For those who think of the West as the land of Catholicism and Christianity, the Arab world as the Islamic sphere, and East Asia as a region of Buddhism, South Korea might seem like a very strange country. In South Korea, there is a Catholic church in every diocese in the country, the cities are filled with countless Protestant churches, and Buddhist temples dot the mountainsides. In the capital city of Seoul, there is also a central mosque.
If you consider how small the Christian population is in China, and that Japan is almost completely made up of Buddhists and followers of Shinto, the religious pluralism of South Korea seems very peculiar. Korean people are very receptive to new beliefs and enjoy making different belief systems from the outside world their own. In the long process of such religious adaption, a very special social tendency has come about whereby believers of different religions live side by side without conflict or confrontation. This kind of religious pluralism, however, was not achieved overnight.
Located in the northeast of Asia and geographically connected to Siberia, the Korean peninsula is considered to have been traditionally under shamanism’s sphere of influence. Shamanism is a religious consciousness that believes that the living are deeply connected to the dead, especially their ancestors. Even after people end their life in this world, they lead a new life in a spirit form, and continue to influence the world of the living. It is the shaman, or spirit medium, who enables the living and the dead to communicate. It appears that in ancient times shamanism was the only religion in existence on the Korean peninsula, and it is said that while Korean people each believe in their own different religion, it is a shamanist way of thinking that underlies all their religious practices and beliefs even today.
Around 1,600 to 1,700 years ago, during the Three Kingdoms Period of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla, Buddhism and Confucianism were introduced to the peninsula from India and China. Throughout the dynasties of the Unified Silla, Goryeo, and Joseon kingdoms, shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism continued to compete for dominance in Korean society. It was the introduction of the Catholic Church that finally brought about a massive change in this traditional order of religions.
From around the time of the Japanese Imjin Invasion of Korea (1592-1598) to when Yi Seung-hun traveled to Beijing and was baptized there as a Catholic (1784), a small number of Koreans remained in secret contact with the Catholic Church. Around 1800, the number of Catholic believers in Joseon Korea increased rapidly and they faced severe persecution. A new era then began in 1885, when Methodist and Presbyterian priests visited Korea. Christianity was understood to be a part of Seohak (“Western Learning”) and served as a symbol of the new civilization coming in from the West. The introduction of this new Western religion also brought about an awakening for the need for reform in traditional religions, resulting in the founding of Donghak (“Eastern Learning”) by Choe Je-u in 1860. Today, Donghak is synonymous with Cheondogyo (the Church of the Heavenly Way), a new amalgamation of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist principles. Cheondogyo is an interesting modern religion particular to Korea, which states that people are the embodiment of heaven, that all of creation—mountains, streams, plants and grass, men and women, the old and young—are all equal and manifestations of the true form of the universe called “Haneul.”
In this period, in addition to the traditional religious consciousness, Korea became home to modern reformist religions and to new religions from the West, and they all coexisted. This complex mix became even more pronounced during the years in which national sovereignty was lost to Japan (1910-1945). Gaining new independence at the end of the Pacific War, there was a steady growth in Christianity in South Korea given the unprecedented influence of the Western world, and, in particular, America. However, the influence of shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism remained deeply rooted in the Korean people and landscape.