Is Korea really the 5th most-atheist nation?

Sanseong #01, one of a series of photographs of churches across Seoul, by Cha Zoo-yong

How can Korea be the world’s 5th most-atheist nation?

– by B. T. Newberg

Music penetrates my apartment every Sunday from the church right outside it.  There is another just down the street, and a half dozen more visible from the rooftop.  Half my Korean co-teachers bow their heads in prayer before meals, and I’ve been asked on the street whether I’ve found Jesus.

How can this be the same Korea that tops the list of most-secular nations in the world?

The stats

According to Gallop’s 2012 Global Index of Religion and Atheism, South Korea boasts the world’s fifth-largest population of those who report as “convinced atheists”, coming in at 15%.  Meanwhile, nearly half of South Koreans describe themselves as “not religious” or “atheist.”

Yet, religion is Korea is thriving, sending more missionaries abroad than any other country except the U.S.

Data from a 2005 census* finds that Christians (Catholics and Protestants) comprise nearly a third of the population (29%), outstripping Buddhists (23%), and other religions (less than 2%).  The other religions include Confucianism, Won Buddhism, Muism (Korean Shamanism), a variety of new religions, and a small number of Muslims.

These numbers may be deceptive.  There may be considerable overlap, as most non-Christian religions in Korea are not exclusive: one may participate in Buddhist ceremonies, Confucian rites, and shamanic kuts without any contradiction.  Also, participation in new religions may be under-reported.

Further complicating the picture is Confucianism: Koreans consider it a philosophy rather than a religion.  Thus, it may not be seen as an alternative in the same category as other religions – it’s apples and oranges.  This makes one wonder about the small number (0.2%) who reported “Confucian” in the census: is that the true number of Confucians, or only those who consider it a religion or alternative to religion?

First-hand experiences

Presbyterian Church in Sunchang, by B. T. Newberg

A local Presbyterian church

Twelve months living in Korea afforded a fascinating glimpse into the religious and non-religious landscape.  The first thing one notices upon arriving is the night-time illumination of neon crosses… everywhere.  So ubiquitous are they that the uninformed might be forgiven for assuming the entire nation is zealously Christian.  From cities to villages, not a spot of land is without churches of various denominations in abundance.

Altogether, the rural city of Sunchang, where I live, boasts around ten churches for a population of some 30,000.  Activity is frequent, with high attendance every Sunday, as well as on other days.  Worship may reach a feverish pitch – a friend of mine lives outside a church where the preacher can be heard working himself into a frenzy.  Meanwhile, about half of my Korean co-teachers at school bow their heads in prayer before meals.

Korean Buddhist ritual in Sunchang, by B. T. Newberg

A local Buddhist ritual

In contrast, Sunchang has only four Buddhist temples of which I am aware, all of them hidden away outside the city.  Activity is modest indeed.  Buddhist temples do not hold weekly services like churches, so one would not expect as much activity, but even on the major festivals, participation is meek.  On the Buddha’s Birthday, for example, only a handful of families could be seen sharing a potluck.  It looked less like a 700 year-old tradition, and more like an obscure special interest group.  On one lucky occasion I followed chanting coming from a wooded hillside to a temple, where I was invited to join a ceremony with no more than six participants, the priest and myself included.

The largest complex of religious architecture in the area by far is the old Confucian School, which sits quiet most of the year.  Composed of close to twenty-five different buildings, it now sees activity just twice a year, once on September 28th for Confucius’ birthday, and again on May 28th for another holiday.  A local civil servant in charge of the Cultural Heritage department informed me that on these days participants revere Confucius and his disciples, which may involve offerings of incense but no petitionary prayer, and typical turnout is around a hundred people.  This low number fits with the 0.2% who identified as Confucian on the census.

Old Korea and new Korea in one photo

Family portrait expressing respect for elders

Confucianism does, however, continue to exert significant influence on the culture.  For example, when waiting in line at a bus station or store register, old women and men regularly budged in front of me without apology.  This is because elders assume certain rights as a matter of course; their priority is part of the social order.  This is the manner in which Confucianism influences the majority of Koreans today.

On the other hand, the new generation seems to show significantly less respect for elders than previous generations, including my own public school students.  I find the generational difference unintentionally expressed in a family portrait hanging in a local photo shop, with the whole family adoring its eldest patriarch except for one little boy in front with a bored look on his face.  On a more serious note, the NYTimes recently reported on the rise in suicide rates among the Korean elderly, which author Choe Sang-hun attributes to disintegration of the traditional Confucian system where children take care of their parents in old age.  This point is further explored by blogger Connor Wood.

