Korean Religion: Best Facts About The 8 Beliefs

Did you know that South Korean religion is so diverse? Unlike in other Asian countries, Korea allows all the major religions 종교 in the world to co-exist with Shamanism peacefully. Let’s learn more about this in today’s exclusive Ling App guide. Let’s get started!

Religion is defined as an organized set of ideas, rituals, religious activities, and systems. It is most typically related to a dominating power such as a personal deity or another supernatural being. It also involves a variety of behaviors such as rituals, prayer, meditation, holy locations, symbols, trances, and feasts, that have spiritual importance to followers of a specific faith.

There’s one dominant religion in other cultures, but in Korean culture, there are no dominant religious groups. South Korea has a wide variety of religion that shapes how Korean people think and behave. One of the things that will amaze you in South Korea is the variety of beliefs that co-exist with each other even Shamanism, so today, we will learn about South Korean religion. Korean church, and the identification of Christianity with Korean nationalism


South Koreans And Their Religious Affiliation

If we look back to the traditional Korean culture, we can see various religions practiced in the Korean peninsula. In South Korea, 46% of the people do not have religious affiliations. There are 23% Buddhists, 29% Christians, and 2% believe in other cultures. South Koreans can freely choose whatever religion they want. Religion is a part of South Korean life, but you can’t ask one’s religious affiliation during your first meeting.

Religions work differently in North Korea. They prohibit all religious affiliations. In this country, there shall be no other religion other than Kims. The North Korean government punishes the people practicing the Catholic religion.


Religions In South Korea

종교 (Jonggyo) - Religion in Korea

Religion – 종교 (Jonggyo)

Before we learn about the different Korean religions, let us first understand the Korean word for religion. South Koreans use the word 종교 (Jonggyo) to refer to religion. It is essential to know this because when naming a religion in the Korean language, the Hangul character 교 (gyo) is added at the end of the word.

Now that you have learned how to say “religion” in Korean, let us talk about religions in South Korea. Historically speaking, Koreans are influenced by Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. But as South Korea leans toward modern times, Christianity and other religions also entered the Korean nation. In addition to that, the fast rate of industrialization has interrupted the Koreans’ peace of mind by driving them to seek consolation in religious activities because of worry and alienation.

No Religion – 종교 없음 (Jong-yo Eops-eum)

Did you know that the majority of Korean follow folk religions or do not have religions at all? But, this doesn’t mean that these people are any different from those who have a religious affiliation. We all know that Korean spirituality is really important, but having no religion doesn’t mean they are no longer spiritual. Also, having religion doesn’t always mean that they are spiritual.

After all, we are still all human beings, and part of the Korean culture is respect and acceptance. Having no religion should not be a reason for discriminating against people. People should treat each other right regardless of their religious group.

Korean Shamanism – 무교 (Mugyo)

Korean Shamanism - 무교 (Mugyo)

Do you remember in the hit Korean drama series Reply 1988 when the mothers in the neighborhood went to a Shaman to find out the fate of their children? How about the K-drama Hi, Bye Mama? Did you also see how they feature a Shaman? These are just a few pieces of evidence that prove that Shamanism still exists in South Korea, along with the major religions in the world. But, in this modern time, Shamanism is considered heretical and superstitious.

Shamanism is one of the oldest religious beliefs in South Korea since the old Joseon. In Korea, the Neolithic people believed that everything in the world had a spirit or soul that had never died. They also believed in evil spirits that can bring misfortune in contrast to good spirits, like the sun that gives good luck.

In Shamanism, the Shaman is often women called mudang (무당). Shamans can perform a ritual called the gut, dance, and song that serves as a prayer for ancestors or gods. They can also perform a purification ritual. The rituals performed by a Shaman can help people gain good fortune, cure illness through the exorcism of evil spirits, or guide the spirit of deceased people to heaven.

Koreans are not. With all the myths and legends about Korean Shamanism, today, Koreans go to a Shaman to interpret important dates, get advice like in Reply 1988, get a Fulu or talisman to defend them against evil spirits like in Kingdom. Shamans can and even determine the compatibility of couples. But, traditionally, Shamans belong to a low social status. At least for ordinary believers in spirits, there is no concept of salvation or moral and spiritual perfection.

Korean Buddhism – 불교 (Bulgyo)

Korean Buddhism - 불교 (Bulgyo)

One of the most visited tourist attractions in South Korea today is the Buddhist temples. When you visit South Korea, it’s impossible not to see any Buddhist temple around. But, when was Buddhism introduced in Korea? Buddhism arrived in Korea in 372 CE during the Koguryo Kingdom period. During ancient times the leaders of the Three Kingdoms favored Buddhism. This religion treats Buddha as the single object of worship and the King as the single object of power. Because of the long history of the existence of Buddhism in Korea,

In Korea, Buddhist influence can still be seen in many forms, like Korean cuisine‘s abundance of vegetable dishes. Korean Buddhism is one of the very first religions that entered South Korea, which you can see in their culture today. It is a philosophical and highly-disciplined religion, and Buddhists believe in personal salvation and reincarnation. But, Korean Buddhism has a different approach refined by Korean thinkers. They aim to eliminate perceived discrepancies in Mahayana Buddhism and lots of inconsistencies.

