Christianity, Shamanism, and Modernization in South Korea

By Kim, Andrew Eungi | Cross Currents, Spring-Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Christianity, Shamanism, and Modernization in South Korea


Kim, Andrew Eungi, Cross Currents


In South Korea there is no modernization without Christianity and no Christianity without shamanism.

There is no "official," nor one dominant, religion in South Korea. Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity, as well as a whole spectrum of new religious movements, coexist peacefully in one of the most religiously pluralistic countries in the world. Nonetheless, there are also more than 160 Protestant denominations and nearly 60,000 churches, as well as 1,100 Catholic churches, which supposedly make South Korea "the most Christianized" non-Western country, excepting the Philippines, in the world.

Since its introduction in 1884, Protestant Christianity has proceeded to become the nation's largest religion with over nine million followers, representing more than one fifth of the total population. The rise of Roman Catholicism in South Korea has been equally remarkable. Introduced in 1784, it had been subjected to severe persecutions for nearly a century -- more than eight thousand Catholics were martyred -- but has steadily grown to be the country's third largest religion after Buddhism. With nearly four million followers, Roman Catholicism has been the fastest growing religion since the late 1980s. Together, Protestants and Catholics thus make up close to a third of the total population in the nation. The rapid growth of Christianity in South Korea is all the more astonishing given that the imported faiths successfully penetrated and took roots in a land dominated by traditional religions, including Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The country's Christian "success story" is also remarkable in lig ht of the fact that only about 4 percent of the Asian population is Christian and that Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has failed to strike roots in Japan and China -- neighboring countries with strikingly similar social organization and shared cultural traditions -- where less than 1 percent of the population has converted to Christianity.

This strong religious impulse has been sustained in a vastly modernized and urbanized society. Indeed, Christianity remains vital in a society that has been swept into much that are associated with modernization and Western materialism. Upon closer examination of this fascinating development, it becomes clear that such vitality of Christianity in South Korea has been due to the Church's role as a principal agent of the economic, political and social modernization. Also integral to the dynamism of Christianity has been its indigenization or "Koreanization," whereby the key aspects of indigenous religious beliefs and practices have been incorporated by the imported faith. These two factors have combined to ensure Christianity's preeminence in South Korea in spite of rapid modernization, manifesting the continuing relevance and importance of religion in the lives of people in a contemporary setting, while challenging the notion that modernization inevitably leads to the decline of religion.

A Christian Worldview and the Spirit of Modernization

From early on, Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestantism, provided the first and most continuous impetus to modernization in Korea (see Y. Park 1975; J. Kim 1984). In education, the missionaries were the first to establish a complete system of education, from kindergarten to college, and they were the first to implement modern curriculum, including modern science and medical science, in schools. Taking over from the missionaries, both the Protestant and Catholic Churches have been committed to enriching the educational life of South Koreans, operating dozens of schools at all levels, including some of the nation's top universities. Politically, Koreans first became acquainted with several key values that mark modernity, such as freedom, human rights, democracy and equality, largely through Christianity. The prominence of Christians in politics throughout the last hundred years, either in the independence movement or in the democratic movement, have added further impetus to such a connection.

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