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Korea - Religion

Koreans, like other East Asians, have traditionally been eclectic rather than exclusive in their religious commitments. Their religious outlook has not been conditioned by a single, exclusive faith but by a combination of indigenous beliefs and creeds imported into Korea. There is nothing contradictory in one person's visiting and praying at Buddhist temples, participating in Confucian ancestor rites, and even consulting a shaman.

The relative homogeneity of Korea extends beyond ethnicity to a cultural context that can be characterized as essentially secular. Religious differences do exist, but in Korean society religion is more of a peripheral, rather than a dominant, factor in social organization and life. It is a residual identification, not a primary focus for most. It takes a special effort for an American to deny religious affiliation, while for a Korean it is the reverse. The syncretistic nature of Korean life, in addition, allows some to be Buddhist, Confucian, and Christian on separate occasions. Perhaps only 10 to 13 percent of the Koreans consider themselves Christian but their influence has been greater (Syngman Rhee was Protestant, Chang Myun Catholic; the influx of refugees from North Korea included a disproportionate number of Christians). There are no stultifying conservative religious elites that could retard Korean growth or change. The Chinese, the only marginally significant ethnic minority in Korea, totaled some 25,000 in the 1960s and have been without economic or political influence. There is no Korean equivalent of the muslim minorities of the Philippines, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the Christian men of Burma, or the Malays of Southern Thailand.

The country has an area of about 38,000 square miles and a population of about 50 million. According to the most recent census (2005), the percentages of adherents to the predominant religious communities are: 22.8 percent Buddhist, 18.3 percent Protestant, and 10.9 percent Roman Catholic. No official figures were available on membership of other religious groups, which include Jehovah's Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-day Adventist Church, Daesun Jinrihoe, Unification Church, and Islam. The Korean Muslim Federation reported there are an estimated 130,000 Muslims in the country, of whom approximately 35,000 are ethnic Koreans.

According to Gallup Korea's 2004 survey on the state of religion in the country, 36 percent of those who practiced a faith reported they attended religious services or rituals at a church or temple more than once a week, 10.6 percent attended two to three times per month, 20.6 percent attended once or twice a year, and 4.9 percent did not attend services. Of those who attended more than once a week, Protestants had the highest attendance rate at 71 percent, followed by Catholics at 42.9 percent, and Buddhists at 3.5 percent.

Daoism, which focuses on the individual in nature rather than the individual in society, and Buddhism entered Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms period (fourth to seventh centuries AD). Daoist motifs are seen in the paintings on the walls of Koguryo tombs. Buddhism was the dominant religious and cultural influence during the Silla (AD 668-935) and Koryo (918-1392) dynasties. Confucianism also was brought to Korea from China in early centuries, but it occupied a subordinate position until the establishment of the Choson Dynasty and the persecution of Buddhism carried out by the early Choson Dynasty kings.

At various times in Korean history, the state-supported system of thought vigorously repressed “heterodoxy” in the name of “orthodoxy.” One suchperiod was the Chosun Dynasty from the late fourteenth to the early twentieth centuries. During this time, the guardians of Neo-Confucianist “orthodoxy” nearly totally suppressed Buddhism, confiscating lands owned and worked by Buddhist monastic orders, banishing Buddhist temples to remote mountaintops, severely limiting the number of Buddhist monks, closing Buddhist learning academies, and completely prohibiting Buddhist clergy from even entering the capital city of Seoul. Later, when Korean envoys to the Ming Emporers’ Court in Beijing converted to Catholicism and returned to Korea with this “new doctrine and learning,” the guardians of the Chosun dynasty’s Neo-Confucian orthodoxy executed the converts in periodic waves of massacres. Similarly, the scholars who developed the syncretic Tonghak (Eastern Learning) were also hunted down and executed.

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Korea could be characterized asamong the most “Confucianized” societies in East Asia. Even today, nearly all Koreans, regardless of their present religious or anti-religious convictions, observe basically Confucianist approaches to social relations. Evidence of the enduring influence of this and other ancient traditions can even be seen in the public symbols of the Republic of Korea. South Korea bedecks it national flag with two sets of ancient Taoist/Confucianist philosophical symbols: the yin-yang bordered by four sets of “tribars.”

