More South Koreans, particularly the young, are leaving their religions

Posted on : 2015-02-13 16:17 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
At the same time, more older and less educated people are reporting religious affiliation
 lit up at night. (by Ryu Woo-jong
lit up at night. (by Ryu Woo-jong

The percentage of South Koreans professing affiliation in a religious faith has fallen from 54% to 50% in the last ten years, a recent survey shows.

In particular, younger South Koreans in their twenties and thirties were found to be abandoning religion in large numbers. Membership numbers for Protestants and Catholics have remained stagnant, while the number of Buddhists, the single largest religious group, has declined.

A report on South Korean religious beliefs published by the polling agency Gallup Korea on Feb. 12, based on interviews of 1,500 adults over 18 between Apr. 17 and May 2 of last year, showed 22% of the population identifying as Buddhist, 21% as Protestant, and 7% as Catholic. The percentage of Buddhists was down two percentage points from ten years earlier, while the percentages of Protestants and Catholics stayed in place.

For greater understanding, Gallup’s findings should be compared with those of the population census, conducted every ten years by Statistics Korea for the entire population. Gallup Polls showed the percentage of Buddhists rising from 18% to 24% between 1997 and 2004, while Protestants rose from 20% to 21% and Catholics remained in place at 7%. A population census conducted around same time in 2005 showed Buddhists to account for 22.8% of the population, Protestants 18.3%, and Catholics 10.9%.

Previous surveys showed the number of Protestants decreasing by 140,000 over the ten years from 1995 to 2005, while Buddhists rose by 400,000 and Catholics from 2.95 million to 5.14 million - an increase of no fewer than 2.19 million people, or 74%. From this trend, it was predicted that the Protestant numbers would continue to decline while those for Catholics rose sharply.

While the methodology is different, the current findings shatter those expectations by showing rising numbers for Protestants and declining ones for Catholics. More precise figures will have to wait until the next population census results are released in late 2016.

Protestants vastly outperformed other faiths in frequency of worship and tithing, or the contribution of one-tenth of earnings to the church. Previous Gallup Polls showed the tithing rate for Protestants rising from 42% in 1984 to 58% in 1997, recovering from a dip in 46% in 2004 to record an all-time high of 68% in 2014. Tithing rates for Catholics over the same period also rose slightly from 26% in 1984 to 32% in 1997, dropping to 15% in 2004 before rebounding to 36% in 2013. In contrast, the most commonly reported number of donations in the past year by Buddhists was one to two (45%). Fully 52% of Buddhist respondents said they attended temple just once or twice a year.

Another notable finding in the poll was the number of younger people leaving their faiths. The number of respondents in their twenties professing religious beliefs stood at 31%, a 14-percentage-point drop from the 45% recorded ten years earlier. Respondents in their thirties showed a similar 11-percentage-point drop from 49% to 38%.

Declines were also observed for respondents in their forties and fifties: a six-percentage-point drop from 57% to 51% for the former, and a two-percentage-point slide from 62% to 60% for the later.

The rate of religious affiliation for those aged sixty and older was found to be up by six percentage points.

Respondents from higher academic backgrounds were found to be less likely to identify as religious, with rates of 63% among those with no high school, 54% with a high school diploma, and 41% with at least some university.

Buddhists in particular were found to skew older, with around 10% in their twenties and thirties and more than 30% in their fifties and sixties. Age distributions for Protestants and Catholics were relatively even for all age groups.

Yoon Seung-yong, a director with the Korea Institute for Religion and Culture who has taken part in survey analyses since 1989, said the trends suggest the status quo will be “difficult to sustain.”

“The segments that are most sensitive to social change - especially young and highly educated people - are favoring worldly values over religious ones and leaving their faiths, which has resulted in a gradual aging trend for the religious population,” Yoon said.

Gallup conducted its first poll on South Koreans’ religious faith and beliefs in 1984. Similar surveys have been conducted in 1989, 1997, and 2004.

The latest survey had a margin of error of ±2.5 percentage points and a 95% confidence level.


By Cho Yeon-hyun, religion correspondent


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