As for the ancestor worship typical of Confucianism, Andrew Eungi Kim notes it is only practiced on the annual festivals of Chuseok and the Lunar New Year in Korea.  Even this is questionable as a “religious” practice, as it may represent cultural custom more than earnest belief.  Nearly everyone in Korea observes Chuseok and Lunar New Year, but only 0.2% self-report as Confucian, so it is difficult to extrapolate a relationship between festival participation and Confucian identity.

Phallic statue outside Sunchang, by B. T. Newberg

Phallic statue

If there was any shamanic or new religion activity in Sunchang this year, I did not encounter it.  I did find remnants of folk practices and magic, such as the many phallic statues.  The sign beside one local phallus, quite old, references fertility rituals at the site.  Such statues remain popular to this day, often strikingly anatomical in form, though belief in their magic powers is likely minimal.

A final note should be made about burial mounds, the only feature of the landscape comparable in prominence to the Christian crosses.  Hemispheric mounds of earth dot nearly every hill and mountainside in sight.  Traditionally, Koreans families own a hill or part of a mountain side and bury their deceased in this way.  Graves are tended by descendents, especially during the autumn Chuseok festival.  This does not appear to be connected to any particular religious identity, and may cut across religious and non-religious boundaries.  I happen to find the earthen mounds exceptionally beautiful; unfortunately, they are a dying tradition.  Modern Koreans recognize such a practice is unsustainable at current population levels, and are switching to less land-intensive methods of disposition.

Burial mounds in Bokheung, by B. T. Newberg

Burial mounds

In this landscape of religion and tradition, non-religion is most inconspicuous.  If this country really hosts the world’s 5th-largest atheist population, it’s hard to tell.  While there are no doubt many non-religious in Sunchang, it is difficult to tell who might be among them, since ostentatious displays like bowing one’s head or wearing crosses seems limited to Christians.  Buddhists are virtually indistinguishable by look and behavior, apart from the occasional sighting of prayer beads worn around the wrist.  My guess is that many simply go about their lives without engaging religion, but also without making atheism a matter of personal identity as often seen in the United States.  When I asked a Korean co-teacher about popular perceptions, she said it was not seen as negative in any respect; some people just don’t do religion.

History

Does Korea really have the fifth-largest population of atheists?  A look into Korea’s history puts the question in perspective.

Native shamanic traditions began to be displaced by Chinese influence starting in the 4th century CE, with the introduction and gradual dominance of Buddhism.  Daoism exerted some influence but never became a major player.  Then, with the founding of the Joseon dynasty in the late 14th century, Neo-Confucianism became the state-sponsored ideology.  It has been said that Joseon Korea implemented a more thorough Confucianism than was ever accomplished in China.  Meanwhile, Buddhism, which had grown into a great land-owning institution, was heavily criticized and thoroughly suppressed.

By the time Christian missionaries arrived from the West, they found what Andrew Eungi Kim calls “a religious void.”  Confucianism was strong but not considered a religion, Buddhism was not entirely absent but banned at the time, and Shamanism was practiced but only in secret and in a disorganized form.  So, there may have been a genuine lack of competition for the particular kind of message Christianity offered, with its personal relationship to a caring deity.

Christianity has since spread like wildfire.  Kim explores a number of reasons behind it.  One was the void of organized competition.  Another was an affinity between Korean shamanic traditions and certain Christian values and practices.  The Protestant God as granter of this-worldly prosperity was a shared value, and faith healing a shared practice.  In fact, faith healing and speaking in tongues, limited mostly to Pentacostals elsewhere, have become a staple feature in all Christian denominations in Korea.  Another reason may be that rapid urbanization disrupted local family-based associations, producing a vast sea of uprooted urbanites desperately seeking social connection.  Churches filled this role in a way other local religions could not.  Finally, many Koreans, in their dash to modernize, may have converted for no other reason than Christianity’s association with the modern West.

Today, Korea is a developed nation.  As with other economically prosperous countries like those of Western Europe or Japan, non-religion is prominent.  Already high due to historical reasons, it is increasing.  The Gallop index found those reporting as “convinced atheists” up 4% from 2005.  Religion thrives, but there is also a very real presence of non-religion.

