Korea is very much a multi-religious society. In addition to Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Korean Shaminism, there are the new religions. Some of these are better known to the outside world than others. Tongilgyo, otherwise known as the Unification Church and more pejoratively as “the Moonies”, garnered much unfavourable publicity during the cult scares of the 1970s in America.
The first of the new religions is Cheondogyo. Cheondogyo is a religion rooted in Korean nationalism. Originally known as Donghak (東學) or Eastern Learning, it was meant as an answer to Seohak (西學) or Western Learning, an old term for Catholicism. It blends Buddhism, Daoism, Korean Shamanism, and elements of Christianity into a syncretic whole. While it is monotheistic, it is also has pantheistic and panentheistic tendencies. The central belief of Cheongdogyo is that God permeates all human beings. Since God is in all human beings, the ancient Korean caste system is made irrelevant as all are fundamentally equal.
Followers of this religion played a role in the anti-yangban (upper class), anti-government, and anti-foreigner protests of the 1890s. Leaders of the religion played a major role in the March 1st Independence Movement. One of them, then serving as the main leader of the whole religion, urged all of his congregations to pray the prayer for the destruction of Japan. So this is a rather nationalistic religion.
The first half of the 20th century was sort of the high water mark as far as Cheondogyo is concerned. It is said that there were as many as six million members at one time. However, today there are probably no more than 100,000. During the period of their greatest membership, they built the Cheondogyo Central Temple, one of Korea’s more ironic structures. It was designed by a Japanese architect and built by Chinese labourers. It is a very Western-looking structure for a religion which claims, after all, to be Eastern. It was perhaps meant as something of an answer to the large Catholic cathedral on the hill which dominated the skyline of Seoul in those days. Also, the hope of Cheondogyo in building this structure was to build something larger than the Japanese government building. It is a very lovely building all the same.