Buddhism beliefs

Religious beliefs in South Korea

Bojeru Pavilion at Beomeosa Buddhist Temple in Busan, South Korea.

korean buddhism

Buddhism was first introduced to Korea from China in 372 AD during the Three Kingdoms period of Korea, which lasted from 57 BC to 667 AD. Over time, Buddhism in Korea blended with Korean shamanism and became Korean Buddhism as it is today. While Korean Buddhism has kept intact the fundamental teaching of Buddha which it adopted, it has accepted and absorbed the belief of Korean shamanism of the three spirits of Sanshin, Toksong and Chilsong and there is a special shrine for these spirits in many many Buddhist temples. Many Buddhist temples in Korea are also built on mountains since Korean shamanism believed they were where spirits lived, which Buddhists also accepted. Buddhism was the state ideology under the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) but was severely suppressed under the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), the Japanese elevated the position that Buddhism had in Korea. Since the end of World War II, Korean Buddhism has regained acceptance in South Korea, although there has been a major rift between married and celibate monks and many disputes between Buddhists, Christians and the government. Korean. In recent decades, Korea’s Buddhist population has declined due to more Koreans converting to Christianity or becoming atheists or unaffiliated with any religion.

Protestant Christianity

Protestant Christianity was first briefly introduced to South Korea in 1832 by German Protestant missionary Karl Gutzlaff (1803-1851), but it was the second Protestant missionary to visit the country, Welshman Robert Jermani Thomas (1839 -1866), which had a long impact that is still felt today. Thomas worked as an interpreter on the American schooner General Sherman and he distributed bibles to the inhabitants. In the disputed General Sherman Incident which occurred in July 1866, the schooner was sunk by the Koreans and Thomas allegedly jumped overboard during the firefight and handed out bibles to angry Koreans watching ashore before one of them executes it. The General Sherman Incident was one of the major events that led to the United States Expedition to Korea in 1871 and ultimately led to the 1882 Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Korea and America , which included a clause that missionaries would be protected. In 1884 America’s first Protestant missionary, Horace Allen (1858-1932), came to the country and he and subsequent missionaries focused on educational and medical work since proselytizing was still illegal. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Catholics were involved in supporting Korean independence, being involved in the March 1st Movement of 1919, supporting the government in exile and refusing to worship the Japanese Emperor in the 1930s. Most Protestant Christians fled from North Korea to South Korea and in the decades following the rapid growth of Protestant Christianity. It is now the second most popular religion in the country, although there have been issues with more zealous members condemning and attacking non-Christians and other Christian sects.

Traditional and shamanic folk beliefs

Traditional Korean shamanism has existed in Korea since time immemorial, dating back to prehistoric times to at least 40,000 BC. Korean shamanism has taken root in ancient and long-forgotten cultures. Religion has played a key role since Korean civilization developed during the mythical early part of the founding of the first Korean kingdom of Gojoseon by Dangun Wanggeom in 2333 BC. Before the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism, traditional Korean shamanism was the dominant religion in Korea. Historically, religion has played a role in protecting people from the attacks of evil spirits and helping people achieve health, peace, and spiritual well-being. It is also one of the oldest and oldest religions in the world, parts of which have mixed with Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity. Since Korea was liberated from Japanese occupation and divided into two countries in 1945, there have been occasional attempts by South Korean leaders to eradicate the religion, but these have failed.

New folk and shamanic beliefs

Choe Je-u (1824-1864) founded the Donghak movement. Donghak’s goal was to reform Korea, revive Confucianism, and drive out Western influences. Je-u was executed in 1864 but his movement survived, culminating in the Donghak Peasant Rebellion (1894-1895). In the years following this event, the third patriarch of the Donghak movement, Son Byong-hi (1861-1922), decided to change Donghak’s name to Cheondogyo, often referred to as Cheondoism, in an attempt to modernize the religion and bring it into a new era. King Gojong (1852-1919), the penultimate emperor of the Joseon Kingdom, even adopted the religion and helped add Buddhist influences to it to give the religion a formal organizational hierarchy. Members of the movement mainly opposed the Japanese occupation and played an important role in the Korean nationalist movement. Other new folk and shamanic beliefs include Taejonggyo, a religion whose central creed is the worship of Dangun, the mythical founder of Korea, and Chungsanggyo, which is a religion that focuses on magical practices and the creation of a heaven on earth.