Conclusions

As a result of Korea’s history, non-religion there may not be quite the same as elsewhere.  Those reporting “not religious” may be Confucian in philosophy and culture, or believe in shamanic spirits, ghosts, and powers while disbelieving in “God” or avoiding organized religions.

Nevertheless, my first-hand experiences show Korean non-religion should not be dismissed as mere cultural misunderstanding.  Confucian activity is quite low, despite the tradition’s strong influence on the culture.  Meanwhile, Korean Buddhist activity also appears low, and Christianity, though fervent, still only accounts for a third of the population.

The non-religious may not be very visible, but neither are they under much pressure to make themselves known.  With little stigma attached to non-religion, and a history of traditions that need not be “professed” in any explicit manner, such as Confucianism and Buddhism, the non-religious may easily fly under the radar.  Consequently, it is difficult to estimate the true extent of non-religiousness in Korea, but also difficult to ignore it.

Still, Korea may yet see the emergence of strident atheist activism of the kind found in the U.S.  Questions about whether evolution should be included in public school textbooks have infiltrated local politics, and may spur a backlash requiring atheists in Korea to become organized.

*2005 census data can be found in Korean at the National Statistics Office KOSIS online database, or presented in English in Andrew Eungi Kim’s lecture at the Societas Koreana.  It can also be found in less detail at Wikipedia.

You can read more about the experiences of my wife and I in Korea at Bibimbap Litterbox.  Our year here is up, and we will be returning to the U.S. at the end of February.

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4 Comments on “Is Korea really the 5th most-atheist nation?

  1. This was fascinating B.T.!

    Did you have an opportunity to observe how the exclusivism of Christianity was interacting with the non-exclusivism of the other Korean religions? Were some people Christian and something else? How were the claims to exclusivity received by non-Christians?

    What do you think was lacking in Confucianism that left a “religious void”? I noticed something similar in Brazil with Pentecostal and other evangelical forms of Christianity growing exponentially. But Catholicism was an omnipresence in Brazil, so it wasn’t actually a religious void, but there was definitely a void of some kind being filled by the more charismatic forms of Christianity.

    To you think the openness about public prayer was a characteristic of the newer Christianity, or something that pre-dated the growth of Christianity in Korea?

    Did you see any charismatic offshoots of non-Christian religions trying to compete with the newer Christianity?

    How closely did Christian religious services in Korea resemble what we would see in the U.S.?

    • >Did you have an opportunity to observe how the exclusivism of Christianity was interacting with the non-exclusivism of the other Korean religions? Were some people Christian and something else? How were the claims to exclusivity received by non-Christians?

      I wish I had access to that level of nuance. I really couldn’t tell without being able to speak the language. One thing I did notice though was that on the Buddha’s Birthday, some Christians were out on the street singing hymns, handing out treats, and asking if we’d found Jesus. So that seems to show some active competition against Buddhists on the Christians’ part.

      >What do you think was lacking in Confucianism that left a “religious void”? I noticed something similar in Brazil with Pentecostal and other evangelical forms of Christianity growing exponentially. But Catholicism was an omnipresence in Brazil, so it wasn’t actually a religious void, but there was definitely a void of some kind being filled by the more charismatic forms of Christianity.

      I’m afraid I couldn’t speculate.

      >To you think the openness about public prayer was a characteristic of the newer Christianity, or something that pre-dated the growth of Christianity in Korea?

      What do you mean by “openness about public prayer”?

      >Did you see any charismatic offshoots of non-Christian religions trying to compete with the newer Christianity?

      I didn’t, no, but I could easily have simply missed them. There are a number of new religions, and I don’t know much about them.

      >How closely did Christian religious services in Korea resemble what we would see in the U.S.?

      I didn’t get to attend any Christian services, but could often hear them going on from outside. There seems to be some variety. For example, the church outside my apartment has very mellow guitar and drum and singing (Christian rock-ish stuff) coming from it on Sundays, whereas my friend’s church often has frenzied preaching coming from it instead (as mentioned in the article).

      Great questions! Wish I could be more helpful in answering.

  2. Careful and helpful observations. You call attention to a range of complications involved in describing the kind and degree of religious beliefs or lack of them in a whole society. I’ll think of these when I read glib comments about religion and atheism in America.

  3. Pingback: Is Japan really the 2nd-most atheist nation? | Humanistic Paganism

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