Part of Korea’s vibrant Buddhist community is the homegrown religious organization Daesoon Jinrihoe, a religion based on the worship of a man who lived in Korea a century ago and is believed to be an incarnation of God and Won Buddhism, which is an offshoot of mainstream Buddhism.

Buddhism has gone through efforts to adapt to modern society’s changes. Buddhist Monks come down to cities to spread their religion. But, as seen in different Korean series, movies, and documentaries, most remain in mountainous places, deeply absorbed in meditation and self-discipline. Buddhists follow the basic teachings of Buddha, which are core to Buddhism:

The Three Universal Truths

Buddhism believes in the law of karma that states, “for every event that occurs, there will follow another event whose existence was caused by the first, and this second event will be pleasant or unpleasant according as its cause was skillful or unskillful.” So, here are the three universal truths of Buddhism:

  1. Nothing is lost in the universe.
  2. Everything Changes.
  3. The Law of Cause and Effect.

The Four Noble Truths

Buddhism is also known for The Four Noble Truths, which revolves around human suffering. Here are The Four Noble Truths

  1. Dukkha – Suffering exists
  2. . Samudaya – There is a cause of suffering
  3. Nirodha- There is an end to suffering
  4. Magga: In order to end suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path

The Eight-Fold Path

The Eight-Fold is the Buddhist teaching of reaching nirvana that consists of Panna, Sila, and Samadhi. Here are the more specific details about the Eight-Fold Path:

  1. Samma ditthi – Right Understanding of the Four Noble Truths
  2. Samma sankappa – Right thinking
  3. Samma vaca – Right speech
  4. Samma kammanta – Right conduct or Right Action
  5. Samma ajiva – Right livelihood
  6. Samma vayama – Right Effort
  7. Samma sati – Right Mindfulness
  8. Samma samadhi – Right Concentration

Attending Buddhist services and visiting Buddhist temples are very important in Korean Buddhists. So, if you happen to visit South Korea, make sure to visit their Buddhist temples like Tongdosa in, Beomeosa, Bongeunsa, Haeinsa, and Beopjusa. By doing this, you’ll get to experience their rich culture, and you’ll also be able to pay respect and appreciate their Buddhists’ religious practices.

Confucianism – 유교 (Yugyo)

Confucianism -  유교 (Yugyo)

If you notice in K-dramas, whether contemporary or historical, Koreans greatly value family, respect, and personal betterment. This is not just a coincidence nor a simple part of their culture. It’s deeply rooted in a philosophy and belief that has been existing in Korea for thousands of years – Confucianism.

Confucianism is also one of the philosophies and belief systems that greatly influence Korean civilization. Before we go any further, you should learn that Koreans do not view Confucianism as a religion but more of how they view life. In South Korea, Confucian influence and beliefs co-exist with other religions.

We cannot deny that the teachings of Confucious, a Chinese philosopher, have a profound influence in South Korea. The Confucian values can be reflected in their everyday life and culture until today. One perfect example is filial piety. This Confucian influence emphasizes children’s filial duties to their parents. Children should repay them with filial piety as a form of giving back to their parents for raising them well.

Confucianism made serious efforts in creating a reform for Confucianism to adapt in this modern times. Today, you can see how Koreans emphasize their personal development, respect for elders and authority, and being good family members.

Christianity – 기독교 (Gidokgyo)

Christianity is one of the biggest religions based on the teachings and life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christians are monotheistic, which means they believe in only one God. The teachings of Jesus revolve around the love of God and love for one’s neighbor.

In South Korea, there are 29% Korean Christians, with a majority belonging to Protestant Christians denomination over Catholics. The celebration of Christmas and the huge number of Catholic and Protestant churches is proof that Christianity is one of the biggest Korean religions. But, the number of Christians in South Korea was not always that many. The Christian faith had gone through many struggles and battles before reaching the religious freedom it has now.

Catholicism – 천주교 (Cheonjugyo)

Catholicism - 천주교 (Cheonjugyo)

Lies within the heart of Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, is the Myeong-dong Cathedral, which has become a symbol of the Catholic Church and religious freedom of Christianity in South Korea. But what’s the story behind this religious freedom of Catholics and Christians in South Korea?

While Korea is ruled by the Kings and guided by Confucian beliefs and principles, Christianity began to spread in the neighboring country China in 1700. The Jesuit missionaries entered Korea and brought with them the Catholic church teachings.

Even if the members of Korean elite society have been looking curious about the benefits of Catholicism, this faith completely opposes Confucian beliefs and teaching. The Confucian ideology is very hierarchal, while Catholics treat each other as neighbors or brothers and sisters. Catholicism threatened the Confucian aristocracy. So, the King ordered to abolish Christianity, and in the year 1758, it was officially outlawed.

