Non-believers tend to agree that losing one’s religion is a long process, not an overnight event.
Still, on one’s road to atheism there are moments that stick out. Katherine Sirgey recalls learning the scientific method in high school. Dave Roberts began asking a lot of questions while studying genetics in college.
And Matthew Feinberg remembers a peculiar request from a friend who was devout.
“He told me that I shouldn’t go see a movie because if I saw that movie I’d go to hell and they didn’t want to think of a nice guy like me going to hell,” he said.
They come from a variety of places and have differing reasons for not believing in a deity, but expatriate atheists share a common urge with believers: community.
The members of Rational Thinkers of Korea and the Atheist Community of South Korea help provide this.
Their objectives are somewhat different but their membership often overlaps. The former typically meets monthly for formal presentations and discussions, but also has additional social gatherings. Most members are foreign and not religious, but membership is not restricted as such.
Many of its regular meetings do feature presentations with themes about life outside of religion, such as “Atheism and Art,” “Atheism in Comedy” and “Deconversion Stories.” Members emphasize that the group is about following a rational process, and helping people make informed decisions about what to believe.
“Even among the atheist community everyone’s got different opinions, so (faith) is just another opinion in the group,” said Roberts. “The only person who really pushes their ideas is the presenter.”
The Atheist Community of South Korea caters more exclusively to those who don’t believe in a god. Sirgey started the group on Facebook as a way for people with similar beliefs to gather in a comfortable environment.
“We’re all trying to reach out to other people, and I think the (Facebook) wall has helped people who are looking for answers,” she said. “If you look at the posts, we’re not bashing people, we’re not angry, we’re not trying to disrupt people’s lives. Instead we’re trying to understand how religion affects the choices we make, how religion has played a role in our lives.
“Most of all, it gives people a safe place to express their views without having to worry that they’re going to be ostracized or stigmatized in any way.”
A secular society
Traditionally Confucian Korea is a place where a variety of religious views have flourished: According to a 2007 census, about 30 percent were Christian and about 23 percent Buddhist, but a little more than 46 percent had no religious beliefs.
This provides an environment for expat non-believers that is certainly different to their home countries. For one thing, Korean employers may ask their potential hires about their religion.
“Coming from the U.S. it’s very strange,” said Feinberg, the chief organizer of Rational Thinkers. “In the U.S. it was a situation where I sometimes felt uncomfortable telling somebody (I was an atheist), especially if they were a friend I had known for a long time. But I never worried about it when I went to apply for a job, but in Korea it’s the exact opposite.”
Feinberg, who works as an engineer in Seoul, said that his current supervisor is religious but has not made life difficult for employees who feel otherwise.
“I’m very happy about that,” Feinberg said. “That’s sort of what I would hope should be the environment. People should be able to come to their own decisions.
“This is not necessarily the view of all atheists, some are a bit pushy. That’s not the point of view I hold,” he said.
“I wouldn’t go to a job advertising as ‘atheists only.’”
That one’s religious beliefs can affect their careers is cited by the organizers as a main reason why fewer Koreans than expats are members of Rational Thinkers (the other being that it is conducted in English). As the group’s events are organized through Meetup.com, the identities of those who attend can be easily learned.
Yeonah Son, a co-organizer who is Korean, attended a missionary college and was exploring Christianity until she had an off-putting experience with a club on campus connected to a local denomination. Following them to church one weekend, she witnessed as members wailed aloud and literally worshipped the church’s leader.
“I liked people in the club, they were really warm-hearted and sincere people, but I wondered how and why people can behave like that,” she said. After studying religion and its effects, she has come to view it as a source of conflict throughout history.
“I realized that I cannot believe in God or any kind of superstitious beings,” she said.
Now Son works in an administrative office at one of Korea’s major universities, but said she has not faced discrimination over her beliefs.
Sirgey, who has been living in Korea off and on for five years, is an instructor at a Seoul university. She also said that she has not faced prejudice, but is aware that it goes on in Korean society.
“I don’t want to say this but I think I’m in a privileged position,” she said. “If you’re Korean you do have to be more careful about expressing your religious beliefs, and that’s too bad.
“I am for a secular society,” she said. “It’s a concern when religion can dictate policy, especially since its usually one religion. The safest way to go is to keep religion out of politics.”
By Rob York