Religious Beliefs. Koreans have been inclusive rather than exclusive in their religious beliefs, and the majority of them have opted for expressing no religious preference. Because of this, it is difficult for anyone to give an accurate religious census of Korea. Polytheistic shamanism and other animistic beliefs appear to be the oldest forms of religion, dating back to prehistoric time. South Korea has a great diversity of religious traditions, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Ch'ondogyo, Christianity, and as many as 300 new religious sects. Among the 1985 Korean religious population of 17 million (about 42.6 percent of the total population), over 480,000 (2.8 percent) claimed that they were Confucianists, over 8.07 million (46.9 percent) were Buddhists, more than 8.34 million (48.5 percent) claimed to be Christian (both Roman Catholic and Protestant), and the remaining 310,000 (1.8 percent) belonged to various other religions. Some estimate that by the early 1990s over a quarter of the entire South Korean population was Christian. South Korea has the highest percentage of Christians of any country in East Asia or Southeast Asia with the exception of the Philippines, and the growth rate is unusually high.
Religious Practitioners. Shamanism is performed by shamans, most of whom are women, by holding shamanic ritual, kut, in order to gain good fortune for clients, cure illnesses by exorcising evil spirits, or propitiate local or village gods. Shamans formerly were of low social status and were victims of discrimination. Recently, with growing nationalism, the dances, songs, and incantations of kut have been revitalized. Buddhism is experiencing a modernization movement: "mountain Buddhism" is changing toward "community Buddhism," and "temple-centered Buddhism" is turning into "socially relevant Buddhism." Accordingly, the role of monks goes beyond the religious sphere, and their worldly possessions are also modernized. Some clergymen and priests in Christian churches have become outspoken advocators of human rights, critics of the government, and sympathizers with the union movement.
Ceremonies. Despite the strength of Christianity, most families in South Korea observe the Confucian practice of honoring their dead ancestors on the anniversaries of their death days, New Year's Day, and other holidays such as hansik (the 105th day after the winter solstice) and ch'usok (the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month). The people conduct rituals and ceremonies in honor of Confucius each spring and autumn at the Confucian shrines. Shamans can hold kut at their clients' request. Buddhists pray day and night on Buddha's birthday, the eighth day of April lunar month, which is often followed by a street parade in the cities; Christians celebrate Christmas Day in their churches. Both of these days are national holidays.
Arts. Koreans have practiced the arts since prehistoric times, especially painting, sculpture, various handicrafts, and music. The walls of tombs of the Koguryo Kingdom (37 B.C A.D. 668) revealed multicolor paintings of birds, animals, and human figures. Over the centuries, Chinese art as well as Buddhism and Confucianism have influenced Korean arts: bronze images of Buddha, stone carvings, stone pagodas, and temples are influenced by Buddhism; poetry, calligraphy, and landscape paintings are influenced by Confucianism. There are many unique Korean arts, including folk paintings ( min'hwa ) ; Koryo and Yi dynasty celadons are well known. Because of their fame, many Korean potters were taken back to Japan during the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s. The influence of the Western arts, especially drama, motion pictures, music, and dances, has been pronounced.
Medicine. Modern Occidental medicine is the dominant form of medical practice, and since 1991 virtually all South Koreans have had medical insurance. Traditional practice of medicine, however, is not uncommon. Shamanic rituals are performed and herbal remedies are used to cure various illnesses. Shops selling traditional medicines, including ginseng, are common.
Death and Afterlife. Christian ideas of the afterlife involve heaven and hell; reincarnation is the belief of Buddhists. Although Confucian teaching on the afterlife is uncertain and implicit, Koreans who observe ancestor worship believe that death is not a final termination but a transformation. In Korean folk belief, death means a departure from this world to the "otherworld." The otherworld is not necessarily located far away from this world but may be over the mountains. Death is thought to be a rite of passage, and the dead are generally considered to be similar to the living. Elaborate ancestor-worship rites, offering various foods as to a living person, spring out of these beliefs.