My Atheism

Opposing religious influence in Korea

Opposing religious influence in Korea

ONE is tempted to believe that Korea is the only true Kingdom of God on earth, running on steroids. In all Korean towns, a familiar sight is that of densely packed neon church crosses towering over one another to reach an inch closer to heaven. After the United States, Korea sends the most number of missionaries abroad. 

Aunties and uncles from competing church groups stand outside every subway station, shouting over one another on their microphones, hoping to hit the hearts of potential converts gushing out from the underground.

After the United States, Korea sends the most number of missionaries abroad.

But this is also a country, which according to a 2012 Gallup survey (pdf) is the fifth most irreligious nation in the world, with 46 percent of Koreans declaring themselves to be “not religious” or ‘atheists’. So how is life for this half of the population?

Well, religion deeply encroaches upon academic life in Korea, ranging from simple distribution of pamphlets in the campus to long planned-out conversion efforts. Sometimes religion-based clubs pose as research teams doing surveys to gather personal information like contact details for use in propagation.

In the case of one university, a professor of general physics tried to teach creationism as part of his course!

But a few students are fighting back by forming Freethinker clubs across universities. I meet up with the key members of these clubs to document their plans, challenges, and aspirations.

The author with four members of  Korean freethinkers clubs.

The author with four members of Korean freethinkers clubs.

One of my meetings is with six students from the most eminent universities in Korea, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Seoul National University (SNU) and Korea University (KU). These students are rather unusual, for they are members of the Freethinkers clubs in their respective universities. Three of them are from KAIST; Hyeongkeun Kim, Sungwoo Kang, Deokhwa Yoon; from SNU, Sihu Song, and Matthew Lee (name changed); and from KU, Hyeokjun Choi.

Some of them are still shy, avoiding looking at me in the eye. Some are looking quite geeky indeed, looking as students of top universities should.

We have dinner at a vegetarian restaurant to accommodate my vegetarianism. Hyeongkeun gives me a set of documents he has meticulously prepared about their club’s history. In essence, Freethinkers KAIST was formed in response to creeping religiosity in Korean Universities. The event that triggered their formation was when KAIST awarded honorary doctorate in 2011 to Dr  Young-gil Kim who also happened to be founder of Korea Association of Creation Research!

Since then, such clubs were also formed at SNU and KU and they all partnered to come under one common union.

Hyeungkeun explains how religion encroaches upon academic life in Korea:

It ranges from simple distribution of pamphlets on the university campus to long planned-out conversion efforts. But the most aggressive peddling happens in middle and high schools where courses on religion are made mandatory and school administration may even bully atheists both mentally and physically. Because private schools including religious schools are considered prestigious in Korea, parents send their kids to such schools even if they are aware of such behavior.

The clubs organize seminars and guest lectures, conduct podcasts, facilitate discussion forums, run booths in college festivals, screen relevant movies (Monty Python’s Life of Brian), and also organise get-togethers such as strawberry picnics.

Says Sihu Song:

We are very mild. We are not militant atheists. We believe in respecting everyone’s opinion.

The clubs together have a combined strength of 20 active members, seemingly low.

Sihu Song adds:

Being a freethinker in Korea isn’t easy. People would whisper, ‘There go the communists!’ or ‘Agents of North Korea’, or perhaps, ‘Those guys are gays’

This is in contrast to my own growing up as a freethinker, which had been fun, almost to the point of showing off  – a bad guy with the image of having a strong persona  making up well for my small height.

Says Hyeokjun:

Some of us haven’t even told our parents that we are atheists. They might get very worried. They may think that we wouldn’t get good jobs.

I ask them what turned them into atheists. I tell them how I used to be rather devout as a young child but then lost faith when an idol I had made broke and then divine forces couldn’t join it back.

Sihu Song says:

Unlike you, I suppose I was a born atheist. I have never had feelings for religion.

Sungwoo adds:

For me, the conversion happened much later. My family is Catholic. And I was increasingly uncomfortable with the conclusions the church pushed down our throats that a strong moral character can only be possible by accepting the rule of God.

On morality, Hyeongkeun says:

All of us do charitable deeds whenever we have free time. But we do it as personal projects without associating this with atheism. This is in contrast to religious groups who always brand their charitable works as religious activities.

The clubs gained some national coverage when they distributed a ‘Say no! to missionary’ card in SNU.


