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  • Editors’ Preface
  • Seong-nae Kim and Don Baker

Korea offers both challenges and opportunities for scholars of religion. The opportunity it presents comes from its religious diversity. The Republic of Korea is the only country in the world in which both Buddhists and Christians each claim between 20% and 30% of the population. It also has what may be the most visible community of practicing shamans in the industrialized world. There are more Confucian shrines per capita in Korean today than in any other nation on earth. And Korea is home to a large assortment of new religious movements, ranging from the Unification Church to Daesoon Jinrihoe. In addition, close to half of the South Korean people say they have no particular religious affiliation. There is, therefore, much for a scholar of religion to study in Korea.

This distinctive diversity also poses challenges for anyone trying to understand the religious culture of Korea. First of all, given the broad range of religious organizations with a significant presence in Korea, is it possible to encompass them under an umbrella term like “Korean religions”? Do they all have enough distinctively Korean elements in common that we can view them all as manifestations of an underlying religious culture that is unique to Korea? Or, if they are so diverse that we should talk about different religious cultures, how can we explain the fact that they peacefully coexist in a society as densely populated as Korea is?

This religious diversity combined with the peaceful coexistence prevailing among the various religious traditions in Korean society makes Korea unique among the various nations on the earth. Although this phenomenon needs much more serious scholarly analysis, there has been no specialized academic journal providing a forum for such analysis in a global context. Also scholarly analysis is needed to illuminate the role of religion in the particulars of the history and culture of the Korean people: for example, the relationship between Confucianism and gender, colonial modernity and post-coloniality, the Korean [End Page 5] War and Cold War experience, modernization and economic growth, the traumatic experience of social displacement and class-based value conflict, democratization and civil society, transnationalism and Korean diaspora community, globalization and so on.

This new journal, by promoting international and inter-disciplinary communication among the scholars of Korean religions around the world, aims to make the historical and cultural particulars or universals of Korean religions accessible to scholarly analysis, and to develop theory and methodology applicable to the study of Korean religions, thereby challenging the wider academic community and also drawing the attention of new scholars of religion.

The first volume (September 2010) deals with preliminary questions regarding cultural and historical definitions of Korean religions, in other words, ‘problematizing “Korean Religions”’. What constitutes “Korean religions”? Is it relevant to define Korean religions in terms of Korea’s national and cultural identity or should Korean religions be understood within a regional context? What are the distinguishing characteristics of “Korean” religions compared to “Japanese” or “Chinese” religions? Under what historical circumstances was the idea of “Korean religions” formulated in the study of Korean religions? How do we approach the historical variations in the forms of Korean religions? The first five articles in this volume discuss these issues from various perspectives and contribute to expanding the horizon of our understanding. The earlier forms of the articles were presented at an International Symposium held in Seoul in December 2009, organized by Sogang University’s Institute for the Study of Religion, and sponsored by its SK Supex Fund.

The conference opened with a presentation by Hee-Sung Keel, who asked “what does it mean to study Korean religion(s)?” Keel suggested that, to answer that question, we have to be aware of the wide range of meanings various scholars assign to both “religion” as well as to “Korean,” when they apply that adjective to the various religions of Korea. The remaining four papers from this conference included in this issue can be read as responses to the issues raised by Keel.

Chongsuh Kim argues that the fact that the academic study of religions in Korea was pioneered by Westerners and then by Japanese has affected how not [End...


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