Religion Religion Korea has been introduced to several different religions, many of which have experienced being Korea’s majority religion at one point in history. Today, the outstanding religious affiliation is none at all. That begs the question: Is Korea religious or irreligious? Today’s numbers may be misleading because a quick look at Korean culture suggests that religion hasn’t left and will likely remain an integral part of the country for decades to come. Internationally, Koreans have gained a reputation for being Christian. This is likely due to how active Korean Christians have been in church planting and sending missionaries abroad. However, travelers to Korea may be surprised to see obvious Buddhist and Confucian influence in most Korean households. What may be even more shocking is finding out that the majority of Koreans don’t claim a religious affiliation. Despite this large population, it would be far from the truth to believe that Korea is not a highly religious society. Instead, much of religion is hidden within mainstream culture itself and religious principles may be practiced unconsciously. Christianity, Buddhism, and Confucianism have blended together in many ways, making it difficult to separate each religion from itself and from culture. The influences are so deeply ingrained that many Koreans may attribute these influences as an element of Korea itself, perhaps not fully knowing the religious background from where these traditions, values, and practices began. The topics discussed in this section will be highlighting not how these religions are practiced in their purest forms, but rather the elements of each religion that are considered mainstream culture and are applicable to all Koreans, regardless of one’s personal religious affiliation. Though this section will only touch on Christian, Buddhist, and Confucianist influence, there are several more religions in Korea that are prominent and have contributed their own unique traits in the formation of modern Korean culture. Confucianism Confucianism as a philosophy has been the backbone of Korea’s social structure and relationships. Originating in China, Confucianism has been a part of Korean history since 372 A.D. in the Goguryeo Kingdom. Though few Koreans now identify as Confucianist primarily, it has so deeply influenced relationship and hierarchical norms that all Koreans practice some element of Confucianist virtues, whether intentionally or not. Its main influences on modern Korean culture comes through the collectivist mindset, language formalities, hierarchy, marriage, funerals, and a myriad of ancestral traditions. Traditional Memorial Ritual, “Jesa” Tied to Confucianism is a high regard for tradition and rituals. Korean marriages and funerals can be lengthy processes filled with meaningful tradition to honor both ancestors and family. Though the details may depend on the family’s religion and whether it is done more traditionally or not, most still adhere to certain Confucian norms and involve at least a handful of rituals. One common practice is Jesa, which is a meal and ceremony preparation done for ancestors, often done around holidays like Chuseok or on the anniversary of the ancestor’s death. “Yaja Time” Confucianism identifies the 5 relationships a person has as: Ruler-Citizen, Father-Son, Husband-Wife, Older Brother-Younger Brother (Sister), and Friend-Friend. The difference between each of these relationships is reflected in the Korean language through Banmal, Jondaemal, and other levels of formality, as through well as differences in behavior to show respect. These differences are accentuated in a popular game called Yaja Time, in which the hierarchy among participants in reversed. The youngest gets to speak informally to everyone, and the oldest must do as the youngest wishes. A gold collection campaign in 1998 Confucianism’s golden rule is “do not impose upon others what you would not wish for yourself”. This idea is also repeated in one of the 5 virtues, Jen, which encompasses having empathy and a kind nature. In Korea, this virtue is shown through is choosing to do what is best for everyone. In 1998, Korea began a gold collection campaign to pay off its debt to the IMF. Worried that the country would go under, the campaign attracted 3.5 million citizens to donate gold. More recently, there has been a movement by President Moon Jae-In to donate individual’s Emergency Disaster Relief Payments to those in greater need of financial assistance due to COVID-19. Buddhism Since the Three Kingdoms period, Buddhism has co-existed with Confucianism, Taoism, and Shamanism. At one time, it was also the state religion and the monasteries were powerful enough to engage politically. The state sponsorship of Buddhism lead way for the blossoming of Buddhist art, architecture, cuisine, and teachings. During this time, Buddhism began blending into mainstream culture. Buddhism itself has contributed to the creation of Korean culture in ways that still remains relevant to daily life in Korea, and is often