The religious landscape of South Korea has changed a lot in one decade.
The official report of the 2015 National Census was published in mid-December, 2016. This is the fourth census to include findings on religion, and the latest results are striking in several ways. They point to:
1. A strong surge in Protestantism, increasing by 1.2 million people to become the number one religion in Korean society for the first time in history.
2. The sudden fall of Buddhism, which lost 3.1 million, into second place. This has never happened before.
3. The return of Catholicism to its 1995 size, which seems to correct the odd data of the 2005 Census.
Perhaps even more surprising is the fall in “people with religion” from 53% to 43%, which makes South Korea a religious-minority country again for the first time since 1985.
All these phenomena seem too turbulent to be possible in a normal society. Naturally a few questions arise. Is the previous data reliable? Are there any significant changes in methodology? What is the overall meaning of this survey?
Changes in methodology probably affected the outcome significantly
It is a pity that each previous survey used a different questionnaire design.
1995 Question : This is an English translation of the question (slide right for the original Korean). Note the sequence of the nine choices.
2005 Question : With the change in sequence, Protestantism and Catholicism are now in different columns.
2015 Question : A return to the 1995 sequence.
In the 2005 survey, it seems possible that not a few Protestants ticked the box for “Christianity (Catholicism)” because of the zigzag format. Sungdeok Oak, a professor of Korean Studies in UCLA, said that this confusion may have increased the 2005 Catholic count by as much as one million. We should therefore be cautious when using the data to make year-on-year comparisons. We need some reasonable corrections. Oak suggests moving one million of the 2005 Catholic count to the Protestant count. This makes the whole trend more understandable and puts it in line with the results of other surveys, like those of Gallop Korea.
While that makes some sense of the Protestant and Catholic changes over the last decade, what can we say of the sudden collapse of Buddhism? And the increase in the non-religious? Survey experts point to another big change in methodology: while previous surveys looked at the entire population, the 2015 Census was a sampling survey focused on one in five. An internet survey was performed first (49%), followed by door-to-door questioning of non-computer users (51%). This may have affected responses dramatically, in two ways.
First, the computer-based survey may have increased the number of younger respondents, who understand religious affiliation quite differently to their parents. And second, even in the door-to-door survey, the now widespread one-person households may well have answered differently to traditional households, which tend to see the whole family as sharing one religion. These respondent effects may have led to the exclusion of “cultural Buddhists” who only visit a temple a few times a year.
Protestant denominations need not celebrate
Of the 49 million South Koreans, 19.7% are now Protestants. However, this is not something the mainline denominations (like Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists) should be celebrating. After all, most denominations have been reporting pronounced declines for several years now. A surprising but inevitable conclusion is therefore: “There are more Protestants but they are not in the churches”. The denominations need to reflect. They are witnessing a surge in non-churchgoers who identify as Christians. These individuals make up the emerging phenomenon of “Kanaan saints”. (“Kanaan” is the reverse of “an-na-ka” (“안나가”, which means “not going”) and is a parody on the word “Canaan”.)
It is not difficult to admit that Protestants are still the most dynamic evangelizers, church builders, eager educators, and strong organizers. In becoming the dominant religion in a rapidly changing society like South Korea, you could also say that Protestantism has proven itself to be the most successful adaptor. However, people (even Protestants) are searching for more liberating religious experiences, alternatives to what is on offer in the institutional religions. The Korean religious landscape is constantly changing. What will come next, we do not know. However, one thing is certain. The landscape will not look like this in 2025. No religion can continue without going deeper. Where come the diggers? We have to wait and see.