Roman Catholic missionaries did not arrive in Korea until 1794, a decade after the return of the first baptized Korean from a visit to Beijing. However, the writings of the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, who was resident at the imperial court in Beijing, had been brought to Korea from China in the seventeenth century. It appears that scholars of the Sirhak, or practical learning, school were interested in these writings. Largely because converts refused to perform Confucian ancestor rites, the government prohibited the proselytization of Christianity. Some Catholics were executed during the early nineteenth century, but the anti-Christian law was not strictly enforced. By the 1860s, there were some 17,500 Roman Catholics in the country. There followed a more rigorous persecution, in which thousands of Christians died, that continued until 1884.

Protestant missionaries entered Korea during the 1880s and, along with Catholic priests, converted a remarkable number of Koreans. Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries were especially successful. They established schools, universities, hospitals, and orphanages and played a significant role in the modernization of the country. During the Japanese colonial occupation, Christians were in the front ranks of the struggle for independence. Factors contributing to the growth of Protestantism included the degenerate state of Korean Buddhism, the efforts made by educated Christians to reconcile Christian and Confucian values (the latter being viewed as purely a social ethic rather than a religion), the encouragement of self-support and selfgovernment among members of the Korean church, and the identification of Christianity with Korean nationalism.

A large number of Christians lived in the northern part of the peninsula where Confucian influence was not as strong as in the south. Before 1948 P'yongyang was an important Christian center: one-sixth of its population of about 300,000 people were converts. Following the establishment of a communist regime in the north, however, most Christians had to flee to South Korea or face persecution.

Given the great diversity of religious expression, the role of religion in South Korea's social development has been a complex one. Some traditions, especially Buddhism, are identified primarily with the past. Buddhist sites such as the Pulguksa Temple and the Sokkuram Grotto in Kyongju and the Haeinsa Temple near Taegu are regarded by most South Koreans as important cultural properties rather than as places of worship. Confucianism remains important as a social ethic; its influence is evident in the immense importance Koreans ascribe to education. Christianity is identified with modernization and social reform. Many Christians in contemporary South Korea, such as veteran political opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, a Catholic, have been outspoken advocates of human rights and critics of the government. Christian-sponsored organizations such as the Urban Industrial Mission promote labor organizations and the union movement. New religions draw on both traditional beliefs and on Christianity, achieving a baffling variety and diversity of views.

Confucianism has generally been regarded as backward, rather than forward-looking. Its stress on the mythic golden age of the past has supposedly by its nature turned the populace against views of a progressively better future. Its emphasis on traditional learning, and especially on moral values, has undercut acceptance of more technologically oriented education. It regarded commerce and entrepreneurship as low on the scale of accepted occupations. Its highly competitive examination system, incorporated into the Korean state structure at the end of the Fourteenth Century and placing emphasis on the culturally "superior man" was, it was felt, inimicable to modernization. The hierarchical relationships fostered first in the family, and its stress on the primacy of this elemental social unit, and then extended up the hierarchical ladder to the sovereign, negated progress towards egalitarianism and democracy. It limited non-familial and non-clan relationships. Thus, it was argued, Confucianism retarded the oense of social cohesion beyond strictly parochial interestsa was un-democratic, and had an un-economic focus.

All of these elements are still in place. Indeed, the stress on the moral qualities of loyalty (especially to the state) end filial piety, so evident everywhere in Korea and literally enscribed in stone in many villages, was part of the New Village or New Community Movement, the personal rural developmeut program of President Park, and the Sae-Maum (New Heart or New Mind) Movement, a byproduct of that effort. The latter, especially with its strong Confucian overtones, seemed similar to the ill-fated and ephemeral New Life Movement that was officially sponsored by Chiang Kai-shek in Nationalist China in the 1930's. In a sense, the Confucian system is alive and well and 1iving in Korea.




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