celebrated as a cultural and historical piece of Korea. Buddha’s Birthday Buddha’s Birthday is a nation holiday celebrated by a visit a Buddhist temple and the Lotus Lantern Festival at night. During the temple visit, many reflect upon the past year and makes wishes for their family’s health, success, and peace. It is tradition to eat temple bibimbab, a vegetarian bibimbap, on Buddha’s Birthday and sometimes temples may offer free meals to those who come. Larger temples like Jogyesa will host large ceremonies to encourage harmony among others and will sometimes invite special guests. For example, during the Sewol Ferry Tragedy in 2014, the ceremony was dedicated towards praying for the souls of those killed and those who lost friends or children. At night, the Lotus Lantern Festival is held and many non-religious or non-Buddhist Koreans come to celebrate Korean culture through a parade and carrying of lanterns throughout the city. Recently, it has even become attended by foreigners with various countries represented in the parade itself. “Heart Signal” Temple Date The first addition to UNESCO World Heritage sites in Korea was the famous Bulguksa temple, and there have been many temples to be added since then. Although Buddhists visitors come to pray, the temples also attract many non-Buddhist visitors. Some visit to admire the unique architecture, while others use it as an escape from the city and busyness of life. Korean Buddhism has been most influenced by Seon Buddhism, which heavily emphasizes meditation. Buddhist temples in Korea have become a place for meditation, peace, and the clearing of one’s mind for all religious and non-religious people. Some temples even offer what they called a “temple-stay”, during which participants spend the night at a Buddhist temple and are led through mediation and patience exercises by Buddhist monks. History of Korean Side Dishes While eating a meal in Korea, it is necessary to prepare Banchan, which are side dishes eaten along with the main course. In restaurants, banchan are offered free to every table, and it can range from just 2-3 dishes all the way up to a whole table’s worth of banchan. The key feature of banchan is that they are usually variations of vegetables such as Kimchi and cucumber salad. This feature of banchan came about from when Buddhism was the state religion of Korea (57 BCE – 668 CE) and there was a ban on eating meat. Even after this ban was lifted, vegetable banchan remained a part of Korean cuisine, as it was more favorable to Korea’s mountainous terrain to use vegetables and grains. Since Buddhist diets are mostly plant-based and involve eating humble portions. Buddhist temple food has recently become a trend among those seeking to lose weight or looking to make environmentally conscious food choices. Christianity A more recent addition to Korea’s religious history, Christianity has quickly taken its place in Korean culture through its influence on politics and education. Christianity was initially introduced to Korea as early as 1603, but remained a fairly minority religion until after the Korean War, when it experienced extreme growth. In the late 20th century, it was a movement led by Korean Christians that ended up steering Korea towards democracy and away from authoritarianism. Today, the Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea has the largest congregation in the world. Status of Women Historically, the role of women in society and their opportunities for education adhered to a rigid Confucianist view in Korea. The introduction of Christianity challenged this Confucianist view of women. Modern South Korea practices more of an open understanding of a woman’s role than its past, where women are freer to participate in family life, ancestral duties, and pursue education or career opportunities. Ewha Women’s University, founded by Christian missionary Mary F. Scranton, offered educational opportunities to women. Since then, the university has gained a reputation for its breadth of successful female alumnae, particularly those in the fields of politics and entertainment. The school’s reputation of female empowerment has resulted in some stereotypes about current students, as discussed in the video above. Modernization and Christianity Just over a century ago, Korea closed itself off to other countries, with the exception of its neighbor, China, and occasionally Japan. Inside, Korean culture was strictly guided by Confucianist principles. Christianity was important in the transition away from this rigid societal system and the eventual modernization of Korea. Missionaries who came to Korea were often involved with social work including in hospitals and schools. People began to view Christianity as a religion that promoted growth and equality. After the Korean War, Christianity also became linked to economic growth and prosperity. The video above reports about how Christianity contributed to the modernization of South Korea, focused on the Missionary, Horace Grant Underwood. He was a Presbyterian