial number of people who count themselves as Christians, but who also follow the traditions and practices of Confucianism, key among which are prayers and rituals to revere the family ancestors at certain times throughout the year. On the other hand, the number of Buddhists may actually be smaller than the statistics indicate because many clients of the shaman say they are Buddhists on government surveys because there is a stigma attached to believing in spirits in modern, high-tech Korea. The cultural impact of these movements is far more widespread than the number of formal adherents suggests. Similar to the way some Christians appear in church only on Christmas and Easter, in South Korea, people flock to the Buddhist temples on Buddha’s birthday, offering donations for prayers that get written on slips of paper and hung under colorful lanterns at the temples. A variety of “new religions” have emerged since the mid-nineteenth century, including Cheondogyo. Islam was introduced to Korea by an Imam who accompanied military troops from Turkey during the Korean War. There are now eight Muslim temples and about 20,000 Muslims in Korea (0.04 percent of the population).

In Korea, religious practices intersect with daily life in a number of ways. During the days preceding the nationwide college entrance exam, the Buddhist temples are packed with mothers and grandmothers of high school seniors making donations and offering prayers in the hopes of good exam grades, similar to practices in Japan and China. Other important exams and events are also treated the same way. On important anniversary dates, jesa rituals are held to honor the family ancestors, with an elaborately prepared offering table full of food. During the construction of new buildings, shamanic ceremonies are held with roast pigs heads, specially prepared rice cakes, and dried fish wrapped in string, to bring good fortune to the building throughout its use. Dried fish are then permanently built into the rafters to ensure the fortune continues. Also, shamans and other spiritual advisors are consulted regarding auspicious dates for weddings and other important events, about the compatibility of marriage and business partners, and other important decisions.

Religion in North Korea

1730 - Nordkorea 2015 - Pjöngjang - Juche Turm Torch at the top of the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea

1730 – Nordkorea 2015 – Pjöngjang – Juche Turm Torch at the top of the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea

Traditionally, Koreans have practiced Buddhism and observed the tenets of Confucianism. Besides a small number of practicing Buddhists (about 11,400, under the auspices of the official Korean Buddhist Federation), the population also includes some Christians (about 10,000 Protestants and 4,000 Roman Catholics, under the auspices of the Korean Christian Federation) and an indeterminate number of native Cheondogyo (Heavenly Way) adherents. However, religious activities are almost nonexistent. North Korea has 300 Buddhist temples, as compared to more than 3,000 in South Korea, and they are considered cultural relics rather than active places of worship. Several schools for religious education exist, including three-year religious colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy. In 1989 Kim Il Sung University established a religious studies program, but its graduates usually go on to work in the foreign trade sector. Although the constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, in practice the government severely discourages organized religious activity except as supervised by the aforementioned officially recognized groups. Constitutional changes made in 1992 allow authorized religious gatherings and the construction of buildings for religious use and deleted a clause about freedom of anti-religious propaganda. The constitution also stipulates that religion “should not be used for purposes of dragging in foreign powers or endangering public security.”

See also


Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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