Korean Confucianism

Confucianism was first introduced to Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms period, around the same time that Buddhism was first introduced to the country. In 372 AD, King Sosurim (?-384) of the Kingdom of Koguryō (37 BC-668 AD) established what may have been the first Confucian university in Korea. In the Silla Kingdom (57 BC-935 AD), Confucianism was initially rejected and persecuted, but eventually became a force that led the Silla Kingdom to unifying Korea from 668 to 935. During the Goryeo kingdom, Buddhism was the dominant religion, but Neo-Confucianism managed to endure, grow and give rise to new ideas. Under the Joseon Dynasty, Korean Confucianism flourished, becoming the state religion and integrating into many aspects of Korean life. From the 1700s, Confucianism in Korea began to feel attacked by Western influences and Christianity, which ultimately resulted in the persecution of Christians throughout much of the 1800s. During the Japanese occupation of Japan, Confucianism was suppressed in favor of promoting the Japanese religion of Shintoism and elevating the position of Buddhism. Following the Japanese occupation, the religion struggled to recover from Western influences and the erasure of Korean culture. Korean Confucianism made a revival with young and new scholars and tried to reassess itself in a global context.

Roman Catholic Christianity

Roman Catholic Christians first made contact with Koreans in 1593 when a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Father Gregorious de Cespedes (1551-1611) arrived in Korea to proselytize among the small Japanese community that lived there. . At the time, it was illegal to proselytize among Korean citizens themselves. During the 1600s, the Silhak school was formed in response to the unequal balance of power in Korean society, with many Silhak scholars viewing Christianity as giving their beliefs an ideological basis and many of these scholars followed the Catholicism and supported its expansion in the 1790s. It was also during the 1600s and 1700s that Roman Catholic Christianity developed in Korea as an indigenous secular movement that developed communally, as opposed to a hierarchical structure. In 1784, Yi Sung-hun (1756-1801) established the first prayer house in Korea in the city of Pyongyang. For most of the 1800s, Catholics were persecuted and killed by the Korean government because the Joseon dynasty did not accept the religion and saw it as being in direct conflict with Korean Confucian society. Some of the religion’s major suppressions include the Catholic persecutions of 1801, 1839, and 1866. Similar to the Protestant Christian community in Korea, Roman Catholics were also involved in supporting Korean independence during the Japanese occupation. Most Roman Catholic Christians fled South Korea from North Korea and in the decades following the growth of the religion. In recent years there have been problems with more zealous members condemning and attacking non-Christians and other Christian sects.


The number of atheists and non-religious people in South Korea is a tricky figure to calculate, as there is considerable overlap between the country’s non-Christian religions, and those who follow Confucianism may not be considered following a religion, as it is often seen more as a philosophy. There is, however, little stigma or persecution attached to not being religious in South Korea since non-religious people do not feel the need to come forward. South Korea is following the trend of many other developed countries in that the number of people claiming to be atheists or not affiliated with a cleric is increasing, especially among young people.

Religious beliefs in South Korea

Rank belief system Share of contemporary South Korean population
1 korean buddhism 22.8%
2 Protestant Christianity 18.3%
3 Traditional or shamanic folk beliefs 14.7%
4 New folk or shamanic beliefs 14.2%
5 Korean Confucianism 10.9%
6 Roman Catholic Christianity 10.9%
7 Atheism or unaffiliated 6.7%
Other beliefs 1.5%