missionary, educator, and translator who dedicated his life to developing Christianity in Korea. His statue is found at the center of Yonsei University campus.. Bible Translation History One of the ways Christianity originally became accepted in Korea was through its appeal of education and literacy. Most early Christian texts were only available to Korean yangban, the upper class, who could read Chinese. Since Catholic and Protestant missionaries wanted the Bible to be widely accessible, they promoted the use of Hangeul instead and translated Christian literature into the Hangeul, a more vernacular system. Since many Christian missionaries also founded schools, universities, and hospitals, accessible higher education and literacy became intwined with the spread of Christianity in Korea. Still today, some of these Christian-founded universities hold regular services and offer religious courses. Yonsei University, a prestigious ivy-league college, currently requires 4 terms of chapel enrollment and attendance. There have been numerous campaigns to counteract the damage done by lookism and exist diverse opinions on how to mitigate its effects. The most influential of these is a push to change mass media on a large scale, deemphasizing physical appearance. Influences on Society In addition to its positive influence, the presence of religions has also contributed to less appealing phenomenon affecting Korean society today. Each religion may not have directly contributed to these dual effects, but being a major part of mainstream Korean culture automatically makes these religions impactful in ways beyond the religion itself. It is important to be aware of all the effects on culture and society that have been caused by the presence of Christianity, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and the implications of certain values and teachings. Hierarchy Abuse Hierarchism in Korea is one of the remaining traditional practices from Confucianism. However, simply because it is prevalent does not mean that it is accepted by everyone. Aspects of hierarchism may cause some groups to be uncomfortable. Feminists are one of these groups that find some of the traditional expectations of women burdensome. In addition to general discomfort, there is also room for hierarchy abuse. In Confucianism, subordinates are expected to respect their elder, but the elder should also look after the subordinate, creating a positive relationship. This is not always the case, and there are often problems – particularly in the workplace – that arise out of neglect of the elder’s responsibility in the relationship. Corruption Korea is home to 11 of the 12 largest congregations in the world, including the world’s largest megachurch. Having churches that are large, wealthy, and politically involved leaves the door open to a number of problems. There have been instances of church leaders being accused of corruption, sexual assault, bribes, and abuse of power. However, more concerningly these scandals are left as accusations and very little serious action is taken. This is true not just within Christian churches, but many religions. Famously, in the Candlelight Demonstrations of 2016-17, a former President was impeached and promptly sentenced to prison for multiple cases of corruption and abuse of power, particularly in collaboration with members of her cult. The government was part of and influence by a cult that practiced elements of Buddhism, Christianity, and Shamanism. The corruption of religious entities and leaders have left a bad taste in the mouths of many younger Koreans and discouraged them from religion. Discrimination Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism have been able to survive together in religious harmony in Korea for many years, but the country has not been without its times of conflict between groups.. Though Korea enjoys a pluralistic religious society without encountering much conflict or violence, this religious harmony is often exclusive to religions with history in Korea. Followers of religions more newly introduced to Korea often have more experiences of religious discrimination than followers of Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism. The video above describes the experiences of a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab in Korea. Religion has had and will continue to have a lot to do with Korea. Since these values and traditions are so embedded into culture, they will continue religion’s relevance to Korea, regardless of how the country’s religious demographics shift over the years. Religion being a part of culture has encouraged Koreans to have basic understandings of each religion. Understanding fosters respect for one another, which is why Korea has enjoyed religious harmony for a long time. It is a special characteristic of Korea to have harmony among so many different religions, but we hope that as Korea’s globalization and religious diversity increases, that this respect and understanding will be extended to more religions as well.