South Korean Religious Beliefs

by Jason Cristiano Ramon
A Buddhist temple in South Korea's Pukhan Mountains.

A Buddhist temple in South Korea's Pukhan Mountains.

South Korea's religious landscape is diverse. Today the country's older religions, such as Shamanism and Buddhism, exist side by side with Christianity, which is comparatively younger but one of the most dominant religions in the country. Even for South Koreans who do not claim a religious affiliation, their lives are often marked by religious activities, as they consult shamans, visit Buddhist temples and seek advice of Christian ministers.

Shamanism

Shamanism, an ancient religion that has existed in Korea for centuries, incorporates animism and ancestral spirits in its rites; its central figure is the "mudang," or shaman, who is believed to be a mediator between spirits and humans and has the power to call forth spirits. With the rise of industrialization and Christianity, Shamanism came to occupy a more limited role in Korean society. Still, its practices are woven into the fabric of Korean life, from mudang-led ceremonies to its ideas related to the natural world.

Buddhism

The traces of Buddhism can be seen throughout South Korea, with the country's many majestic Buddhist temples sculpting its landscape. Over 80 percent of its "national treasures" -- exceptional artifacts, sites and key figures chosen by the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea to represent the best of South Korean culture -- are Buddhist-related. The religion was introduced into the country over 2,600 years ago and today, about one-third of the country's population are Buddhists. Like Buddhism in China and Japan, the South Korean branch is Mahayana Buddhist, which emphasizes meditation and looking inward to achieve enlightenment.

Confucianism

Although Confucianism is not technically a religion, its belief system permeates South Korean society and has played an integral role in shaping its social and cultural norms in the past 2,000 years. During the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), Neo-Confucianism was incorporated as the state ideology. South Korea's emphasis on the respect of elders, the importance of education and a patriarchal society are all reflections of Confucian concepts and beliefs.

Christianity

Christianity was not introduced to the Korean peninsula until after the late 18th century, but it has had a powerful and profound impact on the country's modernization and is one of the main religions of South Korea today. Protestant missionaries made their way to Korea during the 19th century and established schools and hospitals throughout the country. Some of the world's largest Christian congregations are based in Seoul, the country's capital, and about one of every three South Koreans is Christian.

About the Author

Jason Cristiano Ramon holds a doctorate in political science and a master's degree in philosophy. He has taught political science in China.

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