Before the Catholic faith arrived, the King was, in essence, their God, while Catholics, as a new religion, taught the existence of God through His son Jesus Christ. For the first time, because of the Catholic faith, people understood and realized that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and the lives of people who belong to the lower class are as meaningful as the people in the higher rank.

Maintaining the Catholic faith in Korea was a bloody journey based on history. Some people had to sacrifice their lives, and they were called martyrs. Nowadays, these martyrs are honored in different parts of South Korea, like the Jeoldusan Martyrs’ Shrine (Seoul), whose name means ‘beheading hill.’ One shrine to honor the martyrs is the Saenamteo Shrine, which has a training area for physical training and an execution place for people who committed high treason.

Of all the discriminations, tortures, and executions, the Catholic faith and the believers remained strong. The tortures that were given by the authorities as their last chance to live did not stop Catholics from being loyal to their faith. Catholicism continued to spread and grow steadily across the country. The sacrifices of the martyrs ignited and inspired the faith of the believers, and in 2014, Pope Francis visited South Korea and gathered young people to pray. He will also soon beatify 124 Korean martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the Catholic faith.

Protestantism – 개신교 (Gaesingyo)

Protestantism - 개신교 (Gaesingyo)

In South Korea, the majority of Christians are from Protestant domination. The number of Protestants in Korea increased considerably after the Korean War. During the late Joseon dynasty, Protestantism was introduced to Korea and soon captured the people’s hearts through school education and medical services.

The degeneration of Korean Buddhism, the efforts of educated Christians to reconcile Christian and Confucian ideals, the fostering of self-support and self-government among Korean church members, and the linkage of Christianity with Korean nationalism were all part of Protestantism.

Currently, Protestants make up over 40% of the Korean population, divided into 113 denominations. As evangelical Protestants and protestant missionaries continue to work and live in Korean society, the number of believers increases. Today, there are lots of medical centers and educational institutions that the Protestants in South Korea operate.

Daoism – 도교 (Dogyo)

Daoism - 도교 (Dogyo)

Daoism is a religion in Korea that has the least impact on the ideology and politics of Korea compared to Buddhism and Confucianism. Despite its diminished influence in Korea during the Joseon and Goryeo kingdom, it pervaded all levels of society in Korea, blending native animism with Buddhist and Confucian institutions, temples, and ceremonies. The Taoist practices in Korea were regarded as an esoteric meditative technique taught by “mountain masters” or “mountain sages” in the mountains.

A Taoist tale may be found in one of Korea’s most well-known foundation myths, in which a tiger and a bear attempt to become human during an encounter with Hwanung. 

Islam – 이슬람교 (Iseullamgyo)

Islam - 이슬람교 (Iseullamgyo)

In South Korea, their population of Muslims is 0.3% only. But, as a fast-spreading religion globally, Muslim communities in South Korea continue to grow because of the increasing immigration of Muslims.

The traces and history of Islam in Koreans can be tracked down as far as the 9th Century during the Unified Silla period. This was when the Arabs and Persians arrived in the country.

In the 20th Century, the Koreans who moved to northeastern China were introduced to Islam under Japan’s colonial policy. After World War II, Koreans that have been converted did not have a place to worship. Luckily, the Turkish troops came with United Nations forces and allowed Korean Muslims to join them in services during the Korean War.

In September 1955, the Korean Islam’s inaugural service was held. After that, the first Korean imam was elected. The Korean Islamic Society grew bigger and was re-organized in 1967 as the Korean Muslim Federation. In the same year, a central mosque was also dedicated in Seoul for the Muslims.

According to the Korean Muslim Federation (KMF), approximately 200,000 Muslims are residing in South Korea. This is relatively higher and about twice its population in the past decade. The Muslim population in South Korea can be classified into two groups- traditional community (Korean Muslims born and raised in South Korea) and immigrant community (foreign-born Muslim migrants belonging to the Middle East, Central Asia South, and Southeast Asia.

With the efforts of the South Korean Muslim community, Mosques increased to 20, which is very important in the preaching of Islam in South Korea. South Koreans have slowly started to accept foreign-born Muslims as one of them. Some are even open to learning about Islam and converting to Islam. The first halal-certified Korean restaurant was established in 2014.


Other Words Related To Religion In Korea

RomanizationEnglish Translation
선조 seonjoancestors
스님seunimBuddhist Priest
jeolBuddhist temple
동지 부적dongji bujeokpaper talisman
훈계hungyelecture, preach


Understanding Is Not About Religion: It’s Communication

In a country with diverse religious groups, religious tolerance is really important. Respecting each other despite their religions and faith is vital in maintaining peace, harmony, and understanding. South Koreans managed to cope with this diversity very well, and one of the ways to maintain a good relationship with others is learning how to communicate effectively. At the end of the day, language binds people together. So, start your free lesson with Ling App by Simya Solutions and learn Korean now!

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