The card, which can fit easily into a wallet, begins with “We do not have religion”. It continues

We consider that the god didn’t create human, but human created religion. We do not have any intention to criticise others’ beliefs, so do not try to ‘offer’ religion to us.

There is also an emblem representing Freethinkers SNU.

In the reverse it suggests that people should read books such as Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer, God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Cosmos by Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion.

Distribution of the card was reported in national media, and the clubs gained a measure of notoriety.

I ask them about any potential damage as a result of their beliefs.

Says Hyeongkeun:

I don’t think we will be discriminated against when it comes to getting jobs. But we may have awkward moments at the workplace.

I ask them about their experience at the army where a 21 to 24 month stint is mandatory for all Korean males. Says Matthew

On weekends, we were supposed to join a religious sermon, It is not an official programme but everyone attends the service of one religion or the other. When I refused to attend, my supervisor rebuked me strongly and forced me to attend.

I ask them if their atheism is more influenced by bestseller authors such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins or have they undertaken a more intense philosophical journey from Spinoza to Bertrand Russell through Feuerbach.

Says Matthew.

Well, all of us have read Dawkins. Some have read the philosophers as well.

I ask them about the lack of female representation in their clubs, particularly in view of the importance of women as agents of change as highlighted by Francisco Ferrer, a Spanish teacher killed by the government in 1909 at the behest of the Catholic Church, which objected his progressive approach to education.

At this point, the usual frustrations of boys studying in male dominated technology universities come in. Only two of them had girlfriends whom they had managed to convert to atheists. They teased the others. Hyeongkeun says:

We can get more female members if all our members get girlfriends. Our chances of getting a girlfriend at KAIST is as high as getting hit by a lightning five times in the same day. Perhaps, we should all join SNU for Masters

Says Deokhwa:

Well, if we had been going to a church on Sundays, our chances would have been much higher.

We head on to a traditional teahouse where our discussions are more light-hearted. We discuss the sexual and gambling related scandals that entangle many of the religious leaders in Korea. The students are well aware of similar travails of India’s godman Asaram Bapu, who stands accused of rape.

The freethinkers are now pursuing a giant project; translating the Skeptics Annotated Bible to Korean. Says Sihu Song

Once the translation is out, we should perhaps create some controversy around this book so that it becomes a bestseller. The easiest way to do that would be to label the book as ‘Not suitable for the army’.

I ask them if the present generation is moving away from aggressive religiosity.

Says Hyeongkeun:

Unfortunately no. The previous generation, who fought for democracy during the dictatorship, were far more progressive and liberal in their outlook. The present generation is either extremely devout, or they don’t care.

I ask them about how they intend to be involved with these clubs after they graduate.

Sihu Song replies:

We would certainly like to remain involved, perhaps as mentors.

It is time to leave. The KAIST students who had come a long way from Daejon city just to meet me discuss whether to say over at a friend’s place for the night. As I say them good bye, the traditional Korean good manners when dealing with a foreigner show up as they rise in unison to the door of the train to see me off.

I wonder the future of these students and atheists in general in Korea. How will these fine minds gain ground in face of religion’s promise of easy relief from life’s uncertainties? Will they compromise their convictions when faced with life’s big events: marriage, births and deaths? Or will one of them turn out to be Korea’s Periyar who implausibly churned out a rationality-based mass movement? Or perhaps, will they run away to find greater comfort in foreign lands just like I had done, leaving India after getting increasingly disturbed by the growing conservative tone of discourses there?

About the author:

Writer, traveller, and photographer, Shivaji Das is the author of  Journeys with the Caterpillar: Travelling through the islands of Flores and Sumba, Indonesia.

Shivaji Das was born and brought up in the north-eastern province of Assam in India. He graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, subsequent to which he completed his post-graduation from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta.

He is presently working as a management consultant in Singapore. Shivaji’s writings have been published in various magazines such as Time, Asian Geographic, Venture Mag, Jakarta Post, and Hack Writers, among other publications.

He has also given talks on the culture of Flores and Sumba in Singapore, Morocco, China, Indonesia and Brazil. His photographs in collaboration with his wife, Yoland Yu, have been exhibited in the Darkroom Gallery, Vermont (USA), Kuala Lumpur International Photography Festival (Malaysia), the Arts House (Singapore), and the National Library (Singapore).

Besides travelling, Shivaji also takes an active interest in migrant issues and eradication of underage poverty and is associated with Singapore based organization Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). He also has his own website.


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